Fillip 11 — Spring 2004

Notes Toward a 
Conversation on Painting

Lawrence Rinder

A critical question for many artists today is whether their work can make any difference in the world. Can art play a role in the profound political struggles of our time? Certainly, there are a variety of ways in which art and politics are intertwined. Many artists represent political subjects and use their skills as image-makers to direct viewers’ opinions and actions in one direction or another. Other artists seek to engage the political and economic status quo through the form or context of their work, for example by avoiding commercial galleries or the production of commodifiable objects. Recently, new forms of artistic practice have emerged that blur the boundary between art and politics by using social organization itself as a medium for new artistic creation. Called Social Practice or Relational Art, works of this kind often seek to explore or demonstrate alternative political realities within the permissive framework of the artistic sphere. One example is the collective Red76’s recent Revolutionary Spirit project, which fostered conversations across the US on the topic of revolution. Others, like the culture-jamming duo The Yes Men, raise the stakes by inserting their imaginary pronouncements into the very maw of the mass media. 

But not all intersections between art and politics are in the hands of artists themselves. During the Cold War, for example, the US State Department co-opted the Abstract Expressionist movement for political aims.[1] The Abstract Expressionist example is particularly interesting because it is generally assumed that if such work has political characteristics it is because of how it is used symbolically (i.e., to represent the artist’s “free” creative act) rather than how it performs in the viewer’s experience. In other words, the aesthetic of abstraction itself was not considered to be politically instrumental. Meanwhile, Clement Greenberg’s politically inflected defense of abstract painting in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) argued that genuine Socialism needed abstract painting to preserve culture for those to come. So, even here, abstract painting is understood to be politically effective in the viewer’s experience—that is, as a handmaiden to a deferred Socialist apotheosis—only in contrast to other cultural forms (e.g., kitsch).

Painters today face an especially difficult challenge in assessing the potential political relevance of their work. Not only do they—like many artists working in other media—often feel trapped in the vortex of commodification, which has demonstrated the capacity to absorb even the most contestatory imagery, but their very medium has come to be viewed as a marker of old-fashioned, bourgeois status.[2] Does the politically concerned painter—even one with overtly political imagery—have any choice today but to select a different medium or definitively to separate his or her political and artistic aims? Or is there even now a political opportunity available to painters—even to those working in an abstract vein? 

The French philosopher Jacques Rancière argues in The Politics of Aesthetics (2004) that: The dream of a suitable political work of art is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the sayable, and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle. It is the dream of an art that would transmit meanings in the form of a rupture with the very logic of meaningful situations. As a matter of fact, political art cannot work in the simple form of a meaningful spectacle that would lead to an “awareness” of the state of the world.[3]

I would like to offer some preliminary thoughts on how the prescription Rancière offers might apply to the work of the contemporary abstract painter, Suzan Frecon, an artist who seemingly strives to keep politics at bay in her work, despite being highly politicized, even radicalized in other spheres of her life. While she uses mass emailings to generate awareness of pressing matters concerning the environment and social justice, Frecon’s artistic practice is engaged with what appears to be purely formal concerns. Her paintings have no overt message and she is notably reluctant to say much about her work. It would be easy to set her often monochrome abstractions aside in any discussion of the political in art; yet, I resist doing so. Is it the extremity of her position that hints at a latent polemicism? Or, perhaps is it my own desire to reconcile an attraction to her work with my own feelings of political obligation? In any case, I would like to look more closely at her paintings—leaning heavily on the aesthetic theory of Rancière—to see what form of politics, if any, there might be. 

Frecon’s practice is divided between diminutive watercolours consisting of simple brushstrokes or areas of colour and oil paintings that conform to harmonious—often architectural—geometries. In both genres, her primary investigation is of the infinite subtleties and nuances of colour. Her paintings in both modes delicately balance matter and ephemerality. On the one hand, she is profoundly engaged with the materials of her work and attends to the qualities of her supports and surfaces, pigments, and media with unparalleled care. Yet, even as she gains maximum understanding and control of the tools of her practice, aspects of randomness and chance intercede: the paper warps, the pigment pools, light shifts, and an image becomes obscured by a gleam.

Frecon’s reddish violet area (2004) exemplifies the arresting simplicity of her approach. A small sheet of old agate-burnished Indian ledger paper remains largely untouched. The lower right area has been painted with transparent watercolour, reddish violet in tone, as the title suggests. The paint is thicker in some places than others—apparently more the result of pigments coalescing in the pooling liquid than from intentional mark making. In the thinner passages we can clearly see through to the paper ground and note the rigid, vertical lines that remain from the process of the paper’s manufacture. In the unpainted area, various marks and stains suggest the acceptance of accident and found incident. The form of the painted area is only slightly more identifiably “artistic” than the unpainted area. It is roughly rectangular, but curves slightly at the top while on the upper left it hollows into a concave detail that momentarily and tantalizingly switches the figure-ground relationship. The blank paper seems to overlay the paint, almost like a hinge. With its wrinkles, holes, and marks, the exposed paper is indeed a hinge between the artist’s composition and the space and material of non-art that surrounds it, the frame, the wall, the room, the world.[4] Plain as it is, this hollow/hinge at the upper left of the reddish violet area nevertheless possesses, with its modest little hook and curve, a tender element of lyrical décor. There is in this deceptively simple work, a remarkable interplay between intention and accident, visibility and invisibility, matter and ornament. 

Frecon’s oil paintings embrace many of the same formal concerns as the watercolours. In large-scale works such as composition with red earth and red earth (2005), the artist presents broad monochromatic areas—albeit nuanced with evidence of brushstrokes and the accompanying subtle variations in tone—composed in such a way that our attention is caught between a sense of architectural décor (the repeated arch form) and an obdurateness of chromatic density that—whether read as a symbolic allusion to material essence (foundation/being) or as a simple material/chromatic fact (wall/ground/earth)—elicits a feeling of bold extension. As composed as they are, Frecon’s paintings do not stop at the edge of the canvas, panel, or paper: they connect. In her oil paintings, Frecon utilizes a particular aspect of her medium to further the deployment of varying qualities of matte and sheen in a single picture. In composition with red earth and red earth, this contrast (the red areas possess sheen while the indigo areas are matte) is complicated by the interstitial zone where the oils from the red areas bleed irregularly into the blue. 

Frecon is unusually insistent on particular conditions for the display of her work. Specifically, she insists on showing her oil paintings in natural light. This has to do with much more than a taste for the blue-ish tint of sunlight: her aim is to capture both the fickleness of natural light and its extensiveness, that is, she welcomes—indeed insists on—the changes that occur in the appearance of her work as light itself changes. She encourages this phenomenon by creating surfaces that embody various qualities of reflectivity. The virtual omnipresence of light and her work’s attention to it contributes strongly to a sensation of interconnection and mutuality. 

If the Modernist painters arranged shapes, colours, and forms to achieve internal coherence, and the post-Modern painters arrange shapes, colours, and forms to achieve internal incoherence (measured, though, intellectually by pastiches of style and tone), Frecon arranges her formal elements in order to achieve an external relation to the viewer, to engage them in an act of seeing. Is it this quality of engagement, of inclusion, that makes her art political? 

In The Politics of Aesthetics, Rancière writes: The arts only ever lend to projects of domination and emancipation what they are able to lend them. That is to say, quite simply, what they have in common with them: bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parceling out of the visible and the invisible. [5] What is meant, more precisely, by “the parceling out of the visible and the invisible”? Is this anything like what occurs when we look at Frecon’s paintings? And how do “projects of domination and emancipation” (i.e., politics in Rancière’s terminology) and the visual arts have this function in common? 

The crux of Rancière’s notion of the politics of aesthetics is to be found in what he calls “the distribution of the sensible.” I call the distribution of the sensible, he writes, the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it. [6] One might think of the “distribution of the sensible” in terms of Erving Goffman’s notion of “framing,” the process through which ideas are named and in so doing become simultaneously apparent and delimited. For both Goffman (a sociologist) and Rancière, however, the frame—i.e., the “distribution of the sensible”—is not dependent solely on cognitive structures and processes but is embedded in social, physical, and economic conditions-relations of power that determine who can see what and when. Rancière writes: _The distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which the activity is performed. Having a particular occupation thereby determines the ability or inability to take charge of what is common to the community; it defines what is visible or not in the common space, endowed with a common language, etc._” [7]

Aspects of visibility are, therefore, socially defined and, in Rancière’s view, political. Conversely, aspects of politics are visually defined. “[Politics] is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of space and the possibilities of time.” [8] He concludes: The essence of politics consists in interrupting the distribution of the sensible by supplementing it with those who have no part in the perceptual coordinates of the community, thereby modifying the very coordinates of the aesthetico-political community. [9]

This last point will be familiar to readers of Rancière’s text The Ignorant Schoolmaster or his discussion of pedagogy in the March 2007 issue of Artforum. Rancière is an anarchist and his grassroots, anti-authoritarian notion of political empowerment is strikingly similar to that of the renowned Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire. For both Rancière and Freire, the true political avant-garde can never be predetermined and certainly never inculcated or singularly revealed. Rather, it can arise only ephemerally and through a dialogue of equals. This is, of course, an essentialist notion of politics, presuming as it does that a particular form of interaction—that of equality—is essential to processes of emancipation. Yet, he writes, “...just as equality is not a goal to be attained but a presupposition in need of constant verification, democracy is neither a form of government nor a style of social life. Democratic emancipation is a random process that redistributes the system of sensible coordinates without being able to absolutely guarantee the absolute elimination of the social inequalities inherent in the police order.” [10] The distribution of the sensible is the frame through which we see our possible freedom. 

This is not an easy concept to absorb, as it re-arranges our normal way of understanding society and history. Rather than focus on ideology and its vagaries, Rancière asks us to attend to forms and patterns of sense experience. If criminal investigators are fond of saying “follow the money”; the quip for him—as a political investigator—would be “follow the sensible.” To help clarify this idea, I will review his account of the successive—albeit overlapping—regimes (as Rancière calls them) of images in Western culture and their relation to the “distribution of the sensible.” As he explains, what matters in these regimes is not only what the images look like but also who made them and who sees them, i.e., their “distribution.” Visuality, thus, is not political as a thing in itself but only as it is “distributed,” in its production and reception. 

The first of Rancière’s three regimes is brought about by Plato’s insistence on the moral value of images. Plato, who famously looked down on images as mere copies of absolute forms or, worse yet, imitations of physical things, allowed for images that convey and instil characteristics of simplicity and virtue. Hence, Rancière calls the distribution of the sensible under Plato, the “Ethical regime.” In this regime, he says, art is not identified as such but is subsumed under the question of images. As a specific type of entity, images are the object of a two-fold question: the question of their origin (and consequently their truth content), and the question of their end or purpose, the uses they are put to and the effects they result in. [11]

The second regime of images, according to Rancière, came immediately on the heels of Plato, under the new theories of Plato’s student, Aristotle. What he calls the “Representative regime” is, under Aristotle’s unparalleled cultural influence, a system whereby art’s value is determined by its own internal, structural criteria rather than by its origin (i.e., its character as an imitation) or its end (i.e., its ethical value in the community). It is the first instance in which art becomes “visible” as such. The Representative regime continued for centuries, reaching its apogee in the age of Neo-Classical painting of the eighteenth century. As Rancière defines it, the Representative regime is characterized by normative rules that provide internal cohesion, hierarchies of subject matter, and regulations concerning the appropriate medium for different subjects. The strict guidelines for the admission to the French Academy exemplify these rigourous and generally unbending rules. In this system, art’s value is hypostasized: it needn’t demonstrate its social utility because that utility is presumed as long as it follows certain a priori rules. However, the very manner of hierarchizing, prioritizing, and delimiting ways of making in this regime, enters into a global analogy with an overall hierarchy of political and social occupations...with a hierarchical vision of the community. [12]

The next stage of Western art Rancière calls the “Aesthetic regime,” which he sees as arising with the dawn of romanticism in the late eighteenth century. The Aesthetic regime overturns the assumptions of the Representative regime, as Ranciere’s translator Gabriel Rockhill describes: ...from the hierarchical organization of genres to the equality of represented subjects [and] from the principle of appropriate discourse to the indifference of style with regard to subject matter.... [13] Rancière focusses on Gustave Flaubert’s novels Madame Bovary (1856) and Sentimental Education (1869) as emblematic of this shift insofar as these narratives treat all subjects and all social classes with equal attention. He finds the medium of writing—the novel in particular—to be exemplary of the Aesthetic regime insofar as language tends to become easily unmoored from its putative addressee: there is something quite radical about the accessibility of printed words, their indifference to the status of their reader. “What is this indifference after all,” writes Rancière, “if not the very indifference of everything that comes to pass on the written page, available as it is to everyone’s eyes. This equality destroys all the hierarchies of representation and also establishes a community of readers as a community without legitimacy, a community formed only by the random circulation of the written word.” [14] In the visual arts, one could point to artists such as Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet as launching the new “distribution of the sensible,” called the Aesthetic regime. Presumably, in the case of these painters, this had as much to do with their challenge to the institution of the Academy—its venues, procedures, and audiences—as it had to do with the radical content and style of their art.

At the heart of the Aesthetic regime is a quality rooted in romanticism and often identified with transcendentalism or the philosophy of the sublime; that is, the capacity for art to become a “product identical with something not produced.” [15] That art of this kind expresses something invisible and unsayable follows upon the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling in whose book The System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), he describes, in Michael Vater’s words, “a symbolic...approach to the Identity underlying all consciousness. The work of art,” he believes, “is a concrete intuition of identity in difference, of multiple and inexhaustible meanings packed into one meaning....” [16] Where Rancière’s ideas and those of Romantic philosophy overlap is in their deference to the unseen and the unsaid: for the Romantics in the spiritual sphere, for Rancière in the political. For both, art serves as a means to introduce language and vision where it had not been present before. 

The Aesthetic regime shares certain characteristics with what is often referred to as Modernism. However, as Rancière shows, the prevailing theory of Modernism generally accepts two principles that are irrelevant to the essence—or what he calls the “politicity”—of the Aesthetic regime. Specifically, he questions the priority given in Modernist criticism to radical newness and to medium purity and specificity. Against radical newness he argues that the most significant works of the Aesthetic regime are highly dependent on, and intertwined with, the past. Even Constructivism’s seemingly utopian rejection of traditional aesthetic norms, Rancière argues, is sublimated within an even more conservative return to the ideals of the Greek community. Against medium purity and specificity he contends that the founding instances of the Aesthetic regime and its most powerful ongoing principal is that of hybridity. I will quote Rancière at some length here so that his point is clearly made: To a large extent, the ground was laid for painting’s “anti-representative revolution” by the flat surface of the page, in the change in how literature’s “images” function or the change in the discourse on painting, but also in the ways in which typography, posters, and the decorative arts became interlaced. The type of painting that is poorly named abstract, and which is supposedly brought back to its own proper medium, is implicated in an overall vision of a new human being lodged in new structures, surrounded by different objects. Its flatness is an interface. Moreover, its anti-representational “purity” is inscribed in a context where pure art and decorative art are intertwined, a context that straightaway gives it a political signification.... It is initially in the interface created between different “mediums”—in the connection forged between poems and their typography or their illustrations, between the theater and its set designers or poster designers, between decorative objects and poems—that this newness is formed that links the artist who abolishes figurative representation to the revolutionary who invents a new form of life. [17]

Rancière’s definition of the Aesthetic regime suggests that it may not, in fact, overlap precisely with what has been called Modernist painting. His description invokes certain typical characteristics of Modernism and leaves others aside. So, how are we to tell the difference among, for example, various abstract paintings? Do some belong to the Aesthetic regime and others not, regardless of their Modernist credentials? Not all abstract paintings perform in the same way or, to use Rancière’s phrase, “distribute the sensible” identically. Rather, some such works can be seen to participate in the so-called Ethical regime; Constructivism, for example, with its ideal origin and its mandate to educate the citizenry. Other forms of abstract painting meanwhile are engaged in the Representative regime, such as the works championed by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, for whom there were generic rules of practice (i.e., Greenberg’s medium-specific criteria), hierarchies of genre (i.e., Fried’s prioritizing of painting over theatre), and the privileging of action and newness. What of the Aesthetic regime? Which abstract paintings today possess the quality of “literarity” in which the elements of their expressive arsenal “freely float outside of any system of legitimation?” Which painters embrace the equality of subjects, possess an indifference to style, and incessantly re-stage the past? Finally, which painters achieve a “product identical with something not produced”? [18] I believe that Suzan Frecon is one contemporary painter—and there are, of course, others—whose work rests comfortably in the Aesthetic regime as Rancière defines it. The Aesthetic regime asserts the absolute singularity of art, he writes, and, at the same time, destroys any pragmatic criterion for isolating this singularity. It simultaneously establishes the autonomy of art and the identity of its forms with the forms that life uses to shape itself. [19] Like the literary exemplar of the Aesthetic regime, Stéphane Mallarmé, Frecon’s art verges on invisibility, both actually and metaphorically: her work approaches a horizon of affect where material and expression coincide, where there arises a peculiar coincidence of matter and décor. [20]

Frecon’s work is radical because it provokes an instability of categories. “Categorization is not a matter to be taken lightly,” writes George Lakoff. An understanding of how we categorize is essential to understanding how we think and how we function, and therefore central to an understanding of what makes us human. [21] To accept the existence of unstable categories, categories tinted by metaphor or prone to sudden reversal, is an experience far different from the Platonic reality of fixed essences. For Rancière, belonging to the Aesthetic regime—the regime of unstable categories—would be sufficient to endow works such as Frecon’s with a degree of “politicity.” While each of his three historic regimes is the result of a relationship between images and politics, it is only in the Aesthetic regime, he says, that art as such serves emancipatory goals by introducing “innovative modes of [sensible] experience that anticipate a community to come.” [22] Yet are we, and Rancière, here in danger of confusing a collection of formal traits particular to a specific culture and historical era, with an essential and a priori political will to emancipation and equality? Even if the kinds of radical hybridity and category blurring (the merging of poems and their typography, for example) that Rancière locates at the origin of the Aesthetic regime are responsible for the anti-representational turn and the development of abstraction, have not these de-stabilizing and dynamic origins been lost to us? Has not painterly abstraction simply become absorbed into the status quo? Do we still see new possibilities for life when we see the boundaries among modes and media blurred?

Let’s take one last look at Frecon’s painting to try to puzzle this through. When I said her work verges on invisibility I meant that it veers off in two directions, both of which are in essence diametrically opposed to art. On the one hand, her work, in its very painterliness—her insistence on the mutable visibility of pigment and medium—achieves a breathtaking freeing of paint albeit to the point at which the medium threatens to cease being paint and becomes sheer material. As pure material, her work sometimes becomes virtually indistinguishable from the matter that surrounds it, at least indistinguishable as art. Her engagement with the phenomenon of light and its random effects on the appearance of her works is another levelling factor, locating her paintings in a continuum with everyday reality rather than setting them apart from it. On the other hand, her work veers, at times—and sometimes at the same time—in the direction of décor. Compositionally, she depends to a great extent on forms and patterns, such as the Greek key or the Romanesque arch, that are based on ornamentation or architectural detail. The element of repetition in her work, too, conveys a character of interchangeability that is fundamental to decoration. Indeed, rather than think about her works as art—a term that has, after all, a limited historical lifespan—can we think about it—frame it, if you will—simply as a particular distribution of the sensible? That is, in her work we find generated a marvelous tension between material and décor, a tension that elicits reflection on the character of chance and order, productiveness and waste, necessity and freedom. If her images do all this, do they need to be called art at all? Perhaps it is in liberating her work from art that it can become available for politics. 

  1. See Serge Guilbault, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983).
  2. The high-priced anti-establishment noise-thumbing of YBA production is a case in point.
  3. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), 63.
  4. The situational nature of Frecon’s watercolours and oil paintings, their allusions to the unmediated materials and forms of support and architecture, relate her work to that of the Belgian painter Raoul De Keyser.
  5. Ibid., 19.
  6. Ibid., 12.
  7. Ibid., 12–13.
  8. Ibid., 13.
  9. Ibid., 3.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 20.
  12. Ibid., 22.
  13. Gabriel Rockhill, “Jacques Rancière’s 
Politics of Perception,” in Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 4–5.
  14. Ibid., 14.
  15. Ibid., 23.
  16. Michael Vater, “Introduction,” in F. W. J. Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, trans. Peter Heath (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), XXIV.
  17. Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 16–17.
  18. Ibid., 23.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 17: “Mallarme’s critical prose writings stage, in an exemplary manner, the play of cross-references, oppositions, or assimilations between these forms, from the intimate theater of the page or calligraphic choreography to the new ‘service’ performed by concerts.”
  21. George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (Chicago: The University Chicago Press, 1987), 6.
  22. Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 30.
About the Author

Lawrence Rinder is Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. He is Dean of Graduate Studies at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

You Might Also Enjoy
BecomeA Member