Art’s function is to be functionless, to refuse to serve the structuring of hierarchies. A review of Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes From the Aesthetic Regime of Art
There is no going back from modern self-consciousness. Yet it is always a surprise, itself characteristic of the anxiety usually attributed to the feeling of being modern, to discover the extent to which this self-consciousness remains unconscious. We might see China as “modernizing,” or Kafka’s work as “modernist,” but the relation between the two that would seem to permit the use of the same word remains unclear (not to say there isn’t something slightly Kafkaesque about modern China). The break of modernism in the arts — of form, style, history — is not equivalent to the break inaugurated by mass production and industrialization that falls under the rubric of “modernization.” And neither accurately encapsulate the philosophical consciousness of enlightenment modernity.
Given the cluster of useful terms derived from the notion of the modern — which, after all, most simply means a privileging of the new — why have there been so many attempts, in popular and academic discourse, to disavow the term in relation to our lived contemporary experience? Modernist painting has long since been replaced by contemporary conceptualism, and literary studies is still climbing out of the theoretical quagmire of postmodernism, shedding textualism for classical conceptions of context, biography, and intention. Both analytic and continental philosophy have seemed to want to shake off the malaise of a now defunct modernism. The rejuvenation of metaphysics and the rise of scientism, particularly in the form of neuroscience, indicate a move on from philosophical modernism and the predominance of cultural studies, language, and overt Marxist politics. And when modernity is used in business or politics, it typically refers only to the process of “modernization” — the culmination of the enlightenment in the embodiment of the consumer, as Fredric Jameson argues in A Singular Modernity.
So what of “break” and “rupture,” of the devastation of hierarchical traditions in art and thought, that constituted the radical impulse of those who declared themselves modern? The demise of modern may simply be a structural necessity: Having privileged the new, modern demands its own successor term. But what if the exhaustion of modern signals instead something incomprehensible built into our understanding of the term from the start?
Long awaited in the Anglophone world, Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes From the Aesthetic Regime of Art is the zenith of a life’s work interrogating aesthetic modernity’s presuppositions. Modern self-consciousness, according to Rancière, has often been interpreted in the form of modern art’s self-reflexivity, an ongoing “conquest of autonomy by each art, which is expressed in exemplary works that break with the course of history, separating themselves both from the art of the past and the ‘aesthetic’ forms of prosaic life.” Rancière rejects this view, instead offering a historical narrative of art that challenges the increasingly dogmatized field of modernist studies with a polemical account of art’s political and emancipatory potential.
One thing Rancière lucidly demonstrates is the mutually constitutive relationship between art and life that drastically affects our comprehension of both. He calls this dialectical configuration the “aesthetic regime,” a phrase he uses to denote both a specifically modern experience of art and its infusion in systems of production and reception. It maintains the present as central to the truth of the past, entangling art and life in a generative movement that necessarily encroaches on politics. Thus modernism is not simply the self-consciousness of a certain historical period — “people thought like this in the early-to-mid-20th century” — but is the self-consciousness of the aesthetic construction of history in general. Walter Benjamin makes a similar proposition at the end of his essay “Literary History and the Study of Literature”: “What is at stake is not to portray literary works in the context of their age, but to represent the age that perceives them — our age — in the age during which they arose. It is this that makes literature into an organon of history; and to achieve this, and not to reduce literature to the material of history, is the task of the literary historian.”
For Rancière, what counts as art is not self-evident. What he understands by aesthetics is how art has been identified historically, by criteria collectively produced within a constellation of institutions, industries, market forces, and the perceptions of individuals and groups. He uses the term aisthesis to mark “the mode of experience according to which, for two centuries, we perceive very diverse things, whether in their techniques of production or their destination, as all belonging to art.” What works get called art depends not merely on their reception, he argues, but on “the sensible fabric of experience within which they are produced.” This fabric comprises “material conditions — performance and exhibition spaces, forms of circulation and reproduction” as well as “modes of perception and regimes of emotion, categories that identify them, thought patterns that categorise and interpret them.” These allow us to feel and think something as art.
Rancière’s concern with the “distribution of the sensible” — how a community or society structures what is sayable, visible, and possible for whom — puts aisthesis in relation to life in general. For Rancière, this means that art does not become political or adopt political subjects; it always already is. That’s because art’s ongoing realization and self-consciousness of its history enables an “unending break with the hierarchical model” — the structure of imposition developed through centuries of elite patronage and religious idolatry to confine art to formal styles and represent the relation between art and life as already settled, hence destroying its critical potential. Unshackling art from the hierarchical history of forms and highlighting its constitution through ongoing negotiation with life creates what Ranciere terms “dissensus.” As Rancière scholar Joseph J. Tanke has noted, “instances of dissensus are moments in which the supposed obviousness of the distribution of bodies, voices and capacities are broken down.”
Aesthetic art is that which cannot but call into question the meanings assigned to roles, practices, and capacities because it is what questions the process of assigning meaning as such. Ranciere’s aesthetics are thus latent in his other, more overtly political writings, including The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1981), which famously proposes that equality is not a teleological horizon but a primary assumption and necessary starting point for any democratic politics.
Aisthesis consists of a dizzying tour through 14 significant “scenes” in the history of Western art. As part of his project to reorient modernism, Rancière chooses not familiar sources like Eliot or Joyce but instead less obvious figures such as Johann Joachin Winckelmann, Stendhal, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Dziga Vertov (among many others). Although the book follows a loose chronological structure (from Winckelmann in 1764 to James Agee in 1941), Rancière takes pains to richly render the context to reveal “thought busy weaving together perceptions, affects, names and ideas, constituting the sensible community that these links create, and the intellectual community that makes such weaving thinkable.”
The theoretical work begins with a chapter on Winckelmann’s description of the Belvedere Torso figures, from The History of Ancient Art (1764). For Rancière, Winckelmann’s transformation of the mutilated statue of Hercules into an expression of the liberty of the Greek polis marks a revolutionary conception of art — as the expression of a people’s history. This is achieved through the structural breakdown of the hierarchical “representative regime of art,” which emphases the “harmony of proportions” over disorder, unequivocal “expressivity” instead of indeterminacy. Winckelmann describes the statue’s essential contingency, its lack of apparent purpose. Rancière argues that “the accidental lack of the statue manifests its essential virtue.” He opposes the “Dionysian energy” of the aesthetic to the “Apollonian calm” of representative logic meant to dictate what art is — to settle the question of the difference between art and life in advance. By separating “the beauty of forms from their science,” Winckelmann becomes “one of the first, if not the first, to invent the notion of art as we understand it: no longer as the skill of those who made paintings, statues or poems, but as the sensible milieu of the coexistence of their works.” “Art” is not contained within the work, but in its relation to this milieu. History, and the self-consciousness of history, enables this to occur. “History does not come to take the constituted reality of art as its object,” he argues, echoing Benjamin. “It constitutes this reality itself.”
Art, now separated from the lives of artists and the impersonal, mechanical evolution of styles and forms, becomes intelligible as history, in “the form of intelligence of collective life,” as “a new relation between individuality and collectivity.” This sense of history manifests in art as the intrusion of the lives of common people. In chapter two, a discussion of Hegel’s Lectures of Fine Art (1835), and chapter three, which is devoted to Stendhal’s The Red and The Black (1830), Rancière delineates a key connection between idleness — “insouciance” — and the suspension of the norms and rules of representation. As the hierarchy of aesthetic forms dissolves, so does the depiction of the hierarchy of social forms, eroding both the traditional priority of religious and history painting and the novel’s traditionally ordered plot, causality, and character development. By upsetting hierarchies the “aesthetic regime” asserts the experience of equality, no matter how inconsequential or unverifiable. The novel has a paradoxical power to “do everything” — where no subject matter is off limits — but also the inseparable power to “do nothing,” like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. The nonresponse of aesthetic art — its nonfunctionality — is interlaced with pervasive equality, whereby all can share moments of pure sensation reminiscent of Debord’s notion of “wasted” time, time opposed to that of the managers of the spectacle, a time which Benjamin sardonically called the time of “progress.”
Rancière’s fascination with “indifference” becomes increasingly embodied, throughout Aisthesis, in the figure of the poor, common people, which comes to stand for a collectivity essential to articulating the aesthetic regime as art’s relation to the intelligible fabric of everyday life. His chapter on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Poet” (1841-2) explores the poet’s preoccupation with exposing the inherent spiritual and sensual communicative power of everyday life. Rancière lucidly depicts the combination of a new American materialism with German Romanticism, creating poetry as the “flowering of a form of life, the expression of a poeticity immanent to the ways of life of a people and its individuals. Poetry exists in poems only if it already exists latently in forms of life.” Rancière sees Emerson as emblematic of one of the central enigmas of modern European philosophy: the “radical gap between spirituality in search of a body and material effervescence in search of thought.” For Rancière, “here more than elsewhere, the task of the poet can be identified with the construction of a community in possession of its own meaning,” which is first and foremost a historical meaning, since identity is inseparable from a notion of origination. Thus, Rancière witnesses in Emerson’s America the origin of a people actually happening — displacing the notion of linear history, where origins have always already happened — both in the real world and the attempt to capture this in art.
The concluding chapter, on James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), becomes the apotheosis of this theoretical structure. Rancière sees in Agee and Evans’ attempt to glorify the labour and lives of impoverished and destitute communities in depression-struck 1930s America an extreme attempt to render the beauty of poverty. Agee’s prose and Evan’s photographs exceed the reportage that provides the work with its premise, and in so doing they also exceed the logic of representation, creating an “art beyond art.” In order to convey life, “words must go beyond the compromise of description and imitate this embodiment, which they know is impossible…The movement of words, by linking each sensible state to an infinite series of other states of the world, must imitate the truth that does not speak the language of words.” This art beyond art is also an engagement with non-art, which itself then becomes central to the paradoxical constellation of sensible relations that constitute Rancière’s conception of ‘Art’ as distinctly modern – that is, as a product of the interwoven elements that constitute the possibility of the aesthetic regime.
Aisthesis ends — although does not necessarily conclude — with a discussion of Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” a vehement argument for distinguishing high-art and commercial kitsch. Capitalism, Greenberg claims, brings about the destruction of “forms of the religious, cultural and stylistic tradition that linked artists to their public,” which forces art to turn in on itself, away from common experience, and to make itself its own subject. Art, thus separated from culture, requires a social elite to support it and preserve this autonomy. The rest of culture becomes industrialized, transforming its people into consumers — a bored, educated, urbanised mass disconnected from their archaic folk sensibilities yet craving cultural satisfaction, in the form of kitsch.
For Greenberg, the time of the artist wandering amongst the people and their culture was decidedly over. But, as Rancière points out
what they [Greenberg and other Marxist intellectuals] were declaring over was actually historical modernism in general, the idea of a new art attuned to all vibrations of universal life … Ironically, posterity gave the very same name to this will to end as to what it was trying to destroy. It would call it modernism.
Rancière’s elliptical ending raises the question of modernism’s legacy. Arguably, his ambiguity performs the withholding of a promise. By closing his retelling of aesthetic modernity with Greenberg, Rancière hints at an alternative modernism, rejecting the canonical interpretations of modernism as the separation of “high” and “low,” as the introspective specialization of form, or as art’s fetishization of its own history. Instead, he sees in aesthetic modernism a history told through the dynamic relation between individual and collective life, radically politicizing how we choose to identify ourselves as both unique and part of a whole through how we choose to narrate our own history.
Although Rancière does not use these terms, this is arguably history constituted by the modern’s privileging of the new, which is the promise of the future inherent in the present. To state that modernity represents a significant and discernible shift in human consciousness flies in the face of the implicit passivity of many of the “new” materialisms and object-oriented ontologies. It is to declare that change, as politics, is possible.