Jacques Ranciere and the Politics of Aesthetics I

The following notes made in relation to Jacques Ranciere’s essay ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcome’ address a particular question, namely: what is the relation between Art and Action? This question has become explicit in Informed Matters’ exploration of Action, Disobedience and Complex Systems and in its focus on Hannah Arendt this year. The question arises because Arendt seems to exclude art from her category of action: art is not action. However, Arendt notwithstanding, art clearly has political import. Among many examples, the Nazi exhibition of so-called Degenerate Art in the mid-1930s would be a case in point. But this, it can rightly be argued, is not the action of art but rather the pursuit of politics through aesthetic means. When and how, then, is art itself political; when and how does it act or contribute to action?

NB. Page numbers in brackets below refer to Ranciere’s essay ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcome’ from Jacques Ranciere (2010) Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, London: Continuum, 115-133. The following, I hasten to add, is not a summary or gloss of Ranciere’s essay. It is an attempt to sketch some of the main lines of argument that seem relevant to the question introduced above in my particular take on it. Also, I talk of art and action, just as indeed Ranciere speaks of the aesthetic regime of art, but I am assuming that that art here could be replaced by design, music, dance etc, just as Ranciere parallels Stephane Mallarme’s design of a poem on the page and Peter Behrens’s design of ‘lamps and kettles, catalogues and trademarks for the German General Electric Company’ (121).

The Aesthetics of Politics and the Politics of Aesthetics

Firstly, Ranciere’s discussion of art and literature over the last 20 years or so has been based on the hypothesis that art is inherently political, inasmuch as both art and politics are ways in which the sensible, as he says, is distributed or partitioned. The question is: how will either art or politics divide up the sensible, or the common world, as Ranciere also refers to it in ‘The Aesthetic Revolution’? Will they seek conformity to the dominant view, or will they allow or indeed constitute interruptions of that view? If the former, then those who might dissent are at best forced into silent assimilation or, to use the language of Laclau and others, they are included as excluded. If the latter, then we experience dissonance and disagreement (antagonism) in the body politic, which nonetheless allows for the ongoing and open-ended process of democracy in its radical mode (identified by theorists such as Ranciere, as well as Laclau – who we read at our RSA roundtable – and Mouffe etc). Regarding art, Ranciere’s thesis is that in its aesthetic form it is the latter, i.e. an interruption of the existing partition of the sensible.

In ‘The Aesthetic Revolution’ Ranciere deals with the ‘aesthetic regime of art’, which unlike the other regimes he theorises he clearly associates with democracy. What is the relation of ‘aesthetic art’ and politics? There are many pointers in Ranciere’s essay. Early on, for example, he makes a distinction between the ‘politics of aesthetics’ and the ‘aesthetics of politics’. These he says follow the same goal, namely the ‘formation of a new sensorium’ that in turn signifies ‘a new ethos’ or way of life (119). The aesthetics of politics is, presumably, the use of aesthetic means to pursue political goals, e.g. propaganda. The politics of art, by contrast, arise in the art itself. Though both pursue the same goal, Ranciere tells us, they do so via different means. Where the aesthetics of politics is a ‘polemical configuration of the common world’, the politics of aesthetics promises a ‘non-polemical, consensual framing’ of the same.

Autonomy and Heteronomy

The aesthetic regime is what Ranciere calls a ‘plot’, in the sense of a structure or narrative, that ‘reframed the division of the forms of our experience’ (115). He describes it as being reflected in a wide variety of parallel practices: ‘in theoretical discourses and in practical attitudes, in modes of perception and in social institutions – museums, libraries, educational programmes; and in commercial inventions as well’ (115-6). Ranciere’s regimes of art – of which he identifies two others besides the aesthetic regime, namely the ethical regime of images and the representative regime – can be likened to Foucault’s epistemes. They are basic frameworks within which statements, whether art works or their interpretations, are formed. Ranciere sees the aesthetic regime arising around the turn of the C19th and giving rise to both ‘avant-garde radicalism’ and ‘the aestheticization of common existence’ (116); although regimes, unlike epistemes, are not synonymous with distinct historical periods.

Aesthetic art is autonomous – i.e. occasions an experience of autonomy – inasmuch as it is distinct from what is not art, the prosaic world. Ranciere finds an early expression of this tension in Friedrich von Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. For Schiller, he tells us, the ‘self-containment’ of the Juno Ludovisi, a Greek statue representing a goddess, exemplifies the ‘free appearance’ experienced in the aesthetic. As the goddess ‘wears no trace of will or aim’, the statue too ‘comes paradoxically to figure what has not been made’ (117). The paradox is that the spectator’s experience is autonomous insofar as the statue appears to be withdrawn from our knowledge and will. That is to say, the heteronomy of the experience with regard to the activity of understanding and intention is what constitutes its autonomy with regard to the passivity of aesthetic perception. However, as Schiller’s discussion progresses, the tension between autonomy and heteronomy is reconfigured. According to Ranciere, all aesthetic art is invested in the aim of transforming our way of life, (i.e. creating a new ‘partition of the sensible’ or a new ‘sensorium’). Schiller expresses this investment when he says that aesthetic experience serves the self-education of humanity. Art reveals to humanity a way of life, therefore, by dint of becoming the object of aesthetic perception, life becomes art. However, this entails the eradication of the distinction between art and non-art: what was heteronomous to the knowing and willing subject, namely art in the form of the free appearance of the statue, becomes one with that subject’s will and knowledge as art becomes the means by which the subject or humanity forms itself.

According to Ranciere, though, this is an illusion. In its aesthetic form, the tension between art and non-art is inherent within the former: ‘The life of art in the aesthetic regime of art consists precisely in […] playing one linkage between art and non-art against another such linkage’ (132).



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