Jacques Ranciere and the Politics of Aesthetics II

NB. The notes below are a continuation of my previous post: Ranciere and the Politics of Aesthetics I. They too have been made in relation to Ranciere’s essay ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcome’ from Jacques Ranciere (2010) Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, London: Continuum, 115-133.

The Heterogeneous Sensible

I ended my last post by mentioning that art in Ranciere’s aesthetic regime lives from a tension between art and non-art. If this is true, then to argue either that art should become identical with life or, conversely, that it should be clearly distintinguished from it, is to miss the constitutive role that the dialectic of art and non-art plays within it. This dialectic is also the reason for Ranciere’s antipathy for the Greenbergian account of art’s autonomy. If each art form was successfully to reduce itself to its own proper realm of competence, as Greenberg argues it should, it would exclude from its make-up the heterogeneity of other art forms and non-art. It is precisely the heteronomy introduced by such relations, Ranciere suggests, that produces aesthetic art’s particular autonomy. This is why avant-garde art ‘has to stress more and more the power of heteronomy that underpins its autonomy’ (130). Indeed, Ranciere tells us that the political aim of the aesthetic regime is to ‘save the heterogenous sensible’. He glosses this latter concept at one stage in the essay in a slightly misleading way. The ‘heterogenous sensible’, he writes, is ‘the identity of art and non-art’ (124). I take him to mean, in line with the rest of the argument in the essay, not that art becomes life (non-art) or vice versa without remainder, but simply that art and non-art are linked such that the latter introduces heterogeneity into the former, and vice versa.

This concept of the heterogenous sensible clearly carries implications of the subaltern or the non-identical; more specifically it seems to signify a point of heterogeneity in the existing and dominant political ordering of perception and therefore the potential for a redistribution of the sensible. In other words it is the promise of a ‘new sensorium’ carried by the aesthetic, which is why, politically, it must be saved.

Hegel and Romanticism

The heterogeneity of the sensorium is first brought up in Ranciere’s essay in relation to Hegel’s aesthetics (123 ff). Hegel’s art historical narrative has its end where thought (the Spirit), becoming transparent to itself (as philosophy), thus no longer requires art for its expression. Ranciere defends aesthetic art from this conclusion of Hegelian logic, though Hegel’s perspective provides him nonetheless with a framework for his own argument.

The heterogeneity between thought and its material or sensuous expression comes to a head for Hegel in Romanticism. Whereas classical art could at least express the absolute in a more or less direct mode, aesthetic art becomes indirect and self-referential; it requires the mediation of criticism (Ross, 89-90). As Ranciere puts it, for Hegel, ‘Art lives so long as it expresses a thought unclear to itself in a matter that resists it. It lives inasmuch as it is something else than art, namely a belief and a way of life’ (123). Romantic poetics for Ranciere, rather than ushering in the end of art at a point ‘when the content of thought is transparent to itself and when no matter resists it’ as it does for Hegel, ‘makes everything available to play the role of the heterogenous, unavailable sensible’ (126). The ‘heterogenous sensible’ is not a waning in the significance art but the potential for a politics of aesthetics. For Ranciere, therefore, Romanticism and the aesthetic regime it inaugurates are seen as resisting ‘the plot of the “end of art”‘. And it is important that they do so, because this plot ‘determines a configuration of modernity as a new partition of the perceptible, with no point of heterogeneity’ (123).

Hegel argued that poetry remained poetry only when entwined with prose, and Ranciere, although he would give it a different emphasis, would agree, because ‘When prose is only prose, there is no more heterogenous sensible’ (124). W.J.T. Mitchell claimed that heterogenous admixtures of text and image, namely a similar transgression between media to that at stake here, are a widespread rather than an exceptional phenomenon (1986: 93). Rather than a fact of recent history – a counter-narrative to Greenberg’s modernism running from Cubism through to Post-conceptualism – the heterogeneity of media is a perennial affair predating both Romanticism and Hegel. Ranciere’s conception of these border-crossings, however, seems to have the advantage over Mitchell of attempting to argue and account for the import they take up within a particular political economy of art.

The Museum of Art

According to Ranciere, public art museums, whose beginnings were roughly contemporaneous with Romanticism, ‘offered a multiplication of the temporalities of art’. Velasquez and Titian would soon be rubbing shoulders with Manet. With the rise of the museum, art’s forms were now open to reappropriation. ‘Works of the past’ become at this juncture ‘raw materials’ that ‘can be re-viewed, re-framed, re-read, re-made’ (125). This in turn made the boundaries between the arts as separate disciplines, and those between art and other objects and activities permeable such that eventually ‘the power of the Juno Ludovisi is transferred to any article of ordinary life’ (126). In the new sensorium suggested by the museum ‘common objects may cross the border and enter the realm of artistic combination’, which of course increases the heterogeneity within the sensorium it represents (125). Ranciere finds in a scene from a Balzac novel a parallel to the effects of both the museum and Romantic poetics. The central character enters a curiosity shop where the ‘ocean of furnishings, inventions, works of art and relics’, Ranciere cites the book, ‘made for him an endless poem’ (125).

This is all reminiscent of Marcel Broodthaers’s museum fictions. Ranciere describes Balzac’s curiosity shop as ‘a medley of objects and ages, art works and accessories’. It’s a description that would apply especially well to the eighth iteration of Broodthaers’s fictional museum, the Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, Section of Figures, which took place at the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle in 1972. The Section of Figures famously displayed hundreds of representations of eagles gathered from diverse public and private collections, including objects of ethnographic, fine art, natural historical and commercial origin, each appended with a catalogue number and the legend ‘This is not a Work of Art’.

Cursory consideration might mistake the Section of Figures for a cynical self-referential gesture, one which proposed drawing a motley swathe of the sensible (potentially any object so long as it represented or referenced an eagle) under the concept of art (itself emblematised by the eagle). Under the heading ‘Method’, images of Duchamp’s Fountain (the readymade urinal) and Magritte’s Treachery of Images (‘this is not a pipe’) adorn a double page spread in the catalogue to the exhibit, as if representing a strategic formula that Broodthaers’s exhibition and his labelling of its contents carry out. Looked at closer, however, it becomes apparent that the Section of Figures is a comment on the entropic danger this formular might suggest. The risk, as Ranciere spells out, is ‘that the process … of crossing the border [between art and non-art] reaches the point where the border becomes completely blurred’ and ‘nothing escapes the domain of art’ (128). Were that situation to be reached, then heterogeneity would have been converted into homogeneity; were any object to become art and were life to merge conclusively with aesthetics, then the regime of art would itself leave ‘no point of heterogeneity’.

Broodthaers manages not only to avoid an imperialist assimilation of life to art but to critique it. The objects in his exhibit remain insistently disparate. While some, such as the paintings by Magritte and Richter, evoke art, others are determinedly craft objects; other objects, such as the images of eagles’ eggs and the eagle’s skull, are scientific specimens and therefore objects of knowledge rather than aesthetic contemplation; yet others refer us to religious contexts or, conversely, labels on wine bottles and butter packaging evoke the profanity of commerce while slides showing comic book illustrations evoke the world of popular entertainment. Even the auspice under which all are gathered, the eagle, is a heterogenous symbol. The eagle images in Broodthaers’s museum both stand for imperialism and, as a series of tokens of the same sign, have been subjected to the imperialism of the museum and its an apparently homogenising effect. The eagle signifies aesthetic art’s autonomous concept and constitutes its heterogenous content. In the Section of Figures (to paraphrase the dialectic Ranciere identifies within romantic poetics), if the ordinary is made extraordinary, the extraordinary is made ordinary too (126). Art objects are subject to a prosaic gaze and everyday objects to aesthetic contemplation. In this way the exhibit evokes a constant crossing and indeed a vacillation of the border between art and non-art, which it asserts and questions in equal part. It is this, it seems to me, that could be taken as an exemplary invocation of the heterogenous sensible.

The Question remains…

The autonomy discovered in the aesthetic regime is associated with the experience of the spectator rather than with the being of the work. It is not therefore part of Arendt’s realm of work, which is the human activity that produces the enduring material environment we live within. Nonetheles, the aesthetic experience of autonomy is still not action itself. Hypothetically, though, it might be conducive to action in some way yet to be determined.

Other References:

W.J.T. Mitchell (1986), Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Alison Ross (2012), ‘Equality in the Romantic Art Form: The Hegelian Background to Jacques Rancière’s “Aesthetic Revolution”’, Jean-Philippe Deranty and Alison Ross (eds.), Jacques Rancière and the Contemporary Scene, London: Continuum, 87-98.


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