Triptych image: Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo, "Beggar Boys Eating Grapes and Melons" 1645/55
ANGLOPHONE READERS now have a chance to see what all the fuss is about: in June, Verso published its translation of Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, Jacques Rancière’s most important treatment of art and aesthetics to date. It’s a magisterial book of great scope and ambition that has the capacity to alter how we understand the artistic culture of the past 200 years.
In the 1960s, Rancière was a student of the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. He broke with his mentor over the worker and student protests of May 1968. Responding to what he judged to be the elitist underpinnings of his teacher’s positions, Rancière subsequently worked to elaborate new forms of political analysis, and even of philosophy itself. In recent years, he has attracted a substantial following in philosophy, literature departments, activist political circles, and the art world. Well known for his penetrating analyses of art and literature, what distinguishes Rancière is his ability to draw unprecedented connections between ideas and practices customarily separated — a skill put to dramatic use in Aisthesis.
Indeed, Rancière can be credited with breathing new life into the field of aesthetics, the subdiscipline of philosophy that emerged in the 18th century to treat questions regarding sensation, debates about the nature of taste, and the experiences of beauty and sublimity. His primary achievement consists of rethinking the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Rancière does not deliver prescriptions regarding how art should be, nor does he call for another round of politically engaged art. According to Rancière, art need not be politicized, for indeed its practices are already political inasmuch as they alter the distribution of bodies and voices within a given society. What is required, Rancière thinks, is a historical framework in which to take account of the political significance of artistic and literary practices.
Aisthesis constructs this framework by analyzing 14 important events in the history of Western art, opening with Winckelmann’s analysis of the Belvedere Torso (1764) and concluding with a reading of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Throughout Aisthesis, we are on familiar territory, the period associated with artistic modernism. But here the signposts have been changed. Rancière deliberately avoids the standard references, focusing on more obscure works that turn out to harbor interesting propositions regarding the nature of art. While many thinkers would restrict themselves to a single medium, Rancière moves effortlessly between painting, sculpture, literature, pantomime, dance, theater, design, photography, and cinema. By provocatively placing these disparate works within a common framework, unprecedented affinities become manifest, and Rancière builds his case that artistic modernism has been profoundly misunderstood.
In the 1970s, Rancière followed the work of Michel Foucault, apprenticing in Foucault’s use of archaeology and genealogy as philosophical methodologies. Both methods enable the philosopher to inject history into philosophical discourse, demonstrating that what is experienced as necessary and self-evident is in fact contingent and historically conditioned.
This sensibility informs Aisthesis, which unfolds in two directions simultaneously. On the one hand, the book functions as a “counter-history” to conventional ideas of modernism. Rancière explains:
Influential histories and philosophies of artistic modernity identify it with the 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. Fifteen years of work have brought me to the exact opposite conclusions: the movement belonging to the aesthetic regime, which supported the dream of artistic novelty and fusion between art and life subsumed under the idea of modernity, tends to erase the specificities of the arts and to blur the boundaries that separate them from each other and from ordinary experience.
Aisthesis gathers polemical force in its final passages by sidling up to Clement Greenberg’s influential account of modernism — the one in which avant-garde art separates itself from commercial kitsch by turning the medium of a given art into the subject of that art — and displacing it with a richer, more interesting historical picture.
On the other hand, Aisthesis can be understood as an attempt to answer a traditional philosophical question: what makes art, art? While the question may be conventional, the answer is anything but.
Art, for Rancière, is not a timeless concept uniting the earliest cave paintings with Damien Hirst’s latest gimmicks. Art, as we experience it today, is a historically locatable, cultural invention. Its advent is inseparable from the birth of aesthetics, or, in other words, the “mode of experience according to which, for two centuries, we perceive very diverse things […] as belonging to [the domain of] art.” Aesthetics, for Rancière, is first and foremost an identification of art. It designates the “regime of perception, affection and thought” that emerged across the practices of artists, the interpretations of critics, and the systematic inquiries of philosophers at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. What Rancière calls the “aesthetic regime” is a series of expectations regarding what art is, what it is capable of, and how it relates to society more generally. Aesthetics supplies the “conditions [that] make it possible for words, shapes, movements and rhythms to be felt and thought as art.”
This new experience of art came into being when artists and writers broke with an earlier idea of art, what Rancière calls the “representative regime of art.” The representative regime was a tightly bound system of rules specifying what could be the subject of art, how that content should be handled, and how such productions would be received. The “aesthetic revolution” sundered the rules of the representative regime. Its onset meant that there were no longer any rules determining what could be the subject of art, how this content needed to be handled, or even how art was different from life. This does not mean that art has become the same as life. Rather, it means that after a certain moment in history, both art and politics can be viewed as occupying the same terrain. For the artists and writers of the aesthetic regime, the hope thus becomes that art will be reinvigorated by being brought into contact with life, just as life is to be refashioned by taking its cues from art. The aesthetic regime thus defines a paradoxical idea of art according to which art garners the power to reshape life on the condition that it maintain its difference as art. This paradox in which both art and life retain their essential differences, yet can also exchange properties, is the heart of our contemporary experience.
For many, Rancière will forever be known as the theorist of the “equality of intelligences.” In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, he adapted the ideas of a little-known educational theorist Joseph Jacotot in order to argue that equality is not a goal to be progressively implemented, but an initial assumption that is either confirmed or betrayed in practice, whether pedagogical, political, or artistic. Equality must be a starting point; otherwise, even well intentioned people court the risk of reproducing the inequalities they profess to work against. The political task, as Rancière sees it, consists of affirming and demonstrating equality against the hierarchical orders set up to deny it.
The presupposition of equality is an idea that animates Rancière’s own writings. In Aisthesis, the postulate of equality assumes a unique form, one that explains the book’s unusual structure. Fourteen “scenes” challenge readers to establish the broader thematic connections hinted at in each chapter. This can be understood as Rancière’s attempt to communicate his idiosyncratic erudition while maintaining a healthy respect for the reader’s intelligence. Readers will complete what Rancière has begun, and indeed it will be interesting to see how specialists from different fields respond to this work.
The “scene” is a “little optical machine” that allows Rancière to crystallize the new experience of art taking root across the aesthetic regime. Each scene opens with a lengthy quotation in which a critic or theorist registers something essential about a work of art. The remainder of the scene reconstructs the network of historical associations that makes these encounters significant. Each scene seeks to explain how these different artistic practices, along with the interpretations they have been given, helped to create the aesthetic conception of art.
Many will recognize in this model the influence of the literary critic Erich Auerbach’s classic work Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946). Despite an acknowledged debt, however, there are considerable differences. Whereas Auerbach uses the method to sustain a thesis about the persistence of realism within Western literature, Rancière uses it to establish the discontinuity between the aesthetic and representative conceptions of art. Moreover, Rancière’s presentation is more dispersive than Auerbach’s. The joining together of different scenes provides only a loose chronological framework in which a number of different thematic concerns emerge.
One such theme is the entry of “the people” — poor, everyday common people — into the domain of art, spaces formerly reserved for gods and goddesses. Aisthesis opens with a discussion of Winckelmann’s description of the Belvedere Torso, a standard enough source for a book on the genesis of art. Rancière finds in Winckelmann the origins of a certain idea of art, one according to which art is the expression of a people’s history. While we are now well accustomed to art history’s postulate that art provides an essential insight into a given age, Rancière reminds us just how radical this proposition must have been in Winckelmann’s day. Rancière: “Art exists when one can make a people, a society, an age, taken at a certain moment in the development of its collective life, its subject.” The torso’s destruction enables Winckelmann to bypass the classical conceptions of beauty founded upon proportion, symmetry, and perfection. Winckelmann instead weaves a fable in which the power of art stems from the stoppage of action and the indeterminacy of sensation. It is in the contours of this stone, freed from the obligation to represent, that Winckelmann locates the traces of an idealized Greek city-state, and with it the freedom of the Greek people. Winckelmann establishes something crucial that Rancière continually rediscovers in aesthetic art, namely that the experience of art is one in which the lives of common people will assert themselves, whether obscurely in the creases of stone or the deliberately in verse or film.
Arguably, a shortcoming of Aisthesis is that we leap from Winckelmann in 1764 to Hegel in 1824 with only passing references to the revolution in philosophical aesthetics carried out by Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment in 1790. Nevertheless, a riveting chapter on Hegel offers us an original reading of the monumental Lectures on Fine Art. Rancière focuses not on Hegel’s well-known pronouncements about the life and eventual death of art, but rather upon an important shift contained in a passage on the Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Beggar Boys Eating Grapes and Melon. Hegel’s attention to this painting confirms two historical tendencies consistent with the collapse of the representative regime. First, it bespeaks the ruination of the old hierarchies that accorded priority to history painting and religious scenes, while relegating canvases such as the Beggar Boys to“genre painting.” Second, Hegel’s text disassociates the idea of art — for Hegel that of freedom — from its avowed content. For Hegel, art, regardless of its subject matter, should be understood as an expression of freedom.
From Rancière, we learn how Hegel’s identification of art with freedom was made possible by the Louvre’s early curators. When faced with the challenge of displaying the images of religious and political oppression inherited from the ancien régime, the curators removed art from its ritual context and placed it in the neutralized gallery spaces to which we are now accustomed. They constructed a républicain cultural pedagogy that held that art itself should not to be confused with the noblemen and women depicted therein; art’s true subject is the process by which freedom becomes actualized. These material transformations, Rancière shows, provided support for many of Hegel’s philosophical propositions, and serve to shape the parameters of our experience of art to this day.
With Hegel’s Beggar Boys, like Winckelmann’s torso, Rancière ascribes positive political significance to idleness, an essential quality of aesthetic art. In chapters devoted to Stendhal’s The Red and The Black and Maurice Maeterlinck’s idea of a theater without action, Rancière presents idleness as that which disrupts the representative logic according to which every word, feeling, and action serves the development of a well-ordered plot. Reverie is the suspension of poetic and social hierarchies, and thus a field in which the equality of persons becomes manifest.
Equality is also something that the aesthetic regime established at the level of artistic content. According to Rancière, that regime inaugurated the unprecedented conditions according to which anything could become the subject of art. In the past, Rancière called attention to just how revolutionary it was for novelists to break with convention in order to portray the markets of Paris or the inner turmoil of provincial housewives. In Aisthesis, he attempts to sensitize readers to the ways in which equality pervades the experience of aesthetic art.
An early chapter on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Poet” sets the stage for a number of scenes where art creates a common framework premised upon the mute signification of everyday things and the equality of persons. Rancière views Emerson’s model of poetry as inheriting the spiritualization of daily life carried out by German Romanticism. Emerson furthers the idea that poetry is not simply a specialized form of language, but the vital expression of a community’s life. On this model, poetry is a process of rendering visible a spiritual richness that would otherwise be lost. Examining the legacy of this idea in Whitman’s “A Song for Occupations,” one of the more celebrated poems in Leaves of Grass, Rancière explains that “the infinite multiplication of activities, things and vulgar names is […] the accomplishment of a spiritual task of redemption.”
For Rancière, Emerson and Whitman constitute something of an underground current in aesthetics. They are certainly figures seldom singled out in the European philosophical tradition to which Rancière belongs. Along with Winckelmann and Hegel, they can be viewed as the theoretical core of Aisthesis, establishing many of the themes that recur throughout Rancière’s presentation of the aesthetic regime.
In a scene dedicated to the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, Rancière points again to this heritage. Like Whitman, Vertov surveys the city, registering what he finds without passing judgment. In Man With a Movie Camera,Vertov connects a number of different images — people busy commuting, women in a beauty salon, workers in a factory — without intertitles, and without hierarchy. Vertov’s montage joins together a number of different occupations in a “universal dance that makes all activities equal to each other.” This montage is, in Rancière’s words, the “sensible fabric of a new world,” and a form much more radical than the expressly political cinema of Sergei Eisenstein, Vertov’s rival.
Aisthesis concludes with a particularly moving scene in which we once again see the workings of the cultural model developed from Emerson and Whitman. The scene is devoted to the joint venture of James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In this work, Agee and Evans set out not just to document but also to dignify the lives of impoverished sharecroppers during the Dust Bowl. For Rancière, the force of Let Us Now Praise stems from its ability to communicate the beauty to be found even in dire poverty. Agee himself described the project as “an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity,” perhaps aware of aesthetic art’s powers of divinization.
The scene ends with an analysis of a dramatic encounter that occurred in the pages of the Partisan Review. In the summer of 1939, a special issue devoted to “the situation in American writing” asked its contributors a series of questions about everything from the responsibilities of writers on the eve of war to the relevance of literary figures from America’s past, especially Walt Whitman. Rancière sees the document as proof of the “Marxist avant-garde’s desire to break with the committed Whitmanian culture.” The message was not lost on Agee, who composed an angry response, which the journaldeclined to publish. In the very next issue, however, the journal did publish one of the essays with which it will forever be identified, Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” The article traces the emergence of two distinct levels of culture, blaming the industrial revolution and the existence of a large number of workers separated from their traditional folk cultures for the emergence of the stultifying forms of entertainment that once threatened art. To this day, students learn from Greenberg that separating genuine culture from commercial kitsch is both an aesthetic concern and a political imperative.
Aisthesis thus ends where many accounts of contemporary art begin. It indicts the formalist tendency within modernism for abandoning the fragile hope that works of art might lead to new ways of life. By placing Greenberg’s celebrated theory of modernism at the end of his long counternarrative, Rancière signals to readers how the aesthetic regime came to be misidentified with the tenets of modernism, those which partition culture into “high” and “low,” while turning the intoxication of art into an identity based solely upon its own history: “The time has passed for artists’ and writers’ voyages among the people and ‘popular culture’, forms of art that sought to transcribe the rhythms of industrial society, feats of labour and the struggle of the oppressed, new forms of urban experience and its dissemination in every sphere of society.”
These final passages assume a melancholy tone, not so much because of anything Rancière says, but because we recognize the missed opportunity. Even though the final scene only takes us up to 1941, the book is directly relevant for the work of recovery we desperately need today. Modernism is a story that we think we know well, but that Rancière shows we are only just beginning to understand.