Friday, July 30, 2010

Aesthetics and its discontents

Korda, Ché, (1960).

There used to be a time when you could pick out something perceptually the way you recognize, say, tulips or giraffes. But the way things have evolved, art can look like anything, so you can't tell by looking . Criteria like the critic's good eye no longer apply. Art these days has very little to do with aesthetic responses.-- Arthur Danto, Is it art?

Alfredo Triff

Jacques Rancière's Malaise dans l'esthétique (2004) is available in English as Aesthetics and its Discontents (2009). Judging by the number of book quotes in magazines, websites, catalogs, etc, one can assume that the book's publication has reignited the discussion on aesthetics, particularly the intersection of aesthetics and politics. I'd like to explore this intersection to formulate questions probing Rancière's own definition.

Rancière problematizes the received discourse on aesthetics, as it pertains the idea of art as representation as well as entrenched conclusions about the avant-garde and the difference between modernism and post-modernism.1 His novelty is not so much establishing an almost necessary connection between aesthetics & politics, but how he justifies that move vis-a-vis other competing theories, such as (amongst others) Lyotard's aesthetics of the Sublime, Adorno's reconstructive aesthetics and Badiou's project of inaesthetics.

Built around a set of circuitous premises, Rancière's discourse claims to find aporias, untie knots and unveil paradoxes. Aesthetics and its Discontents aims at redeeming and redefining aesthetics. In the end, thinking art becomes the medium par excellence to talk just about anything. It has to do with the free-play implicit in the very constitution of the today's aesthetic regime: one of dis-order. Let's not blame the long list of philosophers (Hegel, Marx, Lyotard, Adorno, Badiou et. al) who got it wrong. It's all intrinsic to the order-of-disorder (I'm not being facetious) that one may get lost in the endless reverberation of aesthetics.

In what follows, I try to make sense of Rancière ideas while resisting his political-aesthetics -sort of suggested- conclusion: that of aesthetic revolution. But this is going to take more than one post. Bear with me.

George Grosz, Suicide, (1916).

As with Marxism, instead of beginning with art, let's start with politics. How is art political? It all begins with the aesthetic regime. We shouldn't identify art objects by what they refer to (say, a particular political depiction in a painting), but instead following the way aesthetics plays the game of being such that it can still think what is -and what is not- art.1a

General Nguyan Ngoc Loan shooting Nguyễn Văn Lém, Saigon, (1968).

Rancière follows -what he calls- logic of aesthetic relation, yet he doesn't endorse relational aesthetics (i.e., the actual culture-as-spectacle that pervades the museum and gallery circuits of the west, that is to say, the view that while rejecting art's claim to self-sufficiency, it ends up reaffirming an essential idea of "contemporary art" constructing spaces and "building a territory of the common").
Art is not political, in the first instance, because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of of the manner in which it might choose to represent society's structures or social groups, their conflicts or identities. It is political because of of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes and because of the manner in which it frames this time and peoples this space (AD, 23).
You'd think that Leon Golub's art is political because of the obvious content of his paintings. But Rancière is saying that Golub's thinking politics as a painter is already prior to Interrogation I's being political.

Leon Golub, Interrogation I, 1981.

So, what's politics?
... a mode of expression that undoes the perceptible divisions of the police order by implementing a basically heterogeneous assumption, that of a part of those who have no part, an assumption that, at the end of the day, itself demonstrates the sheer contingency of the order, the equality of any speaking being with any other speaking being.
Politics is tied to "the police order," its concomitant element. The police is a system of organization that pertains to the "sensible" (i.e., the field of our life/experience in general):
The police is thus first an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying and sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a particular place and task (AD, 24).
Thomas Hobbes'Leviathan, (title page, 1651 edition).

Rancière police is sui generis because it doesn't necessarily refer to a state apparatus. He wants to show what is logically presupposed behind interactions in this (sensible) space. We normally take state apparatuses as bound up by the state and society opposition (where the state imposes a rigid order on the life of society). But this sort of representation "already presupposes a certain political philosophy", that is to say, a certain confusion of politics and the police.1b

So, the police is a kind of law, generally implicit (that defines a party's share or lack of it):
The police is thus first an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying, and sees those bodies are assigned by the name to a particular place and task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable that sees that a particular activity is visible and another is not, that this speech is understood as discourse and another as noise. 1c
Police's function is to distribute and separate society into groups, social positions and functions (thus, it has a regulative function).
If police regulates, politics disrupts:
A political community is in effect a community that is structurally divided, not between divergent groups and opinions, but divided in relation to itself. A political 'people' is never the same thing as the sum of a population. It is always a form of supplementary symbolization in relation to any counting of the population and its parts (AD, 115).
Politics has an uneasy stabilizing effect of displacing the divisions, i.e, rich & poor under an identity, or the citizen, or the nation). The conflict over political power and interests is tempered through social or economic activities of work and leisure.
Aubrey Beardsley, Lysistrata (censored: The Lacedaimonian Ambassadors, 1896). Within the dispositif of Victorian aesthetics, can one not see Beardsley censored drawing as a sort of micro-regime within a regime?

On the other hand, the reduction of the political by the social takes place whenever the promise of general economic development, of progress, is offered as a solution to political conflict. So, politics happens when the order of police is broken by disagreement. In the instance of disagreement, the order that is structured is forced to admit that it is not capable of totalizing the situation (i.e., it's opposed to consensus).2

What's the place of aesthetics in all this?

Aesthetics is "a form of thought that problematizes the nature of art." i like this one better: "Aesthetics is the thought of the new disorder" (AD, 13). Art (as dispositif) exists parallel to aesthetics: "For art to exist, what is required is a specific gaze and form of thought to identify it."2a

Let's stop for a second: If aesthetics is a form of thought, aesthetics cannot precede art unless one can think art before there is art. Does Rancière want to turn art into a category? I don't think so, after all, the thought that problematizes art is caused by "a specific relation between the practices, forms of visibility, and modes of intelligibility that enable us to identify the products of these..."3 This is what Rancière calls regime.

So, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Wait, says Rancière, the sudden scandal over this Manet in 1863 was given by the very parameters that thought the art (but the art is such only by virtue of the thought thinking it). Isn't this kind of circular?

Manet, Dejeuner sur l'herbe, (rejected by the 1863 Jury and subsequently presented as Le Bain at the Salon des Refusés).

Let's come back to regime. Rancière mentions: 1- The ethical regime of the arts, whereby: "... a specific relationship between the practices, forms of visibility and modes on intelligibility that enable to identify the products of these [...] as belonging to an art" (AD, 28). In this regime (think of ancient art) there is no art per se, but "images that are judged in terms of their intrinsic truth." 2- The representative regime of the arts, which consists of threefold relation: mimesis, poetics and aisthesis (think of Renaissance-through-18th Century art). 3- The aesthetic regime of the arts where "the property of being art is no longer given by the modes of doing but to a distinction between the modes of being [...] the property of being art is no longer given by the criteria of technical perfection but is ascribed to a specific form of sensory apprehension" (AD, 29).

Questioning regimes:

Did the artist depicting this double portrait of King Mycerinus and his wife think of intrinsic truth? (because statues of the deceased were intended to house the ka, or spirit, after death, it was necessary to produce very realistic portraits so the ka could recognize its next home).

King Mycerinus and Queen Kha-merer-nebty III
Old Kingdom, Fourth Dynasty (circa 2600 BC).

Did Cellini think of representation here? ("representation is always mis-representation".-- Levinas)

Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus, (1545-1554).

Is punk in the mid 1970's a form of sensory apprehension?

Mapplethorpe, Man in a Polyester Suit, (1980).

Why is Schiller so important for Rancière? Two reasons: He initiates the aesthetic regime while leaving the possibility of a redemptive politics of aesthetics3a (bear in mind that Schiller's Letters are influenced by the French Revolution). In particular we're interested in the 15th letter (though the 14th letter is quite important). Schiller introduces three elements, sinnliche Trieb, Formtrieb and Spieltrieb (sense-drive, form-drive and play-drive), each with a distinctive function. In paragraph 5, Schiller is precise, but not at the expense of scope:

The sense-drive excludes from its subject all autonomy and freedom, the form-drive excludes from its subject all dependence, all passivity. Exclusion of freedom, implies physical necessity, exclusion of passivity moral necessity. Both drives, therefore, exert constraint upon the psyche, the former through the laws of nature, the latter through the laws of reason. The play-drive, in consequence, as the one in which both the others act in concert, will exert upon the psyche at once a moral and a physical constraint, it will therefore, since it annuls all contingency, annuls all constraint too.

Peter Hallward comments the interest vs. dis-interest discussion:
The subject of Schiller's aesthetic 'play' is not so much impersonal or dis-interested as re-interested, or interested in new, more imaginative and less restrictive ways. Aesthetic experience involves the distinction but not the isolation of appearance from reality. 4
Schiller's "free-play" turns the Kantian idea of aesthetic purposelessness sideways with the -purposeful- help of pedagogy (the poet's education becomes pedagogical aesthetics). This "free-play" of imagination through art produces new forms, objects, and arrangements. Making something new, something for which there is no prior concept, is the liberating activity that raises man above his dual and dangerous nature. Paraphrasing Rancière: "Free play " frames a specific sensorium by breaking through the partition of the sensible that shaped the traditional forms of domination. 

Mark Tansey, Still Life, (1982).

One more point: Since politics consists of reconfiguring the sensible, i.e., bringing on "the stage" new objects and subjects, ... "making visible that which was not visible," etc, setting up scenes of dissensus, then politics turns out to be a sort of "aesthetic" activity! 4a
So, aesthetics, as an experience of suspension (see it as a Rancierean withdrawal of power), presents or suggests the autonomization of a "self-contained" sphere of art on the one hand, and the identification of that "self-containment" as a "new form of collective life" (art educates). If so, suggests Rancière, we could revisit some old stereotypes about modernity's collapse, or passage to postmodernity (Rancière doesn't mention Baumgarten's contribution, which is far removed from Kant's autonomous regime). 4b

How about aesthetics here and now

We have inherited a state of aesthetic "disorder":  a- art's old patronage system changed with the genius, who now becomes the artist entrepreneur, b- art has no longer the duty to represent, c- art's domain has become highly porous. Aesthetics emerges now with the recognition that there are no more preexisting rules for presenting the objects, situations, and peoples of everyday life within the context of art, or indeed for rigorously distinguishing between the two spheres.5 

What happens when aesthetic discourses become policies of state? If so, what makes it so? Rancière would answer that it's all part of a paradox that is misunderstood. How?

The aesthetic regime of art institutes the relation between the forms of identification of art and the forms of political community in such a way as to challenge in advance every opposition between autonomous art and heteronomous art, art for art's sake and art in the service of politics. For aesthetic autonomy is not that autonomy of 'making' celebrated by modernism. It is the autonomy of a form of sensory experience.
This is a dramatic suggestion. It implies that Social Realism becomes the official policy of the soviet state during the 1930's, not as a result of a decision of the politburo, not because of Lenin's own misgivings with formalist abstraction since the early days of constructivism, not because the media campaign against it in Pravda since the 1919 on, not because realist art was thought to better represent the legitimate interest of the soviet masses (Trotsky).

Mikhail Nesterov, Portrait of Ivan Shadr (1934).

Right after the promulgation of Stalin's "On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations" in 1932, the painting above displaces the one below from the dispositif of art:

Kasimir Malevich, Suprematism, Self-portrait (1916).

The actors in this drama become puppets of the aesthetics (now in guise of politics) discourse -or, depending your take, victims of it. They don't, can't foresee that "education splits into two figures" (AD, 36). Artists beware! If you play by the project of aesthetic revolution (now Constructivism), you may end up with a "form of life" (then Soviet Realism).
To dodge my point, Rancière will bring up a new element: Aesthetic metapolitics, i.e., a utopic movement inherent in the knot of the discourse since its inception (Schiller's ambivalent "free play") whose scope twists the initial idea into a sort of simulacrum. For example, aesthetic emancipation is a double edge sword. The politics of art doesn't promise emancipation of forms of art. Instead, it cleverly changes the subject, turning political dissent into (ready?) underground movements. Rancière is thinking of none other than Marxism, "whose revolution of producers is conceivable only after a revolution within the very idea of revolution, in the idea of revolution of the forms of sensible existence as opposed to a revolution of state forms."

Wilde was right after all: Art lies!

Is the development during Nazi Germany part of the "aesthetic regime?" If so, how to punctualize it?

Following Rancière's methodological strategy one would assume that Nazi aesthetics (their thinking of art) is itself part of a deployment prior to its actual mobilization (above, the Entartete Kunst of 1937). Can one say that Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazis chief theorist is not one of the real protagonist behind the party's attack against modern art?

Is art's heteronomy an intrinsic property? Rancière would say no, the very idea of aesthetic regime suggests that art has not always been autonomous. Can art loose its self-made autonomy? It could, in fact that's the prevalent desire, judging each attempt to discredit aesthetics as confusing or misplaced or obscure.  (To be continued)
1The conclusion that post-modernism is just another side of modernism is an old thesis. What is novel here is Rancière's hermeneutic/structural account. 1a This comment is just methodological: How could there not be a "pointing to" in the qua vector? Answer: Platonist philosophers like to say that the "pointing to" is external to the qua. 1bOne catches Rancière's eclectic methodology: On the one hand, a radical neo-phenomenology (we seek not the Heideggerean Scheinen or "seeming," even the Erscheinung. But isn't some of this a way of causing, pointing to?) on the other, a neo-structuralist drive, perhaps inherited from Foucault. 1c Rancière's Disagreement, (University of Minnesota, 1998) p. 29.  2 See Ernst Van den Hemel, Krisis, 2008, #3. It is this principle of politics that Rancière takes to be the essence of democracy: a democratic order is a heterotopic order, a deviation from a natural order of things, where the 'natural' places of things have been disrupted. It is an order founded on the absence of any title to govern.  2a If it looks as if Rancière is saying that art is not art without a previous idea of art, that's exactly the point, which makes him an irrealist.  3Aesthetics and Its Discontents, (Polity Press, 2009), p. 28. For Rancière there is art to the extent that there is a specific regime of identification. 3a This "free-play" or suspension of activity becomes the very "humanity" of Man, bearing "the whole edifice of the art of the beautiful and the still more difficult art of living". Rancière explains:
Because the "aesthetic autonomy" is not, as the "modernist" paradigm has it, the autonomy of the work of art as such. It is the autonomy of a form of experience. And this autonomous form of experience appears as the principle of the self-formation of a new humanity. There is no conflict opposing the "purity" of art and its "politicization". On the contrary, it is thanks to its very purity that the materiality of aesthetic experience can be posed as the material anticipation of a new form of community. (Aesthetics and Politics, Rethinking the Link).
4 Peter Hallward, "Jacques Rancière and the Subversion of Mastery," p. 39.  5 This shift between regime and regime reminds me of Thomas Kuhn's idea of paradigm in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Foucault's idea of episteme in Le mots et les choses. 4aThe risk here is to, on the one hand, trivialize the relation between aesthetics and politics, or to reify aesthetics with art. 4b Rancière  doesn't mention Baumgarten's contribution to aesthetics, which is quite different from Kant's. The latter didn't agree with the former's founding of aesthetics as a sensorial/rational activity (albeit a lower form of cognition): "The Germans are the only people who presently (1781) have come to use the word aesthetics to designate what others call the critique of taste. They are doing so on the basis of a false hope conceived by that superb analyst Baumgarten. He hoped to bring our critical judging of the beautiful under rational principles, and to raise the rules for such judging to the level of a lawful science. Yet that endeavor is futile." Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, (Cambridge University Press, 1999) p. 64, note 1. Dispositif and regime seem to overlap. Steven Corcoran, Rancière's translator, puts it this way:
The context of usage is that of dispositifs of art, and even, for example of contemporary art itself being a dispositif. An artistic dispositif is thus not only an arrangement of elements -e.g. a particular art installation or artistic device, a particular installation is part of a dispositif in the sense that it is deployed within a 'system' or plan of action.


RI said...

Kick ass post, Triff.

Matthew said...

good discussion, though i am not an expert. the way I see it RANCIERE takes care of every single detail. it is all under the microscope of the theorist, and i feel there is always more to all that that can happen. it may not make too mucn sense but anyway.


miamibourbaki said...

Thanks, guys.

Ana Maria said...

I wait for the next one, but if politics and aesthetics are such good buddies what's the problem with the show at MAM?

miamibourbaki said...

Beware of opposites!