Book Review: Jacques Rancière. Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. New York: Verso, 2012. 304 pp.
In histories of Western art, modernism is a deceptively straightforward term: it is often used to refer to a turning point in aesthetic production, a radical shift in style that belongs to a new form of historical self-consciousness. But such accounts typically disregard the various ways in which modernism was produced and the moments of political and aesthetic possibility prior to its periodization as historical modernism proper. For decades, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière has been upending our preconceptions about the relation between art and politics. His newly translated work Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art presents readers with a series of interventions into the field of aesthetics, tracing its role in the emergence of artistic modernism. At stake for Rancière is our reception of modernism’s legacy and the political closure that has been entailed by it. As he writes at the end of the book’s preface, “Social revolution is the daughter of aesthetic revolution, and was only able to deny this relation by transforming a strategic will that had lost its world into a policy of exception” (xvi).
In Aisthesis, Rancière is not looking for an essence or truth inherent to art. Rather, he is concerned with the ways in which what he calls “the aesthetic regime of art” has been used to identify particular images, performances, texts, and objects. Art, for Rancière, does not enter into a domain called politics from a position of autonomy. Rather, art is always already a social practice, a distribution of bodies within a political field. In each chapter, he attempts to trace a logic of art that departs from the interpretive network that gives it meaning. Each of the scenes that Rancière explores in Aisthesis are treated as instances in which “a given artistic appearance requires changes in the paradigms of art” (xi). Each object of study, in other words, is treated as an instance of “art” but also as a singular moment (of novelty, revolution, or emotion) in which art is reconstituted. Each scene is a “fabric,” a “moving constellation,” in which these various modes of perception, affection, and thought are woven together. Each object of study is an instance in the formation of the aesthetic regime of art and “a displacement in the perception of what art signifies” (xiii).
The term “art” has often been thought to designate a place distinct from prosaic reality: in this mode of thinking, a work of art will break with the everyday to achieve an elevated status. Instead, says Rancière, the aesthetic regime that has formed our perception of art’s constitution does just the opposite: it works to “erase the specificities of the arts and … blur the boundaries that separate them from each other and from ordinary experience” (xii). Most often, the identification of an artwork’s transcendence is a product of retrospection that cuts it loose from such aesthetic conditions.
Although Rancière’s analyses move through seemingly abstract categories, he makes it clear from the onset that this project begins not from an idealist concept of art or theory of the human, but from material conditions shaping what he calls the “sensible fabric of experience.” Material conditions but also “modes of perception and regimes of emotion, categories that identify them, thought patterns that categorize and interpret them” (x). These organizing modes of relation and perception are what allow us to formalize a domain as nebulous as art. Indeed, one of art’s distinctive characteristics is that it unites what other schemas might distance. One of the implicit arguments of Rancière ‘s book is that through particular determining forces (interpretation, sensation, and perception), art is continually re-defining its boundaries by incorporating what it once opposed, from the mangled form of the Belvedere Torso to the journalistic filmmaking of James Agee. The history of art is a history of exception and incorporation, and in Rancière’s genealogy these transformations in the sensible fabric are the conditions of art’s emergence.
Aisthesis moves chronologically through fourteen under-estimated events in the history of Western art in order to construct a historical framework for understanding modernism, which remains a difficult concept despite our familiar associations with a particular style or moment of artistic consciousness. A large part of Rancière’s project, here and elsewhere, is to reclaim the domain of aesthetics and redefine its relationship to art. A philosophical outgrowth near the end of the eighteenth century, aesthetics emerged as a field that made possible a new way of identifying art. Prior to the aesthetic revolution, art was schematized according to what Rancière refers to as the “representative regime of art,” which followed established hierarchies and classical conventions. With the aesthetic regime, the division between art and life undergoes a transformation: while their distance is maintained, art and life are simultaneously drawn together into the same terrain. As the chapters of Aisthesis demonstrate, this paradoxical configuration allows the domains of art and life to retain their differences by sharing certain commonalities. The crucial question is, then, not what is art? but, what counts as “aesthetic art”? Where, in other words, does the aesthetic regime assert itself?
Each chapter takes an opening piece of art criticism as its point of departure. The first passage comes from Johan Joachim Winckelmann’s 1764 text, History of Ancient Art, which went on to influence many of the philosophers and poets whose writings would define the next century of aesthetics. Considered Winckelmann’s masterwork, History of Ancient Art creates a chronological account of Western art’s development in ancient Greece, drawing together artistic objects and their broader social and intellectual conditions. For Winckelmann, artwork helped to explain a bygone era, but as Rancière illustrates in his analysis, the eighteenth century art historian relies on the destruction of a particular statue, the Belvedere Torso, to construct an idealized image of the ancient Greek city-state and its people. Here, art emerges in the absence of action and the ambiguous sensation that the statue evokes. While the representative order appreciated the harmony of proportions and the relation between visible form and spiritual character, the Belvedere Torso lacks the composite parts to create material harmony or identity. For Rancière, Wincklemann’s celebration of this sculpture thus “signifies the revocation of the principle that linked the appearance of beauty to the realization of a science of proportion and expression” (4). A gap has emerged between the two, and it is precisely this gap that will inform what the aesthetic regime defines as beautiful. Wincklemann’s comparison of the torso’s muscles to waves in the sea carries this dissociation even further. According to Rancière, the wave metaphor suggests both indeterminacy and perfection.
The tension of many surfaces on one surface, of many kinds of corporality within one body, will define beauty from now on. . . . Wincklemann inaugurates the age during which artists were busy unleashing the sensible potential hidden in inexpressiveness, indifference or mobility, composing the conflicting movements of the dancing body, but also of the sentence, the surface, or the coloured touch that arrest the story while telling it, that suspend meaning by making it pass by or avoid the very figure they designate. (9)
Such beauty, however, needed a principle to unite the singularity of the artist and the development of the arts as a technical tradition. Wincklemann’s treatment of ancient art uses the concept of history to do just this: it “signifies a form of coexistence between those who inhabit a place together, those who draw the blueprints for collective buildings, those who cut the stones. . . . Art thus becomes an autonomous reality, with the idea of history as the relation between a milieu, a collective form of life, and possibilities of individual invention” (14). For Wincklemann, the statue represents the perfection of a collective life that is no longer present. It is a social body that cannot be actualized. With Wincklemann, art has a new subject, the people, and a new context, history. This paradox between art and history plays itself out in our museums.
History makes Art exist as a singular reality; but it makes it exist within a temporal disjunction: museum works are art, they are the basis of the unprecedented reality called Art because they were nothing like that for those who made them. And reciprocally, these works come to us as the product of a collective life, but on the condition of keeping us away from it. (19)
The following chapters continue this line of analysis through overlapping scenes of painting, poetry, dance, and theatre. Rancière revisits Hegel’s posthumously collected Lectures on Fine Art (1835), where the philosopher develops a criterion for art, independent of technical excellence, social grandeur, or moral instruction. Focusing on Hegel’s treatment of Murillo’s Beggar Boys Eating Grapes and Melon, Rancière locates a symptom of the demise of the representative regime. No longer does the painting’s significance hinge on the old hierarchies, which would have dismissed the piece as “genre painting.” Instead, Hegel locates his aesthetic criterion in the freedom of the work, which “signifies its indifference to its represented content. This freedom can thus appear purely negative: it relies only on the status of work in museums where they are separated from their primary destination” (30). The indifference of the contemporary observer, Rancière argues, could mean that painting’s contents have been increasingly formalized, now a simple matter of shape, line, colour, and so on. Here we witness another departure from the representative regime of art. Painting in particular for Hegel is the work of surfaces, the play of appearances; and, Rancière summarizes, “it is this play of appearance that is the very realization of freedom of mind” (32). Equally important within this chapter is Ranciere’s suggestion that Hegel’s treatment of art was facilitated by the Louvre’s early curators, who reorganized the religious and political art of the ancien regime within a neutralized gallery space.
Several chapters later, Rancière locates the antithesis of Hegel’s identification of Greek perfection with the freedom of a people in John Ruskin’s theory of gothic architecture, from his influential work, The Stones of Venice (1851). The chapter begins with a passage from Roger Marx’s L’Art social (1913), which employs the metaphor of the temple to describe the work of Emile Galle, a master of the so-called “decorative arts.” Marx’s lecture was originally addressed to an audience of workers and embodied the art critic’s quest for aesthetic regeneration, which sought the unity of fine and decorative arts (the “equality of arts”) and advocated the idea of social art. Social art, notes Rancière, “is not an art for the people; it is art at the service of ends determined by society” (135). Here, the artisan’s life and thought present in an aesthetic object are “the singular manifestation of great anonymous life.” Where Wincklemann saw the suspension of life in Belvedere Torso and Hegel saw the freedom of mind within the indifference of painting to its subject, Roger Marx follows John Ruskin in his pursuit of an equality between artist and artisan.
By drawing Ruskin up against Hegel, Rancière demonstrates just how radical the Victorian critic’s theory of art truly was. In Ruskin’s eyes, the geometric perfection once praised by Schiller and Hegel expresses a rigorous division of labour, an institutionalized gap between artist and artisan. By contrast, Ruskin’s idea of true art functions more as “applied art, which applies both to the construction and decoration of buildings, art that serves life, serves to shelter and express it” (139). Opposing form to function undoes art’s unity. All true art, according to Ruskin is both decorative and symbolic, integrated into a building that will be inhabited and will thus express modes of social existence that exceed their function. Rather than a simple nostalgia for medieval cathedrals, Ruskin’s theory of art is “a social paradigm of art.” The continuum of modernist architecture follows Ruskin in understanding true art as that which “adapts life and expresses it,” but the important critical question, Rancière argues, has to do with “which life one must adapt to and which life one must express” (143). The ensuing developments of modernism depend on how this relationship is understood. Ruskin’s paradigm evolved in its application by Roger Marx, and later, Peter Behrens–the artistic advisor of the German electric company AEG. While Behrens and his friends at the Werkbund have been interpreted as turning to function against form, Rancière argues that such emphasis on function was an artistic affirmation of a society in which utilitarian ends are subordinate to an ideal of social harmony. What truly counts as art for the Werkbund and the later Bauhaus is the reformation of structures linking modes of production and modes of consumption. While Ruskin saw the style of this reform embodied in nature, here it is the abstract lines of industrial standardization that affirm the unity between function and expression.
Rancière concludes Aisthesis with an analysis of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans and an essay by Clement Greenberg on “Avante-Garde and Kitsch.” Rancière shows how the work of Agee and Evans is able to give aesthetic treatment to and dignify the lives of suffering sharecroppers during the Dust Bowl before turning to Greenberg’s essay. Greenberg’s piece remains an influential polemic against the industrial revolution and its culture of kitsch. Here is where we begin to see the institutionalized split between high and low culture that continues to define historical modernism in the popular imagination. For Greenberg it was an imperative to dispense with art that was not serious and politically committed: i.e., the vulgar tastes defined and developed through a capitalism of peasant culture. But what Greenberg was announcing, argues Rancière, was the death of
historical modernism in general, the idea of a new art attuned to all the vibrations of universal life: an art capable both of matching the accelerated rhythms of industry, society and urban life, and of giving infinite resonance to the most ordinary minutes of everyday life. (262)
Aisthesis is a difficult and impressive study that should (and likely will) significantly alter tired debates over modernism’s legacy and the relation between aesthetics and politics, more generally. As Ranciere writes in his preface, the work begun in Aisthesis does not represent a finished project and might include other scenes. His present study ends at a significant crossroads within modernism’s history: a contradictory moment shared by James Agee and Clement Greenberg in which modernism’s concern with ordinary life was undercut by an announcement of its demise. By ending in this way, however, Rancière implies that modernism remains an unfinished project and, indeed, exploring its historical network is a crucial part of its recovery.