The question “What is art?” belongs in the ranks of the great koans of Western philosophy, as intolerable and unavoidable as “What is being?” and “What is the good life?” Immanuel Kant, perhaps anticipating the unique difficulty of the challenge, put it off until the latter two questions were dealt with. Then, in one of philosophy’s most famous and significant hedges, he refused to answer the question. Reframing “art” in terms of “beauty,” he declared that although beauty exists, it has no prior definition or “concept” to help us determine what does and doesn’t fit the bill.
Over two centuries later, Jacques Rancière has made Kant’s insight into the basis of a radical philosophy of art—radical not only in its boldness but also in its commitment to radicalism as a political project. A former student of Althusser who was also heavily influenced by Foucault, Rancière has dedicated his career to building both a political theory and an aesthetic theory answering to the anarchistic principles of May ’68, the events of which loom like a shadow over his entire work. Rancière’s writings on politics, including his central treatise Disagreement, identify a liberatory force in anything that denies the authority of any one group or individual to determine the capabilities and activities of any other.
It is this orientation toward dissensus and equality that undergirds Rancière’s interest in the philosophy of art. In the many books and essays he has published on aesthetics, Rancière has continually asserted his theory of the “aesthetic regime.”1 A conceptualization of art that he traces back to the mid-18th century, the aesthetic regime posits that the undecidability of art’s categories and the impossibility of mapping a territory called “art” is art itself. Under Rancière’s thesis, Kant’s notion of beauty without a concept becomes the experience of liberation from existing categories. In the space opened up by this conceptual freedom, it is possible not only to imagine but also to feel a relationship of freedom among people of equal capacity. This experience, or aisthesis, thus points toward an impossible utopia, but the realm of aesthesis is very real and is available everywhere. “Art” is its home.2
The idea of the “aesthetic regime” is Rancière’s singular, elegantly compacted contribution to the study of art, and his newest and most expansive work on aesthetics, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art is its biography.3 Don’t look here for substantively new arguments about aesthetic theory, but rather for the fullest translation of Rancière’s existing ideas into the history of Western modernism. An epic rather than a narrative history, it is comprised of a snapshot of 14 “scenes” beginning with the 1764 publication of Johann J. Winckelmann’s The History of Ancient Art and concluding with James Agee’s 1941 text Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The chapters address not so much single works of art as the “interpretive networks” that constellate around “emblematic texts” from the worlds of sculpture, painting, poetry, the novel, photography, theatre, dance, pantomime, and film. Read in sequence, the essays track the slow accumulation of patterns of thought, while pointing out moments of change and reevaluation, to collectively produce a hitherto obscured “counter-history of ‘artistic modernity.’”
The book’s stubborn commitment to its point of view invites skepticism, probably more than it ought to, but the book also presents a refreshing synthesis of affect, archive, and argument.
Aisthesis runs counter to several axioms of art-school consensus. The first is high modernism itself. Though only the former is mentioned by name, the book’s two villains are Clement Greenberg and Theodor Adorno. Their crime has been to locate political resistance in avant-garde abstraction, favored for its supposed rejection of a status quo that would maintain its power over a people easily seduced by the art of kitsch populism. Rancière “counters” this narrative of modernism by discovering a mixture of high and low culture long before a so-called postmodernism ruined Greenberg and Adorno’s avant-garde utopias. For Rancière, Vsevolod Meyerhold’s circus-inspired theatricality, Stendhal’s popular novel The Red and the Black, Whitman’s democratic vistas, and the purpose-oriented Arts and Crafts Movement all play a significant role in the development of this “aesthetic regime.” It is not in abstraction per se, but in a new attention to sensuality, through which “life … directly affirms its potential in the energy of bodies” where the liberating promise of the new art may be found.
But Rancière has no interest in exonerating the art of the “street,” of populism, or of the middlebrow. Like Adorno and Greenberg, Rancière also celebrates a turn away from representation. But he understands representation less as a technique to be abandoned than as a paradigm that has been haltingly and variously displaced over time. Aisthesis thus attends to changing demands upon the “aesthetic regime.” Whitman and Stendhal produce different reactions to the emancipatory promise of the bourgeois revolutions in their respective distance from or proximity to the continent’s uproars. Later, the emergence of technology creates new possibilities and new obstacles for the representation of “life” onstage, leading to Adolphe Appia’s Symbolist-inspired takes on Wagner and Edward Gordon Craig’s similar interpretations of Shakespeare. Meanwhile, the early disappointments of Soviet communism and the birth of middlebrow art in mid-20th century America sealed the fates of the filmmaker Dziga Vertov and the journalist James Agee.
In Rancière’s telling, then, the aesthetic regime is the underdog of art history that has finally been given its day. Although it’s deeply unsatisfying to see the story stop just before modernism proper fractures into postmodernism, Aisthesis proves both the malleability of the “aesthetic regime” thesis and its usefulness in mediating many of the great debates that make up art history. The book’s stubborn commitment to its point of view invites skepticism, probably more than it ought to, but the book also presents a refreshing synthesis of affect, archive, and argument. The unique pleasures of the most seemingly undemocratic works of art have rarely been so celebrated as witnesses to an ongoing radical imagination.
- See for example Aesthetics and Its Discontents (Polity, 2009), The Future of the Image (Verso, 2009), The Emancipated Spectator (Verso, 2009), and “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes” (New Left Review, no. 14, March-April 2002). ↩
- This is why Rancière, in the essay “The Aesthetic Heterotopia” (Philosophy Today, September 2010 supplement) published just before Aisthesis and almost certainly written alongside it, refers to an “aesthetic heteropia,” borrowing Foucault’s word for those “counter-sites” of “effectively enacted utopia[s]” that exist “in every culture.” Cf. Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces, in Diacritics, vol. 16, no. 1 (Spring 1986), p. 265. ↩
- Aisthesis was originally published, in French, in 2011. ↩