I MAY BE--in fact, almost certainly am--missing something here. The back of this Verso paperback explains that "Jacques Rancière's work returns politics to its central place in understanding art," that "there is a stark political choice in art: it can either reinforce a move towards radical democracy or help create a new reactionary mysticism."
Problem is, I'm...just...not...seeing...it. Perhaps I need to read this in the context of some of Rancière's later work, get some ideas that close the circle. As it is, all I have read is Mute Speech, and my main impression of the five talks/essays collected here, originally delivered 1999-2002, is that they bring the crucial ideas of Mute Speech to bear on the visual arts: cinema, photography, painting, design. Mute Speech just did not hit the Christopher Caudwell/Edward Upward/Granville Hicks/Ben Shahn/Pete Seeger kind of keynotes the the Verso blurb announces, and I do not see how these five pieces do, either.
But I can see something like that, I guess. Mute Speech and the affiliated pieces gathered here posit a revolution in the "regime of representation" that occurred in the late 18th century, a break in the way literature and art were imagined, away from the early modern era's re-codifications of Aristotle (the artistic unities, decorum, mimesis) into something more rarified, perhaps, or less strictly organized, but maintaining while re-conceiving a relation between the visible and the sayable.
The ordinary history of this break, as Rancière frequently explains, emphasizes a divorce between the visible and the sayable--the break had a logic in it that led to blankness, silence, inanity. Not so fast, he says. Were the visible and sayable divorced, or was their relationship re-defined? Hence his discussion of the "sentence-image" in the second of these pieces, "Sentence, Image, History" (which would get my vote as pick of the litter were not "The Future of the Image" and "Are Some Things Unrepresentable?" perhaps even more interesting).
As the third term--"history"--of that second essay's title suggests, if the visible and the sayable are not--indeed, have never been--in fact divorced, then a lot of arguments about po-mo futility of art, desperate situation of art, ultimate dead end of art, and so on, simply collapse. If the visible can still get us to the sayable...well, where the sayable is, you can have history, and where you have history, you can talk about where we have been and where we should go next, and you arrive at the political.
So, in this sense, yes, I can see how Rancière restores a possibility for talking about art and the political. Furthermore, he can do this by focusing on the procedures and techniques of figures like Balzac, Flaubert, and Mallarmé, rather than on their explicit politics. Still, I do not detect much that is exhortatory in the essays here, although that is the impression the Verso blurb leaves.
However, Rancière does take on the best arguments for seeing art and politics as inhabiting incommensurable, incompatible spheres and shows the problems with those arguments, not just in their logic, but also in their failure to see what happens in canonical works of art.
Art does not face a stark choice between radical democracy and reactionary mysticism; we do. We can let ourselves be persuaded that art and literature, by their very nature, cannot help us much; Rancière gives us good reason to think they can.