Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Jacques Rancière, _Aesthetics and its Discontents_, part one

"THERE IS NO postmodern rupture," Rancière states on p. 36, and then, for good measure, again on p. 42 in the very same words: "There is no postmodern rupture." What, no postmodern rupture? I think of the postmodern rupture as an old friend, so this came as disconcerting news, like the terrible thing they did to Pluto.

No postmodern rupture... but how else name the difference between Pollock and Warhol, say, or Hemingway and Pynchon?

Rancière's dismissal of the postmodern rupture stems from his conception of the "aesthetic regime"--"regime" being his term for "the specific gaze and thought" brought to an object that enable that object to register on us as art, "aesthetic" being his name for the regime that arose and became dominant about the era of the French Revolution, or the Romantic era as we anglophones usually think of it, succeeding the "representative regime" of the early modern period. Among the defining characteristics of the aesthetic regime are that art is seen less as something presented to a specific audience in a specific place for specific purposes, and more for "an undifferentiated public," broadly connected to "people, civilization, or history"; that art no longer assumes some individuals and events are naturally more important or serious than others, but instead devotes just as much attention to the small, the ephemeral, the ordinary; that art was esteemed less for the "story" it told than for how it went about telling it.

Rancière has been elaborating the ideas in the preceding paragraph for many years now; fortunately, he provides a swift and succinct summary in the "Introduction" to Aesthetics and Its Discontents.

For Rancière, we are still in the aesthetic regime--hence, no postmodern rupture.  For that matter, no modern rupture, either, no change in regime between Dickens or Joyce.

One wing of the aesthetic regime makes art of what was previously regarded as irredeemably inartistic, making the boundary between art and "life" porous; Balzac, shall we say, or Warhol (my example, not Rancière's), who insisted that art could be Brillo boxes, Brillo boxes could be art.

Another wing of the aesthetic regime refuses any idea that art merely reflects reality, or "the way things ought to be," or the orthodoxies of external authorities, the church, the ruling class; instead the art object stubbornly insists on playing by its own, and only its own rules. So we have Mallarmé and, say, Jackson Pollock.

So, different though they are, Pollock and Warhol are both part of a logic about art that has been deploying and ramifying itself since the late 18th century.

So... no rupture, but two paths made possible by the same new dispensation. And both political. (The essay in which Rancière develops all this is titled "Aesthetics as Politics.") The first, seeking to cancel the border between art and the lived, rejects the idea that only certain people are worthy of art's attention. The second can constitute a kind of otherness that resists whatever the hegemony of the moment is; by not playing nice, so to speak, it suggests that the way things are is not the way  things have to be.

Rancière studied with Althusser, so he must be intentionally declining to bring in the familiar Marxist argument that the "aesthetic regime" is the art of the bourgeois dispensation. The innovations of Romanticism were indeed liberating and empowering from the era of the French Revolution up until perhaps 1848, this argument runs, at which point it became crustily hegemonic and repressive, ready to be knocked over by the new art of the empowered working class.

But what would that art look like? Brecht famously disagreed with Lukács over whether modernism  was revolutionary or not, Fredric Jameson famously disagreed with Terry Eagleton and almost everyone else over whether post-modernism was.

Rancière leap-frogs over all such irresolvable debates about what the real next art will look like. If he is right (and I find him persuasive) the possibilities of the "aesthetic regime" are still unfolding, and there are many ways this art can help bring about "a world without domination" (37). He seems to concede that some art is doing way too little in this regard (Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle gets a raspberry on p. 58, not entirely fairly, if you ask me).  Compared to the usual hectoring tenor of such discussions, though, he is surprisingly optimistic about what art can do.

Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent society's structures, or social groups, their conflicts or identities. [Both those gestures would belong more to the pre-1800 "representative regime" of art, as well as being more what Marxist critics used to call for.] It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time and peoples this space. (23)

All due praise to John Heartfield and Martha Rosler, but Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman too can in their different ways dislodge the rubble in our brains and let the light in.

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