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Aesthetics and Politics [Rethinking the Link]

Aesthetics and Politics [Rethinking the Link]

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Published by: pascalsamia on Jun 07, 2012
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06/07/2012

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Rancière Talk: Aesthetics and Politics: Rethinking the Link 
There are different ways of dealing with art and politics. For a long time the issue had been set up as a relationship between two separate terms. The question was raised asfollows: must art serve politics or not? Or: how can we assess the political import of artworks? This led to endless controversies about art for art's sake opposed to engagedart. Another way of setting the issue was: how do artworks represent social issues andstruggles or matters of identity and difference. This resulted in another kind of endless job. When you started scrutinizing how 19th century French painters or novelists hadrepresented class-war matters, you already knew that they did it inadequately because of their own class position. And when you begin to ferret out hidden representations of social, sexual or racial difference, you never stop finding new biases, the more sosignificant and perverse as they are the more deeply concealed and indiscernible toeverybody's eye. For a while, some concepts offered a mediation, such as culture or modernity. The strategies of the artists, the contents of their representations or of their dismissal of representation were referred to the modes of perception and consumption of the new industrial world of work and leisure that you could call, according to your own political commitment, either capitalism and commodification or modernity and modernlife. A lot of cultural and social history of art has been written to show how for instancethe impressionist technique of coloured blotches had been fostered by the perception of the new scenery of the modern town with its shops, lights and windows or the new pleasures of urban or suburban leisure, cafés-concerts, boating on rivers and so on. So theissue of the autonomy of art with respect to politics turned out to be the issue of its
 
autonomy in relation to common culture: did the impressionist blotches testify to a 'truth-to-medium" strategy of autonomy or did they chart the new conditions of sensoryexperience in commodity culture?Those discussions left the crucial point in the dark: how is it possible that the self-containment of painting be identified with the representation of popular leisure? More basically, how is it possible that we see - or read - on a canvas a representation of sociallife? How does it make sense to relate a way of painting that makes the strokes of the brush visible both to an idea of pure painting and to an idea of painting as an expressionof a new kind of social life? In order that we pose these questions, there must already be a previous knot between a way of painting, a gaze cast on the canvas and a mode ointerpretation of painting as expressing a way of life. The impressionists could paint their canvases and we can discuss whether they did pure painting, images of Parisian leisure or  both at the same time because there already existed a visibility of painting as both self-affirmation of art and representation of common life. There must be a previous mappingof the visible, the sayable and the thinkable allowing us to connect in this or that waysomething that we call artistic form and something that we see as political content. Artand politics are not two terms that would be linked through some form of representation.They are constituted as such in the same knot of the visible, the sayable and the thinkable,in the same framing of a common space where some practices appear to be named "arts"and some matters to be viewed of as "political".Art is not political owing to the messages and feelings that it carries on the state of socialand political issues. It is not political owing to the way it represents social structures,
 
conflicts or identities. It is political by virtue of the very distance that it takes with regardto those functions. It is political as it frames a specific space-time sensorium, as itredefines on this stage the power of speech or the coordinates of perception, shifts the places of the actor and the spectator, etc.Because politics is not the exercise of power or the struggle for power. Politics is first of all the configuration of a space as political, the framing of a specific sphere of experience, the setting of objects posed as "common" and subjects to whom the capacityis recognized to designate these objects and argue about them. My book Disagreementwas an attempt to show that politics first is the conflict about the very existence of thatsphere of experience, the reality of those common objects and the capacity of thosesubjects. A well known Aristotelian sentence says that human beings are political becausethey own the power of speech that puts into common the issues of justice and injusticewhile animals only have voice to express pleasure or pain. I tried to show that the whole political problem dealt with distinguishing they who get the power of speech from they towhom is only recognized the possession of voice. Artisans, Plato says, have no time to beelsewhere outside of their work. I tried to show that that matter of lacking time was by nomeans an empirical matter, that it was the mere naturalization of a symbolical separation.Politics precisely happens when they who have "no time" to do anything else than their work take that time that they have not in order to make themselves visible as sharing in acommon world and prove that their mouth indeed emits common speech instead of merely voicing pleasure or pain. That distribution and re-distribution of times and spaces, places and identities, that way of framing and re-framing the visible and the invisible, of 

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