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Jacques Ranciere: The Politics of Aesthetics
Mon, 08/09/2004 - 20:20 — Bojana Cvejic
The politics of aesthetics

I shall start from a little fact borrowed from the actuality of art life .
A Belgian foundation , the Evens Foundation , created a prize called
Community art collaboration . The prize is aimed at supporting
artistic projects encouraging " the invention of new social coherence
based on diversity of identities " . Last year , the laureate project
was presented by a French group of artists called Urban Campment
. The project , called"I and us" proposed to create , in a poor and
stigmatized suburb of Paris a special place , "extremely useless ,
fragile and non-productive" , a place at remove , available to all but
than can be used only by one person at once .So a prize destined to
art was given to the project of an empty place where nothing
designates the specificity of any art . And a prize aimed at creating
new forms of community was given to a one seater place . Some
people would probably see there the derision of contemporary art
and of its political pretensions . I shall take an opposite way . I
think that this little example can lead us to the core of our problem
.The first point that it reminds us is the following . Art is not political
owing to the messages and feelings that it conveys on the state of
social and political issues. Nor is it 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 respect to those
functions . It is political insofar as it frames not only works or
monuments , but also a specific space-time sensorium , as this
sensorium defines ways of being together or being apart , of being
inside or outside , in front of or in the middle of , etc. It is political
as its own practices shape forms of visibility that reframe the way in
which practices , manners of being and modes of feeling and saying
are interwoven in a commonsense , which means a "sense of the
common" embodied in a common sensorium .It does so because
politics itself is not the exercise of power or 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 of subjects to whom the capacity is
recognized to designate these objects and discuss about them.
Politics first is the conflict about the very existence of that sphere of
experience , the reality of those common objects and the capacity
of those subjects. A well known aristotelian sentence says that
human beings are political because they own the power of speech
that puts into common the issues of justice and injustice while
animals only have voice to express pleasure or pain. It could seem
to follow from this that politics is the public discussion on matters of
justice among speaking people who are all able to do it. But there is
a preliminary matter of justice : How do you recognize that the
person who is mouthing a voice in front of you is discussing matters
of justice rather than expressing his or her private pain ? Politics is
in fact about that preliminary question : who has the power to
decide about this? In another well-known statement Plato says that
artisans have no time to be elsewhere outside of their work .
Obviously this "lack of time" is not an empirical matter , it is the
mere naturalization of a symbolical separation . Politics precisely
begins 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 a common 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 telling speech from noise and so on , is
what I call the partition of the sensible . Politics consist in
reconfigurating the partition of the sensible , in bringing on the
stage new objects and subjects , in making visible that which was
not visible, audible as speaking beings they who where merely
heard as noisy animals . To the extent that it sets up such scenes of
dissensus , politics can be characterized as an "aesthetic" activity ,
in a way that has nothing to do with that adornment of power that
Benjamin called "aestheticization of politics" .The issue "aesthetics
and politics" can thus be rephrased as follows: there is an
"aesthetics of politics" in the sense that I tried to explain.
Correspondingly, there is a "politics of aesthetics". This means that
the artistic practices take part in the partition of the perceptible
insofar as they suspend the ordinary coordinates of sensory
experience and reframe the network of relationships between
spaces and times, subjects and objects ,the common and the
singular. There is not always politics, though there always are forms
of power . Nor is there always art, though there always are poetry ,
painting , music , theatre, dance , sculpture and so on . Politics and
art are not two separate and permanent realities about which one
should ask whether they have to be connected or not . Each of
them is a conditional reality , that exists or not according to a
specific partition of the sensible . Plato's Republic is a good case in
point. It is sometimes misunderstood as the "political" proscription
of art. But politics itself is withdrawn by the platonician gesture .
The same partition of the sensible withdraws a political stage by
denying to the artisans any time for doing something else than their
own job and an "artistic" stage by closing the theater where the
poet and the actors would embody another personality than their
own . The same configuration of the space-time of the community
withdraws for both of them the possibility of making two things at
once . It puts the artisan out of politics and the mimetician out of
the city . Democracy and the theatre are two forms of the same
partition of the sensible , two forms of heterogeneity , that are
dismissed at the same time to frame the republic as the "organic
life" of the community .So the "aesthetical knot" is always tied up
before you can identify art or politics . The present situation and
notably our "one-seater collective place" might be another
interesting case of this articulation. The idea that art empowers
collective life to the extent that it creates a remote and empty
space dedicated to individual meditation is not a weird invention
witnessing the exhaustion of contemporary art . Instead it is in
keeping with the whole logic of a regime of identification of art and
with its politics . It is not difficult to acknowledge in this "one-seater
remote place" the last form of a space which was born at the same
time as the concept of aesthetics, which also was the time of the
French Revolution : I mean the blank space of the museum where
the solitude and the passivity of the visitors confronts the solitude
and the passivity of the artworks . Aesthetics is not the science or
philosophy of art in general . Aesthetics is a historical regime of
identification of art which was born between the end of the 18 th
century and the beginning of the 19th . The specificity of this
historical regime of identification is that it identifies artworks no
more as specific products of definite techniques according to
definite rules but as inhabitants of a specific kind of common space
. This is often thought of as the "autonomy of art" . A well known
narrative - the so-called modernist narrative - has it that aesthetics
means the constitution of a sphere of autonomy , where artworks
are isolated in a world of their own , where they only fall under
criteria of form, or beauty , or "truth to medium" . According to the
same narrative, that autonomy would have collapsed in the last
decades of the XXth century because forms of social life and
techniques of reproduction made it definitely impossible to maintain
the boundary between artistic production and technological
reproduction , high art and low art, autonomous artworks and forms
of commodity culture . I would argue that this narrative fully misses
the point . The terms that it opposes as characteristic of two ages
have been tied up together since the beginning of the aesthetic
regime of art .First , in this regime the definition of a specific
aesthetic sphere does not withdraw the artworks from politics . On
the contrary their politicity is linked with that separateness. But ,
second , the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere is not the autonomy
of the art works . It was in the representational regime of art that
artworks were defined by the properties and rules of mimesis
distinguishing them from other artefacts. When this regime
collapses , artworks are merely defined by their belonging to a
specific sphere. A specific kind of space qualifies thus objects which
can no more be distinguished by the process of their production .
But that sphere has no definite boundaries. The autonomy of art is
its heteronomy as well. That duality makes for two politics of
aesthetics . Art is political, in the aesthetical regime of art ,
inasmuch as its objects belong to a separate sphere . And it is
political inasmuch as its objects have no specific difference with the
objects of the other spheres .On the one hand , aesthetics meant
the collapse of the system of constraints and hierarchies that
constituted the representational regime of art . It meant the
dismissal of the hierarchies of subject-matters, genres and forms of
expression separating objects worthy or unworthy of entering in the
realm of art or separating high genres and low genres. It implied
the infinite openness of the field of art , which ultimately meant the
erasing of the frontier between art and non-art, between artistic
creation and anonymous life . The aesthetic regime of art did not
begin - as many people still have it - with the glorification of the
unique genius achieving the unique work of art . On the contrary it
began , in the 18th century with the assertion that the archetype of
the poet , Homer, had never existed , that his poems were not a
work of art , not the fulfilment of any artistic canon , but a
patchwork of collected tales that expressed the way of feeling and
thinking of a still infant people . On the one hand aesthetics meant
that kind of equality that went along with the beheading of the King
of France and the sovereignty of the people . Now that kind of
equality that ultimately meant the indiscernibility of art and life.But
on the other hand , aesthetics meant that the works of art were
grasped as such in a specific sphere of experience where -in Kantian
terms - they were free from the forms of sensory connection proper
either to the objects of knowledge or to the objects of desire . They
were merely "free-appearance" responding to a free-play , meaning
a non-hierarchical relation between the intellectual and the sensory
faculties . In his Letters on the aesthetic education of Man Schiller
drew , after Kant , the political consequence of that de-
hierarchisation . The "aesthetic state" defined a sphere of sensory
equality, where the supremacy of active understanding over passive
sensibility did not work out any longer . This meant that it
dismissed the partition of the sensible that traditionally gave its
legitimacy to domination by separating two humanities . The power
of the high classes was supposed to be the power of activity over
passivity , of understanding over sensation , of the educated senses
over the raw senses , etc. By dismissing that power , the aesthetic
experience framed an "equality" which would be no more a reversal
of domination . Schiller opposed that sensory "revolution" to the
political revolution as it had been implemented by French
Revolution. The latter had failed precisely because the revolutionary
power had played the traditional part of the Understanding -
meaning the state- imposing its law to the matter of sensations -
meaning the masses . The only true revolution would be a
revolution overthrowing the power of "active" understanding over
"passive" sensibility , the power of a "class" of intelligence and
activity over a class of passivity and wilderness .So aesthetics
meant equality because it meant the suppression of the boundaries
of art . And it meant equality because it meant the constitution of
Art as a separate form of human experience . The two equalities are
opposed and they are tied together . In Schiller's Letters , the
statue of the Greek goddess promises a future of emancipation ,
because the goddess is " idle" and "self-contained " . It promises it
owing to its very separateness and unavailability to our knowledge
and desires. Obviously the " extremely useless , fragile and non-
productive" place of Urban Encampment keeps in straight line with
the "idleness and indifference " that characterised Schiller's Greek
divinity . But , at the same time , the statue promises it because its
"freedom" - or "indifference" embodies another freedom or
indifference , the freedom of the Greek people that created it . Now
this freedom means the contrary of the first one . It is the freedom
of a life that does not give itself to separate, differentiate forms of
existence , the freedom of a people for which art is the same as
religion, which is the same as politics , which is the same as ethics :
a way of being together . As a consequence the separateness of the
artwork promises its contrary : a life which will not know art as a
separate practice and field of experience .The "politics of aesthetics"
rests on this originary paradox. That paradoxical linkage of two
opposite equalities could make and did historically make for two
main forms of "politics".The first form aims at connecting the two
equalities . This means transforming the freedom and equality of
the autonomous aesthetic sphere into the form of a collective
existence where they will no more be a matter of form and
appearance but will be embodied in living attitudes , in the
materiality of everyday sensory experience . The common of the
community will be woven thus in the fabric of the lived world . This
means that the separateness of aesthetic equality and freedom has
to be achieved by its self-suppression . It has to be achieved in an
unseparate form of common life when art and politics , work and
leisure , public and private life are one and the same . Such is the
program of the aesthetic revolution achieving in real life what both
political dissensus and aesthetic enjoyment can only achieve in
appearance. This program was first stated two centuries ago in the
oldest systematic program of German idealism , proposing to
replace the dead mechanism of state power by the living body of a
people animated by a philosophy turned into mythology . It was
continuously revived , both in the projects of a revolution conceived
as "human revolution" , meaning the self-suppression of politics ,
and of an art suppressing itself as a separate practice , identifying
itself with the elaboration of new forms of life . It animated the
"gothic" dreams of Arts and Crafts in 19th century England as well
as the technological achievements of the Werkbund or the Bauhaus
in 20th century Germany , the mallarmean dream of a poetry
"preparing the festivals of the future" as well as the concrete
participation of the suprematist , futurist and constructivist artists
to the Soviet Revolution.It animated the projects of situationist
architecture as well as Guy Debord's derive or Beuys' "social plastic"
. I think that it is still alive in Hardt and Negri's contemporary vision
of the franciscan communism of the multitudes , implemented
through the irresistible power of the global network exploding the
boundaries of Empire . In all these cases , politics and art must
achieve their self-suppression to the benefit of a new form of
unseparate life .The second form , on the contrary, disconnects the
two equalities . It disconnects the free and equal space of aesthetic
experience from the infinite field of equivalence of art and life .To
the self-suppressing politics of art becoming life , it opposes a
politics of the resistant form . The schillerian goddess bears promise
because she is idle . The social function of art , Adorno will echo , is
to have no function. The egalitarian potential is enclosed in the
dissensuality of the work , in its belonging to an autonomous sphere
, indifferent to any program of social transformation or any
participation in the adornment of prosaic life . Political avant-
gardism and artistic avant-gardism would fit together out of their
very lack of connection . The political act of art is to save the
heterogeneous sensible which is the heart of the autonomy of art
and consistently of its power of emancipation. It is to save it from a
twofold threat : either the transformation into a metapolitical act or
the identification to the forms of everyday aestheticized life . Now
this separateness is not the refuge of pure Beauty . On the contrary
it makes sense to the extent that it stages the very relationship of
separateness and unseparateness. In Adorno and Horkheimer's
narrative , the autonomous perfection of the work is supposed to
reconcile the reason of Ulysses and the song of the sirens and to
keep them irreconcilable at the same time.What is at stake in that
politics is not so much preserving the boundary between high art
and low or popular art as it is preserving the heterogeneity of two
sensory worlds as such. This is why the postmodernist polemics falls
off target when it thinks that the modernist paradigm collapsed
when Rauschenberg put together a copy of Velasquez and a car-key
on the same canvas . To the dismay of his postmodern champions
Rauschenberg still expressed his dedication to the human treasure
of high art. The paradigm collapses only if the boundary separating
the two sensory worlds collapses . Adorno once made the
tremendous assertion that we can no more hear - no more stand -
some chords of 19th century salon music , unless , he said ,
"everything is trickery ". Lyotard would say in turn that you can not
blend figurative and abstract motifs on a canvas ,that the taste
which feels and appreciates this mix-up is no taste. As we know, it
appears some day that those chords can still be heard , that you
can still see figurate and abstract motifs blended on the same
canvas , and even make art by merely borrowing artefacts from
everyday life and re-exhibiting them . There is no radical shift from
modernity to postmodernity . But there is a dialectic of the
apolitically-political work which leads the second politics of
aesthetics to another kind of self-suppression . It has to reassert
the radical heterogeneity of a sensory experience , at the cost not
only of dismissing any political promise but also of suppressing the
autonomy of art itself , of transforming it into sheer ethical
testimony. This shift is most clear in the French aesthetical thought
of the 80's . Roland Barthes opposes the uniqueness of the
photograph of the dead mother not only to the interpretive practice
of the semiologist but also to the artistic pretension of photography
itself . Godard emphasizes the iconic power of the image or the
rythm of the phrase at the cost of dismantling not only the old
narrative plot , but the autonomy of the artwork itself . In Lyotard
the brush stroke or the timbre become sheer testimonies of the
enslavement of the mind to the power of the Other. The first name
of the other is the aistheton . The second is the Law. Ultimately
both politics and aesthetics vanish in ethics . This reversal of the
"modernist" paradigm of the politicity of art is in keeping with a
whole trend of thought that dissolves political dissensuality in an
archi-politics of exception and terror from which only a
Heideggerian God can save us.Under the straightforward plot of
modernity and postmodernity or the clearcut opposition of pure art
and engaged art , we have to recognize the originary and enduring
tension of those two politics of aesthetics , which are entailed in the
very forms of visibility and intelligibility that make art identifiable as
such to us - those two politics which are led ultimately to their own
self-suppression . It is that tension which underpins and somehow
undermines the seemingly simple project of a political or "critical"
art that would serve politics by arousing the awareness of the forms
of domination and enhancing thereby energies of resistance or
rebellion . That simple project has been taken up from the
beginning in the tension between the two opposite politics : art
suppressing itself in order to become life and art doing politics on
the condition of doing no politics at all . A critical art is in fact a sort
of "third way" , a kind of specific negotiation between those two
constitutive politics of aesthetics. This negotiation must keep
something of the tension that pushes aesthetic experience toward
the reconfiguration of collective life and something of the tension
that withdraws the power of aesthetic sensibility from the other
spheres of experience . It must borrow from the zones of
indistinction of art and life the connections that provoke political
intelligibility . And it must borrow from the separateness of art
works the sense of sensory foreignness that enhances political
energies . Political art must be some sort of collage of the opposites
. Before blending Velasquez and car-keys it has to blend alternative
politics of aesthetics. It does it by setting specific forms of
heterogeneity , by borrowing elements from different spheres of
experience and forms of montage from different arts or techniques .
If Brecht remained as a kind of archetype of political art in the XXth
century , it was due not so much to his enduring communist
commitment as to the way he negotiated the relation between the
opposites , blending the scholastic forms of political teaching with
the enjoyments of the musical or the cabaret , having allegories of
Nazi power discuss in verse about matters of cauliflowers , etc. The
main procedure of political or critical art consists in setting out the
encounter and possibly the clash of heterogeneous elements .The
clash of these heterogeneous elements is supposed to provoke a
break in our perception , to disclose some secret connection of
things hidden behind the everyday reality. The hidden reality may
be the absolute power of dream and desire hidden by the prose of
bourgeois life , as it is in the surrealist poetics . It may be the
violence of capitalist power and class war hidden behind the great
ideals , as it is in the militant practices of photomontage , showing
us for instance the capitalist gold in Adolf Hitler's throat .Political art
thus means creating those forms of collision or dissensus that put
together not only heterogeneous elements but also two politics of
sensoryness . The heterogeneous elements are put together in
order to provoke a clash . Now the clash is two things at once . On
the one hand it is the flash that enlightens . The connection of the
heterogeneous elements speaks out of its legibility . It points to
some secret of power and violence . The connection of vegetables
and high rhetoric in Arturo Ui conveys a political message . But on
the other hand the clash is produced insofar as the heterogeneity of
the elements resists the homogeneity of meaning. Cauliflowers
remain cauliflowers , juxtaposed to high rhetoric . They carry no
message. They are supposed to enhance political energy out of their
very opaqueness . Ultimately the mere juxtaposition of heteroclite
elements is endowed with a political power . In Jean-Luc Godard's
film Made in USA the hero says "I get the impression of being in a
film of Walt Disney , played by Humphrey Bogart , therefore in a
political film" . The mere relationship of heteroclite elements was
read in a dialectical way , as a clash witnessing to a political reality
of conflict .Political art is always a kind of specific negotiation not
between politics and art but between the two politics of aesthetics .
This third way is made possible by continuously playing on the
boundary and the absence of boundary between art and non-art .
The Brechtian identity of allegory and debunking of allegory
supposes that you can play on the connection and the disconnection
between art and cauliflowers , politics and cauliflowers. Such a play
supposes that vegetables themselves have a double existence : one
in which they bear no relationship with art and politics and another
where they already bear a strong relationship with both of them. As
a matter of fact , the relationship of politics , art and vegetables
existed before Brecht , not only in impressionist still life, reviving
the Dutch tradition , but also in literature . One novel by Zola , Le
Ventre de Paris , had notably put them as both political and artistic
symbols. The novel was based on the polarity of two characters . On
the one hand there is the poor old revolutionary who comes back
from deportation in the new Paris of the Halles where he is
overthrown and smashed by the flood of cabbages , meaning the
flood of consumption . On the other hand there is the impressionist
painter , singing the epics of the cabbages , the epic of Modernity,
the glass and iron architecture of the Halles and the piles of
vegetables that allegorized modern beauty in contrast to the old
pathetic beauty symbolized by the gothic church nearby . The
political allegory of the cauliflowers was possible because the
connection of art , politics and vegetables , the connection of art,
politics and consumption already existed as set of moving borders ,
enabling artists to both cross the border and make sense of the
connection of the heterogeneous elements and play on the sensory
power of their heterogeneity.This means that the mixing of high art
and low art or the mixing of art and commodity are not a discovery
of the 1960's which would have been attributed to modern art and
to its political potentials . On the contrary , political art had been
made possible by that mixing , by a continuous process of border-
crossings between high and low art, art and non-art, art and
commodity . This process itself is an old affair . It reaches back far
in the past of the aesthetic regime of art . You cannot oppose an
epoch of celebration of high art to an epoch of trivialisation or
parody of high art . As soon as Art was constituted as a specific
sphere of existence , at the beginning of the 19th century , its
products began to fall into the triviality of reproduction , commerce
and commodity . But as soon as they did so, commodities
themselves began to travel in the opposite sense, to enter the
realm of art . They could identify directly their power with the
overwhelming power and beauty of modern life , as it did in Zola's
epics of cabbages. They could also fall into the realm of art by
becoming obsolete , unavailable for consumption and thereby
turned into objects of aesthetic - disinterested - pleasure or
uncanny excitement . Surrealist poetics as well as Benjamin's
theory of allegory or Brechtian epic theatre thrived on this border-
crossing . And so did all the forms of critical art that played on the
ambiguous relationship of art and commerce ,through to many
contemporary installations. They blended heterogeneous materials
borrowed from artistic tradition , political rhetoric , commodity
culture , commercial ads and so on , in order to disclose the
connections of high art or politics with capitalist domination . But
they could do so owing to the ongoing process which had already
erased the borders . Critical art thrived on this continuous border-
crossing , this two-way process of prosaïsation of the poetical and
of poetisation of the prosaic .If this makes sense , it may be
possible to reframe , hopefully on a firmer footing , the political
issues involved in the discussion about modernism and
postmodernism. What is at stake in contemporary art is not the fate
of the modernist paradigm. Its validity is neither weaker nor
stronger as it ever was. In my view it always a very restrictive
interpretation of the dialectic of the aesthetical regime of art . What
is at stake is the fate of the "third politics "of aesthetics . The
question is not : are we still modern , already postmodern or even
afterpostmodern? The question is : what exactly happened to the
dialectical clash ? What happened to the formula of critical art ?I
shall propose some elements for a possible answer with reference to
some exhibitions which in the last years offered some points of
comparison with the art of the 60's or 70' s and thereby some
significant markers of the shift.1st. example : three years ago , the
National Center for Photography in Paris presented an exhibition
called "Bruit de fond" ("White Noise" ) . The exhibition juxtaposed
recent works with works from the 70's . Among the latter you could
see Martha Rosler's series "Bringing War Home" : photomontages
putting together advertising images of american domestic happiness
and images of the War in Vietnam. In the nearby there was another
work related to American politics and taking on the same form of a
confrontation of two elements . The work , made by Wang Du,
consisted of two elements . On the left , there was the Clinton
couple ,represented in the pop manner , as a pair of wax-museum
figures . On the right , there was a huge plastification of Courbet's
Origine du Monde , which , as is well-known, represents a woman's
sex. So in both cases an image of American happiness was
juxtaposed to its hidden secret : war and economical violence in
Martha Rosler , sex and profanity in Wang Du . But in Wang Du's
case , both political conflictuality and the sense of strangeness had
vanished . There remained an automatic effect of delegitimization :
sexual profanity delegitimizing politics , the wax figure deligitimizing
high art . But there was no more anything to delegitimize . The
mechanism spun around itself . It played in fact a double play : on
the automaticity of the deligitimizing effect and on the awareness of
its spinning around itself .2d example . Another exhibition showing
in Paris three years ago was called "Voilà . Le monde dans la tête".
It proposed to document a century a century through different
installations , among which Christian Boltanski's installation : "Les
Abonnés du téléphone" . Its principle was simple : two
shelves on the sides with phone directories from all over the world ,
and two tables in the middle where you could sit down and peruse
whatever directory you liked . That installation could remind us of
another political work of the 70's , Chris Burden's piece : the Other
Vietnam Memorial . That "other memorial" was of course the
memorial of the anonymous Vietnamese victims. Chris Burden had
given them names , written on the memorial , by randomly picking
up Vietnamese names in a phone directory . Boltanski's installation
still deals with a matter of anonymity . But that anonymity is not
more emplotted in a controversial plot . It is no more a matter of
giving names to those that the winners had left unnamed . The
names of the anonymous becomes , as Boltanski puts it , "
specimens of humanity" .3d example . Last year , the Guggenheim
Museum in New York presented an exhibition called Moving Pictures
. The purpose was to illustrate how the extensive use of
reproducible media in contemporary art was rooted in the critical art
practices of the 60' and the 70's , questioning both mainstream
social or sexual stereotypes and artistic autonomy . Nevertheless
the works exhibited around the rotunda illustrated a significant shift
away from that straight line . For instance Vanessa Beecroft 's video
showing nude women standing in the setting of the museum was
still put forward as a critique of feminine stereotypes in art . But
obviously those nude and mute bodies followed another direction ,
escaping any signification or conflict of significations and evoking
much more Chirico's metaphysical painting than any kind of feminist
critique . As you climbed up the round ramp of the Guggenheim , a
lot of videos , photographs , installations and video-installations
enhanced , instead of "critique" , a new kind of strangeness , a
sense of the mystery entailed in the trivial representation of
everyday life . You sensed it in Rineke Dijkstra's photographs of
ambiguous teen-agers , as well as in Gregory Crewdson's movie-like
representations of the strangeness of everyday events or in
Christian Boltanski's installation : one of these installations made
with photographs, electric fixtures and bulbs which may symbolize -
according to the case - either the dead of the Holocaust or the
fleetingness of Childhood. The way-up in the exhibition was a kind
of backtrack from the dialectical art of the clash to the symbolist art
of Mystery - which culminated at the top of the building in the
video-installation made by Bill Viola , Going forth by day , composed
as a cycle of symbolist frescoes , embracing the cycles of Birth , Life
, Death and Resurrection , as well as the cycle of Fire , Air , Earth
and Water .Out of those three examples , chosen among many
others, we can sketch out an answer to the question of the "politic
of aesthetics to-day" , the question "what happened to the
dissensual forms of critical art"? I would say that the "classical"
form of the aesthetic dissensus has split into four main forms ;The
first one would be the joke . In the joke , the conjunction of the
heterogeneous elements is still staged as a tension of antagonist
elements , pointing to some secret . But there is no more secret .
The dialectical tension is brought back to a game , playing on the
very indiscernability between the procedures unveiling secrets of
power and the the ordinary procedures of delegitimization that are
parts of the new forms of domination - the procedures of
delegitimization produced by power itself , by the media ,
commercial entertainment or advertising . Such was the case of the
work of Wang Du that I mentioned earlier . Many exhibitions to-day
play on the same undecidability . For instance , the same exhibition
was presented at Minneapolis under the pop-like title "Let us
entertain" before being recycled in Paris under the situationist title "
Beyond the spectacle" . The exhibition played on three levels : the
pop-art derision of high-art , the critical denunciation of capitalist
entertainment and the debordian idea of "play" as the opposite of
"spectacle" .The second one would be the collection .
Heterogeneous elements are still lumped together . But they are no
more in order to provoke a critical clash , not even to play on the
undecidability of their critical power. It becomes a positive act of
gathering as an attempt to collect the traces and testimonies of a
common world and a common history The collection is a recollection
as well. The equality of all items - works of art , private
photographs , objects of use , ads, commercial videos, etc - is
thereby the equality of the archives of the life of a community . I
mentioned the exhibition " There it is: the world in our mind" which
was aimed at recollecting a century. When you left the Boltanski's
room , you could see for instance one hundred photographs made
by Hans Peter-Feldmann , representing one person of each age from
one to one hundred , and a lot of other installations , documenting
a common history. We could find many other examples of this
trend. It is obviously in tune with a motto which increasingly soars
up to-day : the motto that we have "lost our world" , that the
"social bond" is being broken and that it is the artist's task to take
part in the struggle to mend the social bond or the social fabric by
making visible all the traces witnessing to a shared humanity .The
third form would be the invitation . I mentioned how "the Phone
customers" invited the visitors to take a directory on a shelf and
open it randomly . Elsewhere in the same exhibition they were
invited to take a book from a pile and sit down on a carpet ,
representing some sort of child's fairy island . In other exhibitions ,
the visitors are invited to take a soup and get in touch , to engage
new forms of relationships . Our "one-seater place" also invites to
experiment new relations between community and individuality ,
proximity and distance . Such attempts were systematized those
last years in the concept of a "relational art" : an art creating no
more works or objects , but ephemeral situations prompting new
forms of relationships. As the chief theorist of this aesthetic puts it "
by giving some small services, the artist contributes to the task of
plugging the gaps in the social bonds" .The fourth form would be
mystery . Mystery does not mean enigma. Nor does it mean
mysticism. Since the age of Mallarmé , it means a specific way of
putting heterogeneous elements together , for instance , in the case
of Mallarmé, the thought of the poet , the steps of the dancer ,
the unfolding of a fan or the smoke of a cigarette. In opposition to
the dialectical clash that stresses the heterogeneity of the elements
in order to show a reality framed by antagonisms , mystery sets
forth an analogy - a familiarity of the strange , witnessing to a
common world , where heterogeneous realities are woven in the
same fabric and can always be related to one another by the
fraternity of a metaphor."Mystery" and "fraternity of metaphors" are
two terms used by Jean-Luc Godard in his Histoires du cinéma .
This work is an interesting case for our purpose because he uses
there forms of collage of heterogeneous elements as he has always
done , but he makes them produce exactly the contrary of what
they did twenty years before .For instance in a striking passage of
the Histoires du cinéma Godard fuses together three images :
first , shots from George Stevens 'film "A place in the sun" ,
showing the happiness of the young and rich lover played by
Elisabeth Taylor , bathing in the sun , besides his beloved
Montgomery Clift ; secondly , images of the dead in Ravensbrück
, made some years before by the same George Stevens ; thirdly, a
Mary-Magdalene extracted from Giotto's frescoes in Padua .Would it
have been made twenty years ago , that collage could only have
been understood as a dialectical clash , denouncing the secret of
Death hidden behind both high Art and American happiness . But In
the Histoires du Cinema , the image of denunciation is turned into
an image of Redemption . The conjunction of the images of Nazi
extermination , American happiness and Giotto's "a-historical" art
witnesses to the redemptory power of the image which gives to the
living and the dead " a place in the world". The dialectic clash has
become a mystery of co-presence .Mystery was the key-concept of
symbolism . The return of symbolism is obviously on the agendas .
When I use this term , I am not referring to some spectacular forms
of revival of symbolist mythology and dreams of the
Gesamtkunstwerk , in the way of Mathew Barney . Nor do I refer
only to some effective uses of symbolism , such as the Bill Viola's
piece I mentioned earlier. I am referring to the more modest,
almost imperceptible way in which the collections of objects, images
and signs gathered in our museums and galeries is increasingly
shifting from the logic of dissensus to the logic of the mystery , of a
testimony of co-presence .The shift from dialectics to symbolism is
obviously linked with the contemporary shift in what I called the
aesthetics of politics , meaning the way politics frames a common
stage . This shift has a name . Its name is consensus . Consensus
does not simply mean the agreement of the political parties or the
social partners about the common interests of the community . It
means a reconfiguration of the visibility of the common. It means
that the givens of any collective situation are objectivized in such a
way as they can no more lend themselves to a dispute , to the
polemical framing of a controversial world into the given world. In
such a way , consensus properly means the dismissal of the
"aesthetics of politics" .Such an erasure or a weakening of the
political stage and political invention of dissensus has a
contradictory effect on the politics of aesthetics. On the one hand ,
it gives a new visibility to the practices of art as political practices -
I mean practices of redistribution of spaces and times , of forms of
visibility of the common , forms of connections between things ,
images and meanings . Artistic performances may appear and
sometimes do appear thereby as the substitutes of politics in the
construction of dissensual stages . But Consensus does not merely
leave the political place empty . It reframes in its own way the field
of its objects . It also shapes in its own way the space and tasks of
artistic practice. For instance by replacing matters of class conflict
by matters of inclusion and exclusion , it puts worries about the
"loss of the social bond" , concerns with " bare humanity" or tasks
of empowering threatened identities in the place of political
concerns. Art is summoned thus to put its political potentials at
work in reframing a sense of community , mending the social bond ,
etc. Once more , politics and aesthetics vanish together in Ethics
This is the last paradox of the politics of aesthetics . Art is more and
more to-day about matters of distribution of spaces and issues of
redescriptions of situations . It is more and more about matters that
traditionally belonged to politics . But it cannot merely occupy the
space left by the weakening of political conflict. It has to reshape it ,
at the risk of testing the limits of its own politics.

Jacques Rancière