Tuesday, 6 August 2013



Rancière is firstly a philosopher of politics whose work draws upon the framework of Critical Theory and who has increasingly taken an interest in the role of art in social change. Aisthesis consists of fourteen studies across the arts, fine and applied, from 1764 to 1941, covering much of the sociological period called modernity or modernism, more or less tracing the course of the Industrial Revolution. Each study considers the prevailing taste for a time and place surrounding a given work or works. This context is here curiously termed aisthesis, a usage somewhat narrower than the word’s Aristotelian origin. Two themes in particular are pursued. The first is the tendency to blur or condense differences between branches of the arts, indeed, between high and low art, ultimately between art and life. This is proposed as a radical revision or ‘counter history’ for the period of Modernism (as period style) or modernism as sociological concept.  The second theme is the inspiration for broader social change anticipated by changes within the arts. For Ranciere, ‘Social revolution is the daughter of aesthetic revolution’ (p. XVI).

The studies fall into brief chapters, ranging from around ten to twenty pages and include cabaret and music hall performance, cinema and decorative arts as well as literature, theatre and the plastic arts, This breadth of interest and the extensive research displayed in most chapters help to explain why it has taken fifteen years to complete the book, even as the author contemplates expansions to subsequent editions, in the preface. Some of the territory obviously overlaps with art history, particularly the sociologically directed research of say, T. J. Clark or Francis Haskell (Haskell is cited in the first chapter) and Aisthesis extends this kind of analysis to literary criticism, the performing arts and indeed beyond. But the aim is for something more comprehensive, for a delineation of the development of aesthetics in general and this overstretches the project and invites a fundamental objection. The problem is firstly whether aesthetics is properly served by such an analysis and secondly whether fourteen scattered examples can adequately deliver such a history. 

The emergence of aesthetics as a branch of philosophy does not hold the wider importance Rancière claims, and even if it did, the argument for a guiding concept of art in general would still be unconvincing, given the subsequent history of the arts and aesthetics. His claim, in part as rationale for the scope of Aisthesis, is that the emergence of aesthetics (implicitly taken as the publication of Kant’s Critique of Judgment in 1790) lays the foundation for our notion of ‘Art’.

For two centuries in the West, aesthetics has been the name of the category designating the sensible fabric and intelligible form of what we call ‘Art’. In my other works I have already had the opportunity to argue that, even if histories of art begin their narratives with cave paintings at the dawn of time, Art as a notion designating a form of specific experience has only existed in the West since the end of the eighteenth century. (p. IX)

More accurately, Kant’s aesthetics deal in the judgement of beauty, natural and cultural, and in accordance with an idealist epistemology, assert that the appreciation of beauty depends upon a particular frame of mind, a certain disinterested attitude. Aesthetics since has been pursued under other epistemologies and art (as a sub-section to aesthetics) need not be taken as designating a specific experience or ‘sensible fabric’. Kant contemplates the fine arts as examples of cultivated beauty, but the fine arts as a category is available from as early as 1648, with the foundation of The Academy of Fine Arts in Paris. Fine arts initially groups painting, sculpture, drawing, printing and architecture but subsequently they are expanded to include poetry, music , dance and even landscape gardening under various theories and practices. For example, Baumgarten first uses the term aesthetics to denote the discernment of beauty as the object of taste in his Reflections on Poetry (1735). Novels were initially excluded from the fine arts, since they were not seen as being embodied in a ‘sensuous medium’.  But this hardly impedes change to the novel nor deters readers and advocates. Artists in all branches find inspiration at a more substantive or specific level. As the painter Barnett Newman allegedly replied to noted philosopher of aesthetics, Suzanne Langer, “Aesthetics is to artists what ornithology is to birds.” 

Moreover, a general history of art commencing with prehistoric cave paintings, such as E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art (1950), simply accepts the evolution of the concept of art, its etymology and synonyms for picturing and excellence, happily dispensing with it in the famous opening lines “There really is no such thing as art. There are only artists”. A consistent, unitary definition of Art has henceforth tended to accept a continuous historical development that offers no special distinction to 1790. The subsequent profusion of new kinds of painting (such as full abstraction) and three-dimensional work (such as installations) as well as temporary or temporal works (such as site-specific installations and performances) not to mention motion pictures and audio recording, all expand the notion of fine art or Art well beyond anything the eighteenth century accepted. ’Art’ is only as good as its objects.

Rancière acknowledges the prior existence of fine arts but dismisses it as merely social privilege.

All kinds of arts and practices existed before then (1790) to be sure, among which a small number benefitted from a privileged status, due not to their intrinsic excellence but to their place in the division of social conditions. Fine arts were the progeny of the so-called liberal arts. The latter were distinguished from the mechanical arts because they were the pastime of free men, men of leisure whose very quality was meant to deter them from seeking too much perfection in material performances that an artisan or a slave could accomplish.  Art as such began to exist in the West when this hierarchy of forms of life began to vacillate’. (p. IX)

But this appeal to Roman or classical standards ignores developments throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods, when the liberal arts were replaced with the humanities and as artists increasingly gain prestige beyond mere artisans. The careers of Giotto in the fourteenth century, of Lippi, Michelangelo, Leonardo or Titian in the fifteenth century all attest to a surprising social mobility for painters, irrespective of breeding or education, to recognition of a more powerful and versatile role for painting. The art of painting acquires its own respectable theories and commentaries long before any co-ordinating category of sister arts, and if these do not disclose an ‘intrinsic excellence’ for Rancière, this is rather a matter of philosophy.  Similarly, the premiss that the formulation of fine art coincides with social uncertainty or upheaval simply ignores myriad ongoing changes within society and art long before and after 1790 and is also rejected.

The fourteen case studies obviously inherit this problem but also present additional ones. The aim of Aisthesis is not just to demonstrate underlying regimes of taste but to pick out overlooked or peripheral works with which to reshape the sample of Modernism. But method and material here are ultimately at cross purposes. We learn something of the particulars of slapstick comedy for example, in Chapter Five, but not really much about its place in theatre, beyond the music hall or circus, or indeed the exchange between high and low culture at this time. The author can retrieve forgotten figures like the Hanlon Lees brothers, but an underlying regime needs a great deal more background, many more familiar landmarks. On the one hand, regimes must account for broad sweeps across the arts, but this would then stretch the project to unmanageable lengths or detail, while on the other hand, the author is anxious to direct our attention to obscure corners that hardly afford a persuasive perspective on a larger regime. Fourteen studies no more than suggest regimes, often omit more than they include.

There is, for example, the conspicuous absence of music. Passing reference to Wagner in Chapter Seven only reminds us of the range of distinguished composers and musical innovations to the period. Perhaps the author remains in awe of Theodor Adorno’s extensive writings on the topic. In any case, a regime without music is an intolerably muted affair. Similarly, painting is dealt with only in Hegel’s brief remarks on Murillo and Raphael in Chapter Two, and while this serves as an opportunity to trace Napoleon’s aggressive intervention in the market for Spanish painting and Hegel’s predictable preference for restraint and reverie in temperament, it hardly discloses a regime also welcoming a Delacroix or Ingres, the sublime of Turner, Constable or Goya. Indeed, absence of discussion of Romanticism seems especially unfortunate given its influence across the arts and priority for Hegel. However the R word (not to mention Realism) spells difficulties for a book intent upon aligning Modernism with modernity, with taking as its starting point the end of the eighteenth century. The consequence again is a weakened grasp of regime and regime scarcely worthy of the name.  An equally grave omission concerns the lack of illustrations, not just for Chapter Two, with its cascade of references to Murillo, Raphael, Teniers, Dou, David, Delacroix – even Bresson’s Mouchette –all of which beg the reader’s familiarity if not scrutiny, but the topics of photography, dance, stage design, cinema and sculpture would all have benefited from reproductions. Omission here looks either niggardly or contemptuous.

The preface assures us that Aisthesis is ‘not a matter of the reception of works of art. Rather it concerns the sensible fabric of experience within which they are produced.’ (p. X) yet twelve of the chapters commence with contemporary reviews of works, within which mostly Hegelian themes are discerned, tortured dynamics or dialectics elaborated while the artist’s particular agenda, the nuts and bolts of production are rarely considered. For example, Chapter Nine on Rodin provides little of his influences or methods, their relation to sculpting contemporaries or rivals, apart from a general nod to Impressionism. The regime in this case is entirely one of critics and poets. Chapter Thirteen on the early films of Dziga Vertov commences with a description from 1926 by Ismael Urogov, not strictly a review or critique, but leads predictably to a discussion of the use and meaning of montage, the revolutionary aims of Constructivism, the rationale of formalism and the familiar controversy between Einsenstein and Vertov, Kino Fist versus Kino Eye. Of course they now look equally arty or formalist, but at the time they accused each other of being too arty, too bourgeois. The chapter traces Vertov’s stylistic adjustments to inter-titles and structuring from A Sixth Part of The World (1926) to The Eleventh Year (1928) to Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and Enthusiasm (1930) but whether we truly grasp a regime under which, for example, Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Protazanov and even Barnet also worked, is doubtful. Vertov’s commitment to documentary material, yet experimental treatment is unusual and broaches interesting issues for a criterion of motion pictures, but we never learn much about its reception in Soviet cinemas, apart from Eisenstein’s well-publicised complaints and again, the verdict of poets, here Brik and Shklovsky, nor the intended or actual audience for this regime, in the USSR and elsewhere.

Aisthesis in the Aristotelian sense, concerns simply objects of perception and is divided into special, common and incidental ‘sensibles’, depending upon whether perception uses only one or more senses and is available ‘directly’. Why Rancière adopts this terminology is puzzling, since nothing about the arrangement is exclusively or especially concerned with beauty or art and no qualification is offered. Although it does alert the reader to an implicit concern with sensory rather than intellectual input, a distinction under rationalist thinking held to serve feeling, a key attribute of beauty. But none of this is explained and ‘sensible’ is used indifferently to identify ‘equality’ (p. 46) ‘moment’ (p. 47) ‘world’ (p. 59) ‘wealth’ (p. 63) ‘things’ (p. 64) ‘forms’ (p. 64) ‘reality’ (p. 71) ‘milieu’ (p. 97) ‘elements’ (p. 114) ‘effect’ (p. 116) ‘thought’ (p. 116) ‘texture’ (p. 138) ‘universe’ (p. 157) ‘presence’ (p. 174) ‘fabric’ (p. 193) ‘fact (of Soviet life)’ (p. 227) ‘correction’ (p. 229) among other things. At best we gloss sensible here to mean just received or apparent content, but such laxity is clearly not sensible. Nor does such a framework strictly constitute a Kantian or Hegelian approach, as a kind of historical reconstruction for the material perhaps, for ‘sensibles’ distinguish between perception according to senses employed and concepts like thought or wealth are hardly the stuff of sense data, much less declare a distinct sensory passage. Aisthesis here is not strictly coherent, much less a suitable name for a regime of taste.

Moreover, in seeking to project an Hegelian aesthetic over much of nineteenth century painting, the author sacrifices not just the sensory but guiding ideals.

‘Painting in effect is the art that does not merely describe things, as poets do, but makes them visible. But it is also the art that no longer concerns itself with filling space with volume, analogous to the bodies of figures, as sculpture does. Rather it uses its surface as the means to repudiate them: to mock their consistent solidity by making things appear through artificial means but also illuminating their most evanescent aspect, closest to their shining and glittering surfaces, to the passing instant and changing light… It is thus what we look at for the pure disinterested pleasure of enjoying appearances. And it is this play of appearances that is the very realisation of freedom of mind’ (p. 31-2)

This is not so much a summary of Hegel’s application of disinterestedness as an attempt to show how the concept accommodates Realism and Impressionism (developments long after the death of Hegel). So the argument is open to comment from the vantage point of the twenty-first century. It is worth pointing out firstly that the much-prized volume in this passage is only to be viewed or painted in the presence of light, unless we wish to restrict our world to darkness. Since we accept light as a condition of seeing, it makes no sense to then deny colour, even though we allow that colour is relative to light frequency and reflectance. And since we concede colour is also then part of our reliable world we can hardly object to movement of light or light source, its impedance and variation further add to our picture. All these things steadily allow greater discernment of objects, new properties and relations, greater understanding. This is surely a more convincing source of pleasure than some pretence at disinterest before pictorial adventure. Even games have goals; teach us things we may apply elsewhere. Freedom lies in gaining options, not retreating from the world. Whether for a better mind or a bigger world; a more discriminating view of light, colour and volume need not be repudiation or mockery. Appearances, while variable, need not be deceptive.

For Rancière, freedom is associated with leisure and disinterest is seen as initially the privilege of the leisured classes. To extend leisure to the lower classes is seen as a provocative, egalitarian gesture. But leisure as pictured by the Realists and Impressionists is mostly of socialising, of conversation, flirtation, gossip, dining and shopping. There is nothing idle or disinterested about these activities. They are vital. The same applies to literature of the period that details social mores and manoeuvring. The myth of some suitable level of detachment or disinterest ultimately renders the subject of no interest. In truth, there is no way to isolate the immediately given of sense from memory and consequences, feeling from thought and its posture, an object from any possible enterprise. The aesthetic attitude postulates an impossible psychology, an implausible ontology. The quest for a specific aesthetic pleasure or emotion, like the end-in-itself or ideal autonomy, is quixotic folly.

Unquestionably Hegel’s philosophy enjoyed enormous popularity throughout the nineteenth century. How much this is reflected in the production and reception of the arts however, is another matter. To attempt to salvage notions like disinterest, even as historical anecdote, to parcel out the sensory in the service of grand ideals, to subordinate art to the interests of the social sciences - which is essentially what statements like ‘Art exists when one can make a people, a society, an age, taken at a certain moment in the development of its collective life, its subject’ (p. 14) or ‘a style is an expression of a life of a people in a time’ (p. 143) - all of these things resort to a deplorably retrograde aesthetics and undermine a viable platform from which to reconstrue Modernism. Method is thus further flawed.

Additionally, extending an idealist aesthetic for the sake of argument is one thing, misinterpretation another. Rancière’s use of texts in building his regimes is occasionally a little too free in its paraphrase and interpretation. In this respect the first and last chapters are particularly troubling. Chapter One opens with a brief passage by Winckelmann, describing the famous classical sculpture The Belvedere Torso, supposedly of Hercules. The text explains that while the sculpture is now only a fragment, having lost its head, arms and lower legs, the pose can to some extent be inferred from the arched and twisted torso and the superb rendering of the anatomy gives the figure a compelling fluidity or life. Rancière however makes not only extravagant but quite contrary claims for this account. For Rancière, the passage denies the figure engages in heroic action, although Winckelmann has imagined Hercules looking up, smiling in a reflective way upon his many triumphs (is triumph not also heroic?). No suggestion is made for the arms and legs and because of this he asserts that Winckelmann’s interpretation is radically one of ‘pure thought’ or reflection for a classical God. But all Winckelmann has suggested is a facial expression and an appropriate mythic context.

The choice of quote is either inconvenient to Ranciere’s purposes or he is simply blind to Winckelmann’s modest claim that even the remains of this figure convince us of the excellence of the sculpture. The chapter rapidly extends the argument to a denial of classical principles of the harmony of parts and expressivity of content on Winckelmann’s part. The claim is then that Winckelmann judges from just the torso for the whole of the figure and so denies its proper parts and correct expression to subject matter. But does Winckelmann actually claim that the torso alone is sufficient to assess this Hercules? While imagining a smirk on the upturned face may be a little fanciful, his concern is with identifying the figure and then pose, from which to assess a rendering of the torso - 

‘The artist may admire in the outlines of this body the perpetual flowing of one form into another, and the undulating lines which rise and fall like waves, and become swallowed up in one another. No copyist can be sure of correctness since the undulating movement which he thinks he is following turns imperceptibly away…. And no statue can be found that shows so well balanced a plumpness (to midriff)’ (p. 1-2)

Nothing in Rancière’s choice of passage suggests that the torso alone is sufficient as a rendering of Hercules, at any point in his myth. Winckelmann is impressed with how ‘the bones appear to be covered with fatty skin and the muscles are full without superfluity’. It is not just the technique but the judgement of proportion or balance to muscle tone and body fat to the torso that leads him to suppose it belongs to a golden age of Greek sculpture. Classical harmony is still available to parts of even a torso. But Rancière is intent upon tracing the wider controversy over classical expression, best known in the dispute between Lessing and Winckelmann over the Laocoon, in which Winckelmann argues for a stoic decorum to classical expression while Lessing proposes limits to sculpture’s subject matter. One says Laocoon is too noble to scream, the other that sculpture is better for not attempting screams. Against classical restraint to expression is the romantic advocacy for full and natural feeling, and Rancière interestingly traces much of this through theatre and dance, although again, rather skating around the R word, even if it is Rococo. Winckelmann anticipates Neo Classicism and for Rancière then provokes Romanticism and German idealism but is redeemed by an implicit metonym to the famous  torso, that suggests to Hegelians at least, the shared tastes of a Greek people, although rather glossing over gross differences between the respective city states. In passing, the chapter also applauds the title of the book from which the Winckelmann excerpt is drawn - The History of Ancient Art (1764) for its use of art in the singular rather than fine art or arts or just the arts, but such abbreviation and synonym especially in conjunction with alternative senses for art as depiction or excellence owe as much to standard usage and generalisation as idealist philosophy. Rancière clutches at straws. In addition, the date is obviously then at odds with the claims of the preface.

The second misinterpretation concerns Clement Greenberg’s essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch, cited in the final chapter. Here Rancière claims that Greenberg announces the end of modernity with the recognition of the avant-garde (p. 262). But Greenberg’s essay lists Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, Klee, Matisse and Cezanne as so-called avant-garde artists, clearly not all a vanguard by 1939; the year of the essay. Greenberg frames a much longer and slower advance, characterised by not much more than an emphasis on painting’s formal qualities. Modernism commences a great deal earlier for Greenberg. Nor can industrialisation and modernity be taken to have peaked by 1939. While Greenberg talks of a decline for capitalism in his closing paragraph, it is seen to anticipate socialism and there is no reason to see why this should be opposed to the industrialisation and low culture he has briefly surveyed. Actually his conclusion only endorses the persistence of an historicist enterprise for high culture, as progressive or advanced, a claim he justifies by condemning all else as kitsch. It is not a particularly sophisticated or persuasive argument. Rancière’s conclusion: that modernity ends just when Modernism begins, is elegant but unsupported by Greenberg.

The themes of a counter history of Modernism and its example for social reform are only intermittently apparent throughout the book. Regimes are either too lightly sketched or too technical and specialised to suggest concrete courses of political action. The theme of artistic inspiration for political activism is rendered so vague as to be no more than truism or trivial. Modernism considered beyond fine art is undeniable but does not so much reshape the movement as sketches a general cultural companion for modernity. For example, the claim that ‘Loïe Fuller and Charlie Chaplin contributed to it (Modernism) far more than Mondrian or Kandinsky’ (p. XIII), is never seriously pursued because the book has no space, no real appetite to discuss pictorial abstraction. The book loiters at its hinterland, in considering developments in the decorative and applied arts in Chapter Eight, but fails to grasp the link, for once, the self-reflexive ‘function’. Ultimately Rancière favours low culture, particularly performance, because it is more popular, more responsive to sociological currents, but this essentially exchanges art for social history. 

Blurring of boundaries between branches of the arts occurs regularly throughout history, but not to the extent that the branches lack sufficient adherents. Boundaries are acceptably porous. The book’s scattered sample can accent the practice but as noted, they do not really constitute regimes. Where the author is on stronger ground is in the adoption of new technology, such as electric lighting for the stage, the new possibilities this suggests for set and costume design and performance and its flow-on to the cinema. Similarly, new materials available to the crafts and mass production inevitably prompt reappraisals in the plastic arts, to both themes and technique. Here we see boundaries steadily being adjusted, particularly anticipating the recognition of motion pictures as the seventh art and granting other branches another point of reference for their own practices.
Finally, the author’s prose, particularly on points of metaphysics is often too clumsy, too overloaded to properly do justice to his arguments. Musings such as – ‘For thinking is always firstly thinking the thinkable – a thinking that modifies what is thinkable by welcoming what is unthinkable’ (p. XI). Anglophone readers especially will not welcome such thinking; will only think the worse of him for such seeming sophistry. Description also can be regrettably garbled, on Rodin the author essays -

All bodies, all faces, all hands is an impossible totality. But this impossible totality is the asymptotic unity obtained by the active synthesis of a multiplicity of movements, whose subject is not a finished unity, but an infinite multiplicity, Life.’ (p. 166)

Sometimes it pays to just break things down a little bit more. On a more positive note, Aisthesis does glimpse some surprising links between high and low culture, one branch of the arts and another, so that the slapstick and whimsy of the Hanlon Lees brothers offers new insight into Charlie Chaplin, Chaplin’s adaptations for motion pictures in turn resonate with the grotesque and fantasy of Meyerhold and Eisenstein, the metamorphosis of Fuller with Art Nouveau decoration, decoration with pictorial abstraction, as noted. A more focussed study or perhaps a realignment of chapters to Aisthesis might profitably expand upon these themes; discern other currents to public taste. While hardly the landmark for aesthetics announced by some reviewers, the book rewards with its bold perspective and painstaking research, with retrieving lost moments in cultural history and considering them with impressive scholarship.

JACQUES Rancière:  AISTHESIS - 2013, (Tr. Zakir Paul) Verso, London, Brooklyn, NY

A more polemical version of this review appears on Worldwidereview.com