Aisthesis by Jacques Rancière

Aisthesis by Jacques Rancière

Postby CAP » Sat Aug 10, 2013 5:48 am

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 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 and influence 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 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 is 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 remarked 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 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, 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 is by 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 hardly 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 less certain. The aestheticism that flourishes in the work of French writers like Gautier and Baudelaire and later British writers like Pater and Wilde, argues for an ‘art for art’s sake’; for formal or intrinsic values that echo idealism, but these prove notoriously elusive or inadequate across the arts or even within any single branch. Basically it amounts to not much more than ardent promotion of art. Gautier and Baudelaire are as much influenced by Romantic and Realist painting as formulate and direct a formal appreciation of it. Aesthetics follows as much as leads production. Curiously, Ranciere only touches upon Aestheticism mostly in relation to the arts and crafts revival of William Morris in Chapter Eight. But the Gothic Revival, the Romantic turn to medieval rather than classical sources, anticipating a broader exotica, most assuredly influences Modernism. The problem is perhaps that an historical awareness then looks digressive rather than progressive as ideal or regime. Art too easily exchanges ideals along with idealism in its new found quest. For the hardcore Hegelian, form keeps losing form. For Ranciere, regime change grows a little brisk and wayward.

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. Obviously there can be no recourse to the dogma of empiricism either. The assumption of facts independent of theory, content without category or context remains untenable. But whether we argue over minds or matters, essences or substances, we have irreconcilable versions of the true, good or beautiful or we have a comprehensive reduction of them to nothing. The idealist balks at the thing-in-itself stripped of all framing, the realist falters at theories tested only against other theories, but from where is one to judge between disparate realms, how is one to juggle multiple commitments consistently? Allow diversity without conceding implicit unity? These days a substantial contribution to aesthetics must address the paradox of pluralism, the need for nihilism that follows from such relativism, rather than retire to a rest home for the absolute. To reconcile life to art will not do. It no more than announces a fatal decline for one, a dearth of opportunities for the other. The beautiful is not to be subordinated to the good, the good not reduced to the true, the true not exchanged for either. Whatever our measure of rightness, philosophy does not serve art by such sleights of hand.

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

A less polemical version of this review appears on CAP’S CRITS.
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