Discussing Rancière’s “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am teaching a couple of sections of a Critical Thinking through Writing (CTW) course called, “Critical Issues in Contemporary Art.”

I have been using the edited volume from Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, and find it excellent. I am slightly embarrassed to admit I chose this book because I was hired and immediately had to place my book order for the upcoming semester and since I had studied with a number of the contributors in this volume, I figured it would be good enough. Of course, it is an excellent volume. It comprises a diverse roster of authors and provides the students with “coin of the realm” theories and writings that have tracked the development of what is called contemporary art.

What follows below are my responses to some of the writings my students provided after reading an essay, “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics” by my former teacher, Jacques Rancière.

I think Rancière is here relying on the reader to keep all senses of the word “aesthetic” in their mind when they read the term. Aesthetics is a mode of philosophy that is concerned with sense making, how beauty is revealed, and how the world is ordered to generate meaning. It’s a heavy word.

A student asked, “how can something that is said to be free and expressive be categorized,” I think we have to reexamine how we understand what a category is.

A category is a class or division of people or things that share a common characteristic. Notice two words here: division and common.

Rancière discusses art as a partition (which is a synonym for division) of the sensible.

Said another way, art making is a practice that creates a sense of community among a group of people that can make sense of the objects created through art making practices.

That is to say, that this community of art practitioners share in common this characteristic: making art objects.

How is it possible that something that is expressive can be categorized? I hope we can see from the above, that a group of people that are practitioners of expressiveness can be categorized as artists. They can be placed in that category.

So, how can they be free and categorized? What does it mean to be free is a big question, but I think I can give a quick orientation to how Rancière (with whom I studied) might be thinking about freedom.

Let’s consider the working artist. They are free to make whatever they like because they are an artist, we expect an artist to generate art objects that are novel on some register. This working artist might insist that they cannot be constrained if they are to make their best art objects. To this we as a society generally agree: artists and parents and any-ol’-body is supposed to be free to do whatever they like in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. We like to think we live in a free country and so our decisions are autonomous ones because we are supposedly not being coerced or manipulated into acting on the decisions we arrive at.

Because we have that first sense of freedom, we are free to sell our labor (as artists, as baristas, as shoe salesmen, etc.) in the free market.

But in the “free market” we have to recognize that the laborer’s freedom has an unexpected limit: the laborer is free to labor, but they are free from being able to determine the value of their labor. The value of an artist’s works are more often than not beyond their ability to determine and must instead rely on the gallerist or the benefactor to demonstrate the exchange value of the art object the artist has created. I might think that my 3.5 year son’s drawings are priceless treasures, but my neighbor my agree that there is no price worth paying for them, they are simply junk drawings.

Here we return to the definition and note that a category is a class or a division of people or things that share a common characteristic.

Laborers, whether artists, or unskilled folks form a class in modern and contemporary societies. Unlike the managers of or the owners of the means of production, laborers share a mode of being free to work but being free from all the profit of their laboring.

I hope that we can see how it is possible to be free and expressive and also be of a category.

Another student asked if it’s necessary for artists to work against consensus, another term Rancière uses in a particular way for a particular effect.

Rancière has written about the shortcomings of consensus in the context of what an emancipatory democracy could look like. The problem with consensus is a problem of either representation or repression.

In the second sense, consensus looks like mob rule: might makes right. If we on this side of an issue have more people than the other side, then we get to do whatever we like because we’ve got a majority of people on our side and we’ve formed this alliance in a manner that we call consensus. But I don’t think that it’s really consensual, is it? It’s not that both sides of the issue are consenting to a decision, so much as they are agreeing to let the other side have their way because the minority is afraid of how the majority might abuse them.

In the other sense of consensus we have the familiar problem of representative democracy: the people are told they are free to pursue their life, liberty, and happiness, but to maintain order those same free people must sacrifice their freedom of decision making to elected representatives. This isn’t really consensual either is it? We, very frequently, elect people to serve us as representatives, but then those people do whatever they feel is the best for the most people that elected them. At best, these representatives would show a plurality of compromised responses to problems that we would have strong opinions about.

So, against consensus, Rancière posits “dissensus.” Dissensus is not about masking over differences of opinions, say, but instead insisting that those differences be privileged. Think of that old chestnut that school children in the US are taught: that America is a melting pot. The melting pot theory holds that over time the differences between people will breakdown, just like in a beef stew in which everything starts to taste like beef and potatoes and everything loses its texture. That would be the consensus model. The dissensus model would be more like a stirfry dish in which a variety of very different tastes and textures are brought together (sweet, salty, sour, etc.) to create a unique dish that wouldn’t be possible without all those differences being maintained.

Another student asked about the utility of the phrase “contemporary art.”

I think part of the reason for generating these categories is so that we have some way of typifying and making sense of the ways in which artists and the art world are operating today. The way that artists and the art world operate today is different, in significant ways, from how artists and the art world operated 50, 100, and 200 years ago.

If we don’t create some rubrics for measuring that difference, then we run the risk of not being able to speak specifically about those differences.

In this regard, Alberro’s “Periodising Contemporary Art” and Rancière’s essays are interesting for us as we try to make sense of why people talk about “Contemporary Art” but what we mean by “Contemporary Art” is still being decided.

For Rancière aesthetics and politics are two objects of social life that are often discussed but not well understood.

Aesthetics is an activity that is concerned with meaning making, a way of rearranging the world such that other meanings are possible.

Politics is an activity that is concerned with order making, a way of maintaining the world such that other ways of being in the world are excluded.

For Rancière politics, in the sense that we typically mean it—like being a political activist—rarely ever happens. Instead, most of the time what we see is only the maintenance of the status quo, which is what police do: they maintain order.

Politics, when combined with aesthetics, can produce new social orders, like what SNCC and the Movement accomplished here during the 1950s and through the 70s.

What I Love about Teaching Critical Thinking through Writing

This semester I am teaching an undergraduate course on critical issues in contemporary art. This class is the first course of a two-course sequence of “Critical Thinking through Writing” (CTW) classes that all majors at our R1 Research University have to develop for their students.

I love teaching these CTW courses because this course is often the first theory-intensive curriculum these students have undertaken. Although that means that many of the students I work with are frustrated with the materials we engage with, it’s also a course that generates a lot of self-reflection and critical conversations.

This course is also deeply satisfying for me because of the students I work with. The majority of the students I work with are nonwhite, and many are from working class families, and are first-generation families. Our university has improved its graduation rate by twenty-two percent over the last decade through the implementation of a variety of advising programs. Not only has the overall graduation rate improved, but our university now graduates more black students each year than any other U.S. college.

That I get to introduce a range of philosophical perspectives and theories to a group of students who are not theory-oriented is a challenge I relish. Not only are they often not theory-oriented, but because they are artists, they are also often not inclined to express their thinking through text, preferring other media as their primary mode of expression. I welcome this challenge because this is my opportunity to make what is assumed to be an abstract and strictly academic affair into something applicable to a student’s lived experience and directly contributing to their aspirations.

That I am also in the position to encourage people of color and from working class homes to “do theory” is a rare opportunity as well because these students are often absent from philosophy programs in graduate school and then in professorial roles. It is in our class that we find more robust vocabularies for describing our lived experiences, for articulating our aspirations, and in this class we often see for the first time how the work we do in our city interacts with a global system of exchange. And it is in this context that I am able to “tarry, to linger with the ways in which [I] perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which [I am] racist,” as my fellow Atlantan, George Yancy has recently counseled.

This is not to say that I lead a struggle session (批鬥會) with my students. Rather, I am presented, daily, with the opportunity to expand myself beyond the habitual practices of sociality that have historically enabled a host of iniquities to persists among us. Core to my Confucian (or Ruist 儒學) practice is the application of what I have studied and moral self-cultivation through wholehearted engagement with my community. Cultivating critical writing skills with students has been an exceptional mode of self-exploration and -expansion for me in this regard.

As a longtime resident of Atlanta and someone with great affection for the area, I feel a special obligation to be true to the work of the people who fought for equality in my country because this is the home of SNCC, of Dr. King, and it is from here that so much of the Civil Rights Movement radiates.

In our Critical Thinking through Writing course we learn about audiences, we learn about and discuss the limits of representation, we grapple with the differences between democracy and republic, and we find ways to connect our interior lives to the world-out-there in a manner that only writing can. Writing operates in a way that neither speaking, nor painting, nor manipulating other materials simply cannot. In writing we find ourselves as someone greater than we had anticipated.


Artists Wandering the Confucian Way

My friend wrote me to ask me to think about an upcoming event with the evocative theme “artist as migrant.”

When I worked at Art Papers we commissioned Nat Slaughter to make a map of the migrations of artists and curators featured in the Whitney Biennials between 2006–2014. Perhaps expected, what we see is that over the lifetime of the participants’ lives there is a movement toward one or two cities in the U.S.

Screenshot from Nat Slaughter’s “Biennial Migrations: Geographical Data from the Whitney and the World” Art Papers 38 no. 2 (2014)

We are indebted to Chin-Tao WU for her “Biennials without Borders?” essay in which she compiled and visualized data on the movements of artists who are selected to participate in the large international biennials that mark the contemporary era. As Wu illustrates so well—despite the typical claims made by the organizers of these massive exhibitions to being more democratic and embracing an ethos of decolonialization—if an artist from a country like Taiwan wants to be shown in the Taipei Biennial, then it’s best that the artist be born in Taiwan and then resettle in North America or Europe so that they may be included in the biennial being organized in their country of birth.

If it is useful to mark an era by its dominant mode of production, then it seems profitable to characterize the contemporary art era as that period in which artists and curators are required to be nomadic in the manner that globalization has made possible.

That phrase, “artist as migrant” reminds me that the first thing that Confucius talks about in the Analects is the relationship between traveling, practice, and moral cultivation:

1.1 子曰:「學而時習之,不亦說乎?有朋自遠方來,不亦樂乎?人不知而不慍,不亦君子乎?」

The Master said: “Having studied, to then repeatedly apply what you have learned—is this not a source of pleasure? To have friends come from distant quarters—is this not a source of enjoyment? To go unacknowledged by others without harboring frustration—is this not the mark of an exemplary person?” (Ames & Rosemont, Jr. translation)

The application (the character he used is 習, xi ) of one’s learning that Confucius is encouraging is both moral and musical. The character 習 (xi), as we read from Brooks & Brooks, means “rehearse” or “practice,” a rote practice that leads to virtuosity. Indeed, virtuosity is the key concern for Confucius and much of the Confucian project is about elucidating and clarifying the relationship between habitual learning and moral cultivation. To become a virtuoso one not only can perform with excellent technical precision, one also imbues into their performance of that rote material the full spectrum of their human experience and it is this subterranean humanity communicated through the virtuosic performance that moves audiences. The music of Beethoven or Bach has changed very little in hundreds of years and yet the consummate performances of their works reveal a great degree of differences: Daniel Barenboim reveals a Beethoven that differs from a Glenn Gould Beethoven, and yet they’re each consummate performances of the same unchanged music.

We are moved by the virtuosity of artists who make good on the promise of cultural practices. Confucius saw a real power in moral cultivation, that there is a moral force (德 de) that the exemplary person comes to radiate over years of practice. As Confucius tells us:

12.19「[….] 君子之德風,小人之德草。草上之風,必偃。」

The excellence (德 de) of the exemplary person is the wind, while that of the petty person is the grass. As the wind blows, the grass is sure to bend. (Ames & Rosemont, Jr. trans.)