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.