We've been taught that Richard III is a political play, but what about A Midsummer's Night Dream? Picasso's Guernica is obviously political, but can we say the same thing about Malevich's Black Square? If we were inclined to talk about Black Square as a political work, how would we do that?
Jacques Rancière's The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible gives us a way to talk about the political meaning of art that's both powerful and limited. He makes historical comparisons easy, but his theory of art and the political doesn't offer a means to read a work closely for its political implications, although he doesn't preclude such a reading. He also regards modernism as something of a historical dead end, a view I don't share. Rancière's theory of art and politics is worth considering, at the very least, because it's elegant and simple. According to Rancière, art is one means by which a culture determines what is perceived and what enters language, as well as who gets to do the perceiving and writing or painting. In short, art represents a distribution of the sensible. He says that art
is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.
Art has its own way of doing and perceiving, and changes in aesthetics cause epochal changes in ways people perceive and reflect upon the world around them.
In this short book Rancière provides few examples that exemplify this or that distribution of the sensible, but two examples stand out, each marking an important change in Western culture.
The first involves the arrival of Renaissance quattrocento painting, which introduced three-dimensional space in order to capture the immediacy of live speech and action. Giotto and those who followed him eschewed not only the iconic work of the Middle Ages, but also Plato's separation of art and living. The return of two-dimensional pictoral space in Modernism, Rancière claims, reflects a technology-saturated world of pages, screens, and interfaces between different media, including different artistic genres. Malevich's Black Square, for example, depicts the interface between typography and painting, a prevalent theme in a lot of explicitly political art in High Modernism. That this interface now strikes us as commonplace doesn't vitiate its initial impact or the political gesture of pointing to emergent forms of life.
Modernism not only broke down the neo-classical separation of the arts from each other, it also incorporated new subject matter into high art. The plein air painters of the mid-nineteenth century were one strain of the massive re-distribution of the sensible during the 1800's. Another was literary Realism, which emerged around the same time. Rancière discusses the proto-modernist Flaubert, who refused to give any particular emphasis to anything that found its way into his fiction. When Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education first appeared, they were hailed as democratic, even revolutionary works, "despite Flaubert's aristocratic situation and political conformism," Rancière dryly adds. For Rancière, Flaubert's indifference to the bourgeois material of his fiction
is the result of a poetic bias: the equality of all subject matter is the negation of any relationship of necessity between a determined form and a determined content. Yet what is this indifference after all if not the very quality of everything that comes to pass on a written page, available to everyone's eyes? This equality destroys all of the hierarchies of representation and also establishes a community of readers as a community without legitimacy, a community formed only by the random circulation of the written word.
This last remark, with which I disagree, points to an affinity Rancière has with Walter Benjamin, whom I also disagree with about the possibility of the novel as the basis for community, or less abstractly, of exchangeable experience. In my next post I'll talk more about Rancière's debt to Walter Benjamin.