Aesthetic Revolution

Society as a Work of Art

The End of Modernity's End?

The Strange Relation of Art and Politics

The Ambivalence of the Public Square

Creativity and its Afterlives

A Game of Appearances


Malcolm Miles
The Strange Relation of Art and Politics: considering an essay by Jacques Ranciere
(paper at Loughborough University, March 2012, for Radical Art Radical Aesthetics)

Western art criticism constructs a chasm between art and politics: art is free and non-political while aestheticised political formations are for the most part tainted by events in Germany in the 1930s. [1] In 1939, after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Clement Greenberg disconnected an avant-garde whose task was to keep art moving (the art on which he built his career as a critic) from kitsch (popular culture and Socialist Realism) in his essay 'Avant-garde and Kitsch'. [2] Free art, a term derived from Kant, is the antithesis of art in a state system just as a free market is the antithesis of state planning. With Alfred Barr's selective narrative of modernism in the Museum of Modern Art's white-walled displays, Greenberg's influence led to a modernist canon radically separated from politics. What was excluded was allotted outsider status but popular culture and propaganda were outside even that.

After the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Socialist Realism became collectible, though some Russian critics maintained animosity towards it. Gleb Prokhorov, for instance, writes of the 'witchcraft of Socialist Realism' in the privileging of style over meaning, as if ideology could be passed off as technique.' [3] Prokhorov adds that the spell resembles hypnosis, so that, 'one is unable to be simultaneously in and not in' and cannot see 'both the windowpane and the landscape behind it.' [4] Modernist painting does exactly that, which is not to say that Socialist Realism does not. Brandon Taylor and Matthew Cullerne-Bown, in Art of the Soviets, sought 'a broader, more inclusive scheme that recognises the existence of many types of art, some modernist but some deeply anti-modernist ... guided by ... the apparatus of the over-arching state.' [5] Perhaps the model of art's production within an over-arching structure also applies, if in a different way, in the West - where an over-arching art-world operates the informal yet largely binding consensus of dealers, curators, critics, collectors and some successful artists as to what is included under the term contemporary art (just as Barr and Greenberg decided what was modern art). Is the art of that system genuinely free, or are matters more complex?

Now contemporary art replaces modernism, with its own museums, but retains the chasm by which what might be called the art of today is excluded. The strategy has shifted, however, to a capacity to absorb and neutralise, to subsume into the market, the most outsider art. Street art thus transforms graffiti into dollars without any need to rearrange the social order which gave rise to such voiceless voices. And social relations, too, are subsumed, under the guise of critique, in relational aesthetics. [6]

I want to argue that there is another way to construct this relation: not as opposition, and not as absorption, but as estrangement. This shifts from dualism to the drawing of a line between polarities, shifting attention towards the fluid space between them. What is estranged is not-near, creating an axis of tension between estrangement and familiarity: an ambivalent relation denoting both damage and repair. I draw this ambivalence from Marcuse and Adorno; [7] and I find it in  Jacques Ranciere's writing, too, which seems in some ways closer to critical theory than to French post-structuralism.

In 'Problems and Transformations of Critical Art', a paper first given at a seminar on aesthetics and politics in Barcelona in 2002, [8] Ranciere argues that critical art, 'sets out to build awareness of the mechanisms of domination to turn the spectator into a conscious agent of world transformation.' [9] This is political on an epic scale, but not straightforward.  Ranciere states the following difficulties: understanding does not change things, only the perception of things; the exploited do not need explanations of conditions they experience first-hand; and the effort to dissolve appearances destroys the strangeness of that which is to be transformed. Hence, 'art risks being inscribed in the perpetuity of a world in which the transformation of things into signs is redoubled by the very excess of interpretative signs ...' [10]

I think that what Ranciere argues here is not far from Marcuse's argument in the late 1960s that (to summarise), beauty is the radical other to oppression, its appearance rendering the normality of oppressive conditions uncanny. [11] Ranciere concludes that, 'Critical art's vicious circle is generally seen as proof that aesthetics and politics cannot go together.' [12] Art's agency rests on and is denied by its withdrawal from that which it critiques. Marcuse writes in The Aesthetic Dimension:

Art is committed to that perception of the world which alienates individuals from their functional existence ... to an emancipation of sensibility, imagination, and reason ... The aesthetic transformation becomes a vehicle of recognition and indictment ... [but] requires a degree of autonomy which withdraws art from the ... power of the given ... [13]

And Ranciere extends the argument by writing of an aesthetics which,

contains a tension between two opposed types of politics: between the logic of art becoming life at the price of its self-elimination and the logic of art's getting involved in politics on the express condition of not having anything to do with it. [14]

Here is the double bind, the key motif of critical theory. Adorno writes, 'Artworks become relative because they must assert themselves as absolute ... If it is essential to artworks that they are things, it is no less essential that they negate their own status as things.' [15] Art which negates its status remains an intervention, however, even on the rim of emptiness – which is in effect the Cartesian extremity. I want to speculate that the appearance of the double bind denotes, for Ranciere and Adorno, a political trauma: critical theory is haunted by the failure of the German Revolution in 1918-19 and the rise of fascism. Ranciere is haunted by repeated failures of the French Left, and by capital's appropriation of democracy as choice. In 'The End of Politics', he writes of politics as having become 'the management of the social' or the 'reciprocal appeasement of the social and the political' whereby 'Politics is the art of suppressing the political ... [and] a procedure of self-subtraction...' [16] In 1988, the neo-fascist candidate, the only one outside the modernist consensus, received 4 million votes:

in the face of the supposed collapse of the political sphere, with the party of the rich and the party of the poor both calling for modernization ... what emerged ... was not consensus but exclusion, not reason ... but pure hated of the Other, a coming together in order to exclude. [17]

When centrist candidates seek a mandate, from either side, for unity in face of an abyss, and the far-right (either fascist or neo-liberal) is the only force for epic transformation (racism or consumerism), a retreat to aesthetics may be justified. But what can art do?

I return to Prokhorov's inept metaphor of the window and the view; modern art specialises in being both, depicting the view and the glass, playing on the appearances of both. Similarly, I think, Ranciere reads collage as playing on the space between, and in a third area of political aesthetics beyond the dualism of art-life. Collage, '... combines the foreignness of aesthetic experience with the becoming-art of ordinary life' [18] to create an 'indiscernibility' between the 'legibility' of the sensual and its 'strangeness'. [19] Ranciere cites Brecht's Arturo Ui - a literary collage playing on sense and non-sense to critique fascism:

It is by crossing over the borders and changes of status between art and non-art that the radical strangeness of the aesthetic object and the active appropriation of the common world were able to conjoin and that a 'third way' micro-politics of art was able to take shape between the contrasting paradigms of art as life and as resistant form. [20]

He also cites the work of Warhol and Wodiczko as art producing shock to reveal, 'capitalist violence beneath the happiness of consumption ...' [21] This expands collage beyond the bits of wallpaper found in Cubism, emphasising a moment of rupture, estrangement of the given, the crack. Ranciere claims that there is 'a specific sensory experience that holds the promise of both a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and the community' - the aesthetic. [22] This is a reassertion of a utopian imaginary but one now realised by rupture, not pictures of a future (only imagined) golden dawn. But Ranciere departs from the avant-gardes, not setting a free future against past oppression in a temporal trajectory, but employing a dialectic more akin to co-presence as if in space. In 'The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes' he says, 'The allegedly pure practice of writing is linked to the need to create forms that participate in a general re-framing' of the world, so that poetry is compared to 'ceremonies of collective life, like the fireworks of Bastille Day, and to private ornaments of the household.' [23]

The conjunction derives from Schiller's remark, as Ranciere paraphrases, 'aesthetic experience will bear the edifice of the art of the beautiful and of the art of living.' [24] As in collage, the key term is neither but nor against, it is and. This creates an axis which allows a distancing, when Ranciere writes of a return to the problem of art's estrangement, its separation from ordinary life and its immersion in it. He says, '... the dead-end of art lies in the romantic blurring of its borders. It argues the need for a separation of art from the forms of aestheticisation of common life.' [25] The essay ends with characteristic ambivalence:

Aesthetic art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy, and thrives on that ambiguity. That is why those who want to isolate it from politics are somewhat beside the point. It is also why those who want it to fulfil its political promise are condemned to a certain melancholy. [26]

A similar quality of melancholia is found in Tim Clark's work on modernism: 'unintelligible now because it had truck with a modernity not yet fully in place' the ruins of which are now  illegible because modernity has triumphed. Is this another critical conundrum? Is modernity's triumph in technology, money, or globalisation? (Actually it's modernisation).

Clark begins that he, 'wanted to imagine modernism unearthed by some future archaeologist ... a handful of disconnected pieces left over from a holocaust that had utterly wiped out the pieces' context .... [27] The image is familiar: Pound's bundle of broken mirrors: Clark goes on, 'I realize that what I had taken for a convenient opening ploy ... speaks to the book's deepest conviction ... the modernist past is a ruin .' [28] Modernization is a disenchantment of the world against which, 'Any mass movement or cult figure that promises a way out ... will be clung to...' [29] A number of instances come to mind, not least the Holocaust, but Clark cites, 'social life driven by a calculus of large-scale statistical chances' in a period of technocracy, and 'the de-skilling of everyday life' which is 'tied to, and propelled by, one central process: the accumulation of capital.' [30] When social action becomes purposeless, modernism is caught 'between horror and elation ...' [31] in an agonising represented by Nietzsche and Rimbaud.

Clark notes the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when 'the project called socialism' came to an end at the same time as 'the project called modernism .... If they died together, does that mean ... they lived together, in century-long co-dependency?' [32]

The close reading of artworks which Clark undertakes is an attempt to chart the evolution of the conjunction. Of David's The Death of Marat he writes that it is, 'made out of' the detail of French politics at the time, when Marat was a member of a state committee, creating a narrative of revolutionary heroism. [33] Similarly, El Lissitzky's lithograph Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) is art and politics - a campaign poster printed and distributed by the Literary Publications Section, Political Directorate of the Revolutionary Military Council (Western Front), in an emerging, as yet unresolved, vocabulary of abstract forms from the work of Malevich and his own architectural training. [34] Clark argues that Lissitzky's work demonstrates a 'sense of the possible relations ... between the two great forms of established sign language in culture ... visual and verbal, picture and text.' [35] The visual elements are flat, without a play on representation; picture and text are the conjoined elements, a means to assert and as a modern motif. Clark identifies a balance, too, 'between making demands on one's viewers and leaving them completely behind.' [36]

This is close enough to Ranciere's statement that critical art, 'sets out to build awareness' whereby the spectator emerges as a conscious agent of transformation. [37] Few artists were more concerned with transformation than Lissitzky in the period of War Communism around 1920. Clark adds that, 'the better a Bolshevik [he] was, the better his art. Not a verdict likely to endear him or me to anyone much at present ...' [38] I will avoid aesthetic judgements and return to Ranciere:

From Dadaism through the diverse kinds of 1960s contestatory art, the play of exchanges between art and non-art served to generate clashes between heterogeneous elements and dialectical oppositions between form and content, which themselves served to denounce social relations and the place reserved for art within them.' [39]

Or, in a parallel assertion: 'The artist's desperate effort to make art a direct expression of life cannot overcome the separation of art from life.' [40] Marcuse cites Warhol's soup cans, which are deeply nihilistic. And the dualism is as if beyond resolution when Marcuse writes that art 'draws away' from Auschwitz because it cannot represent suffering 'without subjecting it to aesthetic form ...'. [41] I could leave it there, with the shards of a modernist argument strewn around the metaphorical floor (like Ezra Pound's bundle of broken mirrors), overshadowed by the ur-image of modernisation: the gates of Auschwitz. But then I would be captured by my material, and the disenchantment of the world would be undone (as some critics and cults would like to see). Ranciere does not adopt such conceits: 'Art's singularity stems from an identification of its own autonomous forms both with forms of life and with political possibilities.' [42] I remember the landscape and the window glass. Or,

To the extent that the aesthetic formula ties art to non-art from the start, it sets that life up between two vanishing points: art becoming mere life or art becoming mere art ... the life of art ... consists precisely of a shuttling between these scenarios, playing an autonomy against a heteronomy and a heteronomy against an autonomy, playing one linkage between art and non-art against another such linkage. [43]

Could the same be said of politics, as in War Communism? Did the Bolsheviks play a politics of destiny against another of spontaneous insurrection? Did the Stalinist terror follow failure of movement between the two? The question is rhetorical but perhaps art and life construct an axis of creative tension:

Politics consists in reconfiguring the distribution of the sensible which defines the common of a community, to introduce into it new subjects and objects, to render visible what had not been, and to make heard as speakers those who had been perceived as mere noisy animals. This work informs an aesthetics of politics that operates at a complete remove from the forms of staging power and mass mobilization which Benjamin referred to as the 'aestheticization of politics.' [44]

[1] Bloch, E. Heritage of Our Times, Cambridge, Polity, 1991

[2] Greenberg, C. 'Avant-garde and kitsch', in Collected essays and Criticism Vol 1, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 5-22

[3] Prokhorov, G. Socialist Realism: Soviet Painting 1930-1950, Roseville East (NSW), Craftsman House, 1995, p. 10

[4] ibid

[5] Taylor, B. and Bown, M. C. eds Art of the Soviets: Painting, sculpture and architecture in a one-party state, 1917-1992, Manchester, MUP, 1993, pp. 1-2

[6] Bourriaud, N. Relational Aesthetics, Dijon, Presse de Reel, 2003

[7] Marcuse, H. The Aesthetic Dimension, Boston, Beacon Press, 1978; Adorno, T.W. Aesthetic Theory, London, Athlone, 1997

[8] Ranciere, J. 'Problems and Transformations of Political Art' in Aesthetics and its Discontents, Cambridge, Polity, 2004, pp. 45-60

[9] Ranciere, 'Problems and Transformations of Political Art', p. 45

[10] Ranciere, 'Problems and Transformations of Political Art', pp. 45-46

[11] Marcuse, H. 'Society as a Work of Art', Collected Papers Vol. 4, New York, Routledge, 2007, pp. 123-129

[12] Ranciere, 'Problems and Transformations of Political Art', p. 46

[13] Marcuse, H. The Aesthetic Dimension, p. 9

[14] ibid

[15] Adorno, Aesthetic theory, p. 175

[16] Ranciere, J. 'The End of Politics', in On the Shores of Politics, London, Verso, 1995, pp. 11-12

[17] Ranciere, 'The End of Politics' p. 23

[18] Ranciere, 'Problems and Transformations of Political Art', in Aesthetics and its Discontents, p. 47

[19] ibid

[20] Ranciere, 'Problems and Transformations of Political Art', pp. 50-51

[21] Ranciere, 'Problems and Transformations of Political Art', p. 51

[22] Ranciere, J. 'The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics' in Dissensus: on politics and aesthetics, London, Continuum, 2010, p. 115

[23] Ranciere, 'The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics' p. 121

[24] Ranciere, 'The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics' p. 116

[25] Ranciere, 'The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics' p. 129

[26] Ranciere, 'The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics' p. 133

[27] Clark, T.J. Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, New Haven (CT), Yale, 1999, p. 1

[28] Clark, Farewell to an Idea, p. 2

[29] Clark, Farewell to an Idea, p. 7

[30] ibid

[31] Clark, Farewell to an Idea, p. 8

[32] ibid

[33] Clark, Farewell to an Idea, p. 21

[34] Clark, Farewell to an Idea, p. 232

[35] Clark, Farewell to an Idea, p. 237

[36] Clark, Farewell to an Idea, p. 248

[37] Ranciere,'Problems and Transformations of Political Art', p. 45

[38] Clark, Farewell to an Idea, p. 283

[39] Ranciere, 'Problems and Transformations of Political Art', p. 51

[40] Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, p. 50

[41] Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, p. 55

[42] Ranciere, 'Problems and Transformations of Political Art', p. 60

[43] Ranciere, 'The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics', p. 132

[44] Ranciere, 'Aesthetics as Politics' in Aesthetics and its Discontents, p. 25