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New Left Review 14, March-April 2002


Schiller’s conception of play, foundation at once of the art of the beautiful and the art of living, as the original scene of Western aesthetics, generating a set of recurrent emplotments of the relations between life and art, from the Juno Ludovisi to Jeff Koons.

JACQUES RANCIÈRE

THE AESTHETIC REVOLUTION AND ITS OUTCOMES

Emplotments of Autonomy and Heteronomy

At the end of the fifteenth of his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind Schiller states a paradox and makes a promise. He declares that ‘Man is only completely human when he plays’, and assures us that this paradox is capable ‘of bearing the whole edifice of the art of the beautiful and of the still more difficult art of living’. We could reformulate this thought as follows: there exists a specific sensory experience—the aesthetic—that holds the promise of both a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and the community. There are different ways of coming to terms with this statement and this promise. You can say that they virtually define the ‘aesthetic illusion’ as a device which merely serves to mask the reality that aesthetic judgement is structured by class domination. In my view that is not the most productive approach. You can say, conversely, that the statement and the promise were only too true, and that we have experienced the reality of that ‘art of living’ and of that ‘play’, as much in totalitarian attempts at making the community into a work of art as in the everyday aestheticized life of a liberal society and its commercial entertainment. Caricatural as it may appear, I believe this attitude is more pertinent. The point is that neither the statement nor the promise were ineffectual. At stake here is not the ‘influence’ of a thinker, but the efficacy of a plot—one that reframes the division of the forms of our experience.

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Jacques Ranciere, ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes’, NLR 14: £3
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