In a 1932 tribute to Edouard Manet, Paul Valéry referred to a contretemps over the painter’s work between his two great literary advocates, Zola and Mallarmé—a disagreement so violent that he professed himself ‘unable to report it’; ‘courtesy and crudity appeared as the terms of their disparity.’ Modernism in the arts has been and meant a great many things, some of them fiercely antithetical to each other, as the unrepeatable verbal altercation between novelist and poet, naturalist and symbolist, illustrates. Even in hindsight, the feuds continue, as recurrent attempts to sort out true from false modernisms or—in another widespread articulation of the problem—mere modernisms from veritable avant-gardes, continue to remind us. Perhaps what is most striking, therefore, about Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art is its claim to articulate ‘the mode of experience according to which, for two centuries, we perceive very diverse things’ when we look at paintings and sculptures, read novels or poetry, watch films or plays—to define, that is, the very ground upon which the dispute between a Zola and a Mallarmé can have been conducted, and which in his view utterly separates both positions from any that were possible before the late eighteenth century.
As Rancière has argued in these pages, what he calls the aesthetic regime of art is a mentality distinct from the preceding representative regime, which it gradually replaced, and the ethical regime which was in force before that. In the ethical regime, expressed most forcefully by Plato, the arts were not distinguished as a specific mode of activity, according to Rancière’s quasi-Foucauldian genealogy; instead, images were interrogated for their effect on the ethos of individuals and communities. He identifies the representative regime, meanwhile, with the Classical age, meaning that of the literary and artistic academies of the seventeenth century; as he explained in his earlier book The Politics of Aesthetics: ‘The representative primacy of action over characters or of narration over description, the hierarchy of genres according to the dignity of their subject matter, and the very primacy of the art of speaking, of speech in actuality, all of these elements figure into an analogy with a fully hierarchical vision of the community.’ It is perhaps through the idea of an aesthetic regime that dismantles an earlier, explicitly hierarchical one that we can understand the turn in Rancière’s work, beginning with a 1996 book on Mallarmé, to an emphasis on literature, aesthetics and the image. It’s a turn one might not have expected from the philosopher who debuted as an associate of Louis Althusser—his contribution to Lire le Capital was omitted from the 1970 English translation—before going on to demolish his teacher’s theory of ideology in his own first book, Althusser’s Lesson, published in French in 1974 but only available in English since 2011. Nor might one have expected it from the Rancière of the 1980s, the delver into the archives of French workers’ movements in Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France and apostle of the radical pedagogy of forgotten eighteenth-century thinker Joseph Jacotot in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation; nor of the author, in the early to mid-1990s, of meditations on broad political themes such as equality and democracy in books such as On the Shores of Politics and Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Yet in recent years Rancière has produced several books on the theme of aesthetics and literature—among them The Aesthetic Unconscious, Aesthetics and Its Discontents and The Future of the Image—which have been eagerly taken up by parts of the art world. Many of these volumes are slender compilations of lectures and conference papers. Aisthesis, by contrast, is a fully conceived work, and as such represents the fruition of what is by now a sustained commitment.
Proceeding by examples rather than argument, Aisthesis succeeds in conveying Rancière’s idea of how an autonomous realm of art, as constituted since the late eighteenth century, paradoxically takes shape precisely ‘by blurring the specificities that define the arts and the boundaries that separate them from the prosaic world’ (in contradistinction to the Greenbergian notion of modernism as a delimiting process by which, as Greenberg put it in ‘Towards a Newer Laocoon’, ‘the arts . . . have been hunted back to their mediums, and there they have been isolated, concentrated and defined’). The fourteen ‘scenes’ he has chosen to illustrate the progressive de-definition—to borrow Harold Rosenberg’s term—and redefinition of art are not necessarily the star turns of acknowledged masterworks. As Rancière announces with what sounds like a certain pride, ‘the reader will seek in vain for landmarks that have become unavoidable in the history of artistic modernity: no Olympia, no Suprematist Composition: White on White, no Fountain, nor Igitur or The Painter of Modern Life.’ I could add: no Third Critique, Notes from Underground, Rite of Spring or Godot. And yet for all that, this is neither a revisionist account that attempts to posit an alternative canon, nor an ostentatiously ‘personal’ catalogue of eccentric favourites. One feels, after reading these chapters that conduct us from Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s description, in his 1764 History of Ancient Art, of the Belvedere Torso through the description of the furnishings of an Alabama sharecropper’s cabin in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), that Rancière’s implicit narrative of modernism is both clear and comprehensive, and that it could easily have encompassed the more familiar texts and objects he has deliberately omitted, but that its inclusive character was better conveyed by the choice of more unexpected exhibits. Besides, in doing this Rancière has followed the same logic he attributes to the aesthetic regime of art, which is constantly to incorporate the overlooked and excluded.
However, it is striking that, despite Rancière’s assertion that this aesthetic regime ‘is not a matter of the “reception” of works of art’ but rather of ‘the sensible fabric of experience within which they are produced’, almost all the passages that he adduces consist precisely of what is normally understood as reception, rather than being primary works in themselves: following Winckelmann’s paean to the transcendent impassivity of Greek beauty, we find among others Hegel on Murillo’s beggars (from his posthumous Lectures on Fine Art), Théodore de Banville’s memories of the pantomime troupe the Hanlon-Lees, and Mallarmé on Loie Fuller—and on into the twentieth century with Rilke’s Rodin, Viktor Shklovsky’s Chaplin, Paul Rosenfeld’s Stieglitz, and so on. It is only by the by, as it were, that Rancière engages directly with a statue, a painting, a film, a photograph, let alone tries to conjure for present imagining a long-since vanished dance or vaudeville act. In fact, only two of his chosen passages were self-consciously composed as autonomous works in themselves. One is a passage from The Red and the Black, in which Stendhal shows how Julien Sorel has learned contentment through imprisonment; the other is the concluding excerpt from Agee, a fascinated and at the same time almost repulsed appreciation of a bureau—‘quite wide and very heavy, veneered in gloomy red rich-grained woods, with intricately pierced metal plaques at the handles of the three drawers, and the mirror is at least three feet tall and is framed in machine-carved wood’—and the various knick-knacks displayed on it, for instance that ‘cream-coloured brown-shaded china rabbit three or four inches tall, with bluish lights in the china, one ear laid awry: he is broken through the back and the pieces have been fitted together to hang, not glued, in delicate balance.’
For Rancière, Agee’s text is, if not the culmination, a capital illustration of ‘the modernist dream of art, capable of lending its infinite resonance to the most minute instant of the most ordinary life’. Rarely has this dream been so richly and passionately rearticulated as in Rancière’s retrospective account. But it is perhaps not as clear as he implies that the dream is specific to modernity or to the ‘aesthetic regime’, as he claims. Rancière’s tripartite genealogy (ethical, representative, aesthetic—curiously half-echoing Kierkegaard’s three ‘stages on life’s way’: aesthetic, ethical, religious) is historically open to question on the face of it: was there really no significant sea-change in the ‘sensible fabric of experience’ out of which art has been produced in the West between the time of the ancient Greeks and the French seventeenth century? At minimum, the scheme makes no allowance for the cult image as it was known in the Middle Ages, and still predominant in popular religiosity. Moreover, even in its heyday, did the classical model ever prevail to the extent that Rancière assumes it did, at least anywhere outside France? Just to cite the conventional aesthetic dichotomies—Racine or Shakespeare? Poussin or Caravaggio? Or, in the querelle des bouffons of the 1750s, Rameau or Pergolesi?—is to suggest otherwise. Besides, as we know from The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacotot knew that Racine himself, the epitome of the representational regime, was already what neither of them could yet have called a symbolist, whose whole effort was ‘to create the aura around each word, each expression’, more than to display effective speech as a form of action.
Rancière acknowledges that the form of his book—a series of brief excerpts each followed by an attentive but wide-ranging commentary—is modelled on that of the great work whose title it echoes, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. (Rancière’s subtitle, on the other hand, recalls the title of another of Auerbach’s books, Scenes from the Drama of European Literature.) But while Auerbach’s history of literary mimesis ends up in close accord with Rancière’s aesthesis—the last three of Auerbach’s twenty excerpts are from Stendhal, the Goncourts and Woolf—he presents this development as part of a process that began in antiquity, rather than in the eighteenth century. For Auerbach, as Edward Said once pointed out, the development of literary realism is ‘ideologically unintelligible without the Christian doctrine of Incarnation’. The same may be true of the plastic arts, as for instance the development of still life painting in seventeenth-century Spain suggests. By omitting this long history, and its theological underpinnings, Rancière distorts the meaning of the aesthetic. Auerbach’s realism is fundamentally cognate with Rancière’s aesthesis, a culture that, in his words, was
constituted and transformed by welcoming images, objects and performances that seemed most opposed to the idea of fine art: vulgar figures of genre painting, the exaltation of the most prosaic activities in verse freed from metre, music-hall stunts and gags, industrial buildings and machine rhythms, smoke from trains and ships reproduced mechanically, extravagant inventories of accessories from the lives of the poor . . .