Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Aesthetics of the Damned

Jacques Rancière, Figures of History

Larry Rivers, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953

Back around the middle 1990s, the Centre Pompidou, one of France’s nerve centers of public intellectualism, commissioned Marxist philosopher Jacques Rancière to write mid-length essays coinciding with exhibitions of film and art, respectively. These essays provided snapshots into Rancière’s thought, without needing to grasp his exceedingly dense prose stylings. But the essays languished unreprinted, and untranslated into English, for nearly twenty years. Until now.

These essays, one on historical film and one on art-on-canvas, focus a socially engaged conviction onto Twentieth Century art expression. Such artworks, Rancière contends, represent a distinct relationship with power. This may reflect the power exhibited by traditional control centers— he commences by describing a powerful general instructing peasants how to kneel before the czar— or the power artists exercise in determining what does, or doesn’t, merit immortalization in art.

Rancière, whom humanist thinkers would consider a patron saint of the 1968 uprisings if sainthood didn’t require transcendence, maintains a sideline in modernist aesthetics. Yet for him, as for George Orwell, art and politics are inextricable: all art carries a message, and that message resonates with institutions of power. Art may lack political party, but it exists within a social continuum of power and subordination. Rancière purposes to pick this continuum apart.

Reading these essays involves a trade-off. Anyone familiar with Twentieth Century French philosophy knows authors pride themselves on hermetic inscrutability; finding a thesis or through-line is often prohibitively difficult. So it remains here; but in exchange, these two essays together total under 100 pages, and are essentially self-contained. This permits more casual reading, since you needn’t have savvied Rancière’s preceding corpus, though it never becomes easy.

Jacques Rancière
For Rancière, “history” isn’t some objective facts which students can memorize. We constantly make and remake history, he contends, with the stories we tell about the past. Rancière, in the second, and probably more digestible, essay, identifies “four senses of history” and “three forms of history [art].” Therefore, many debates active today about how to utilize history in the present exist because people don’t realize they’re using different sense and different forms.

In Rancière’s first essay, he focuses on historical representations in cinema, both documentary and artistic. The camera, he says, is essentially an instrument of power: it shows what directors, writers, and in state-controlled media, what politicians want it to show. Yet being inanimate, its power is offset by remarkable passivity. This tension comes across in storytelling techniques that combine staunch realism with novelistic narrative. The combination, he implies, sits uneasy.

His second essay deals with painting, though its implications could apply to all static art. He particularly focuses on modernist aesthetic, which distorts and upends conventional historical narratives. This sometimes involves ventures into the pre-modernist milieu that nurtured modernism; he particularly appreciates the twin threads of rebelliousness and commercialism implied in Francisco Goya’s works. This reflects how art simultaneously challenges and appeases power.

Rancière’s choice of source material may stymie non-Francophone readers. His film essay name-checks multiple art films, mostly French and German, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s, which you’ve probably never seen. Throughout his art essay, I recognized only two named artists, Goya and Warhol. The book provides no reference illustrations, a severe limitation; I found myself searching images on my smartphone every few minutes. Digital image-checkers will aid in reading.

Nevertheless, Rancière provides an engaging survey of how visual arts read history. His revisionist Marxist perspective shines throughout his telling; for him, aesthetics inevitably reflect power structures, an interpretation that certainly won’t sit with the “I just want to be entertained” crowd. However, as he carefully dismantles the unspoken assumptions permeating art’s sweeping gestalt, it’s hard to deny his viewpoint may have some legitimate foundation.

This book strikes a difficult balance. It isn’t easy fun-time reading, certainly. But compared to most philosophy by living thinkers, Rancière included, it’s remarkably accessible, with an eye toward audiences who haven’t already exhaustively read Rancière’s back catalog. This makes an interesting introduction to contemporary Marxist aesthetic, or an alternate viewpoint for art and film buffs. But however you elect to read it, rest assured, it asks questions you’ll struggle to answer.

To conclude on a digression, this is the latest review book I’ve received from Cambridge, UK-based Polity Books. This imprint publishes a mix of English-language originals and translations, especially from French. I’ve previously reviewed Polity authors like Bruno Latour and Christian Ingrao. Every Polity title has left me feeling challenged, my thinking altered, and I only regret that each ends, leaving me eager to learn more.

Goya, The Shootings of May 3rd 1808, 1814

No comments:

Post a Comment