Saturday, November 10, 2012

Rancière on everyday aesthetics

I am trying to get a grasp what Rancière has to say for everyday aesthetics.  To this end I have been reading Ben Highmore's book Ordinary Lives:  Studies in the Everyday.  Highmore shares with me an interest in "whittling a quotidian aesthetics out of the forest of philosophical aesthetics." (44) and he finds inspiration in
Rancière.  I find Rancière obscure and confusing, so I am looking for help here, especially because he seems to be, as Highmore puts it, the "theorist of choice" amongst many contemporary artists.  Highmore talks about Rancière being alive to "the production and necessary confusion between aesthetics as a general field describing the realm of sensate perception, and the more limited meaning relevant to the field of art."  This seems to be connected with the last two hundred rears of art as it moved from romanticism to realism, impressionism, abstraction, etc., and which recognized the ordinary. This corresponds to my own thinking, for example in the section of The Extraordinary in the Ordinary called "Everyday aesthetics in the various art traditions."  (I suppose I should have incorporated  Rancière into my can only do so much.)  I am enough a child of the Anglo-American tradition to prefer clarity to confusion, and so do not much like privileging the word "confusion."  However we could interpret this as a matter of breaking down some of the rigid boundaries between art aesthetics and everyday aesthetics, which is precisely  what I advocate in my book. 

Rancière calls the more general economy of the aesthetic the "distribution of the sensible" a distribution that is managed, in his view, by various "policing" activities which determine what is visible and what not.  So his thinking is that there can be activities, whether aesthetic or political, that disrupt this policing.  I am still trying to figure out what this really means beyond the fact that in any society some people are in position to control at least some of what gets displayed and what does not both in the artworld and in everyday life.  However one thing that is helpful is his reference in Aesthetics and its Discontents (2009) to an example from the novelist Stendahl who speaks of how noises from his childhood, the ringing church bells, a water pump, etc., the water pump being "potentially glorious noise."  This corresponds to my idea of "the extraordinary in the ordinary" especially as expressed in the last chapter of my book.  Rancière then speaks of a "new education of the senses informed by the insignificant noises and events of ordinary life" (6).  Like me,  Rancière stresses the dynamic interaction between art and everyday life, where art, in describing the sensorial realm, constitutes the forms of common life.  As Highmore puts it, art during this period (the last 200 years), makes what was insignificant significant:  this is by way of "aesthetic and political disruptions performed in the name of democracy."  (Highmore, 46) 

Highmore observes that in Rancière's doctoral thesis The Nights of Labor:  The Worker's Dream in Nineteenth-Century France(1981,1989 Engl. tr.) he speaks of how the workers of France did not unite in demanding dignity of labor (as Marx would have expected) so much as focus on living a bohemian life of freedom (through writing poetry, painting, etc.) in their off-work hours. So, for  Rancière, this is true politics, which is a disruption of expected distributions of space, time and sense (the sensible). ("True politics" is on his view a politics of radical democracy, what we would call "progressive" politics.)  So, as Highmore puts it "When Stendhal hears the noise of the water pump as significant he is not simply adding 'water pumps' to the list of things worth listening to.  The redistribution of the sensible inaugurates (continuously) the possibility of everything and anything being significant..."  (48)  (This parallels the claim of Paul Ziff that anything can be the proper object of aesthetic perception, as discussed in my book.)  This moment is one of "subjectification" which  Rancière describes as "the opening up of a subject space where anyone can be counted since it is the space where those of no account are counted." (Rancière, 1999).  

Highmore further stresses that for  Rancière the "aesthetic regime of art" downplays the distinction between abstract and realist art.  Just as paintings of cooks allow that anything can be the subject of art, so too abstract paintings.  Rancière calls this "the ruin of the whole hierarchical conception of art which places ...history painting above genre painting, etc." (Rancière, 2005) Again Rancière writes that (as always, here, I am quoting from Highmore's book) "According to the logic of the esthetic regime of art, in order for photography or the cinema to belong to art, their subjects first had to belong to art.  Everything that could be taken in by a glance had to have been already susceptible to being something artistic;  the insignificant had in itself to be potentially art.  The rupture of the system of representation was first brought about by what was so ineptly called 'realism';  this 'realism' held that not only was everything that was represented equal, but also there there was an inherent splendour to the insignificant." Rancière, "Cinematograpic Image, Democracy, and the 'Splendor of the Insignificant'" interview, Sites, 4:2 (2000) 18-23.  As Highmore observes, when the arts do this to the insignificant this is a "training ground, sensitizing us to the textures and tempos the daily." (51)

In the end however, I wonder whether paying attention the the everyday is such a strike for democracy.  Although I am deeply sympathetic to democracy (and political progressivism) one might also note that whereas the high art that focuses on these things is usually the product of the interests of the educated elite, the working class interest (at least in our time) is focused on popular art and advertisement-driven consumption of mass-produced products.  Some would say that the working class mainly notices what some people have spent a lot of money to assure that they do notice:  is this a move in the direction of democracy?  This may not be entirely fair to the working class, however, since working class people seem focused equally on aesthetic phenomena that are centered on family life or on the spontaneous cultural products of small groups of peers.  Nonetheless, "the aesthetic regime of art" that Rancière describes is not a primary interest of theirs.  They are not readers of Art Forum, which devoted a special section to the thought of  Rancière in March 2007.


MD Ontology said...

I am with you when reading thinkers like Ranciere. Your comments were very illuminating and thought-provoking. So I am provoked to comment...

You caution buying into Ranciere’s easy assumption that shifting our aesthetic attention to everyday objects upsets the hegemony of elite cultural interests and is a force for democracy. I agree. That is pretty clear from a sociological point of view. Another point might be derived from Hume.

You deal with Hume's aesthetics as friendly to EDA in your book, Extraordinary in the Ordinary. There, you argue that Hume's quasi-functionalist explanations of our aesthetic delight are at home, as I like to say, "in the home," as well as the museum. To go further, contrary to throwing the doors open to proletarian aesthetics, there is every reason to think that the most enjoyable objects will be those that have been the objects that have been made the most “special" (Dissanayake) by artisans for those who can afford them.

In fact, further on, in the section of the Treatise from where you quote Hume, he observes and explains the phenomenon of those of lower means deriving pleasure from the objects of those of higher means. [What a delicate way to put it!]

I think this provides further supports your case. Our aesthetic lives are at home "in the home." If Hume is correct, it will be the homes of others, most likely better off.

One last observation. In the German Ideology, Marx writes that, after the revolution has abolished private wealth, a man will be able to (I forget the exact quote) fish in the morning, tend the crops in the afternoon, paint in the evening, etc. The Emersonian beauty and lunacy of this dream reveals an aesthetic Marx (even if the output would be decidedly pedestrian).

Tom Leddy said...

Dear MD Ontology: Somehow I missed this comment when it was posted more than four years ago. Sorry for that. Most of us have little occasion to visit the homes of people who are better off than us. The classes at least in the US exist pretty much in isolation from each other. But from what I have seen in the media, the lives of the wealthy seem to filled usually with their own brand of expensive kitsch. Yet we might visit someone who has an authentic Monet painting or someone who has very good taste in architecture and design and can afford the best. I have had these experiences, but only rarely. My brother, who is a well known architect designed a house in Pennsylvania which I got to be shown by the owners. Most of these kinds of experiences are associated with museum exhibits, especially museums that exist in the former homes of wealthy people, for instance a mansion near New Orleans. I have often enjoyed visiting these mansions, including the grandest ones of kings and queens to be found in Europe. The pleasures I get from this do not however play an important role in my life. However I have been thinking longingly of experiencing something I surely cannot afford, i.e. high-end cuisine. You are correct that there are aesthetic delights only available to the wealthy. High-end cars would be another example. It is also of course possible to have enhanced delight in the ordinary things of ones own middle-class or lower-class everyday existence. But the two kinds of delight, in high-end artisanship and in ordinary things seen in an aestheticized way, seem different. The second may involve more enhanced imaginative perception. Marx's vision might allow for the later only at the loss of the former, although perhaps the commune could support a specialized high-end artisan producing objects for the common good. In any case I agree that Marx is an advocate of enhanced everyday aesthetic experience especially for the proletariat.