Thursday, August 4, 2016

Rancière "Aesthetics and its Discontents"

I am no expert on Rancière but I am beginning to think that his work should be of interest to everyday aestheticians.  So here I will just make a couple comments on the Introduction to his book Aesthetics and its Discontents.  What I like about Rancière is that he has some valuable things to say about the relationship between art and the aesthetics of everyday life.  I also like the scope of this thinking:  he tries to relate it to such big figures as Kant, Schelling, Hegel, and so forth, as well as to French contemporaries like Bourdieu.  His attempts to relate aesthetics to politics can also be fascinating.  This kind of scope is not typical of the English speaking aesthetics I grew up with, and so entering into the world of Rancière can be disconcerting, to say the least, but still worth it.  

Much of Rancière's concern is local to the French intellectual scene and thus not of much interest to someone living on the West coast of the U.S. like myself.  I have no intention to wade into those waters. Still, I have long been concerned with two questions in aesthetics, the question of the definition of art and the question of the nature of aesthetic experience including experiences outside of the domain of art.  Because of this, I am particularly interested in the intersection between these two questions and domains.  

Rancière speaks of an example brought up by Jean-Marie Schaeffer and taken from Stendhal's autobiographical work Vie de Henry Brulard.  The example is that of insignificant noises first noticed in childhood: ringing church bells and the noise of a water pump.  These Schaeffer compares to Shen Fu's talk of seeing mountains in a molehills as a small child.  So Schaeffer thinks this shows a cross cultural aesthetic attitude not directed to artworks.  I think Schaeffer is right about this: if we turn to the powerful aesthetic experiences of childhood we can overcome an overly art centered notion of aesthetics.  At the same time, Rancière makes a good point in reply, that Stendhal in this writing is blurring the distinction between art and life, and provides a new insight into what Rancière calls "sensory microevents."  Rancière then writes, "Far from demonstrating the independence of aesthetic attitudes with respect to artworks, Stendhal testifies to an aesthetic regime in which the distinction between those things that belong to art and those that belong to ordinary life are blurred."  (5)  I agree with this too.  Rancière then wants to reveal the new form, arising first at the end of the 18th century, "taken by the relation between the conscious productions of art and the involuntary forms of sensory experience in which their effects are manifest." (5) And he thinks this is what Kant, Shelling and Hegel were trying to do; Kant through his theory of genius and aesthetic ideas, Shelling through his talk of unity between conscious and unconscious processes, and Hegel through his story of the development of art to a Romantic form that recognizes such everyday life scenes as those portrayed in the genre paintings of the Dutch.  So we are talking here about a "new education of the senses informed by the insignificant noises and events of ordinary life" (6) a new education associated with the rise of republican sentiments during those years, ca. 1787.  This makes me realize that the rise of everyday aesthetics as a concern goes back to the origins of aesthetics itself.

Rancière observes that aesthetics has been accused of "confusion," i.e. of confusing boundaries between distinct categories, for example art and everyday life.  But his approach is to actually glory in this confusion.  I feel that I can ally with this since my own efforts in everyday aesthetics have sought to find a continuity and close relation between the aesthetics of everyday life and the aesthetics of art, an effort that might be seen as a "confusion" by those who wish to keep these categories rigidly distinct.  

Rancière situates his discussion within a definition of art.  The definition is not entirely clear:  but here goes:  "For a statue or a painting to be adjudged art, two apparently contradictory conditions are required.  The work in question must be seen as a product of an art and not as a simple image that is to be judged solely in accordance with the legitimacy of its principle or its factual resemblance.  But it must also be seen as something that is more than just the product of an art, more than the rule-bound exercise of a savoir-faire."  (6)   He further asserts that the something else needed for something to be art is a story told, for example for a dance to be art it needs to tell a story. When we left the "mimetic regime" and entered into the "aesthetic regime" of art there came a new close relation between poesis and aesthesis, a "discordant relation" which he sees Kant, Adorno, Schiller, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as thinking through.  

To conclude today's post, Rancière is of importance to everyday aestheticians because he shows how fundamental everyday aesthetics is to the constitution of art itself within the "aesthetic regime" i.e. after the invention of aesthetics as a discipline in the 18th century.  "'Aesthetics' is a word that expresses the singular knot that, posing a problem for thought, formed two centuries ago between the sublimities of art and the noise of a water pump..."  

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