What’s New In Aesthetics?: Jacques Ranciere’s ‘Aisthesis’


Jacques Rancière’s new book Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (Verso, 2013) is arguably the most important work in the field of aesthetics since the publication of Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory in 1970. It is a highly interdisciplinary work that includes engaging accounts of painting, sculpture, literature, theatre, dance, design, photography and cinema. In reconstructing the historical networks that give these various practices their significance, Rancière also explores the writings of critics, historians and philosophers, some obscure and others well known. The resulting tapestry is a “counter-history” intended to correct the standard picture of modernism in the arts, the one according to which each medium achieves its self-purification.

In place of the familiar story about the “conquest of autonomy by each art,” Rancière constructs a narrative about the simultaneous emergence and cross-fertilization of the artistic and political avant-gardes. In this respect, his counter-history attempts to recover the political capacities that art and aesthetics lost with the advent of the idea of modernism.

Each of the book’s 14 chapters visits an important and in some instances largely forgotten moment in the history of art. Examples include Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s description of the Belvedere Torso in his book The History of Ancient Art (1764), Loïe Fuller’s Serpentine Dance (1891), the program of social art advanced by the French art critic Roger Marx (1859-1913), and the films of Dziga Vertov (1896-1954) and Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977). In each, Rancière finds a unique proposition regarding the nature of art. He pieces these fragments together in search of the new idea of art—what he calls the “aesthetic regime of art”—that emerged at the end of the 18th century, and which he thinks continues into our own day.  

In a number of previous publications, Rancière has argued that our understanding of art today can be traced back to the revolution in European culture that accompanied the French Revolution. Aisthesis is Rancière’s fullest and most far-reaching attempt to give empirical content to the idea of aesthetic art. This idea of art is misunderstood, Rancière thinks, when it is conceived as the progressive separation of art from life. Instead, Rancière detects in the aesthetic regime a movement that blurs the boundaries between art and life, as well as the partitions thought to exist between the arts themselves. This means that art, for Rancière, is irredeemably political in that it continually alters what can be seen and thought. For him, even the most abstract and remote forms alter what he calls the “distribution of the sensible,” the distribution of bodies, voices, roles and capacities at work in any community.

Perhaps the chapter that best exemplifies Rancière’s aims vis-à-vis aesthetics is the one devoted to Roger Marx extoling the decorative arts of Émile Gallé and the jewelry of René Lalique before a group of workers. At first, such a lecture appears highly ironic. As the scene unfolds, however, we learn from Marx and Rancière that we need not be overly concerned about the fact that only the rich possess these objects. Their creation confuses the social hierarchies that separate the craftsperson from the artist. They thus offer lessons in what it means for aesthetics to overcome seemingly intractable social structures.      

One thing that Aisthesis shows is that we should forget the tired and very old laments about the power of the art market. Rancière teaches that the politics of art and aesthetics lies elsewhere. It belongs to the apprehension (not the acquisition) of an object that breaks with customary divisions of labor and places us in a state of contemplative bliss that belongs to everyone and no one.