Friday, July 9, 2010

Aesthetics: "the new disorder"

I've been reading Ranciere on aesthetics (which could mean a lot of things since he seems to be Mr. Aesthetics), and this is my first go at him: Aesthetics and its Discontents. I've posted recently on Romantic German aesthetics and some basic aesthetics history, but sifting through my last two years of class handouts and notes in an attempt to clean house has found me many forgotten aesthetic gems in the way of xeroxed excerpts from books I didn't know existed or can't afford (thanks to my professors for that). I soon got the idea that based on the sheer size of this paper stack (which I had heartily devoured last spring) I might be semi-prepared for reading some more contemporary approaches to aesthetics.

So first, I am really surprised how prepared I was for reading Ranciere! (I mean that to be the opposite of braggy. I've been feeling awfully, awfully stupid.) The style was a little difficult after laying off reading for awhile, but I got through it, and was galvanized for more reading. But only after some near-hallucinatory effects brought on by philosophical vocabulary recall overload coupled with no air conditioning.

When cultural critics and professors talk about Ranciere's writing they call it "incisive" or "trenchant," and lots of other fancy words that have to do with slicing and cutting things. I thought that was interesting, because while Ranciere does cut through a lot of long-held ideas and conventions about thinking about art, you do have to have some heavy reading under your belt to actually see the cutting action. What held me back the most, at first, was that he does not write in parallels -- that is, he will lay out three-ish unnumbered points and rebut them with exactly four numbered points, and so on. This non-parallel style is consistent at least -- his sentences are not parallel either, something that usually gets an American student those red double lines marked on his paper. Perhaps this is a feature of French style. Sentences are perfectly understandable (and shorter) without being forced into parallels, and we are Yankee ninnies to require such a thing at all times. Arguments, however, can be a little harder to follow when you don't know which point counters which or if they are even related points and counterpoints at all. You just read the whole thing and then stand back to see what you learned, then reread it hoping to le Dieu tout puissant it still says kinda the same thing. You can't just tick off notes as you go along. This conversational sort of argument development is probably a function of Frenchness as well. So Ranciere's arguments are in no way disorganized, they are just not "textbook" like we are taught to read and write as undergraduates. His non-parallel is nonpareil! Maybe. But as for the incisiveness? It's more like he lacerates than slices. You're left on your own to interpret a few hanging jagged edges.

Getting past Ranciere's style (which I have to consider in a book on aesthetics don't you think?), I read this book not knowing what to expect from "politics" going in. This is one book of his that actually does not have "politics" in the title, but I knew they'd be a big deal. Aren't they always?! I'm often a keep'em separated thinker (ideas in little TV tray sections, mixed together only if I choose to double-dip the fork), and I don't mix my politics with my art. Gag me with a spoon. But I had a feeling Ranciere was going to explain that popular mash-up in a way I could tolerate or even find palatable, and give politics a better (more complex, less bitter) role than it has in most thinker's aesthetics. Or maybe even deny politics altogether. (Gasp!)

What I'll do here (which might be incredibly boring but it will help me a lot, and maybe even help you if you like aesthetics but fear the heady stuff), is give a quick summary and discussion on the introduction to this book, which does a fairly good job of explaining where the book will go and ties in amazingly (to me anyway) with aesthetic things I've already learned and talked about here. This is all I can do these days.

He had me at the first line, "Aesthetics has a bad reputation," and then I knew we were on the same page. Ranciere discusses a few (unnumbered and they blur together) objections that academics, cultural critics, and aesthetic philosophers themselves have had to aesthetics since its name and initial "purpose" were conceived in the mid-eighteenth century. I tried to pull out and separate these points, even though they could not (in my ability) be made to match the counterpoints he will offer.

First objection -- Aesthetics perpetuates avant gardism, which is, like, baaad.
This one is glossed over because we who study aesthetics know it's a pretty naive and untenable position, one that art or ideas about art are bad just because they are "out there," or self-serving, or make promises and conjectures about something outside of art. All these objections and more could be argued for separately to try to take down certain, perhaps misguided, aims of avant gardism, but a blanket objection to the avant garde would probably only be made today by someone who doesn't even know what avant garde refers to and can't even think of a good example of it, and will likely confuse it with things postmodern. Those who object to what they might call "art for art's sake" might not realize the very art they call by that moniker is really for the "sake" of many other ideas, and they might not realize that they themselves don't even have any consistent criteria for what art is or isn't -- so what the heck is their basis for objecting? It's funny that these objections almost always concern visual art, because those not willing to study what they're looking at probably don't read. You hear many more complaints about toilets turned upside-down than about Finnegan's Wake. Anyhow, Ranciere passes on explaining why this objection has "gone out of fashion," but I'm willing to bet it's still very much on the lips of your average plastic arts audience.

Second objection -- "Aesthetik" the dominatrix.
Like most philosophy, aesthetics came to be seen by some as a system of thought that sought to dominate its subject. This is an especial concern for art, since some of it prides itself on flying under intellectual radar, or on turning rationality on its head. Even more traditional, figural art claims to come from some transcendent place, inspired by muses and other non-corporeal forces, and sometimes seems to object to being analyzed by the aesthetic thinker. Hegel, spirited as his geist system is (I will never get past making Hegel puns and jokes), rationalizes art's apparent power over us and relegates it to a backseat on the geist ride. In the end, it merely serves the progress of man. Kant uses art as a way into discussing morality. Schiller endows art with magical equality-making powers. In each of these instances, "aesthetics came to be the perverse discourse which bars [our] encounter [with art], and which subjects works, or our appreciation thereof, to a machine of thought conceived for other ends: the philosophical absolute, the religion of the poem, or the dream of social emancipation." Our experience of art and the art itself was being marginalized to make way for "bigger" ideas.

Third objection -- Those crazy Romantics!
By the time philosophers and poets really got going on writing on aesthetics (during the Romantic period), there were critics waiting to take them down. Romantic ideas about art are still criticized today. Ranciere discusses Shaeffer's and Badiou's objections to the Romantic approach. They "denounce aesthetics as a confused type of thinking involving a Romantic confounding of pure thought, sensible affects and artistic practices." They are most concerned that art and its "glorious sensuous presence" will be suffocated by the discourse on it. The pith of this concern is similar to that of the second objection, that art will be suffocated or dominated by thought. However, this third objection does not fear the clinical, rational thought of the Enlightenment or even of the 20th century, but the confusion and proliferation of all sorts of ideas in every direction that the Romantics' prolific, fragmented, reflective, and speculative writings might inspire. (I personally think these detractors may just be envious of that Romantic ability to think and create simultaneously, to be artist and critic in one, and to then reflect on the very fact that that is indeed what is happening in one's writing. I'd be envious too.)

Fourth objection -- Where's the politics?!
Some critics find all the confounding and confusing and even the more rational discourse on aesthetics to be useless because it all mostly ignores the realities of class division, the echo of politics in art, and the danger of the aesthetic utopia leading to a real totalitarian utopia (think about the role an "aesthetic" played in Nazi Germany). Some of these critics (the more well-respected critics' "chorus of subcontractors" Ranciere calls them) may want to throw out the baby with the bathwater and can aesthetics altogether. Others want to remind us of the distinctions between the creation, enjoyment, and social effects of art so that we stop being so "confused" by it. Ranciere argues, again and again (and I love this), that this very confusion is a "knot" that holds aesthetics together. Untying the knot wouldn't do. There goes the aesthetics.

Before Ranciere gets to his four "nonpareil" rebuttals (which, funny thing, he labels extremely clearly as "...four points...This is the first point...This is the second point..."), he goes on a little rant about how Schaeffer uses a story by Stendhal to show a distinction between the everyday aesthetic of beautiful impressions from life (Stendhal's inclusion of real sounds and his real childhood impressions of them in his story) and the aesthetic of art (the fictional story). Here's a short paragraph that starts to show the problem with making such a distinction:

"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."

And there you have a non-parallel sentence, and there you have the blur! The blur can be likened to the knot, I suppose.

The distinctly Romantic confusions that proliferated at Jena and elsewhere seem to be the perfect methods for seeking to interpret a new (for its time) kind of art like Stendhal's, in which life and art is blurred just like the philosopher's seemingly fuzzy thoughts; a new kind of art which becomes "at once more intimate and enigmatic" just like the aesthetic writings it inspires. (As I type this wonky sentence from notes it seems circular, but NO! It's the knot again. Ranciere will say it: aesthetics cannot exist without art, and art cannot exist as we know it today without aesthetics.) Think of that! Aesthetics as philosophizing that happens because it is inspired by something. Not because it seeks to dominate it or unravel it, but to participate in it. Aesthetik is no dominatrix after all. She is the muse of the art critic, and even an auxiliary muse of the artist.

The anatomy of the knot brings me to the next and final section of the introduction -- Ranciere's four points that promise to turn the "anti-aesthetic arguments...on their heads."

He starts with the point I alluded to above -- that art and aesthetics are symbiotic. He gives it in a one-two punch: "If aesthetic sentiment is to exist, it is not sufficient that pleasure is taken in seeing or hearing [art]work. For art to exist, what is required is a specific gaze and form of thought to identify it." The end of purely representative art was the beginning of a need for some system of discourse to interpret and think through what is going on in art. When art became paradoxical, consequently so did our methods of thinking about it. And the paradoxes of aesthetics should not be mistaken for confusions or "fantasies."

Ranciere's second point is that aesthetics is not really a "discipline" like philosophy, and it can't stifle art or force it in one direction or another. The first aesthetic thinkers did not "invent" or initiate the "slow revolution in the forms of presentation and perception" that they were describing and interpreting. They did not invent the new art forms, "but they did elaborate the regime of intelligibility within which they could be thought."

Ranciere's third point, and this is a toughy, is that the aesthetic paradox, inconsistency and confusion which forms the basis of many of today's objections is already there within the aesthetics as an objection. The Romantic thinkers themselves questioned what they were doing, tried to meld aesthetics with art and keep it from the molding hands of philosophy, and even questioned the very name of the thing, whose etymology denotes something solely about the senses rather than the intellect or the demiurge. The objections being contained within the early aesthetic writings themselves means to Ranciere that "our contemporaries strive in vain" to make the same denouncements. "Yesterday's excuse is as superfluous as today's accusation. The in-appropriation is constitutive." In other words, this very tension within aesthetics is essential to aesthetics. Sounds like a knot again! F. Schlegel, younger of the two "diabolical brothers [ha!] so gravely accused of being responsible for fostering the fatal illusions of speculative and Romantic aesthetics," was perhaps the most conflicted and apologetic about his own thinking. He was also a poet, as were many of his aesthetic buddies. I think the Romantics' personal stake in art makes them an even better judge of what aesthetics can or can't do to it. Today's thinkers are not usually approaching art from within, but from some high up and abstract place.

The final point is that politics does not function with or within art the way the art politicos make it out to. Art is the great political resister, defying association with a class, stirring up feelings of equality, making us remember something like "human nature" (wait, don't the postmodernists deny that there ever was such a thing?!), creating a "suspension of the rules," a "free play," a "promise we could not live without." And for Ranciere, the very loss of this promise (the realization that art is not a political driver, that it won't deliver on the promise) is what makes it so sweet.

And then we are reminded that yes, there will be a lot of politics in this book, and so it begins.

This is a fairly new book and not even a huge number of the smarty pants crowd have read it yet (but the only people I saw on Goodreads who've reviewed it besides me were definitely smarty pantsies). So I guess what I'm hoping here is that someone will show up and talk with me about it. 'Cause maybe I don't get it at all.

I want to write at least one more time on this book. The second chapter deals with "critical art" and I really have a lot of things to say about that (rather than just typing up a glorified summary of it), since I like my art with more Dionysus and less Apollo, and since it's a chance to get mad at postmodernisms. And that always makes for a lively evening.


  1. Honestly! I have been writing a bibliography of aesthetics all summer and love what you are doing here by "working out" your understanding of texts on the blogosphere... helpful and interesting!

    You give a tantalizing glimpse at the beginning of the post into your "forgotten aesthetic gems".. do you have any recommendations?!

    Best, & good luck,

  2. Hi Carmen,

    Most of the "forgotten" things I think I was referring to (trying to remember, I have a cold!) were those Romantics I keep mentioning. I wrote a post last month I titled "More German Pretties" and that talks about the Romantic "aestheticians" (and their contemporaries) who probably don't get studied all that much anymore in the wake of politics. I put a list of books at the end of that post.

    Also in my pile from my classes were some 19th century lurkers like Baudelaire (The Flowers of Evil) and his dandy friends, and Bergson's Laughter, and 20th century fellows like Lyotard. Ranciere keeps mentioning Badiou but I've never read him (yet).

    Hope this helps! I'm diving into working out some more Ranciere this week, and slightly disagreeing with him about some points on postmodern art.

  3. Thanks so much, Robyn. I actually read your comment ages ago and thought, "awesome!" and "helpful!" and then prolonged my follow-through.. until now. So thank you.

    I just finished Ranciere's The Politics of Aesthetics (which, speaking of style, is INFINITELY WORSE than Aesthetics/Discontents. I'm on my way through Aesthetics and Discontents right now, and looking forward to your post on postmodern art.


I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.