Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Painting, equality and the ‘aesthetic regime of art’

There is a painting by Degas in the Philadelphia Art Museum that illustrates well what Jacques Ranciére means by the “aesthetic regime of art” (one of three “regimes”, the other two of which — the “ethical regime of images” and the “representative regime of art” — preceded the “aesthetic regime” historically). It shows a man leaning against the wall of a lamp-lit bedroom and a woman sitting on a chair in what seems like a state of either despair or shock, or perhaps melancholy; and it speaks eloquently, albeit non-specifically, about what has occurred between these two people without losing the enigmatic dimension of art’s multivocality, which here enters the domain of the sublime, or “presenting the unpresentable” (Lyotard).

The maudlin atmosphere created by the Victorian wallpaper in the room, echoed by the lampshade, an open (suit)case of some kind — suggesting the man may be a doctor (although the expression of intransigence on his face seems to belie this possibility) — his coat on the bed, the vulnerability that emanates from the woman’s rosy arms and neck, together with her hunched shoulders, suggests a lovers’ quarrel, or perhaps something more serious, like an unwanted pregnancy, or the presence of the Victorian counterpart of our era’s “disease of love” (as Foucault called Aids), namely syphilis.

The interpretive possibilities — responsible ones, however, responding to the presented image-configuration — are endless, hence the intimation of the sublime. After all, what is represented here is intelligible, but in the fullness of its possible meanings not adequately presentable. What transports the spectator into the domain of the sublime is its suggestion of the dimension of a complex human relationship: it is there, almost tangibly, trailing its apparent, but opaque history like a comet’s tail, refusing the spectator’s attempt to grasp or decipher it once and for all.

But apart from the “modern” sublime, which (according to Lyotard) alludes to the unpresentable sublime by the omission of certain contents (as in this painting), the painting also enacts what Ranciére calls the “distribution of the sensible”. As in the case of all art, painting contributes to this “distribution” in a complex discursive manner — although Ranciére is careful to specify that it is in the space of reciprocity between theoretical works that articulate the conditions of possibility of a certain kind of art, on the one hand, and artworks (or texts), on the other, that such “distribution” (or re-distribution) becomes possible.

What does this mean? For Ranciére, art of the aesthetic regime contributes to this process through the insertion of a moment of “dissensus” into the hierarchical conventional fabric of society. At the same time such an artwork of the “aesthetic regime” also brings about an implicit reconfiguration in relation to the hierarchical structuring of society in and by the art of the representative regime. The latter, which derives from Aristotle, is predicated on the normative distinction between genres of art according to the kind of objects that they represent — tragedy representing “nobler” actions (as objects) than comedy, for instance, and paintings of kings, capable of “noble actions”, occupying a higher position than those of commoners. Simultaneously, however, the art of the representative regime, together with its corresponding theory (Aristotle’s) perpetuates a certain social stratification through normative representation.

Art of the aesthetic regime — corresponding more or less to what is commonly referred to as “modern” art — upsets the applecart, in so far as it takes anything and everything that human experience is privy to, as its legitimate object(s). Hence the painting by Degas, referred to above, does not belong to the representative regime — not so much because the characters and furnishings comprising its aesthetic-social space clearly do not belong to the aristocracy, but because its “(re-)partitioning of the sensible” is carried out in such a way that it constitutes the relationship between the two non-aristocratic characters (a man and a woman) as being sufficiently significant to warrant the serious attention of an artist. In other words, the painting disrupts the socially stratified space of classes endowed with different degrees of importance through its “dissenting” act, introducing a radical human and social “equality” into this space.

Among the paintings comprising one of the greatest assets of the Philadelphia Art Museum, its collection of Duchamps, my personal favourite is Nude Descending the Stairs, because of the exemplary way in which it resists coherent self-presentation at a sensory or perceptual level, while still allowing the viewer to grasp it cognitively in so far as one is able to reconcile the desubstantialised, fragmented image with something intelligible. One’s gaze being guided by what you “intend” there in the form of a moving woman, the shards of colour tend to gel tentatively into a recognisable shape — even a beautiful one. But no matter how hard one tries to hold this intellectually intuited idea as a unitary image in one’s mind, so to speak, it always manages to slip from that mental grasp into the ambivalent space of the sublime. The elation experienced in the contemplation of this work is, I would argue, inseparable from being drawn into this space.

But again, as soon as one desists from reflecting on the painting in such traditional terms as the sublime, and switch to the register provided by Ranciére, the political significance of the painting becomes apparent. The painting is decidedly abstract, the fragments only lending themselves to intuition in terms of something “representing” the unknowable “figure” of (a) woman — Freud would probably have loved this painting — with some effort on the part of the viewer, and intentionally guided by the title.

The abstraction in question also has a different function, though — not only Duchamp, but several other painters worldwide during the heady days of abstract expressionism, cubism, fauvism, conceptualism, (Malevich’s) suprematism and futurism, may be understood as having used the genre- and object-indifference of the aesthetic regime to demonstrate a different kind of equality, this time not only regarding human society.

By using the lens of abstraction as vantage point on the world in all its variegatedness, these painters — like Duchamp here — achieved two things at once. They enacted a redistribution of the sensible which posited the fundamental axiological equality of everyone, but ALSO everything visible (and by implication sayable) in the world, and in so doing, they executed an eco-political act, which is visible in their canvases, even if they may not have intended it. (Not that this is surprising — all signifiers are multivocal, harbouring more meanings than anyone who uses them can ever intend.) And this articulation of the realm of the sensible — the world of sense, and what makes sense — has discursive effects in social reality.

The upshot of Ranciére’s notion of the aesthetic regime of art is nothing short of revolutionary, in so far as the freedom to select any subject matter, and to treat it in any possible way (visually, literarily, musically, cinematically), intimates a temporality that is open to an indeterminate future. This is a future where the possibility of a different society and a different natural domain beckons — where everything comprising the multicoloured spectrum of Earth’s inhabitants is endowed with equal value.

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