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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.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Maria Maria 24 March 2013

    If I read you (and Ranciére) correctly, his “aesthetic regime of art” is a manifestation of equality in the most radical manner, which ultimately has eco-political implications. If this is right, then art that resorts under this regime would surpass the frame as aestheticizing device, because Ranciére has deconstructed the boundary between art and life, but very differently from the way it is done in postmodernist theories of art.

  2. Sophia Sophia 24 March 2013

    Bert, you will be familiar with the counterpoint to this potentially “revolutionary” moment of “freedom to select any subject matter, & to treat it in any possible way” described by Baudrillard in his ‘Transaesthetics’ essay. There he seems to bemoan the eclipse of the sublime & disappearance of the ‘other scene’. In fact, for Baudrillard, art has struck its death knell with the arrival of Duchamp & Warhol, for we have lost ‘criteria of judgement or of pleasure’ instead, a torpid indifference arises in response to the perspective of ‘everything as art’. Baudrillard’s essay heralds a time when the unrepresentable has come to be presented everywhere, & everyone is an artist. In this he sees the mechanisms of commercialisation, simulation, erasure & ‘museumification’ rather than ‘the possibility of a different society, ‘…we manufacture a profusion of images in which there is nothing to see.” We are now relieved from the task (& the ability) of distinguishing the beautiful from the ugly. While I appreciate the utopian intent in endowing the ‘multicoloured spectrum of Earth’s inhabitants…with equal value…’, I’m not sure that that’s what makes art important & valuable. Notwithstanding the beauty of ‘Nude Descending the Stairs’, in Delillo’s ‘Point Omega’ he offers a potential antidote to Baudrillard’s qualm, i.e. the possibility of subverting our immersion in the aesthetic, by desisting from our demands for it & thereby ironically discovering it.

  3. Lin Lin 24 March 2013

    Can somebody please translate this?

  4. Bert Bert 25 March 2013

    Sophia – In the essay you refer to, Baudrillard has not strayed far from what he claimed in an earlier essay, on The Ecstasy of Communication, where he bemoaned the omni-visibility of everything in our era. I am more sympathetic this last claim than to what he says in the Transaesthetics essay. For one thing, our culture in its entirety, as Lyotard argued persuasively, has become ‘sublime’ in terms of its unassimilable complexity, let alone artworks – like the ‘artwork’ in the exhibition curated by Lyotard, called Les Immaterieaux – which can capture this sublimicist tenor appropriately. What Ranciére is talking about is different, in that, not everything has become art, nor everyone an artist. From the perspective of what he calls the aesthetic regime of art, it has become more difficult than ever to produce art, but with this proviso, that everything has become the legitimate subject matter for art, unlike before, under the other two hierarchy-inculcating regimes. Ranciére is really talking about an art – graphic design, painting, cinema, literature – that has become truly critical in its efficacy. In Mute Speech he talks about how this has occurred in literature – probably his ‘masterpiece’, among his books – but the essays in Dissensus give you better access to his thought about politics and aesthetics.Far from having to be ‘applied’ to politics, art IS political, because of its capacity to ‘re-distribute the sensible’.

  5. Walt Walt 25 March 2013

    @Lin: Look up Marcel Duchamp’s object of 1917, called “Fountain” – the original now lost – signed “R. Mutt” and add to that Joseph Beuys’: “How to explain Art to a dead Hare” and there you have it: “the freedom to select any subject matter, and to treat it in any possible way”. The spectator, if left bewildered, may also turn to the outspoken critic Walter Kerr who used to say: “I’ll yell tripe when tripe is served.”

  6. Bert Bert 25 March 2013

    Max – Yes, thank you – I could not recall the title (which is given as ‘Interior’ in the Museum). But it is indeed this one, and I am glad that my interpretation is compatible with the alternative title of the painting – The Rape. It is an incredibly powerful painting – much more so than most of the paintings usually associated with Degas.

  7. Glen Tomlinson Glen Tomlinson 25 March 2013

    Lin, I don’t blame you for asking for a translation. Bert is clearly of the school that a painting is not worth a thousand (coherent) words. Heaven sake man this is an appallingly bad article on a really interesting subject.

    Lin, the man introduced the article with reference to a very powerful painting titled Interior by Edgar Degas, painted around 1868-1869. The painting is housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You should take a look at it, it is fascinating. Whatever your view of it is; I am sure you will feel it is unsettling, claustrophobic and slightly seedy. It is often understandably called The Rape.

    Even though Degas is commonly categorised as an Impressionist, he liked to think he was a Realist in the vein of Corot and Coubert. While his subject matter was often of hard working dancers, entertainers, jockeys and horses it often altered according to his financial welfare (he would paint subject matter that was easier to sell) ‘Interior’ is an uncomfortable, but not unexpected fit amongst most of his subject matter.

    Don’t worry about trying to follow the dear man down his own rabbit hole of aesthetic, ethical and representative regime theories…no one could. Look at the painting and draw your own conclusions. That’s the beauty of art appreciation. Each piece tells its own story in the eloquent words of the artists individual brush strokes. When it is viewed in the context of when it was…

  8. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 25 March 2013

    @ Lin, let me give it a bash, essentially as I understand it, Bert in his two examples of art works is pointing to the ability of these specific artists to get us to see beyond the usual, and at the same time leaving what we see undecided. In Degas’s “The Interior”, was the woman raped, is she being rescued, is she in a drugged state? Is the man leaning against the door her brother, her pimp, her doctor or her client? At the same time a political/ value point is being made, that of all subjects of art being of equal worth to paint, each subject has the potential to be art. Which begs the question of why only in art, why not too in everyday life? Everybody is of equal worth?

    Traditional art, my take on it, seeks to represent reality like a photo, as it is, except it inadvertently ends up capturing the artist’s view of the world, and thus often the bias of the time. This kind of art (Degas and Duchamp’s), allows us, even forces us, to interpret it in our own way, thus breaking the hold of the dominant view, whilst at the same time not allowing a new view to dominate, because everyone’s take on the paintings will be different. In that moment of indecision, as we try to make sense of what we see, is a moment of true freedom, in that anything is possible…

  9. NATE IV NATE IV 26 March 2013

    It reminds me of this blogger (to whom I bow) I came across a while ago who interpret his favourite movie titles (a title per article) like they were works of art. What I enjoyed the most was that even for a lay, more so a darkie from the township, I’d nod whilst reading. It didn’t feel arcane or not on my level (though that’s still the case) – it appealed to both the low/high brow.

    The savour faire with which he proffered good movie titles as overtures for the subtext made the reading experience a lethargic Sunday afternoon in the art gallery curated by an aesthete of paratext. Heck, he made me envy the “authors” of movie titles.

    I have no idea what I’m on about but that’s the whole idea; even I, a youth who is a fan of the trite and generic (hip-hop), was rendered artsy craftsy.

    “…growing up it was music that got me interested in art and politics, not museums or galleries.”
    – Obey

  10. Glen Tomlinson Glen Tomlinson 26 March 2013

    Compare Degas ‘Interior’ with Paul Gavarni’s lithograph Lorettes No. 5 done 27 years earlier in 1841 Degas was hugely inspired by Gavarni. The Gavarni subject was prostitution (Lorette was a euphemism in the day for a prostitute)…the similarities are quite remarkable.

  11. Alon Serper Alon Serper 26 March 2013

    I am thinking of embodied knowledge (eg., Polanyi). and relational knowledge (e.g., Freire). Interpreting paintings, or texts brings to the open and to the reflection and dialogue of other people the life, experiences, emotions, feelings, discourse, developments and learning of the interpreting person. The abstract is then becoming concrete, alive and living in the dialogue among the dialoging person, each embodied with the learning, experiences, emotions, discourses and development that he/she had developed during his/her life time. Then, the question of where the knowledge is going, the use of this knowledge for the benefit and future of humanity is a dialectical one, sublime, grotesque? How do we live a life of dignity, equality and wellbeing for all?

  12. Alon Serper Alon Serper 26 March 2013

    I think the question, who sees it?, the ontology of the person who sees it? is vital. We need to look at our cultural biases and the only way is to anthropologically reflect, who am I? How am I different from other people of different cultures, politics, histories and backgrounds? How was I shaped by the places in which I have been living, the people who have influenced me and with whom I have been living, liberals, conservative? How was ‘I’ formed?

    We are all carrying a baggage that is who we are and which affect our interpretations. We cannot do justice to interpretation and reflections without reflecting at who we are and how we have become who we are?

    Personally, the ten months in which I have been living in SA – a very different and difficult place to the other countries I have been living in – have shaken me into a rigorous ontological and anthropological reflection.

  13. Lin Lin 26 March 2013

    Glen that link isn’t working – this one is (I hope)

    I really appreciate the clarifications – now I’m getting some idea. Maybe it’s just lazy-brains but I find the way in which Fine Art is explained just as confusing as trying understand it in the first place. I also wonder at times if the artist always had in mind the intention that the writer / appreciator is picking up and how do we measure the accuracy? In some cases, the more hidden the meanings in the art the more obscure the writing!

    ‘Bert in his two examples of art works is pointing to the ability of these specific artists to get us to see beyond the usual, and at the same time leaving what we see undecided’ (Gary) – in writing they call that ‘Show not tell’ ?

    That Degas is incredible – had never seen it till now.

  14. Maria Maria 26 March 2013

    Glen, if you don’t have the willingness to come to grips with what Bert has written, don’t blame him; blame yourself. It is not easy to show how Ranciere’s thinking works in relation to specific works of art – I believe that Bert has done a good job – see Gary’s sensible interpretation. Bad article? My foot!

  15. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 26 March 2013

    @ Lin, the way I see it, the artist gives up ownership of the meaning of the painting as soon as it is displayed for others to see, it then gets a life of its own, there is no correct interpretation thereafter, no “accuracy” to be had other than maybe the artist guiding your interpretation by using a title… so in writing, “what you see is what you get”…

  16. NATE IV NATE IV 26 March 2013

    “Interpreting paintings, or texts brings to the open and to the reflection and dialogue of other
    people the life, experiences, emotions, feelings, discourse, developments and. learning of the interpreting person.”
    – Alon

    Right on the money.

  17. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 27 March 2013

    It’s worth noting here – death of the author besides – the context in which both these artists worked. Ranciére appears to be the kind of patent nonsense that would continue to elude practising artists, while ringing clear as a bell to those who have to settle for mere critique.

  18. Lin Lin 27 March 2013

    +1 Nate IV.

    Maria – altho’ the article was well written I’m afraid it would only be understood by a handful of people – and actually needed interpreting. But you are right I guess – go do the homework.

    Hopefully one day I’ll be able to read something like this and actually get it. Thanks again Gary. Got what you are saying. What I saw was what I got -but thanks to your coaching!

  19. Glen Tomlinson Glen Tomlinson 27 March 2013

    Lin. If you are interested in art I highly recommend reading the art critic Robert Hughes. Two books come to mind, “Nothing If Not Critical” and “Shock of the New” He is extremely knowledgeable and understands art and his writing is beautiful and often funny. He is a really good anecdote to the herds of pontificating ‘art critics’ out there.

  20. Bert Bert 28 March 2013

    You obviously have not tried to read Ranciere, Garg….

  21. Lin Lin 28 March 2013

    Thanks Glen – looks like there’s DVDs and downloads for Shock of the New – getting it.

  22. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 28 March 2013

    Quite right. There’s also not much here or on Jacques Rancière‘s wiki page that suggests I’m missing much. Just another Marxist philosopher. This is the stuff of bildungsphilisters.

    Not much there to learn about art. It’s like rock journalism (people who can’t do art interviewing people who can’t do art for people who can’t do art, or something to that effect).

    He’s exactly the kind of chap that Duchamp poked fun at, mind you. I think it’s safe to suggest that neither you nor Rancière get Duchamp.

  23. Fahad Al Tamimi Fahad Al Tamimi 28 March 2013

    Thank you for sharing your info. I truly appreciate your efforts and
    I am waiting for your next write ups thank you once again.

  24. NATE IV NATE IV 29 March 2013

    +1 Lin

    I’m a fish outta water here, but I’d like to think that I got Bert the first time around. Going back again was to glean them subtle nuances the cultivated no doubt intuitively skim through…of course.

    It’s one of ’em communal (selectively) camaraderie where insularity is a key hallmark. Where “crystallized intelligence” and “fluid reasoning” coalesce – a mirage for some of us.

  25. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 1 April 2013

    @ Garg, it must be very comforting to only paint in black and white, to believe so fully in what you do, that no other artists brush strokes have meaning, to know without any shadow of a pencil sketch that anything labelled “marxist” must be without merit or insight, to fill your pallet with the crayons of Wikepedia and to have identified the artistic pretenders so early on!
    For some of us, art, belief, perspective, is a rather messy muddle, sometimes we get what others see, sometimes we just see what others get and sometimes we get what we see…

  26. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 2 April 2013

    Thank you for that puddle. My main gripe with Rancière is not that he is a Marxist, although most Marxists philosophers echo the same refrains and adhere to the same dishonest tactics.

    If Rancière really meant anything to you, or even if you were merely paying attention to these blog posts, you’d recall that your ‘us and them’ notion precisely falsifies Rancière’s earlier efforts. What does this mean for his notions of equality?

    If you reconsider my comments, you’d also notice that it’s not me who has a black and white mentality. Please consider the artists in question more soberly and you’d note it does not bode too well for old Rancière’s broad strokes.

  27. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 4 April 2013

    @ Garg hereby my muddle puddle, my mengelmoes, us and them, could be them Capitalists against us Marxists, could be us the pseudo art interpreters vs. them the real art interpreters or it could be me the unsure, the inattentive vs. you the knower, the keeper of the truth, the judge of honest argument? How am I to know the difference, to which camp do I belong? Is it possible to think Marxists have some merit in their arguments, to glimpse vaguely the equality Ranciere may be referring to, to buy into the notion that all of us have value? Or in order for me to belong must I renounce all criticism of capitalism and never look at a painting again wondering what it must mean to me? Ah, I long for the comfort of knowing with certainty…

  28. Maria Maria 5 April 2013

    Garg, what a laugh! Pretending to be on Duchamp’s side against Ranciere and Bert! As far as I can see, you represent the establishment of self-sufficient capitalism, while Duchamp and Ranciere “poke fun at”, or variously subvert, this establishment – who are you trying to fool?

  29. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 8 April 2013

    What can be more representative of the establishment than the lapdogs that the establishment hires for its academic quarters? Changing the establishment from the inside, are we? I’m revelling in how Duchamp is lost on you guys who are meant to be more informed. But if you stick with the likes of Ranciere, I understand why.

    Please refer to my other comments where I noted how Marx himself was right as rain on several economics topics, for one. Here’s one for you: Is it possible that there’s a discrepancy between Marx’s works and the ideology generally held by Marxists?

    I do believe in the ‘us vs them’ dichotomy, which is to say I believe there are people who can do art and thus also understand it on a level those who cannot do art can only dream about or drool over while they do art vicariously through the likes of Ranciere.I do not subscribe to his notions of equality, precisely because some people cannot do art, just like some people cannot understand how people can be so gullible as to fall for evidently naked emperors, while others still cannot understand how someone like me fails to be impressed by the smoke and mirrors..

    I just think it’s important to give the context of the thinkers mentioned here. Marxism is after all a label within which Ranciere is comfortable, by his own account. It would bias his thinking, so now we know, at least.

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