The intersection of art and politics

imageWhat does art have to do with politics? Jacques Rancière formerly Professor of Philosophy and Theory of Art in Paris ruminates on this with his book, the Politics of Images (Read in German as Politik der Bilder). A regime governs the relationship between the speakable and the visible, it determines what can painted or may be said on stage. It determines the appropriateness of the presentation to the genre. For example: The eyes gouged out of Oedipus were still as unrepresentable on stage during the time of Corneille.

The regulations of the regime may change the course of history. Rancière reminds us that in the 19th century the aesthetic of mimesis has been surpassed. Since then, what can be presented in art governs the laws of production and self-expression. The breaking out from the compulsion to representation also ushered in the realist novel. Everything has become picture worthy, and all things can be displayed in the same manner. Flaubert’s dictum “Yvetot is the equal of Constantinople,” and that consequently one can write about any one thing just as well as any other, illustrates this point.

The relationship between word and image in “Le destin des images” (the French title in 2003)  is therefore determined by a discourse that permeates and formed both literature and the visual arts. It acts as a normative power. That was and is the fate of the images.

As a theorist, Rancière becomes the successor of Michel Foucault, who had described the mechanisms of the regime in its “order of discourse”. Rancière refers to Foucault’s statements on the field of art. The “image politics” is therefore one which is regulated in the discourse on which it is also involved, and especially the word, either in theory or in criticism. How, what and why something is shown in the picture, what does it do with the particular discursive formation, with the dos and don’ts of a socially dominant idea of the art. The art then takes their specific means to take in accordance with the regime of discourse statements. Rancière examines the moments which are in the range of the pictorial arts, such as painting or film, and the “Image Set”. The image-set is a way of signifying. Here a second informant comes into play: Roland Barthes. Rancière ties them-what the analysis and critique of cinematographic works or art exhibitions terms – to the ‘ “Mythologies”. Barthes described in this collection of essays the phenomena of popular culture as the mask of ideology. Rancière is in some ways the early Barthes continued; regarding the analysis of artistic productions, and prescribed it as an expression of a regime of art, which in turn connects to Foucault. This link to Barthes and succession to Foucault provide the most revealing insights when he looks around the modernist program of the fusion of art and life as part of a historical dispositif, which has now failed.

Left behind were two kinds of art: One which wants only be self-sufficient, and another one that abolishes itself in its otherness, by identifying with the “forms” that it achieves an updated life, as if they are the latest position art appropriates. Both types of art want to eliminate the mediation of the image, realizing the immediate identity of act and form. Thus, they do not escape the power of discourse, which continues to regulate any preoccupation with art, whether it comes to deciphering, interpretation and criticism, or to influence and effect names from other sectors of society such as the market. There is simply nothing that escapes the control of the regime, once it gets into the public eye. An art can be taken seriously in private but it cannot give anything out like a restricted language.

Rancière shares the grief of the failed project of a resolution of the art does not exist, but he also denied the pleasure of appearance of images, which gave oneself over to the affections, which the late Barthes finally revealed.

Rancière continues to focus on education and criticism, even if he sees only a few artists or works of art that could withstand his assessment. Even as he often mentions in the book, Jean-Luc Godard appears in Rancière’s eyes now only constantly reproducing a certain order of discourse and hardly able to do something to autonomously to counter. This hope for autonomy but lights up when Rancière persists on the horizon of art. Whether the art could escape the rule of discourse, whether he was tricked, undermined or even broken, seems to be more just one of those longings.

So far, only obscure words such as “immanent transcendence”, “glorious essence of the image” or “naked identity of otherness” can the self statutory art conjure. Thus, it appears that the say-ability of Rancière’s own discourse can not catch up with the visibility of art.


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