But Aesthetics is Modern

I can imagine an objection to my previous post: there may be different periods of art but that does not indicate that the notion of the aesthetic is anything more than a peculiarly modern phenomenon, emerging during the Enlightenment as a reflection on the gap between the intelligible and the sensible world and then developing into a reflection on the complex dilemmas of modern and contemporary art.

In this sense, I am mistaken to imagine a correspondence at the level of aesthetics between Ranciere’s ethical, representational and aesthetic regimes of art.  Only the latter regime is properly aesthetic.  Only the latter addresses the disjunction between modern art’s utopian promise and its institutional delineation and alienation.  So if there is also an art of maintenance, recovery and care, this need not imply that it is aesthetic.  It may simply be a legacy of the earlier ethical regime of art.

Yet this seems to confuse two issues, the nature of art and aesthetics, and its historical periodisation (or lack therof, since in Ranciere’s view there is only modern aesthetics – the qualifier ‘modern’ becoming effectively redundant).  The problem, in my view, is that Ranciere is forced to bracket a great deal of what counts as art in the contemporary world as essentially non-aesthetic, in order to defend a notion of the aesthetic as being associated with rare moments in which the sensible world is redistributed.  It is not adequate to argue that every other moment of art is simply a legacy of the ethical or representational regimes of art, or simply lacking in any disruptive force.  There are plainly other interests in contemporary art that need to be addressed – interests that are not simply oriented towards the reconfiguration of sensible experience.

Ranciere distinguishes two main tactics of contemporary art: the strategy of the sublime, in which the unrepresentable is prefigured in order to order to signal the impossibility of art’s reconciliation with the world, and to preserve the hope of some radical beyond; and the communitatarian, relational strategy of dissolving art into everyday life, subverting art’s autonomy and the privileged character of artistic creation.  Yet are these the only two major strategies?  They make sense to me because I am a product of this western critical art tradition, but what of all the other contemporary art?  What of the post-colonial and indigenous art that is also contemporary, but that cannot be so neatly reduced to these two sets of aims.  Take western desert painting from Australia.  Is this work fundamentally focused on post-Enlightenment aesthetic dilemmas, or does it have its own interests and concerns?  It can be read in terms of the sublime and in terms of relational, socially-engaged practice, but this can hardly adequately charaterise what is at stake in this work.  Would it make more sense then to regard it as a kind of anachronistic throw-back to the ethical regime of art?  Should it be removed from aesthetics altogether?  This is only seems to deny the complexity of the present (of multiple presents, multiple arts, multiple aesthetics).  There is a need, in my view, to conceive the aesthetic in more open terms, to remain sensitive to historical difference but to less strictly enforce historical boundaries (particularly when they threaten to consign aspects of the present to the past, effectively silencing them).

In any case, finally, what accounts for the shift from the ethical to the representational to the aesthetic regimes of art?  If they are historical categories – if they don’t also have a curious trans-historical force – then there must be a means of accounting for the transition from one to another.  And how can this be explained if it entails a radical shift in apriori experiential categories?  Presumably these shifts occurred beyond the frames of art (however conceived), affecting much larger conditions of experience.  Perhaps they represent the shift from the ancient civic world (of slavery, of obligation, of religious instruction) (the ethical regime of art) to the pre-industrial mercantile world (the representational regime of art) to the modern industrial and post-industrial world of global capitalism (the aesthetic regime of art).  But then these periods appear similar to Althusserian ideological formations – despite some relative autonomy, they appear as cloudy cyphers of underlying social-economic structures.  I am having trouble making sense of the notion of ‘distribution of the sensible’.  How material are these distributions?  How hermetically sealed? How open?  And if subject to redistribution, then on what basis?  On the basis of their own social-material logic (the logic of resistance) or on the basis of wider changes that make ‘aesthetic’ change (change at the level of sensible conditions) possible?

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