A well-known art critic and historian recently wrote: “At least for the time being, any redistribution of the sensible through contemporary art is a mirage and, when pitted against the capitalist transformation of things into signs, it is little more than the opiate of the artworld left.” An old sour exposed. At a time when the weakening of the political theatre is forcing art to take the upper stage again, at a time when it is increasingly under pressure to make itself “useful” in light of the local and global struggles that are raging all over the world, we are once again confronted with some of the fundamental challenges surrounding the tensions between art and world, form and life, appearance and reality. The problem has been roaring its ugly head ever since the current paradigm of art has been defined. “In how far is appearance allowed in the moral world?”, asked Friedrich Schiller more than two centuries ago. Disenchanted with the French revolution and its failure to come to terms with social inequality, the German poet proposed another revolution: a revolution of the sensible. For him, the banishment of the hierarchy of classes, founded on the domination of the men of culture over the men of nature, manifested itself in the aesthetic experience. It was through this experience that the partition of the sensible sustaining this domination could be dismantled, giving way to a new kind of “equality” – an equality in the realm of appearances, an equality that could ruin all hierarchies between matter and form, passivity and activity, feeling and thought. The potential of art, he argued, is not based on its alliance with reality – how art affects reality and the other way around – but conversely on its independence from it. Against the critics who, even then, complained that all solidity had disappeared from the world, that all reality had dissolved into appearance, he answered: the power of art can only be fully appreciated as long as it is first and foremost considered as appearance, not because it is held to be something that could supplant or influence reality. We can only experience it as such as long if we stop looking for ends and means, as long as we do not grant imagination a prescription of its own. Indeed, if art can be considered to have a political dimension, it’s perhaps not so much due to the commitment invested, but because of the “indifference” experienced; it’s not due to its ability to transmit messages through a certain suitable form, but because of its promise of “freedom”, which is itself its own end and means.
But this promise of freedom – “to grant freedom by means of freedom” – also involves a strange paradox. On one hand, art is put forward as a sphere of autonomy and self-containment indifferent to any association of cause and effect, an embodiment of freedom unassignable to any single desire or interpretation. On the other hand, it is through the experience of “free play” in front of the “free appearance” of art, this strange appearance out of reach from fixed aspirations and interpretations, that another promise is made: that of another form of life. Indeed, the solitude of art, in all its inexplicability and unavailability, holds the possibility of a another future. Jacques Rancière has argued that this paradox is in fact constitutive of a whole regime of identification of art and its politics: the autonomy of aesthetic or artistic experience is at the same time the principle of the formation of what Schiller described as a new “art of living”. Rancière writes: “the aesthetic education thus is the process which transforms the free appearance into a lived reality and the aesthetic free play into an agency of the living community.” This implies, however, that the separations between art, life, and politics are lifted, which essentially entails the emergence of two opposed types of politics, which are in effect two vanishing points: on one hand the logic of art becoming life at the price of its self-elimination, on the other the logic of art getting involved in politics on the condition of not having anything to do with it. The politics of art actually thrive on the tension between these two logics, on the undecidability between art and non-art. The dominant paradigm of what is called “critical” art for example combines the sensible heterogeneity from the first logic with the political intelligibility from the latter, in view of provoking a break in our perception and mobilize our political energies. It is a formula that it is still very much on our agendas nowadays, although it seems to have lost most of its political force – mainly due to the loss of the emancipatory perspective that sustained the dialectical clash of heterogeneous elements. It has even been overturned: whereas the strategies of critical art were predicated on the effort to reveal the reality beneath appearances, some critics – from Debord to Baudrillard – have advocated that all is appearance, that everything is is equivalent with its image, and every image with its own lie. What these arguments, still very much inherent to our zeitgeist, leave us with is either a deep-felt melancholy or a numbing irony, suggesting that through our own continuous “consumption” of commodities, spectacles and demonstrations, we do nothing else but contributing to the reign of commodity equivalence: as if the world of consumption and the world of struggle have become one and the same.
If the traditional modes of critical art have lost their legitimacy, it’s certainly not because the forms of domination and oppression they opposed have disappeared, but rather because the critical worldview that nourished these modes and the political struggles based on this vision have lost much of their credibility. How to think differently then about the “usefulness” of art, without having to rely on a revolutionary horizon to look forward to? What would it mean to think critically without “a darkened mirror to be made clean by a critical operation which makes it declare all that there is to say”? How to think about the potential of art forms that do not depend on demystification, asking us “to discover the signs of capital behind everyday objects and behaviors,” but in so doing only confirming the “transformation of things into signs”? In practice, the foundering of the critical system into this vicious circle has led many contemporary artists to invest directly in political activism, which has its own value and significance, but at the same time this involves a certain de-neutralization of the idea as art as we know it: art steps in for politics. For his part, Rancière proposes another way of thinking about the relation between politics and art, as alternative for the critique of appearances in the name of an underlying reality and the hermeneutics of suspicion that accompanies this critique. It involves, first of all, the acceptance of the condition of appearance and illusion, as it functions as a condition for the possibility of what Schiller has defined as a kind of “freedom”, which is not abstract but entirely sensible. Rancière: “It is in the moments when the real world wavers and seems to reel into mere appearance, more than in the slow accumulation of day-to-day experiences, that it becomes possible to form a judgement about the world”. It follows that political effects can never be located in the artwork itself, nor in the intention or commitment of the artist. It is exactly by not assigning a specific role or destination to the work and leaving it to their own idleness (as Mallarmé upheld, the works must “prove themselves”), that it may become susceptible to a multiplicity of unforeseen appropriations.
Secondly, there is still something in the dispositive of critical art that has political potential, which is what Rancière calls “dissensus”, meaning a disruption of a given organization of the relation between sensible presentations and forms of meaning, put forward as a challenge to the “reality of the real”. The idea of disturbance has been hailed as a political-artistic strategy for a long time now – think of Eisenstein and Brecht who have both, in different ways, played on the element of “strangeness’, either as “verfremdung” or “eccentrism” – but in this approach the disturbing element leads to no specific form of awareness or mobilization. Art can redraw the borders of the possible and the impossible, oppose the singular outlines of a landscape of the sensible to all the forms of banalization unleashed by the dominant regime of information and explanation, but only on the condition that their meaning or effect is not anticipated. That is how art continuously oscillates between autonomous form of life and the promise of political emancipation, between shuddering point of arrest and explanatory instrument of transmission, between the “naive” (in tune with the world) and the “sentimental” (at a distance from everyday life), but these possibilities in themselves can never be integrally fulfilled except at the price of abolishing the singularity of art, that of politics, or both at once. Following Rancière’s reasoning, the issue at hand is thus not whether the work that artists do is political or not, but rather what work we can do with it as political subjects; the question is not whether art can intervene in the social world and construct better relations between existing communities, but how it can shape new communities of sense that can put to work a new sense of community. If it’s important to try to understand and engage with this utterly “foolish” (Rancière’s own word) proposition today, it’s because it is grounded in a much needed intuition of hope and trust, opposing all ideas of necessity and legitimacy with the contingency of social order, opposing all sense of distrust and fatalism with the unrealized potentials borne by the capacities shared by all. It is then up to us to take up this foolishness and exchange our compulsive passion for the real with a wholehearted passion for the impossible. It is time for us to start dreaming, dreaming out loud, dreaming with our eyes wide open.