Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics is Politics 
Sophie Berrebi The interlacing of political motivations, re-use of avant-garde forms and use of the archive are the kind of question the French philosopher Jacques Rancière addresses in his recent book, Malaise dans l’esthétique. (Paris, 2004).
Following his work in the field of political philosophy, Rancière’s interest has in recent years shifted towards visual culture and the relation between politics and aesthetics; two fields he perceives as inherently belonging to one another rather than being autonomous. While his new book reviews some of the theories developed earlier in The Aesthetics of Politics, (translated into English in 2004), it extends his reflection with the discussion of specific examples drawn from recent art exhibitions. Malaise dans l’esthétique seems to propose a working way of apprehending the political nature of aesthetics in the specific context of today’s art and provides at the same time a salutary demystification of the ‘critical art’ of the 1960s and its legacy.
In order to achieve this, Rancière’s program is rather ambitious: it involves nothing less than shredding notions we usually happily go by with: modernism and postmodernism, autonomous art and avant-garde. His departure point is a reworking of the notion of aesthetics, a term, he argues, that has been under attack in recent French intellectual debates. He notably responds to publications by Alain Badiou, Jean-Marie Schaeffer and reiterates his long-term dialogue with Jean-François Lyotard’s work on the sublime. Going back to the origins of the term aesthetics, in the mid-eighteenth century, Rancière contends that aesthetics is not a discipline as it is usually defined but rather a particular ‘regime of identification of art’, that is, a particular way in which, in a given historical or social context, art is identified as art. Art therefore never exists as an abstraction, but is always tributary to the way it is perceived in different periods or regimes, of which Rancière identifies three.
In the ethical regime, exemplified by Plato’s republic, a sculpture is gauged against the question of truthfulness and copy. In the representational regime the sculpture will be considered within the system of the hierarchy of genres and in relation to qualities such as skill and adequacy between subject matter and representation. In the representational regime the arts occupy a particular place in what Rancière has elsewhere called the ‘distribution of the sensible’, a notion that can be understood as the division of activities in a society. The aesthetic regime differs from the other two in that it no longer assigns to art a particular place in society, nor is art any longer defined by skill and practice: for this reason, the term art in the singular replaces the pluralized form of the (fine) arts. (Here, Thierry de Duve’s idea of art in general, motivated by Duchamp’s ready-made, comes to mind.) Stripped from these categorisations, what defines the work of art in the aesthetic regime is its belonging to what Rancière calls a specific ‘sensorium’— something like a way of being – in which it will be perceived as art. A paradox arises here, because this specific sensorium exists in a context in which art has not been attributed a specific place: the aesthetic regime rejects the distribution of the sensible. As a result, in the aesthetic regime art is constantly caught in a tension between being specifically art and merging with other forms of activity and being.
This tension between art as art and art opening up onto life enables Rancière to argue that there is no such thing as the completion or failure of the modernist project as signified by the advent of postmodernism, just as it is simplistic to oppose strictly, as is often done, autonomous art and engaged art. Instead of these, he says, one can better speak of two ‘politics of aesthetics’: the politics of the ‘becoming life of art’ (le devenir vie de l’art) and the politics of the ‘resistant form’ (la forme resistante), which always exist together: In the first politics, the aesthetic experience resembles other forms of experiences and as such, it tends to dissolve into other forms of life. In the second politics of aesthetics – the resistant form – the political potential of the aesthetic experience derives from the separation of art from other forms of activity and its resistance to any transformation into a form of life.
These two politics of aesthetics, although opposite, cannot be envisaged separately, but exist in a tension with one another. This principle anchors the political at the heart of the aesthetic. It permits, furthermore, to understand that opposite positions, such as for instance, Peter Bürger’s theory of the avant-garde as politically engaged and Theodor Adorno’s preservation of the autonomy of art are necessarily complementary. For the artistic generation engaged in ‘critical art’ in the 1960s, the question, argues Rancière, was not about negotiating between art and politics, but rather of finding a form that can exist in-between the two opposite aesthetics of politics. The critical art of the 1960s thus oscillates between legibility and illegibility, everydayness and ‘radical strangeness’. The heterogeneous forms emanating from Hans Haacke and Wolf Vostell try to establish what Rancière calls a micropolitics. The terms is perhaps ill-chosen in that it recalls the exhibition Micropolitiques (Magasin, Grenoble, 2000) which under the intellectual tutelage of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari brought to view artworks that favoured an immediate and restricted political impact (Kendell Geers, Philippe Meste).
Rancière’s micropolitics, by contrast, designate a third term between the two politics of aesthetics of art as art and art as life. It is this that makes it impossible to read in a simplified way the art of the 1960s as politically committed, and by extension, annuls the idea of a postmodernity that acknowledged the impossibility of the political. Yet, the forms of these micropolitics developed by the artists of the 1960s have changed in contemporary practices. While the art of the 1960s expressed unambiguous positions (Haacke), today’s art functions on very different means. Rancière identifies these by looking at a series of exhibitions organised around the year 2000 in Europe and in the United States... Volume 2. No. 1. Summer 2008 ISSN 1752-6388