Granted, it’s been a while since the artworld had a crit-theory "darling." The last big romance that looms in recent memory is the hot & heavy thing it had with Baudrillard back in the 1980s. Sure, there was the brief and casual flirtation (thanks to wingman Greil Marcus) with Debord in the early ‘90s, but Debord proved too unforgivingly dour, so the artworld opted for a frisky threesome with Deleuze & Guattari, instead. But as a piece in the latest Artforum confirms, the artworld – or some portion therereof – has lately found a new paramour in Jacques Rancière.
In a review that offers a brief overview of Alain Badiou’s Cinema and Rhapsody for the Theater, as well as Rancière’s own Aisthesis. In the course of which the review’s author Nico Baumbach makes passing reference to Hal Foster’s recent remarks about Rancière’s reception in the art community. Baumbach makes passing mention of Foster’s review of Aisthesis in the pages of the LRB, a rreview in which Foster writes:
“Another reason Rancière has an abundant following in the art world has to do with its fatigue with ‘criticality’ as a principal criterion of practice. It is not only that his account of the aesthetic regime plays down the critical dimension of the avant-gardes of the past; Rancière thinks criticality is undermined in the present too. In his view it is compromised, in the first instance, by its arrogant posture of demystification. ‘In its most general expression,’ Rancière writes in Aesthetics and Its Discontents (2004), ‘critical art is a type of art that sets out to build awareness of the mechanisms of domination to turn the spectator into a conscious agent of world transformation.’ He has several objections to this approach (which he caricatures here for his own purposes). First, not only is awareness not transformative per se, but ‘the exploited rarely require an explanation of the laws of exploitation.’ Second, critical art depends on its own projection of a passive audience that it then presumes to activate. Third, critical art ‘asks viewers to discover the signs of capital behind everyday objects and behaviours’, but in so doing only confirms the ‘transformation of things into signs’ that capitalism performs anyway. Finally, critical art is trapped in a vicious circle of its own making. ‘If there is a circulation that should be stopped at this point,’ he comments in an interview for Artforum in 2007, it’s this circulation of stereotypes that critique stereotypes, giant stuffed animals that denounce our infantilisation, media images that denounce the media, spectacular installations that denounce the spectacle etc. There is a whole series of forms of critical or activist art that are caught up in this police logic of the equivalence of the power of the market and the power of its denunciation.”
For Foster, the problem isn't Rancière, but a certain portion of the theorist's newfound audience. In a companion piece for The Brooklyn Rail, Foster dismisses the recent artworld embrace of Rancière’s notions of the “emancipated spectator” and of the “redistribution of the sensible” as a type of stop-gap “panacea” for contemporary critical malaise as little more than “wishful thinking.”
As Foster and others writing on the topic are quick to point out, we’re on the other side of the ‘Noughties; that decade having been a time when the critical impulse was largely put on an indefinite suspended leave. Central to all of this -- and frequently cited in instances such as this -- was Bruno Latour’s agonistic 2004 essay, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”, which upon publication quickly became the key text for a type of pervasive, soul-searching intellectual agnosticism that followed in the wake of September, 2001. If that weren’t sign enough that the 1990s were definitely over, around the same time we also began to witness the waning of the biggest curatorial trends of the preceding ten years – relational aesthetics as embodied in various high-profile “participatory art” projects in major art institutional settings. On the fate of the latter, Claire Bishop recently observed:
“There was the potential to discover the highest artistic intensity in the everyday and the banal, which would serve a larger project of equality and anti-elitism. Since the 1990s, participatory art has often asserted a connection between user-generated content and democracy, but the frequent predictability of its results seem to be the consequence of lacking both a social and an artistic target; in other words, participatory art today stands without a relation to an existing political project ...and presents itself as oppositional to visual art by trying to side-step the question of visuality. As a consequence, these artists have internalized a huge amount of pressure to bear the burden of devising new models of social and political organization — a task that they are not always best equipped to undertake.”
As far as relational aesthetic’s democratic and participatory purport, Bishop (via Rancière) argues that it usually ends up amounting to little more than an “allocated participation whose counter-power is dependent on the dominant order,” one in which participants are invited to “fill up the spaces left empty by power.” Which might be an example of what Foster(also after Rancière) desribes above when he alludes to the fate of some critical art winding up "trapped within the vicious circle of it own making."
It might also describe the misgivings that some people -- such as myself -- had about the curatorial fashionability of relational aesthetics some years ago; encountering various RA works in various galleries and museums, not being able to shrug off the impression that it amounted to little more an artworld analog to “casual Fridays." In other words: The sanctioned suspension of the standard protocols, but only for this occasion. Because the project -- no matter how noble (only connect!) its intentions -- is vastly subsumed by the context in which it appears, the same institution and hierarchies hold. Sure, this time you're allowed to touch the art, even "be a part of it"; but you're still in the same setting where normally there’d be someone there to remind you not to touch or lean in too closely when looking at the art, or to ask you to please pipe down if you get a little too heated while talking about what you’re looking at, as you can expect will be the case next time you visit.