Tuesday, January 23, 2007


The idea that stays with me most from my recent reading of Rancière is that of "aesthetic regimes" -- because the idea, as I assess it, jells with my own approach to what I will euphemistically call "my intellectual and creative life." Put another way, I read Rancière, as I read anyone who reflects on aesthetics, in order to think further about my own relation to "the aesthetic" as a way of life. When philosophers remark that the era we're living through is more mediated than earlier eras they point out, perhaps, something in the nature of experience as we live now, but that seems to me to raise the question of what our aesthetic experiences amount to: does what we read, watch, and listen to create, for each of us, a kind of aesthetic context; and are our responses to all the various inputs and signals and works and texts and images based on selections and emphases that derive from certain aesthetic determinations -- like a predilection for certain flavors and not others?  And, if we chose to create work of our own, are we not making some effort to place that work within a given aesthetic regime, one we have determined by what is deemed successful and influential, but also by -- and here's a bit of my own Bloomian regard -- a struggle of sorts with whatever we have determined a work of art to be?

Put schematically (and in my favorite ruse of the tripartite division), there are three components here: 1) aesthetic context, or the sum total of all our aesthetic experiences. In some senses, art history is, empirically, the study of the aesthetic context for any work of art; it is the ground of the endeavor, if you will; whatever happens was able to happen, but in retrospect we try to piece together why something happened at a particular time and place. One way of saying this is: what made something not simply possible, but inevitable? 2) aesthetic emphases or responses, or the individualized element -- from that sum total any artist or work of art will be a selection, a response, a combination, a rejection and so forth; the context is a given, the emphasis is a response -- which in turn becomes a given or a part of the given. The interplay between given and response, which then informs new given and subsequent response, is the actual "history" of art history, which is formally the way all successions of taste or manner are classically treated from the time of Hegel onward; 3) the aesthetic regime: a philosophical supposition, arguing that the context and the emphasis have meaning or content, that they determine to a certain extent, as Rancière argues, the visible itself. In other words, we can only see or say or hear as we do within an aesthetic regime. This means that what we recognize as context, what we offer as response, are already under "a given": what has already been deemed intelligible qua art.

From this view, every major challenge to the statement "what is art?" is an effort to rethink the aesthetic regime, to call it into question. Art history then is also the record of these "breaks" or ruptures, these occasions when art -- whether as practice, as object, as intention, as value -- is under critique. But it's also the case that the aesthetic regime of modernism is one that presupposes such breaks without ever dismantling the aesthetic regime itself. In that, the aesthetic regime is much like liberalism in America: sometimes it's more conservative, sometimes a little less so, but it largely functions as "a condition of freedom," or of liberties that can be taken with its driving ideal: individual self-determination through consensus. In the arts, the self-determination takes the form of a response to the aesthetic context that in some way enlarges or expands the regime by allowing "art" to inhabit a new territory or entertain a new conception of itself. The vaunted "self-reflexivity" of art is the playing out of this presupposition: the artist's response, by reflecting yet another aspect of the aesthetic regime, permits the aesthetic regime to remain vital -- but at the same time art ceases to be something the object simply is and becomes something the object does.

On the personal, critical level, I'd like to give more thought to what particular works of art, or bodies of work, do for me -- at the levels of context, response and regime.

I'm not a flasher in a raincoat
I'm not a dirty old man
I'm not gonna snatch you from your mother
I'm an art lover. Come to daddy.
--Ray Davies, "Art Lover" (1981)


Andrew Shields said...

The word "regime" seems like a bit of the academic jargon you just complained about in your comment on my post about Gillian Beer. You adopted it from Rancière, of course, and he took it on from a general usage of the term in recent academic discourse—but surely there is a better word to use than one that has been so overused.

Donald Brown said...

No doubt it is, but the difference is that 'regime,' or whatever one chooses to call it, is simply a term used to address a concept for which there is no already existing term, much as words like "habitus" or "episteme" get pressed into service to define something that hasn't been explained quite that way before.

The actual term "regime" is close enough to "regimen," a discipline or practice, as to make sense, but it has what are to me unuseful associations (i.e., "Stalin's regime") that for some seem to give it more acceptance rather than less -- in the worlds of academic newspeak.

But with Beer: she wasn't simply reaching for a readymade term to address a concept. She was discussing rhyme in terms suffused with the diction of the au courant academy, much in the way that Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" debunks.

Put another way: anyone who can destabliize the hierarchies of that passage is doing us all a favor!

Andrew Shields said...

That's an interesting point about how the dictatorial associations of "regime" might give the people who use it a frisson that "regimen" (with its association with fad dieting) does not.

Donald Brown said...

Yes, but it also has connotations of something "imposed" and "reigning" which are what make the term useful. "Aesthetic reign" is just too odd.

Fad dieting, good analogy -- though I think aesthetic regimes have more durability than those kinds of regimens. What's interesting is that the terminology is itself part of "the regime."