PRINT March 2007


Liam Gillick, The Hopes and Dreams of the Workers as They Wandered Home from the Bar, 2004, red glitter. Installation view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2005.

The political allegory of the cauliflowers was possible because the connection of art, politics and vegetables—the connection of art, politics and consumption—already existed as a set of moving borders, enabling artists to both cross the border and make sense of the connection of the heterogeneous elements and play on the sensory power of their heterogeneity.

—Jacques Rancière

MUCH AS THEY DID FOR BERTOLT BRECHT in his parable of the vegetable seller whose business practices reflect more general political schemes, a cauliflower in the corner and some rhetoric on the lips regularly play off each other on the stage of contemporary art. Jacques Rancière allows us to analyze these otherwise veiled relationships between incongruous elements of the everyday and the complex ideological structures in the artworks they sit alongside. In fact, his elaboration of the idea that political art is not a negotiation between politics and art but “between the two politics of aesthetics” makes him compulsory reading. As many artists know, the apparent contradictions and limitations of a notionally political practice require some elegant maneuvers in order to avoid merely reflecting what the dominant culture already knows. There remains potential as well in the area between exposing the failings of the present—showing the protagonists what they are up to, in effect—and slipping into a poetic void of allusion and implication. An implementation of Rancière’s formulations, however, ensures that questions about the possible deficiencies of such a nuanced practice are turned back toward the failures of consensus culture. He challenges a situation in today’s artistic context where instrumentalized gestures range from supersubjectivity to showing us what “they” already know—presenting instead a new way to read a politically conscious field of action.

In so doing, Rancière has offered artists a means of bypassing the continual requirement to ironize their way out of postmodern paradoxes. Under the logic of pure postmodernism, there was no binding philosophical or critical impediment to reactionary and neoconservative appropriations of artistic strategy; the use of an ironic base allowed a critical position to slide easily into a reinforcing role. Subsequently, in the face of relativism—and of crude readings of a postmodern blur in terms of high and low, social and antisocial, political and apolitical—the politically conscious field increasingly had to answer accusations of naïveté or co-option, and it struggled to proclaim urgency. Yet such simplistic application of a postmodernist veil around a structure of apparent conflicts is rendered problematic by Rancière’s key texts, which suggest that we may have created false tensions in order to develop a dynamic discourse around contemporary art.

While art’s relationship to modernist and postmodernist theory will always shift, Rancière asserts the following: “What is at stake in contemporary art is not the fate of the modernist paradigm. Its validity is neither weaker nor stronger than it ever was. In my view [this formulation] was always a very restrictive interpretation of the dialectic of the aesthetical regime of art.” The philosopher, in other words, directly addresses the space between the relentless progress of modernity and the super-self-conscious implosion of modernism. This is also a territory where artists have played for a long time. But might this territory offer us nothing more than a new zone of avoidance—a zone that may be traversed with ease as we lull ourselves into the belief that we don’t have to account for uncomfortable and apparently nonresolvable tensions between ideas and actions? If the critical language of modernism was complicated by the critical haze of postmodernism—and its attempt to question the relentless course of technological and social development in every direction—the position of the artist has similarly been problematized. Even so, both modern and postmodern critical structures have been avoided by many artists deploying the monochrome or the personal journey.

Rancière never spends too much time attending to any web of ideas that might be illustrated by one artwork or another; he does not agonize over a detailed exposure of unresolvable peculiarity. Instead, he addresses the appeal of negotiated boundaries between two parallel political aesthetics, suggesting that it is possible to go beyond clumsy attempts to resolve what seems made with the dynamic of political consciousness. This leads us to the heart of what is useful: Rancière examines the continued mutation of contemporary art in relation to an ongoing critique activating the political sphere. Rather than establishing and asserting dysfunctional paradigms that dissolve like morning fog, Rancière looks at what gets made and compares it to what has been previously proposed within aesthetic theory. He looks at conditions, discerning how earlier conceptions of aesthetics do not help us avoid the facts of the present.

Of course, the danger here is that we are merely happy to read a theorist who has even bothered to address contemporary art. We might be ascribing an excess of potential to his reassuring assertion that visual combinations at the root of certain familiar artistic strategies transcend modernism’s endgames and postmodernism’s perpetually circling relativisms. Nevertheless, in the face of impossible attempts to proceed with progressive ideas within the terms of postmodernist discourse, Rancière shows a way out of the malaise. Consider, for example, a body of work taking as its starting point the idea of a group of laid-off car workers returning to their now abandoned factory, and who subsequently seek to create a resolved ecopolitical equation of totalizing relationships. Don’t attempt to illustrate any of this directly but heap 440 pounds of red glitter on the floor. Red snow? Dispersed form? Rancière’s ideas might be understood as a structural justification in this case. The cauliflower in the corner has moved to center stage without displacing the rhetoric of self-conscious critique. Moreover, if the factory is in Sweden, the thinking filtered through Brazilian academic papers, and the works produced while thinking about other conditional circumstances, then Rancière’s assertions are even more supportive. There is an acknowledgment of parallels that reopens the scope of art’s potential, now and then. Nothing grand is being suggested here—just a way to understand what already appears to be the case. There are two politics of aesthetics, not one resolvable unique artwork.

The weak spot here might be regarding the acceptance of contemporary art as a valid activity per se. Rancière leaves space for us to make judgments as to the efficacy of certain practices yet neglects (without ignoring) the questions of urgency, of time, and of direct action. There is a certain muddling of terms and artists alongside a reading of material combinations that is by turns metaphorical and direct. All this can be excused given Rancière’s demonstrated desire to recuperate the political discourse and redirect dynamic intellectual thought away from questions of taste, relativism, or agonistic mirroring toward structural tools that permit the artist to continue without being hobbled by essentially apolitical interpretations that can be based only on irony, implosion, collapse, or the fetish of immanence within a contingent field of action.

Liam Gillick is a New York–based artist.