The arts only ever lend to projects of domination or emancipation what they are able to lend to them, that is to say, quite simply, what they have in common with them: bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parcelling out of the visible and the invisible. – Jacques Ranciere, from The Politics of Aesthetics
In a series of works translated into English over the past decade, the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere has argued for a renewed sense of the political power of aesthetics. Building upon Walter Benjamin’s critique of “the aestheticization of politics,” outlined in Benjamin’s famous essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Ranciere tries to imagine an art that is politicized, not by the appeals to imagination and representation in the democratic ideal of “consensus,” but by its ability to make visible the forms of “dissensus” on which any democratic vision is based. Against Plato’s expulsion of the poets from the city-state in the Republic, Ranciere attempts to put the artist back in the middle of our political lives. Art, for Ranciere, re-distributes our sensibilities for democratic and communitarian purpose, rather than simply reflecting what they should or shouldn’t be.
I have to confess that I often have a hard time understanding what Ranciere is up to. How, exactly, does art make us attuned to dissenting voices when, in America, contemporary art or poetry is easily co-opted by technology and capitalism? Why is democracy the question to consider about the politics of art in the 21st century? Why not violence, totalitarianism, ecology, or any of the other myriad forms of political and community engagement?
These questions are simply and quickly put to rest by Alison Klayman’s new documentary on the work of Chinese artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei.
Any sustained set of minutes spent thinking about Weiwei’s visual art and activism makes the issue quite simple, really. It has to do with our affections and distractions. If only we’d pay attention to China, then freedom might remain the burning question of art for us today. And Ai Weiwei redistributes our sensibilities in order to see why.
As shown in Klayman’s documentary, here are some of the ways his work does so, each of which makes concrete Ranciere’s own ideas of the political power of art:
– Twitter: Ai Weiwei says “Don’t retreat, retweet.” Weiwei uses Twitter prolifically to protest his own abuse at the hands of the police as well as the Chinese government’s neglect of the earthquake in Chengdu province. Against the Benjaminian critique of the diminished “aura” in the culture of the copy, however, Weiwei shows that it is precisely in its iterability that Twitter’s aesthetic value lies. 100 million retweets turn the negligible expression into an extraordinarily sensible and visible one, capturing the voice of a political “dissensus” if not yet that of a clear democratic “consensus.”
– The Visual: Klayman’s documentary shows Weiwei’s own attempt to document anything and everything that the Chinese police force throws at him. The role of image-making becomes a kind of persistent threat in his own activism, rather than simply a tool of truth or lies. In one memorable scene from the film, Weiwei’s assistants film the police filming them as they attempt to eat out on the street – a moment of bio-political oversight that becomes, in the act of two camera lenses pointing directly back at each other, a clear example of what Ranciere describes as the shared tools of politics and aesthetics. If art has the ability to make sensible and visible that which is not, it articulates the line between emancipation and domination.
– Art: Finally, Weiwei converts these voices of dissent and acts of visibility into his own installations. Weiwei’s installation at the Tate Modern in 2011, which featured close to 100 million sunflower seeds spread across the floor, is explicitly an allegory for the Chinese political situation, though in very material ways. The “sunflower seeds” were actually Chinese porcelain beads, painted to look like sunflower seeds – the exported work of Chinese human hands that forces the viewer to confront their origin and the millions of unseen lives they represent.
I’m not sure if such art matters in its own right, but my point is that Weiwei deserves continued attention for reinvigorating the importance of the artist. As Klaymen’s documentary shows, art and democracy remain burning questions, if only we’d look in the right places.