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.