Art of the Possible: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in Conversation with Jacques Ranciere

Article excerpt

FULVIA CARNEVALE: Your work has taken a very particular trajectory. It starts with archival research on workers' struggles and the utopias of the nineteenth century and ends up in the field of contemporary art, aesthetics, and cinema. Do you see ruptures or continuity on your philosophical path?


JACQUES RANCIERE: I'm not a philosopher who has gone from politics to aesthetics, from liberation movements of the past to contemporary art. I have always sought to contest globalizing thought that relies on the presupposition of a historical necessity. In the 1970s I conducted research in early-nineteenth-century workers' archives* because the May '68 movement had highlighted the gap between Marxist theory and the complex history of the actual forms of workers' emancipation. I did it to counter the return to Marxist dogmatism on the one hand and, on the other, the liquidation of the very thought of workers' emancipation in the guise of a critique of Marxism. Later I weighed in on questions of contemporary art, because the interpretation of twentieth-century art movements also found itself implicated in this manipulation of history. Contemporary art was taken hostage in the operation of the "end of utopias," caught between so-called postmodern discourse, which proclaimed the "end of grand narratives," and the reversal of modernism itself, as modernist thinkers ended up polemicizing against modernism, ultimately condemning emancipatory art's utopias and their contribution to totalitarianism. It's always the same process: using defined periods and great historical ruptures to impose interdictions. Against this, my work has been the same, whether dealing with labor's past or art's present: to break down the great divisions--science and ideology, high culture and popular culture, representation and the unrepresentable, the modern and the postmodern, etc.--to contrast so-called historical necessity with a topography of the configuration of possibilities, a perception of the multiple alterations and displacements that make up forms of political subjectivization and artistic invention. So I reexamined the dividing lines between the modern and postmodern, demonstrating, for example, that "abstract painting" was invented not as a manifestation of art's autonomy but in the context of a way of thinking of art as a fabricator of forms of life, that the intermingling of high art and popular culture was not a discovery of the 1960s but at the heart of nineteenth-century Romanticism. Nevertheless, what interests me more than politics or art is the way the boundaries defining certain practices as artistic or political are drawn and redrawn. This frees artistic and political creativity from the yoke of the great historical schemata that announce the great revolutions to come or that mourn the great revolutions past only to impose their proscriptions and their declarations of powerlessness on the present.

CARNEVALE: Has your work been received differently by the philosophical public, as it were, than by the contemporary art audience?

RANCIERE: Personally, I don't speak for philosophers. I don't speak for the members of a particular body or discipline. I write to shatter the boundaries that separate specialists--of philosophy, art, social sciences, etc. I write for those who are also trying to tear down the walls between specialties and competences. This was the case with certain philosophers in the '60s and '70s, but it isn't the case today, and it is generally not what academia promotes. On the other hand, the contemporary art world may be more receptive, because contemporary art is, quintessentially, art defined by the erasure of medium specificity, indeed by the erasure of the visibility of art as a distinct practice. So what I have tried to theorize, under the name of the aesthetic regime of art, is the general form of this paradox wherein art was defined and institutionalized as a sphere of common experience at the very moment that the boundaries between what is and isn't art were being erased. …


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