Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield, Reader in Theory and Philosophy of Art at the University of Reading, was the keynote speaker at the art and philosophy session that occurred at the Project Arts Centre on 6 April 2009. The focus of the main session, the Project website stated, was Jacques Rancière’s approach to the notion of ‘the distribution of the sensible’, image and spectatorship, aspects of which may be related to experiencing the works of James Coleman. It is too early to formulate a response to what was a significant presentation by Dronsfield. However, one highlight was his countering of certain aspects of Rancière’s philosophy of art with a contemporary of the French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy. Nancy is known for his impact on the area of art and community, but it is a fascinating future prospect for art and philosophy discourse if he extends his philosophy into the arena of Rancière, which he has on a less conspicuous level. For now, this text is an attempt to understand how Rancière has become a sage for a new crop of art students and art theorists alike. Rancièrian influence is particularly pertinent at the moment, and at a more local level, because of Rancière’s catalogue essay, ‘From the poetics of the image to the tragedy of justice’, that has become part and parcel of Coleman’s current retrospective which is located at three sites in Dublin: The Irish Museum of Modern Art, The Royal Hibernian Academy and The Project Arts Centre.

We have to refuse the false choice between “collaboration or exodus" demanded by contemporary thinkers like Paolo Virno. There are, no doubt, artists in search of intellectual legitimacy, curators and gallery directors who think it’s good for sales to organize panel discussions at art fairs or to publish theoretical texts in magazines that promote the artists on the market. There are also artists and curators who think it’s necessary to subvert the status quo from within the institutions and the market. This creates mixed spaces where people interested in the “latest" art and those interested in the subversion of the existing order can meet. In any case, the art market today passes through these places of speech and thought, which it does not really dominate. The question then becomes, What can we do there? [1]

The title of Rancière’s book, The Politics of aesthetics, spoke of power and art. However, there was the after-effect of coming away with nothing to hold onto, a critique, a judgement, or just something edible. The associate editor of Artnet, Ben Davis, in his article Rancière for dummies, gives a cutting and skeptical account of Rancière’s induction into the artworld. Davis describes how the artworld, or maybe more specifically Artforum, has adopted Rancière as their “darling du jour." In March 2007, Artforum dedicated an entire issue to Rancière under the banner ‘Regime change: Jacques Rancière and contemporary art’. Davis bulks up his critique of the French philosopher by referring to a contemporary of Rancière, Alain Badiou:

In his book Metapolitics, another French post-Althusserian philosopher, Alain Badiou, opines that Rancière’s political reflections are characterized by a singular unwillingness to draw conclusions about any specific political situation. They are, Badiou concludes, more “motifs" than food for political militancy – and what could better describe the art world’s relation to the political? [2]

Why has Rancière been placed in this position, which for now seems a lone philosophical position in art discourse? Maybe it is his friendly resistance to a solid position within his fluid-like discourse. The artworld has not seen this concentration of philosophy meeting art since Jean-Francois Lyotard’s writings on Barnett Newman. It seems that if we take art discourse at its ground zero, the art student within the institute, he or she will always subscribe to the concepts that are easily digestible and fit their specific agendas. In Lyotard: writing the event, Geoffrey Bennington says something very reflective about the lack of ‘time’ we have to assimilate the meaning that philosophy is trying to articulate through the limitations of language. This concept of the lack of time we have to digest pure philosophy is particularly true for the non-initiated philosophy enthusiast. [3]

The editor of Texte zur Kunst, Isabelle Graw, mentions in her introduction to Canvases and careers today, a collection of essays on art criticism and the market, that the Gagosian Gallery’s procurement of Norman Bryson for the John Currin Catalogue to accompany the big Gagosian show in 2006 was a coup for Currin’s future legitimacy in art history. [4] We do not have to ask the question whether the Rancière/ Coleman collaboration is in the same vein as the Bryson / Currin collaboration. In the end, Rancière seems to fit the aesthetic enterprise of art, and does it very well. However, should Rancière the philosopher be distinct from Rancière, the art theorist? If we take Bennington’s remark about the lack of time we have to read philosophy and relate this to the contrasting language in two texts by Rancière, The Politics of aesthetics and a more philosophical text, On the shores of politics, (reading the former took two days, while the other I trudged through), we could term Rancière’s position in contemporary art discourse as ‘marketable lyricism’. In other words, the language that Rancière formulates specifically for his art discourse, not his other discourses, fits the enterprises of the art student, art writer and art market. Dronsfield spoke of the “excess" that is vacant from Rancière’s philosophy in contrast to Gilles Deleuze. He described Rancière as “proper." If we extend Dronsfield’s remark about the vacancy of “excess" in Rancière, we could come to the conclusion that the reader makes the “excess," so Rancière’s only job is to formulate the possibility of “excess." Or we could come to the conclusion the ‘Rancièrian’ language that spills over the art object is not purposely lyrical or ‘proper’, but it is all the art object affords the philosopher. In either case it begs the question: Is Rancière a victim of the art world or is the art world a victim of Rancière?

Written by James Merrigan

James Merrigan is an artist and art critic. For the past decade he has promoted and prompted art dialogue and criticism in Ireland as a writer, editor and teacher. In 2010 he developed, where he found the freedom to experiment with a more playful and polemical art criticism.

Writer links: iamnotapainter

[1] Fulvia Carnevale, John Kelsey, ‘Art of the possible: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in conversation with Jacques Rancière’, ArtForum, March, 2007

[2] Ben Davis, Rancière for dummies, Artnet, 2006.

[3] Geoffrey Bennington, Lyotard: writing the event, Columbia University Press, 1988

[4] Daniel Birnbaum, Isabelle Graw (eds), Canvases and careers today, criticism and its markets,Sternburg Press, August 2008, first presented at a conference organised by the Institut für Kunstkritik in Frankfurt am Main in 2007