Dresden, 1764: Rancière’s first aesthetic scene presents Winckelmann’s elevation ‘above nature’ of the headless and limbless Belvedere Torso as the scene within which a new configuration is performed of art and its relations to thought and to notions of social freedom. Rancière reads a lot into, and out of, Winckelmann’s elevating description of the Torso. Art history, in its modern form, becomes possible, thinkable, in this elevation; ‘Art’ invents a new category of creativity distinct from the old separation of the aesthetic and the artisanal; and the Torso’s aesthetic redefinition repudiates the key elements of classical conceptions of the aesthetic – namely the harmonious relations of parts and whole, and the expressive relation between ‘a visible form and a character’ (4).
‘Beauty’, Rancière declares, is henceforth ‘defined by indeterminacy and the absence of expressivity’ (6). Lines are drawn here, to be subsequently blurred: it’s the ‘melting’ of the Torso’s muscles into each other, ‘like waves in the sea’ (8), that embodies (literally) its perfection, a perfection emblematised in notions the fixing in sculptural form of flow and movement and metamorphosis. Rancière characterizes this shift of aesthetic-perception as, again, a redefinition of the beautiful: ‘The tension of many surfaces on one surface, of many kinds of corporality in one body’ (9) – or, the insistent presence of the experience and thought of the many, the multitude, in the illusion (the construction, the valorisation) of the one.
This is Rancière’s key point in this opening chapter: the new, post-Winckelmann conception of ‘Art’ enacts a series of shifts in political consciousness characterized in part by the term ‘movements’, enabling ‘an art of the plural compositions of movements freed by the dissociation of form, function and expression’ (9). The notion of the ‘scene’ (which is distinct from, but haunted by, Baudrillardian or Derridean or Lacanian connotations) comes into play here – it’s figured in the ‘Prelude’ to Aisthesis as the ‘little optical machine’ (another echo, now of Deleuze) that momentarily captures connections between sensations, perceptions, concepts, names, and the communities of thought they combine to create. The ‘scene’ offers intellectual and ideological processes in a moment of fixity. If movement (motion, and tendency, and political drift – Rancière’s project is, after all, a contemporary politicisation of aesthetics) redefines and ‘frees’ art, this redefinition occurs most significantly in the consequences for thought of the new perception of the given object – such as a mutilated statue – now invested, within and by the operation of the ‘scene’ Rancière seeks to sketch out, with the values of the ‘work’. The lines of such movements of thought, perception, and intellectual apprehension delineate, and, like ‘nature’s sinuous lines that were opposed to the right angles imposed by the minds of artists and princes’ (9), insinuate their ways into, Rancière’s argument. They mark points of torsion and distortion – like the distortional relation, with all its political implications, between ‘opposition’ and ‘imposition’ – around which he develops his elaborate and sinuous critical history of concepts.