Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (Verso, 2013; translated by Zakir Paul) presents fourteen scenes through which to map new configurations of the history of modernism, understood as the variety of cultural responses to the various experiences of modernity.
Locating these responses idiosyncratically (no mention here, for example, of hitherto paradigmatic modernist artifacts like Manet’s Olympia, except to note in the ‘Prelude’ their absence), Rancière aims to reinvigorate conceptions of modernism. We might initially query quantity and selection here, as, for example, Barthes was critiqued for selecting five codes to examine in S/Z: why fourteen, and why these fourteen? But Ranciere is more concerned with ‘a number of overlapping points and elaborations’ (xiii) between his fourteen scenes, without any encyclopedic or teleological object.
Each scene offers, and all combine to effect, he argues, ‘a moving constellation in which modes of perception and affect, and forms of interpretation defining a paradigm of art, take shape’ (xi). These are the recurrent and central terms of Rancière’s argument: movement (pace Baudelaire and Simmel – who is later cited by Rancière in discussing ‘ornamentalization of style’ ), constellatory combinations and their reflective and refractive effects, and the intersections of perception, emotional affect, and interpretive strategies working together to construct the possibility of modernity’s notions of ‘art’ and the discursive, ideological, and institutional spaces in which they can be discerned.
A key focus is on metamorphosis – both ‘the multiple metamorphoses of the ancient that the modern feeds upon’ (xiv) and the metamorphic ‘fragmentation of gestures’ (xiv) Rancière traces in Vertov and elsewhere – but not, interestingly, in the grotesque corps morceles caused by the First Word War, as traced with horrific honesty in the writings of Sassoon, for example, or, more pertinently, as we’ll see, in lines like Pound’s ‘There died a myriad’ for ‘two gross of broken statues’. Sassoon, Pound, and, indeed, the War, are all absent from Aisthesis.
The selection and number of scenes work to develop Rancière’s wider theses (his Aisthesis-theses, one might say) about art and aesthetics: that the plurality of arts is (wrongly) subsumed in modernity to a singular or generalising conception of ‘(great) art’ – ‘there is’, he insists in 2009’s Aesthetics and its Discontents, ‘no such thing as art in general’ (6); and that aesthetics functions to frame the thinking of how art is understood, constructed, and identified – what he calls (also in Aesthetics and its Discontents) ‘the name of a specific regime for the identification of art’ (8).
Rancière’s first scene of the experience of modernity is the Belvedere Torso (which might be one of Pound’s ‘broken statues’). More specifically, Rancière examines Winckelmann’s 1764 evaluation of the Torso. 1764 is also the year of publication of Kant’s early Romantic analysis of the aesthetic in Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, and of Walpole’s inauguration of a new Gothic aesthetic in The Castle of Otranto. A key year, then, in the development of Western theories of aesthetics of feeling and experience.