It is worth noting that Jacques Rancière's view of political art - based on his discussion of relations between politics and aesthetics (or art) - has had an enormous effect on not just its relevant contemporary philosophical and aesthetic discourses but also the theories and practices of contemporary art since 1990 in particular. Some features of Rancière's theory of political art consist philosophically in its critique of both Marxist Structuralism and Poststructuralism, and terminologically in its radically different definition of ‘politics’ and ‘aesthetics’ from those of traditionalists. In case of the latter, for Rancière, politics is not a struggle for power but a matter of equality and conflict over the common, and aesthetics is not a discipline of studying the nature of beauty and art but is a matter of the distribution of the sensible in which to determine the manners of behavior, perception, and thinking, and of ‘the aesthetic regime of art’ which amounts to an approach to contemporary art in our ages. Rancière thereby critically investigates problems of his contemporary philosophical discourse and artistic practices in terms of his key notions such as ‘dissensus’, ‘ethical turn’, ‘equality’, etc.
In this context, this paper examines how Rancière formulates his own theory of political art, and then how he critically analyzes today's aesthetic discourse and the stream of contemporary art. First of all, the gist of Rancière's theory of political art lies in the aspect that politics and art are concerned with reconfiguring the distribution of the sensible as their respective common, as they are ontologically inseparable, and that his theory of political art is formally concerned with reframing the distribution of the sensible by means of its visual practice (whereas politics is concerned with transforming the distribution of the sensible directly through political subjectivization).
Second, from his historical point of view Rancière bases his theory of political art upon the aesthetic regime of art on which the singularity of art and the paradoxical unity of logos and pathos rest, and thereby is able to criticize the given regimes of art, namely, at once the ethos and truth of community in the ethical regime of image and the artistic autonomy and hierarchy in the representative regime of art, and strives to reconfigure the distribution of the sensible established by the latter regime. Thirdly, Rancière stresses that political art wields its political efficacy strategically through a dissensus between sense and sense, specifically through a separation or rupture between intention and consequence, and thereby criticizes the problems of the given political art that thrives on consensus.
This paper moves on to discuss how Rancière diagnoses that today's philosophical discourse and artistic practices come to a crisis by taking their ‘ethical turn’, and how he argues that they result in the age of consensus and thus come to erase political and emancipatory spaces. When ethics means normativity, it brings about indistinct spheres between fact and law.
Specifically, for Rancière, Lyotard's ‘sublimity’ and ‘differend’, Agamben's ‘state of exceptionality’ and Derrida's ‘otherness’ and ‘ghost’ serve to abolish political potentiality by their respective absolutizations. Meanwhile, this paper also examines how Rancière analyzes that two major strands of contemporary art such as relational art and activist art are to shrink political space by their ‘ethical turn’ and their facilitation of consensus, For example, relational artists substitute problems of social bond and bare humanity for politics, pursue a micro-utopia based on harmony and consensus, and thereby come to atrophy political space, whereas activist artists seek to directly play a political role in the betterment of our society and to reconfigure the spatio-temporal distribution of the sensible through their consensual paradigm, but, for Rancière, this approach ends up with failing to effect any political efficacy.
In conclusion, this paper points out problems inherent in Rancière's view of political art according to which he sees problems of contemporary philosophy and art in their abolishment of political space by their ethical turn, on the one hand, and discusses the validity of his criticism, on the other hand, as the following: what Rancière takes issue with at once Lyotard's ‘sublimity’, Agamben's ‘exceptionality’, Derrida's ‘otherness’, and relational art and activist art is not so much ethics or morality per se as a shrinking of political space through instrumentalization of ethics based on consensus. In spite of there being no less room for controversy, that Rancière's model of political art can be defended is that it contains philosophical universality but more importantly rests upon his historical insight according to which the whole world since the fall of Berlin wall has become standardized ―turned into ethics, borrowing Rancière's terminology― owing to global capitalism and neoliberalism, and correspondingly equality and democracy have ever become shrunk and have now been in jeopardy.