I shall start from a little fact borrowed from the actuality of art life . A Belgian foundation , the Evens Foundation , created a prize called Community art collaboration . The prize is aimed at supporting artistic projects encouraging " the invention of new social coherence based on diversity of identities " . Last year , the laureate project was presented by a French group of artists called Urban Campment . The project , called"I and us" proposed to create , in a poor and stigmatized suburb of Paris a special place , "extremely useless , fragile and non-productive" , a place at remove , available to all but than can be used only by one person at once .
So a prize destined to art was given to the project of an empty place where nothing designates the specificity of any art . And a prize aimed at creating new forms of community was given to a one seater place . Some people would probably see there the derision of contemporary art and of its political pretensions . I shall take an opposite way . I think that this little example can lead us to the core of our problem .
The first point that it reminds us is the following . Art is not political owing to the messages and feelings that it conveys on the state of social and political issues. Nor is it political owing to the way it represents social structures, conflicts or identities . It is political by virtue of the very distance that it takes with respect to those functions . It is political insofar as it frames not only works or monuments , but also a specific space-time sensorium , as this sensorium defines ways of being together or being apart , of being inside or outside , in front of or in the middle of , etc. It is political as its own practices shape forms of visibility that reframe the way in which practices , manners of being and modes of feeling and saying are interwoven in a commonsense , which means a "sense of the common" embodied in a common sensorium .
It does so because politics itself is not the exercise of power or struggle for power. Politics is first of all the configuration of a space as political , the framing of a specific sphere of experience , the setting of objects posed as "common" and of subjects to whom the capacity is recognized to designate these objects and discuss about them. Politics first is the conflict about the very existence of that sphere of experience , the reality of those common objects and the capacity of those subjects. A well known aristotelian sentence says that human beings are political because they own the power of speech that puts into common the issues of justice and injustice while animals only have voice to express pleasure or pain. It could seem to follow from this that politics is the public discussion on matters of justice among speaking people who are all able to do it. But there is a preliminary matter of justice : How do you recognize that the person who is mouthing a voice in front of you is discussing matters of justice rather than expressing his or her private pain ? Politics is in fact about that preliminary question : who has the power to decide about this? In another well-known statement Plato says that artisans have no time to be elsewhere outside of their work . Obviously this "lack of time" is not an empirical matter , it is the mere naturalization of a symbolical separation . Politics precisely begins when they who have "no time" to do anything else than their work take that time that they have not in order to make themselves visible as sharing in a common world and prove that their mouth indeed emits common speech instead of merely voicing pleasure or pain. That distribution and re-distribution of times and spaces , places and identities , that way of framing and re-framing the visible and the invisible , of telling speech from noise and so on , is what I call the partition of the sensible . Politics consist in reconfigurating the partition of the sensible , in bringing on the stage new objects and subjects , in making visible that which was not visible, audible as speaking beings they who where merely heard as noisy animals . To the extent that it sets up such scenes of dissensus , politics can be characterized as an "aesthetic" activity , in a way that has nothing to do with that adornment of power that Benjamin called "aestheticization of politics" .
The issue "aesthetics and politics" can thus be rephrased as follows: there is an "aesthetics of politics" in the sense that I tried to explain. Correspondingly, there is a "politics of aesthetics". This means that the artistic practices take part in the partition of the perceptible insofar as they suspend the ordinary coordinates of sensory experience and reframe the network of relationships between spaces and times, subjects and objects ,the common and the singular. There is not always politics, though there always are forms of power . Nor is there always art, though there always are poetry , painting , music , theatre, dance , sculpture and so on . Politics and art are not two separate and permanent realities about which one should ask whether they have to be connected or not . Each of them is a conditional reality , that exists or not according to a specific partition of the sensible . Plato's Republic is a good case in point. It is sometimes misunderstood as the "political" proscription of art. But politics itself is withdrawn by the platonician gesture . The same partition of the sensible withdraws a political stage by denying to the artisans any time for doing something else than their own job and an "artistic" stage by closing the theater where the poet and the actors would embody another personality than their own . The same configuration of the space-time of the community withdraws for both of them the possibility of making two things at once . It puts the artisan out of politics and the mimetician out of the city . Democracy and the theatre are two forms of the same partition of the sensible , two forms of heterogeneity , that are dismissed at the same time to frame the republic as the "organic life" of the community .
So the "aesthetical knot" is always tied up before you can identify art or politics . The present situation and notably our "one-seater collective place" might be another interesting case of this articulation. The idea that art empowers collective life to the extent that it creates a remote and empty space dedicated to individual meditation is not a weird invention witnessing the exhaustion of contemporary art . Instead it is in keeping with the whole logic of a regime of identification of art and with its politics . It is not difficult to acknowledge in this "one-seater remote place" the last form of a space which was born at the same time as the concept of aesthetics, which also was the time of the French Revolution : I mean the blank space of the museum where the solitude and the passivity of the visitors confronts the solitude and the passivity of the artworks . Aesthetics is not the science or philosophy of art in general . Aesthetics is a historical regime of identification of art which was born between the end of the 18 th century and the beginning of the 19th . The specificity of this historical regime of identification is that it identifies artworks no more as specific products of definite techniques according to definite rules but as inhabitants of a specific kind of common space . This is often thought of as the "autonomy of art" . A well known narrative - the so-called modernist narrative - has it that aesthetics means the constitution of a sphere of autonomy , where artworks are isolated in a world of their own , where they only fall under criteria of form, or beauty , or "truth to medium" . According to the same narrative, that autonomy would have collapsed in the last decades of the XXth century because forms of social life and techniques of reproduction made it definitely impossible to maintain the boundary between artistic production and technological reproduction , high art and low art, autonomous artworks and forms of commodity culture . I would argue that this narrative fully misses the point . The terms that it opposes as characteristic of two ages have been tied up together since the beginning of the aesthetic regime of art .First , in this regime the definition of a specific aesthetic sphere does not withdraw the artworks from politics . On the contrary their politicity is linked with that separateness. But , second , the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere is not the autonomy of the art works . It was in the representational regime of art that artworks were defined by the properties and rules of mimesis distinguishing them from other artefacts. When this regime collapses , artworks are merely defined by their belonging to a specific sphere. A specific kind of space qualifies thus objects which can no more be distinguished by the process of their production . But that sphere has no definite boundaries. The autonomy of art is its heteronomy as well. That duality makes for two politics of aesthetics . Art is political, in the aesthetical regime of art , inasmuch as its objects belong to a separate sphere . And it is political inasmuch as its objects have no specific difference with the objects of the other spheres .
On the one hand , aesthetics meant the collapse of the system of constraints and hierarchies that constituted the representational regime of art . It meant the dismissal of the hierarchies of subject-matters, genres and forms of expression separating objects worthy or unworthy of entering in the realm of art or separating high genres and low genres. It implied the infinite openness of the field of art , which ultimately meant the erasing of the frontier between art and non-art, between artistic creation and anonymous life . The aesthetic regime of art did not begin - as many people still have it - with the glorification of the unique genius achieving the unique work of art . On the contrary it began , in the 18th century with the assertion that the archetype of the poet , Homer, had never existed , that his poems were not a work of art , not the fulfilment of any artistic canon , but a patchwork of collected tales that expressed the way of feeling and thinking of a still infant people . On the one hand aesthetics meant that kind of equality that went along with the beheading of the King of France and the sovereignty of the people . Now that kind of equality that ultimately meant the indiscernibility of art and life.
But on the other hand , aesthetics meant that the works of art were grasped as such in a specific sphere of experience where -in Kantian terms - they were free from the forms of sensory connection proper either to the objects of knowledge or to the objects of desire . They were merely "free-appearance" responding to a free-play , meaning a non-hierarchical relation between the intellectual and the sensory faculties . In his Letters on the aesthetic education of Man Schiller drew , after Kant , the political consequence of that de-hierarchisation . The "aesthetic state" defined a sphere of sensory equality, where the supremacy of active understanding over passive sensibility did not work out any longer . This meant that it dismissed the partition of the sensible that traditionally gave its legitimacy to domination by separating two humanities . The power of the high classes was supposed to be the power of activity over passivity , of understanding over sensation , of the educated senses over the raw senses , etc. By dismissing that power , the aesthetic experience framed an "equality" which would be no more a reversal of domination . Schiller opposed that sensory "revolution" to the political revolution as it had been implemented by French Revolution. The latter had failed precisely because the revolutionary power had played the traditional part of the Understanding - meaning the state- imposing its law to the matter of sensations - meaning the masses . The only true revolution would be a revolution overthrowing the power of "active" understanding over "passive" sensibility , the power of a "class" of intelligence and activity over a class of passivity and wilderness .
So aesthetics meant equality because it meant the suppression of the boundaries of art . And it meant equality because it meant the constitution of Art as a separate form of human experience . The two equalities are opposed and they are tied together . In Schiller's Letters , the statue of the Greek goddess promises a future of emancipation , because the goddess is " idle" and "self-contained " . It promises it owing to its very separateness and unavailability to our knowledge and desires. Obviously the " extremely useless , fragile and non-productive" place of Urban Encampment keeps in straight line with the "idleness and indifference " that characterised Schiller's Greek divinity . But , at the same time , the statue promises it because its "freedom" - or "indifference" embodies another freedom or indifference , the freedom of the Greek people that created it . Now this freedom means the contrary of the first one . It is the freedom of a life that does not give itself to separate, differentiate forms of existence , the freedom of a people for which art is the same as religion, which is the same as politics , which is the same as ethics : a way of being together . As a consequence the separateness of the artwork promises its contrary : a life which will not know art as a separate practice and field of experience .
The "politics of aesthetics" rests on this originary paradox. That paradoxical linkage of two opposite equalities could make and did historically make for two main forms of "politics".
The first form aims at connecting the two equalities . This means transforming the freedom and equality of the autonomous aesthetic sphere into the form of a collective existence where they will no more be a matter of form and appearance but will be embodied in living attitudes , in the materiality of everyday sensory experience . The common of the community will be woven thus in the fabric of the lived world . This means that the separateness of aesthetic equality and freedom has to be achieved by its self-suppression . It has to be achieved in an unseparate form of common life when art and politics , work and leisure , public and private life are one and the same . Such is the program of the aesthetic revolution achieving in real life what both political dissensus and aesthetic enjoyment can only achieve in appearance. This program was first stated two centuries ago in the oldest systematic program of German idealism , proposing to replace the dead mechanism of state power by the living body of a people animated by a philosophy turned into mythology . It was continuously revived , both in the projects of a revolution conceived as "human revolution" , meaning the self-suppression of politics , and of an art suppressing itself as a separate practice , identifying itself with the elaboration of new forms of life . It animated the "gothic" dreams of Arts and Crafts in 19th century England as well as the technological achievements of the Werkbund or the Bauhaus in 20th century Germany , the mallarmean dream of a poetry "preparing the festivals of the future" as well as the concrete participation of the suprematist , futurist and constructivist artists to the Soviet Revolution.It animated the projects of situationist architecture as well as Guy Debord's derive or Beuys' "social plastic" . I think that it is still alive in Hardt and Negri's contemporary vision of the franciscan communism of the multitudes , implemented through the irresistible power of the global network exploding the boundaries of Empire . In all these cases , politics and art must achieve their self-suppression to the benefit of a new form of unseparate life .
The second form , on the contrary, disconnects the two equalities . It disconnects the free and equal space of aesthetic experience from the infinite field of equivalence of art and life .To the self-suppressing politics of art becoming life , it opposes a politics of the resistant form . The schillerian goddess bears promise because she is idle . The social function of art , Adorno will echo , is to have no function. The egalitarian potential is enclosed in the dissensuality of the work , in its belonging to an autonomous sphere , indifferent to any program of social transformation or any participation in the adornment of prosaic life . Political avant-gardism and artistic avant-gardism would fit together out of their very lack of connection . The political act of art is to save the heterogeneous sensible which is the heart of the autonomy of art and consistently of its power of emancipation. It is to save it from a twofold threat : either the transformation into a metapolitical act or the identification to the forms of everyday aestheticized life . Now this separateness is not the refuge of pure Beauty . On the contrary it makes sense to the extent that it stages the very relationship of separateness and unseparateness. In Adorno and Horkheimer's narrative , the autonomous perfection of the work is supposed to reconcile the reason of Ulysses and the song of the sirens and to keep them irreconcilable at the same time.
What is at stake in that politics is not so much preserving the boundary between high art and low or popular art as it is preserving the heterogeneity of two sensory worlds as such. This is why the postmodernist polemics falls off target when it thinks that the modernist paradigm collapsed when Rauschenberg put together a copy of Velasquez and a car-key on the same canvas . To the dismay of his postmodern champions Rauschenberg still expressed his dedication to the human treasure of high art. The paradigm collapses only if the boundary separating the two sensory worlds collapses . Adorno once made the tremendous assertion that we can no more hear - no more stand - some chords of 19th century salon music , unless , he said , "everything is trickery ". Lyotard would say in turn that you can not blend figurative and abstract motifs on a canvas ,that the taste which feels and appreciates this mix-up is no taste. As we know, it appears some day that those chords can still be heard , that you can still see figurate and abstract motifs blended on the same canvas , and even make art by merely borrowing artefacts from everyday life and re-exhibiting them . There is no radical shift from modernity to postmodernity . But there is a dialectic of the apolitically-political work which leads the second politics of aesthetics to another kind of self-suppression . It has to reassert the radical heterogeneity of a sensory experience , at the cost not only of dismissing any political promise but also of suppressing the autonomy of art itself , of transforming it into sheer ethical testimony. This shift is most clear in the French aesthetical thought of the 80's . Roland Barthes opposes the uniqueness of the photograph of the dead mother not only to the interpretive practice of the semiologist but also to the artistic pretension of photography itself . Godard emphasizes the iconic power of the image or the rythm of the phrase at the cost of dismantling not only the old narrative plot , but the autonomy of the artwork itself . In Lyotard the brush stroke or the timbre become sheer testimonies of the enslavement of the mind to the power of the Other. The first name of the other is the aistheton . The second is the Law. Ultimately both politics and aesthetics vanish in ethics . This reversal of the "modernist" paradigm of the politicity of art is in keeping with a whole trend of thought that dissolves political dissensuality in an archi-politics of exception and terror from which only a Heideggerian God can save us.
Under the straightforward plot of modernity and postmodernity or the clearcut opposition of pure art and engaged art , we have to recognize the originary and enduring tension of those two politics of aesthetics , which are entailed in the very forms of visibility and intelligibility that make art identifiable as such to us - those two politics which are led ultimately to their own self-suppression . It is that tension which underpins and somehow undermines the seemingly simple project of a political or "critical" art that would serve politics by arousing the awareness of the forms of domination and enhancing thereby energies of resistance or rebellion . That simple project has been taken up from the beginning in the tension between the two opposite politics : art suppressing itself in order to become life and art doing politics on the condition of doing no politics at all . A critical art is in fact a sort of "third way" , a kind of specific negotiation between those two constitutive politics of aesthetics. This negotiation must keep something of the tension that pushes aesthetic experience toward the reconfiguration of collective life and something of the tension that withdraws the power of aesthetic sensibility from the other spheres of experience . It must borrow from the zones of indistinction of art and life the connections that provoke political intelligibility . And it must borrow from the separateness of art works the sense of sensory foreignness that enhances political energies . Political art must be some sort of collage of the opposites . Before blending Velasquez and car-keys it has to blend alternative politics of aesthetics. It does it by setting specific forms of heterogeneity , by borrowing elements from different spheres of experience and forms of montage from different arts or techniques . If Brecht remained as a kind of archetype of political art in the XXth century , it was due not so much to his enduring communist commitment as to the way he negotiated the relation between the opposites , blending the scholastic forms of political teaching with the enjoyments of the musical or the cabaret , having allegories of Nazi power discuss in verse about matters of cauliflowers , etc. The main procedure of political or critical art consists in setting out the encounter and possibly the clash of heterogeneous elements .The clash of these heterogeneous elements is supposed to provoke a break in our perception , to disclose some secret connection of things hidden behind the everyday reality. The hidden reality may be the absolute power of dream and desire hidden by the prose of bourgeois life , as it is in the surrealist poetics . It may be the violence of capitalist power and class war hidden behind the great ideals , as it is in the militant practices of photomontage , showing us for instance the capitalist gold in Adolf Hitler's throat .
Political art thus means creating those forms of collision or dissensus that put together not only heterogeneous elements but also two politics of sensoryness . The heterogeneous elements are put together in order to provoke a clash . Now the clash is two things at once . On the one hand it is the flash that enlightens . The connection of the heterogeneous elements speaks out of its legibility . It points to some secret of power and violence . The connection of vegetables and high rhetoric in Arturo Ui conveys a political message . But on the other hand the clash is produced insofar as the heterogeneity of the elements resists the homogeneity of meaning. Cauliflowers remain cauliflowers , juxtaposed to high rhetoric . They carry no message. They are supposed to enhance political energy out of their very opaqueness . Ultimately the mere juxtaposition of heteroclite elements is endowed with a political power . In Jean-Luc Godard's film Made in USA the hero says "I get the impression of being in a film of Walt Disney , played by Humphrey Bogart , therefore in a political film" . The mere relationship of heteroclite elements was read in a dialectical way , as a clash witnessing to a political reality of conflict .
Political art is always a kind of specific negotiation not between politics and art but between the two politics of aesthetics . This third way is made possible by continuously playing on the boundary and the absence of boundary between art and non-art . The Brechtian identity of allegory and debunking of allegory supposes that you can play on the connection and the disconnection between art and cauliflowers , politics and cauliflowers. Such a play supposes that vegetables themselves have a double existence : one in which they bear no relationship with art and politics and another where they already bear a strong relationship with both of them. As a matter of fact , the relationship of politics , art and vegetables existed before Brecht , not only in impressionist still life, reviving the Dutch tradition , but also in literature . One novel by Zola , Le Ventre de Paris , had notably put them as both political and artistic symbols. The novel was based on the polarity of two characters . On the one hand there is the poor old revolutionary who comes back from deportation in the new Paris of the Halles where he is overthrown and smashed by the flood of cabbages , meaning the flood of consumption . On the other hand there is the impressionist painter , singing the epics of the cabbages , the epic of Modernity, the glass and iron architecture of the Halles and the piles of vegetables that allegorized modern beauty in contrast to the old pathetic beauty symbolized by the gothic church nearby . The political allegory of the cauliflowers was possible because the connection of art , politics and vegetables , the connection of art, politics and consumption already existed as set of moving borders , enabling artists to both cross the border and make sense of the connection of the heterogeneous elements and play on the sensory power of their heterogeneity.
This means that the mixing of high art and low art or the mixing of art and commodity are not a discovery of the 1960's which would have been attributed to modern art and to its political potentials . On the contrary , political art had been made possible by that mixing , by a continuous process of border-crossings between high and low art, art and non-art, art and commodity . This process itself is an old affair . It reaches back far in the past of the aesthetic regime of art . You cannot oppose an epoch of celebration of high art to an epoch of trivialisation or parody of high art . As soon as Art was constituted as a specific sphere of existence , at the beginning of the 19th century , its products began to fall into the triviality of reproduction , commerce and commodity . But as soon as they did so, commodities themselves began to travel in the opposite sense, to enter the realm of art . They could identify directly their power with the overwhelming power and beauty of modern life , as it did in Zola's epics of cabbages. They could also fall into the realm of art by becoming obsolete , unavailable for consumption and thereby turned into objects of aesthetic - disinterested - pleasure or uncanny excitement . Surrealist poetics as well as Benjamin's theory of allegory or Brechtian epic theatre thrived on this border-crossing . And so did all the forms of critical art that played on the ambiguous relationship of art and commerce ,through to many contemporary installations. They blended heterogeneous materials borrowed from artistic tradition , political rhetoric , commodity culture , commercial ads and so on , in order to disclose the connections of high art or politics with capitalist domination . But they could do so owing to the ongoing process which had already erased the borders . Critical art thrived on this continuous border-crossing , this two-way process of prosaïsation of the poetical and of poetisation of the prosaic .
If this makes sense , it may be possible to reframe , hopefully on a firmer footing , the political issues involved in the discussion about modernism and postmodernism. What is at stake in contemporary art is not the fate of the modernist paradigm. Its validity is neither weaker nor stronger as it ever was. In my view it always a very restrictive interpretation of the dialectic of the aesthetical regime of art . What is at stake is the fate of the "third politics "of aesthetics . The question is not : are we still modern , already postmodern or even afterpostmodern? The question is : what exactly happened to the dialectical clash ? What happened to the formula of critical art ?
I shall propose some elements for a possible answer with reference to some exhibitions which in the last years offered some points of comparison with the art of the 60's or 70' s and thereby some significant markers of the shift.
1st. example : three years ago , the National Center for Photography in Paris presented an exhibition called "Bruit de fond" ("White Noise" ) . The exhibition juxtaposed recent works with works from the 70's . Among the latter you could see Martha Rosler's series "Bringing War Home" : photomontages putting together advertising images of american domestic happiness and images of the War in Vietnam. In the nearby there was another work related to American politics and taking on the same form of a confrontation of two elements . The work , made by Wang Du, consisted of two elements . On the left , there was the Clinton couple ,represented in the pop manner , as a pair of wax-museum figures . On the right , there was a huge plastification of Courbet's Origine du Monde , which , as is well-known, represents a woman's sex. So in both cases an image of American happiness was juxtaposed to its hidden secret : war and economical violence in Martha Rosler , sex and profanity in Wang Du . But in Wang Du's case , both political conflictuality and the sense of strangeness had vanished . There remained an automatic effect of delegitimization : sexual profanity delegitimizing politics , the wax figure deligitimizing high art . But there was no more anything to delegitimize . The mechanism spun around itself . It played in fact a double play : on the automaticity of the deligitimizing effect and on the awareness of its spinning around itself .
2d example . Another exhibition showing in Paris three years ago was called "Voilà. Le monde dans la tête". It proposed to document a century a century through different installations , among which Christian Boltanski's installation : "Les Abonnés du téléphone" . Its principle was simple : two shelves on the sides with phone directories from all over the world , and two tables in the middle where you could sit down and peruse whatever directory you liked . That installation could remind us of another political work of the 70's , Chris Burden's piece : the Other Vietnam Memorial . That "other memorial" was of course the memorial of the anonymous Vietnamese victims. Chris Burden had given them names , written on the memorial , by randomly picking up Vietnamese names in a phone directory . Boltanski's installation still deals with a matter of anonymity . But that anonymity is not more emplotted in a controversial plot . It is no more a matter of giving names to those that the winners had left unnamed . The names of the anonymous becomes , as Boltanski puts it , " specimens of humanity" .
3d example . Last year , the Guggenheim Museum in New York presented an exhibition called Moving Pictures . The purpose was to illustrate how the extensive use of reproducible media in contemporary art was rooted in the critical art practices of the 60' and the 70's , questioning both mainstream social or sexual stereotypes and artistic autonomy . Nevertheless the works exhibited around the rotunda illustrated a significant shift away from that straight line . For instance Vanessa Beecroft 's video showing nude women standing in the setting of the museum was still put forward as a critique of feminine stereotypes in art . But obviously those nude and mute bodies followed another direction , escaping any signification or conflict of significations and evoking much more Chirico's metaphysical painting than any kind of feminist critique . As you climbed up the round ramp of the Guggenheim , a lot of videos , photographs , installations and video-installations enhanced , instead of "critique" , a new kind of strangeness , a sense of the mystery entailed in the trivial representation of everyday life . You sensed it in Rineke Dijkstra's photographs of ambiguous teen-agers , as well as in Gregory Crewdson's movie-like representations of the strangeness of everyday events or in Christian Boltanski's installation : one of these installations made with photographs, electric fixtures and bulbs which may symbolize - according to the case - either the dead of the Holocaust or the fleetingness of Childhood. The way-up in the exhibition was a kind of backtrack from the dialectical art of the clash to the symbolist art of Mystery - which culminated at the top of the building in the video-installation made by Bill Viola , Going forth by day , composed as a cycle of symbolist frescoes , embracing the cycles of Birth , Life , Death and Resurrection , as well as the cycle of Fire , Air , Earth and Water .
Out of those three examples , chosen among many others, we can sketch out an answer to the question of the "politic of aesthetics to-day" , the question "what happened to the dissensual forms of critical art"? I would say that the "classical" form of the aesthetic dissensus has split into four main forms ;
The first one would be the joke . In the joke , the conjunction of the heterogeneous elements is still staged as a tension of antagonist elements , pointing to some secret . But there is no more secret . The dialectical tension is brought back to a game , playing on the very indiscernability between the procedures unveiling secrets of power and the the ordinary procedures of delegitimization that are parts of the new forms of domination - the procedures of delegitimization produced by power itself , by the media , commercial entertainment or advertising . Such was the case of the work of Wang Du that I mentioned earlier . Many exhibitions to-day play on the same undecidability . For instance , the same exhibition was presented at Minneapolis under the pop-like title "Let us entertain" before being recycled in Paris under the situationist title " Beyond the spectacle" . The exhibition played on three levels : the pop-art derision of high-art , the critical denunciation of capitalist entertainment and the debordian idea of "play" as the opposite of "spectacle" .
The second one would be the collection . Heterogeneous elements are still lumped together . But they are no more in order to provoke a critical clash , not even to play on the undecidability of their critical power. It becomes a positive act of gathering as an attempt to collect the traces and testimonies of a common world and a common history The collection is a recollection as well. The equality of all items - works of art , private photographs , objects of use , ads, commercial videos, etc - is thereby the equality of the archives of the life of a community . I mentioned the exhibition " There it is: the world in our mind" which was aimed at recollecting a century. When you left the Boltanski's room , you could see for instance one hundred photographs made by Hans Peter-Feldmann , representing one person of each age from one to one hundred , and a lot of other installations , documenting a common history. We could find many other examples of this trend. It is obviously in tune with a motto which increasingly soars up to-day : the motto that we have "lost our world" , that the "social bond" is being broken and that it is the artist's task to take part in the struggle to mend the social bond or the social fabric by making visible all the traces witnessing to a shared humanity .
The third form would be the invitation . I mentioned how "the Phone customers" invited the visitors to take a directory on a shelf and open it randomly . Elsewhere in the same exhibition they were invited to take a book from a pile and sit down on a carpet , representing some sort of child's fairy island . In other exhibitions , the visitors are invited to take a soup and get in touch , to engage new forms of relationships . Our "one-seater place" also invites to experiment new relations between community and individuality , proximity and distance . Such attempts were systematized those last years in the concept of a "relational art" : an art creating no more works or objects , but ephemeral situations prompting new forms of relationships. As the chief theorist of this aesthetic puts it " by giving some small services, the artist contributes to the task of plugging the gaps in the social bonds" .
The fourth form would be mystery . Mystery does not mean enigma. Nor does it mean mysticism. Since the age of Mallarmé , it means a specific way of putting heterogeneous elements together , for instance , in the case of Mallarmé, the thought of the poet , the steps of the dancer , the unfolding of a fan or the smoke of a cigarette. In opposition to the dialectical clash that stresses the heterogeneity of the elements in order to show a reality framed by antagonisms , mystery sets forth an analogy - a familiarity of the strange , witnessing to a common world , where heterogeneous realities are woven in the same fabric and can always be related to one another by the fraternity of a metaphor.
"Mystery" and "fraternity of metaphors" are two terms used by Jean-Luc Godard in his Histoires du cinéma . This work is an interesting case for our purpose because he uses there forms of collage of heterogeneous elements as he has always done , but he makes them produce exactly the contrary of what they did twenty years before .For instance in a striking passage of the Histoires du cinéma Godard fuses together three images : first , shots from George Stevens 'film "A place in the sun" , showing the happiness of the young and rich lover played by Elisabeth Taylor , bathing in the sun , besides his beloved Montgomery Clift ; secondly , images of the dead in Ravensbrück , made some years before by the same George Stevens ; thirdly, a Mary-Magdalene extracted from Giotto's frescoes in Padua .Would it have been made twenty years ago , that collage could only have been understood as a dialectical clash , denouncing the secret of Death hidden behind both high Art and American happiness . But In the Histoires du Cinema , the image of denunciation is turned into an image of Redemption . The conjunction of the images of Nazi extermination , American happiness and Giotto's "a-historical" art witnesses to the redemptory power of the image which gives to the living and the dead " a place in the world". The dialectic clash has become a mystery of co-presence .
Mystery was the key-concept of symbolism . The return of symbolism is obviously on the agendas . When I use this term , I am not referring to some spectacular forms of revival of symbolist mythology and dreams of the Gesamtkunstwerk , in the way of Mathew Barney . Nor do I refer only to some effective uses of symbolism , such as the Bill Viola's piece I mentioned earlier. I am referring to the more modest, almost imperceptible way in which the collections of objects, images and signs gathered in our museums and galeries is increasingly shifting from the logic of dissensus to the logic of the mystery , of a testimony of co-presence .
The shift from dialectics to symbolism is obviously linked with the contemporary shift in what I called the aesthetics of politics , meaning the way politics frames a common stage . This shift has a name . Its name is consensus . Consensus does not simply mean the agreement of the political parties or the social partners about the common interests of the community . It means a reconfiguration of the visibility of the common. It means that the givens of any collective situation are objectivized in such a way as they can no more lend themselves to a dispute , to the polemical framing of a controversial world into the given world. In such a way , consensus properly means the dismissal of the "aesthetics of politics" .
Such an erasure or a weakening of the political stage and political invention of dissensus has a contradictory effect on the politics of aesthetics. On the one hand , it gives a new visibility to the practices of art as political practices - I mean practices of redistribution of spaces and times , of forms of visibility of the common , forms of connections between things , images and meanings . Artistic performances may appear and sometimes do appear thereby as the substitutes of politics in the construction of dissensual stages . But Consensus does not merely leave the political place empty . It reframes in its own way the field of its objects . It also shapes in its own way the space and tasks of artistic practice. For instance by replacing matters of class conflict by matters of inclusion and exclusion , it puts worries about the "loss of the social bond" , concerns with " bare humanity" or tasks of empowering threatened identities in the place of political concerns. Art is summoned thus to put its political potentials at work in reframing a sense of community , mending the social bond , etc. Once more , politics and aesthetics vanish together in Ethics
This is the last paradox of the politics of aesthetics . Art is more and more to-day about matters of distribution of spaces and issues of redescriptions of situations . It is more and more about matters that traditionally belonged to politics . But it cannot merely occupy the space left by the weakening of political conflict. It has to reshape it , at the risk of testing the limits of its own politics.