Magun: The question we would like to discuss with you today is the connection between aesthetics and politics. Is there a specific type of art that would be both productive and relevant to the contemporary political and cultural situation? Our hypothesis is that the avant-garde – both as a phenomenon and a notion – could be important for us today. This view comes out of our historical situation, which was shaped by the constitutive moment of perestroika. As democratic mobilization challenged the authoritarian and corrupt power of the Soviet state, there was a major revival of interest in both Western modernism (not just Kafka and Joyce, but also Pollock, etc.) and the Soviet avant-garde art of the 1920-30s; what seemed important was the conjunction of this type of art with political emancipation. What do you think? Is the avant-garde is still usable as a notion?

Ranciére: What strikes me is precisely that your relation to avant-gardist art was mediated through the democratic aspirations of the time of the perestroika. This means that it took its relevance in a certain present as a thing of the past. The question is: what thing and what past exactly? It seems to me that there are two concepts of avant-garde art and of its political effect. There is the idea of avant-garde art as an art intentionally designed to create new forms of life. Such was the art of the Russian futurists and constructivists, the art of El Lissitsky , Rodtchenko and their likes. They were people who really had a project to change the world, using certain materials and certain forms. Avant-garde art, in that way, was destined to create a new fabric of common sensible life, erasing the very difference between the artistic sphere and the political sphere. When you mention Kafka, Joyce or Pollock, it is not the same at all. What they have in common with the former is the rejection of standard representational art. But they did not want to create new forms of life, they did not want to merge art and politics. In this case, the political effect of art is something like what you mentioned: a transformation of our ways of feeling and thinking, the construction of a new sensorium. But this new sensorium is not the consequence of a desire to create new forms of collective experience. Instead it is the very break between the contexts in which Joyce or Kafka created and the context in which you read them that gave them their ‘political’ relevance. So, I would say, first, that the idea of the avant-garde entails two different things, two different ideas of the connection between the artistic and the political, second, that the concept of the avant-garde that you had in mind at that time was a retrospective construction. As a matter of fact, avant-gardism and modernism as they are used in contemporary debates are retrospective constructions that are supposed to allow us to have it both ways: to have both the collective impulse and aspiration to a new life and the separating effect of the aesthetic break.

Vilensky: Still, maybe we can start by positing some generic features of the avant-garde. For example, what immediately springs to mind is the principle of sublation of art into life. Then, of course, there is the direct connection with political struggle, and the idea that art should and must change the world, on different levels. Then, there is also a very interesting idea, and a very complicated one, coming from Adorno, namely that art should keep its own non-identity. To me, this means that the avant-garde is not about some tangible object of art, it’s always about the composition of different things. For example, Malevich was not just about pictures. Actually most of his paintings were sketches for large-scale public art projects. So I think that avant-garde is based on the rejection of fetishization into objects that are bought and sold; its main goal is to supply the subject with instruments for self-knowledge and self-realization through aesthetic experience.



Graphic: Zanny Begg

 Magun: Maybe the definition of such features could help us to draw a line between the avant-garde and modernism? Because modernism uses innovative, non-representative techniques to sublimate art as such, to make an absolute work of art that would contain the entire world. The avant-garde uses the same techniques to do the opposite: to break up art, to explode art into life, achieving a kind of a Hegelian end of art. So, modernism would mean “life absorbed into art,” and avant-gardism “art absorbed into life.”

Ranciére: It’s unclear if the techniques really are the same. I wonder whether you can describe a general model of modernism, a general model of artistic destruction and change in the forms of perception and sensibility. In fact, artistic modernism, just as avant-gardism, can be defined either in terms of minimalist subtraction or in terms of excess. Modernist art in the 1910s may mean the creation of pure abstract forms in the way of Mondrian or the dynamic explosion in the way of Boccioni. In both cases, there is a rupture with the standards of figurative painting or sculpture, but it is not the same procedure. In the same way, literary modernism could mean Khlebnikov as well as Kafka; in the 1940s, Adorno still had to oppose a true (Schönberg) and a false (Stravinsky) musical modernism. So I don’t think that there is a kind of general model of artistic invention that can define art’s modernism. It has to be defined by a certain connection of artistic practice with the modern forms of social life. Modernism involves a specific impulse, some kind of will to change the world, to connect the forms of artistic practice with forms of life. Let us think about abstract painting: you took the example of Pollock , but if you compare Pollock to, for example, Malevich, it is clear that for the latter it was a question of inventing new social forms, new dynamics of life. And in Pollock, it’s absolutely the contrary. With Pollock it was the end of a certain form of activist art, of a certain form of involvement of art in social practice that had been very strong in the United States in the 1930s . The American abstraction of the 1940s was a return to art and only art, after the involvement of many artists in the Popular Front. So it is not a question of separating autonomous modernism from avant-gardism viewed of as the fusion of art and life. The point is that there are two concepts of modernism. The modernists of the 1910s and 1920s were concerned with an art oriented towards the fusion of art and life, or at least with an art whose forms would match the forms and rhythms of modern life . This is true for painters like Malevich, Delaunay or Boccioni, for architects and designers like Gropius or Le Corbusier, stage designers like Appia, film-makers like Abel Gance, most of which had no political avant-gardist commitment . That modernism in general was about an art fitting modern life. The second concept is that which was elaborated retrospectively in the 1940s by theorists like Adorno and Greenberg as a consequence of the former’s failure. They privileged figures of “subtraction” – abstract painting, dodecaphonic music, minimalist literature- because they equated that artistic subtraction with the withdrawal of the “totalitarian” will to merge art into life and eventually with the mosaic rejection of the images. That’s why Kafka and Schönberg became emblems of modernity for Adorno. I would call it an after-modernism or a counter-modernism. Ironically, it is that after-modernism that became the target of post-modern criticism.

Magun: Nevertheless, I want to insist that we have to distinguish between the avant-garde proper and a broader modernism, between a first and a second modernism as you define them (just as we would have to differentiate w between the politicized and depoliticized wings of the “first” modernism), but there are still a number of important moments that they have in common. First, this is the destruction of form, of figure, and disassembly of this form into elements, characters of both minimalist and ornamental strategies. Second, there is a constant reflection on form and art’s framing, included in the artwork as a form of irony or the destruction of representative illusions etc. Third, in the terms of your own aesthetic theory, it is the direct presentation of background and not of the figure, the revelation of the non-thematic layers of perception.
Of course, in the 20th century, most of the great art of both types tended towards prosaization, de-auratization, in terms of Benjamin (even though the loss of aura can of course itself be auratic), and an enthusiastic absorption of technologies and industrialization. This is more characteristic of avant-garde, but there was such trend in the modernism, too (if you take Joyce, Eliot or the late Ezra Pound). In your terms, this is a prosaization and inner critique of art is most characteristic of both wings of the “first” modernism, but the minimalism of post-war modernism also fits into this quite well.
In general, both modernism and the avant-garde, are imbued with a strange kind of utopia, one that is sealed; it is a promise of utopia, or the utopia of promise. Even Malevich’s square is either black and impenetrable (the utopia of modernism), or white and dissolved into life to the point of being unrecognizable (the utopia of the avant-garde. In both cases, art fails to unfold, and works through the destructions of significance and the declaration of senselessness. Modernism holds a mirror that does not reflect anything to the world, while the avant-garde forces raw, crude life and its senseless corporeality to emerge from behind the familiar reality of significance…

Ranciére: When you designate avant-gardism as an impulse to put art into life, the point is that this definition of avant-gardist art may come down to what I called the ethical regime. When Plato discusses poetry, both Plato and the poets are convinced that poetry is a form of education, and the question is, whether it is a good form of education. So, the idea of the intervention of art into life is not something novel or specific to avant-gardism. In a certain way, it is something from the past. The contradiction of the aesthetic regime of art is that the political potential of art is first defined not on the basis not of the autonomy of art, but of the autonomy of aesthetic experience. Because Schiller’s idea of the “aesthetic education of humanity” (and all that followed) is based precisely on the idea that there is a very specific aesthetic experience that is at odds with normal forms of experience. Before this aesthetic turn, which was punctuated by Kant and Schiller, forms of art were always connected with forms of life, art was destined to express religious truth or the majesty of the monarchs, to decorate palaces and enchant aristocratic life, etc. And the aesthetic break means that there is something as a specific sphere of experience of art, which has nothing more to do with any kind of social function … The problem is that that the idea of the political potential of art was first defined on the basis of this disruption. This is what I tried to describe when I spoke about workers’ emancipation. I mentioned there that worker’s emancipation was also aesthetic emancipation, and that aesthetic emancipation precisely had to do with the fact that there was something as an aesthetic experience available to everybody. That availability of a new form of experience was possible because art works were now identified in such a way that they could be seen as works of art regardless of why and for whom they had been created. The utopian potential of aesthetic experience was first predicated on that “autonomisation” of aesthetic experience from the ethical adequation between art and life.
The internal contradiction of avant-gardism is that it is defined on the basis of the potential of the aesthetic experience qua autonomous experience, and at the same time it tries to stop precisely this separation in order to create a new sensorium of common life . This is why for me it is impossible to give an unequivocal definition of avant-gardism. Avant-gardism may be defined as the transformation of the forms of art into forms of life. And it may be defined as the preservation of the autonomy of aesthetic experience from that transformation. This withdrawal can also be described as a utopia, as the preservation of a utopian promise enclosed in the very contradiction of autonomy, in the form of the veil or the enigma as with Adorno. I’d say that both positions have good arguments precisely because they reflect the original contradiction I indicated above.

Vilensky: It is very important that you mentioned the autonomy of aesthetic experience. I think it would be interesting to reconsider the idea of art’s autonomy in relation to ideas of workers’ autonomy that were developed in Italy by the Autonomia Operaia. Not separation in the Adornian sense, but autonomy in the sense of the self-organization of cultural production that countermands the market system with a pressure of its own…

Ranciére:Well, I think there may be confusion about the word “autonomy”. I tried to distinguish between the autonomy of the aesthetic experience and the autonomy of art. Defining the aesthetic experience also means defining a specific kind of capacity. Art is about creating a space for unexpected capacities, which means also space for unexpected possibilities. I think that is not the same as the idea of autonomy in the sense, for instance of the Italian “operaisti” . In a sense their autonomy meant the autonomy with respect to the organization of parties, communist parties and trade unions. This is still a minimal definition of autonomy. The real content of autonomy is equality: it is the recognition and the enforcement of the capacity of anybody. The Italian autonomist movement involved that capacity. But it tied it up with something quite different, which is a view of the global economic process coming down to the idea that everything belongs to the same basis. Then everything is production, and this form of production produces this form of organization, and then there is a complete translatability between working, struggling, loving, making art, and so on. I’d say that this idea of autonomy in fact suppresses precisely the autonomy of the spheres of experience.
And with respect to the relation between the art and the market – there has already been a long search for a form of art that would not be marketable at all. Today there is a form of artistic activism that asks artists to make only interventions, to act directly as political activists. But this means in, a certain way, that you keep art as the property of the artist, for instance as an action of the artist. I’d say that this is a certain form of deprivation, because when you say that art is action, that it must not be made visible and marketable, this means that aesthetic experience is not made available to anybody.
Also, I think, it’s quite difficult to define artistic practice on the negative basis of doing something that would not be marketable, because everything can be marketable. In the 1970s, the conceptual artists said: if you don’t create objects you don’t create anything for the market, and thus it is political subversion. We know what happened to conceptual art, right? They did not sell objects, they sold ideas! It’s a kind of perfection of the capitalist system, and not at all a break with it.

Skidan: Maybe I can shift the angle of our discussion a little bit? I’d like to talk about poetry and literature. In the Sixties and Seventies, in the Soviet Union at least, poetry was a very powerful thing. There was no public politics that could translate and organize discussions on philosophical and political issues, so poetry took over this task. Then, in the late Eighties and Nineties, this collapsed totally; poetry is now something very marginal. So, I’d like to turn to this art of words to say that there is a very interesting and special option in language. Mainly the negativity of the language which only poetry and special rhetorical devices can uncover and use, in opposition and in resistance to these marketable things. That’s why I think Artem is right in referring to figures like Kafka. One could also think of Beckett or Blanchot, whose strategy it was to work directly with negativity – not in the sense of deformation of syntax, words, or normative grammar, but as a special strategy which refuses to bring an expression to fulfillment, which works in suspension and negativity as the inner force of every language. Because when we name, we usually think that we open a new meaning or a new space for new meaning. I mean that poetry works vice versa, at least the avant-garde and post-avant-garde poetry. So what do you think about this negativity as a force of politicizing the art of words?

Ranciére:Well, the question is how you would define “negativity.” I prefer to speak in terms of dissensus. “Dissensus” means that you question the legitimacy of the division of things and the division of words, of how they mean or of how they conceal the meaning — and this can be done in many ways. This dissensus always refers to a certain dominant state of language. So I’d say that the poetic subversion is always referred to a certain consensual type of language. And the consensual or dominant practice of language changes very fast. It is clear for instance that surrealism has by now been mostly reintegrated in the dominant language. Surrealism as a kind of uncanny connection between words is today the principle of many advertising slogans. So what I mean is that perhaps there is a too easy idea of the subversion, as if there was a power of subversion in the poetry as such – no I don’t think so. There is a power to struggle against the dominant ways of presenting things, making sense of things, of connecting words and so on. But I’m not sure that negativity is a good term for this . Because negativity is one of those terms that precisely anticipate and presuppose a kind of identity between political invention and political subversion. For instance if we define a way of connecting words with words as negativity, we bestow it in advance with a power which is not that obvious. For instance – speaking of Kafka and Beckett – I’m not sure that negativity is a good word for defining Kafka’s art. You can also think of Kafka as of a writer who wants to renew the tradition of the fable, you can inscribe it inside a modernist tradition of the short story- from Maupassant to Borges – which is multi-faceted and whose structure has many various , if not antagonistic, implications and uses : social denunciation, nihilistic irony, new mythology, etc. It is something wider and much more complex than the idea of negativity. The same, by the way, is true of the idea of minimalism, as though minimalism was kind of a guarantee of political radicalism. In France, for the last 20 or 30 years you know, there has been produced a big bulk of minimalist literature. Yes, it is minimal – but it is generally consensual and bourgeois. It has nothing to do with any kind of political subversion.

Magun: So there is no such thing as subversion and everything depends on context? Take, for example, Eisenstein and Riefenstahl. Both worked for totalitarian regimes, but there is a difference in their poetics. In Eisenstein, even though we see the ideological overdetermination, we still see the avant-gardist impulse, negativity preserved, while Riefenstahl (like many “socialist realist” authors) art is subordinated to the goal of sublimation. Maybe there is something in great art that cannot be appropriated. It is an Adornian argument but I am using it here in a sense that is larger than the Adornian one.

Ranciére: The point is to know to what extent you can identify avant-gardist impulse with negativity. Well, you mentioned Eisenstein as a case of artistic negativity, because of his theory of montage and his practice of fragmentation. But it is unclear, you know, on what exactly the power of Eisenstein’s movies was predicated. Let us take, for example, “The General Line”. It’s unclear whether the force of this film was predicated on the montage or on the certain forms of lyricism reminiscent of the Russian paintings of 19th century, they are striking, those huge paintings of people working in the fields! Perhaps the force of this film is related to this kind of lyricism of the gesture of work, you know, and not actually with the montage. More precisely the montage has two different uses in his film: there is the dialectical parallel between the old and the new, which is certainly not the most exciting in the film; and there is the “ecstatic” montage in the sequences of the cream machine or of reaping in which the technical innovation is used to order to provide a sense of collective epics. “Negativity” here eventually means a combination of formalism and lyricism that fell off target. From my point of view it reveals the tension between aesthetic separation and ethical will which is inherent in the aesthetic regime of art. But it is not a concept actually able to account either for its artistic texture or for its political implementation.
I don’t say that the political import of art is only a question of context. What I want to say is that the creation of political zones of autonomy is based on an aesthetic experience, which is not the consequence of artistic strategies. The question is: what forms of perception, what space of experience are constructed as the result of artistic practice? If we want to contribute to a free space of experience, we have to step a little back from the idea of artistic practice as anticipating the new life.

Magun: I have another question. You are saying that art reframes the relationships between what is visible or not, what is acceptable or not to see. But, again isn’t there a step or a move that art should do before that, like some more fundamental gesture that has exactly to do with negativity, with the explosion of this border before any reframing takes place. Any reframing relies on some kind of crisis, of some sort of destruction. It is the same point with political revolution. Because if you look into the history of the political and social forms you can say with Tocqueville that actually nothing really happened in the French revolution, that there was just a constant process of transformation. But we know that there was something more fundamental which really made a crisis out of this transformation, which brought this slow transformation into an explosion. I wonder if this is not an additional problem and additional level on which we have to consider aesthetics.

Graphic: Zanny Begg

Ranciére:Well, the point is that precisely you can’t anticipate explosions. Or, if you anticipate an explosion, you precisely risk to forbid it or divert it from its own law, from its own form of progression. It is true that education can provoke this form of explosion, but it’s unclear whether you can predict the form of transformation and the way in which it becomes an explosion. I have the suspicion there is a certain reminder of transcendence in the idea of the radical break. It is true, at a certain time you can see what a radical break is: if you cut the head of the king then yes, it’s a radical break, if you design a new kind of constitution, which gives new rights to the population, new capacities to the people etc., you can say that there is a radical break. But in the field of art it’s quite difficult to define the moment of radical break. This is true for forms of art, and it is also true for their social and political implementation. Let us take the case of abstract art which has often been thought of as the right example of artistic break. As a matter of fact, this break had been anticipated from the 19th century by a move in the way painting was looked at. In the 19th century prose of art criticism , you can see this shift of the gaze that makes that figurative paintings are more and more viewed with an “abstract eye” which sees in them no more the story or the anecdotes but the events of matter and color. In that way “realist” writers of the 19th century, like the Goncourt, have created the conditions of visibility of “abstract” painting. The dismissal of figurative painting is part of a much wider process which may itself be viewed off in terms of evolution or in terms of revolutionary break. Abstract forms, as Dima said, were about the construction of new buildings and new settings. At this point, the question is to what extent we can connect the “destructive” moment with a political break. The glorification of “function” in the revolution of architecture and design, from the Werkbund to the Bauhaus and the “Esprit nouveau” was intended as a reaction against the 19th century bourgeois imitation of the aristocratic styles. But it led to the achievement of a new capitalistic and Fordist rationality as well as to the idea of a workers’ new world. And in fact the new architecture conceived for the multitudes very often ended up in the construction of elegant villas for the wealthy. The power of technique could be aligned with the power of the engineers, the power of the workers or that of the “educated” classes. Le Corbusier’s book Towards an Architecture heralds a “regeneration”, a new epoch for Humanity. But it sets it up as a dilemma: “Architecture or Revolution”…

Skidan: This makes me think that that there is a mixture of two different logics at work. We have been trying to find this disjunctive connection, connection through the rupture between aesthetics and politics. But at the same time, I am haunted by the feeling that there is actually an immanent logic of art itself, an artistic development that has picked up speed, as you note, somewhere in the mid-19th century. According to this logic, each next step must be a break with earlier rules and norm. We can see that artistic ideas that were full of political meaning soon become products that write themselves into the frame of an immanent aesthetic logic, which has no relation to the transformation of the existing order of things. This is the double bind of contemporary art. As a result, aesthetics take on the role of a double agent: on the one hand, you do something that addresses the outside and demands “a change of the world,” but at the same time, it is a finite product, evaluated within aesthetic space and its criteria.

Vilensky: I think, Sasha, that both art and emancipatory politics always have a surplus that cannot be approrpriated by the institutions of power. Another thing is that we should not only think of the market’s totality, but also of the emancipatory practices that that constantly break this totality. I think that the avant-garde is indelibly connected to political events or movement that prepare its way. But if we look at these movements, we can see that their form is historical and that it changes. For example, the new “movement of movements” that arose after Seattle has basically transformed its subjectivities and the forms of their political representation. This is a moment of dynamism – or rupture – in both politics and art.