- Imperfecting the Illusion: Belief and the Aesthetic Destruction of Reality
Realism, as an aesthetic form, has long been indicted for its complicity with ideological conservatism. In this essay, I argue for a reconsideration of realism as a critical tool in the formation of contemporary aesthetic politics. In developing this claim, I draw upon Jacques Rancière’s insights regarding the potential for aesthetic formations to take on a political dimension by “introducing into [our sense of community] new subjects and objects, . . . render[ing] visible what had not been, and . . . mak[ing] heard as speakers those who had been perceived as mere noisy animals.”1 Such shifts in our capacity to envision new realities can change “the landscape of the possible” by rupturing anticipated correlations between images and their meanings and images and their effects.2
An aesthetic politics, in Rancière’s sense, requires a shift from the “representative regime” of art to what he calls the “aesthetic regime.” For Rancière, this transition must no longer be understood as a simple break with mimetic realism in favor of nonfigurative art. As he puts it, “the break with [the representational regime] [End Page 384] does not consist in painting white squares rather than . . . warriors.”3 Rather than discarding figurative art, this break requires giving up the idea that a representational form carries what he calls an “expressive complement,” such at that between “a lion and courage.”4 More specifically, the break from the representative to the aesthetic regime involves for Rancière the recognition that an image can no longer be simply understood as a “codified expression of a thought or feeling.”5 Such codified meanings, he argues, reproduce the status quo by limiting the ability of things to exist in ways that have not yet been thought and thus suppress the potential to bring to life possible new ways of being.
This essay follows Rancière in refusing to claim that realist forms of art are inconsistent with a political aesthetics. I consider a range of art and media examples with the aim of teasing out particular relationships between realism and deception that may maximize realism’s potential to disrupt given ideological formations. My main contention will be that realism’s potential political power lies not in its ability to guide the spectator toward previously unseen truths or to see through deception. Rather, its potential emerges by staging deceptions that imperil any recourse to the metalanguage that sustains the very categories of true and false, thereby undermining the possibility of belief and the system of authority that secures it. To put this more generally in Rancièrian terms, realism’s charge in the project of aesthetic politics is to conspire with deception in order to dispute the established regime of representation and generate what he calls a new “distribution of the sensible,” through which new organizations of perception may emerge.6 In what follows, I consider a series of examples that, in increasingly complex ways, address the political question of how to create a new distribution of the sensible by undermining the structure of belief and the system of authority (the big Other, in Lacanian parlance) that sustain the given arrangement.7 I illustrate this politics through the sculptural figures created by Ron Mueck, which, I argue, innovatively harness the potentially transformative moment when the established perceptual framework begins to fray. In particular, Mueck’s use of scale to disrupt the illusion of reality illuminates ways in which realist forms of art carry the political potential to open up opportunities for new ways of seeing, understanding, and being in the world. His sculptures do this by inaugurating a new twist on conventional trompe l’oeil by reproducing, at the level of context, the deception that traditionally occurs only at the level of form. [End Page 385]
Belief, Doubt, and the Big Other
At first sight, the sculptural figures produced by Australian artist Ron Mueck appear as unimpeachable examples of the perfected mimetic form. At the level of detail, his pieces are ultrarealist in their corporeal renderings, as seen, for example, in the stray hairs that cling to the blotchy face of the woman who is...