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  • Rethinking Modernity
  • Jacques Rancière (bio)

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I must first spell out what will be the issue at stake in this talk. I have already called into question the so-called modernist interpretation of artistic modernity as a break with the representational tradition, meaning the autonomy of art, its separation from the forms of commodity culture, and the commitment of each art to its own medium. I opposed to this vision two main theses: first, an artistic revolution cannot be simply a revolution in the practices of art. The reason for this is that art does not exist by itself. Even though art histories used to begin with prehistoric rock paintings, art only exists within a specific regime of identification that allows objects or performances made by very diverse techniques for very diverse destinations to be perceived as belonging to a unique mode of experience. It is not a question merely of the “reception” of the artworks. It is about the very fabric of experience within which they are produced. This fabric is constituted of concrete institutions—places for performance or exhibition, modes of circulation and reproduction—but also of modes of perception and affection, concepts, narratives, and judgments that identify them and make sense of them. It is this whole regime of experience that makes it possible that words, narrations, forms, colors, movements, and rhythms be perceived and thought of as art.

If this is so, this means that art is not the name of an immemorial practice of humankind in general. Art is a historical configuration that has existed in the Western world since the end of the eighteenth century. There were many arts—many ways of doing that existed before that time, to be sure. But they were enclosed within a division, which means a hierarchy of human occupations that prevented art from constituting a specific sphere of experience. Fine arts were the progeny of the so-called liberal arts, which were distinguished from the mechanical arts because they were the pastime of free men. The principles that structured the representative regime of the art were heirs to that division of human activities. Representation did not mean an imitation of a reality by the techniques of art. It meant a legislation of imitation that subjected the practices of art to a whole set of rules that determined which objects or characters could or could not be the subject matter of art and what artistic form fit such and such subject matter, according to its high or low value. Ultimately it implied the inscription of artistic practices in a whole system of adequation between the production of art and the “natural” dispositions of those to whom they were addressed, a correspondence between artistic rules and laws of nature, which in reality are laws of a hierarchical social order. Anti-representation thus means the destruction of this whole set of correspondences, or, in my terms, this whole distribution of the sensible. It is this redistribution of the relations between artistic practices and their modes of visibility and intelligibility that I call the aesthetic revolution.

Two consequences follow from this regarding the notions through which one has tried to “historicize” the aesthetic revolution, notably the notions of “modernity,” “modernism,” and the avant-garde. First, these notions are unable to conceptualize the set of transformations that has disrupted the logic of the representative regime. Instead they offer particular interpretations of those transformations, particular interpretations that make them the implementation of a conscious artistic will to meet the requirements of “modern times.” This “meeting” has often been represented simplistically as the [End Page 7] adaptation to the evolution of history conceived as a one-way line. Or it has been described as a will to adhere to the speeding-up of “modern life”: the enchantment of electricity, the rhythms of machines, the speed of cars, the sharpness of steel and cement, and so on. I would like it to be otherwise. Rather, the notions of modernity, modernism, and the avant-garde entail a complex intertwinement of temporalities, a complex set of relations between the present, the past, and the future: between anticipation and lateness, fragmentation and continuity, movement and immobility...