Aesthetic Revolution, the Staging of (‘Homosexual’) Equality and Contemporary Art
Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies, University of London
This paper discusses the aesthetic staging of same-sex equality in contemporary art in relation to Jacques Rancière’s engagement with the fields of contemporary art, aesthetics and art history, and the ‘wrong’ of domination. It uses Rancière’s ideas of disagreement and disidentification to deal with the problematic categorization of same-sex identification. Rancière shows that art viewed from within the contemporary aesthetic regime must be made in the name of the anonym, the name of anyone and everyone. Rancière illuminates the staging of equality with regard to the egalitarian aesthetics of photography, the political disturbance of the uncanny, and the contradictory torsion between the autonomy of art and the heteronomy of life. The paradox of the aesthetic revolution is that art is radically political not according to the ways it conveys messages concerning issues or identities, but as it frames an indifferent convivium: the liberty and equality of a common aesthetic.
Aesthetics and the practice of equality
Marking a growing art world interest in the work of Jacques Rancière, in March 2007, one of the world’s leading contemporary art magazines devoted a number of pages to his work. One contributor speculated that one reason for this interest might be that the paradox intentionally lodged at its core reflected contemporary art’s own contradictions (Funcke, 2007: 283). For some years Rancière has been making interventions in a field he describes as a dispositif of the aesthetic regime of art (Rancière, 2009b: 23). His most provocative and productive challenge has been his belief that the accepted teleology of avant-garde ‘modernism’ is unhelpful ‘when it comes to thinking about contemporary forms of art and the relation between aesthetics and politics’ (Rancière, 2004a: 20). To try to clarify matters, he distinguishes three historically sequential, but presently co-existent ‘regimes’ of art, broadly associated with the ancient, classical and modern periods which he names: the ethical, representational and aesthetic. In the ancient world art had no autonomy; images were questioned solely for their truth: for their effect on the ideology and ethos of individuals and the community. In the representational regime works of art are no longer subject to the laws of truth or the common rules of utility but belong to the sphere of imitation, though not so much as copies of reality but ways of imposing form on matter. As such, they are subject to norms: hierarchy of genres, adequation of expression to subject matter, correspondence between the arts, etc. The aesthetic regime ‘overthrows this normativity and the relationship between form and matter on which it is based. Works of art are now defined as such, by belonging to a specific sensorium that stands out as an exception from the normal regime of the sensible’ (Rancière, 2002: 135). The revolution of the aesthetic regime emerged fully during the eighteenth century with its manifesto reflected in the writings of Schiller, Winckelmann and Kant. Schiller said that aesthetic experience ‘bear[s] the edifice of the art of the beautiful and of the art of living […] aesthetic experience is effective inasmuch as it is the experience of that and. It grounds the autonomy of art, to the extent that it connects it to the hope of “changing life”’ (Rancière, 2002: 134). Understanding the politics of aesthetics involves understanding the ways that the autonomy of art is linked to the heteronomy of life:
The key formula of the aesthetic regime of art is that art is an autonomous form of life. This is a formula, however, that can be read in two different ways: autonomy can be stressed over life, or life over autonomy—and these lines of interpretation can be opposed, or they can intersect.
Such oppositions and intersections can be traced as the interplay between three major scenarios. Art can become life. Life can become art. Art and life can exchange their properties. These three scenarios yield three configurations of the aesthetic, emplotted in three versions of temporality. According to the logic of the and, each is also a variant of the politics of aesthetics, or what we should rather call its ‘metapolitics’—that is, its way of producing its own politics, proposing to politics rearrangements of its space, reconfiguring art as a political issue, or asserting itself as true politics (Rancière, 2002: 137).
Thematized in the Kantian aesthetic, it is this new form of the distribution of the sensible that Schiller captured with the term ‘play’: an activity that has no other form than itself and no desire to dominate (Rancière, 2009: 30).
Jean-Phillipe Deranty, one of Rancière’s most perspicacious French commentators writing in English asks: ‘What does it mean to talk about equality regarding a practice, notably regarding the techniques and practices of art? And what is equality in experience, notably in aesthetic experience?’ (Deranty, 2007: 242). This complex question engages head on, the tense relational twist between the autonomy of ‘art’ and the heteronomy of ‘forms of life’ that Rancière has discussed in his writings on aesthetics and politics, and most particularly and recently, in relation to photography (Rancière, 2004a, 2007a, 2009a).
In writing thus, Deranty accords with declarations of the indissoluble inherence of the political in what Rancière calls the aesthetic partition and distribution of sensible experience (le partage du sensible) ––making ‘visible what had been excluded from the perceptual field’ and ‘audible what used to be inaudible’ (Rancière, 2003: 226). Rooted in the senses, art is inherently democratic; the immediacy of its aesthetic impact shared, felt and sensed ‘organoleptically,’ before being understood; creating a platform––a ‘convivium’––which celebrates equality (Panagia, 2007: 177; 2009: 140-45). As Rancière phrases it, art 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. (Rancière, 2005: n.p.)
‘Equality’ Rancière insists ‘is not a goal to be attained but a point of departure, a supposition to be maintained in all circumstances’ (Rancière, 1991: 138). Beneath social inequality and domination there lies a more foundational equality such as Jean Genet famously recounted, when, ‘in a third class car, between Salon and Saint-Rambert-D’Ablon,’ he: ‘Suddenly knew the painful–yes, painful feeling, that any man was exactly–sorry, but I want to emphasize “exactly”–“worth” any other man’ (Genet, 2003: 91-101).
For Rancière, it was the discovery of the writings of the nineteenth century Ignorant Schoolmaster Joseph Jacotot, that caused him to oppose emancipatory movements based on identity claims to those based on universality (Rancière, 1991; Deranty, 2003: 146), thus granting everyone the potential freedom to play or act out the equality of their intelligence (Rancière, 1999: 88). What might the art of subjects whose same sex subjectification has been inhibited by the world they inhabit have to show with regard to this? For Rancière, art performs the same task as politics, re-organizing accepted perceptions of reality (Deranty, 2003: 137). At the start of his description of ‘A Personal Itinerary’ Rancière tells how he pursued ‘two or three questions that are, at once, very simple and very complicated’:
How do individuals get some idea in their heads that makes them either satisfied with their position or indignant about it? How are representations of self and other––which sustain hierarchy, consensus or conflict––formed and transformed? (Rancière, 2003: xxv).
Such questions are fundamental to the pursuit of homosexual equality and its staging. Rancière takes issue with the consensual nature of identity politics; for Rancière, ‘the essence of politics is a dissensus’ (Rancière, 2001: 12). At its best, the contemporary art world is a model of Rancière's notion of democracy as ‘disagreement’ (la mésentente): the perpetual struggle by ‘the part with no part’ (le part sans-part)for equality in the ‘distribution or partition of the sensible’ (le partage du sensible). One might also say that the history of art is a model of Rancière's view that the subject comes about through dis-identification. It is always by dis-identifying from what has gone before that contemporary art and artists emerge; and one might add, it is dis-identification that asserts difference and demonstrates equality. As queer theorist Michael Warner understands it: ‘the activity we undertake with each other’ is ‘a kind of agonistic performance’ dependent on our interactions with others, bringing into being the space of our world, which is then the background against which we understand ourselves and our belonging. This world is not pre-designated, ‘but one disclosed in practice’ immanent to history ‘unlike ideas of community or identity, which tend to be naturalized as stable or originary’ (Warner, 2000: n.p.). The policing of identity has been the curse of the history of the relatively recent invention of ‘homosexuality,’ alongside ‘heterosexuality’ (Foucault, 1990; Katz, 1995). Stabilizing identity is exactly what Rancière wishes to resist: which makes any discussion of sexuality in terms of identities inimical to his work; his investment is not in subjects but in processes of subjectivation and dis-identification. Ultimately, then, one might say that Rancière’s understanding of art and politics is a ‘queer’ one, insofar as he believes that both must be radically disruptive of the policies of established order which keep everyone in place.
In this paper I propose to examine the aesthetic regime’s torsion between art and life––with regard to the singularity of queer subjectivation––in the creative practice of some contemporary artists who share a common investment in the democratic aesthetics of equality: a belief that aesthetic experience is open to all who open themselves to its disruptions, ‘to the gaze of anyone at all’ (Rancière, 2009b: 13).
Inequality is something that homosexuals share, part sans-part with other stigmatized minorities: a past history of subjugation, non-recognition: non-celebration, hence the significance of the actively celebratory term 'queer.' This category originating as a term of insult was reclaimed by the same-sex community in the early 90s as a non-gendered alternative term of 'affirmative difference' to 'gay,' 'lesbian' and 'homosexual' all terms which are subject to continuing discursive dissensus. Interestingly ‘queer’ bears an etymological relation to the legal term for being wronged–tort– through the Latin verb to twist (torquere). The translation of tort as wrong, though not incorrect, fails to disclose its legal dimension: that of the injustice of being wronged. However, tort is not simply a juridical category since ‘a wrong does not occur between determined parties and cannot be resolved by juridical procedures. A wrong can only be treated by modes of political subjectivization that reconfigure the field of experience’ (Panagia, 2006: 89; Rancière, 2004a: 93). As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick pointed out ‘queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive–recurrent, eddying, troublant. The word "queer" itself means across–it comes from the Indo-European root–twerkw, which also yields the German quer (transverse), Latin torquere (to twist), English athwart” (Kosofsky Sedgwick, 1994: 8). Its usage need not be confined to homosexuality:
'queer' can refer to the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality are made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically (Sedgwick, 1994: 8)
Presupposition of equality does not have to be recognized consciously for it to be effective, ‘in order for a democratics to occur. It is usually explicit, but it can be implicit’ (May, 2008a: 58). Under the rubric 'camouflage and provocation' the politics of equality in queer aesthetic practices can be divided into two main categories: implicit and explicit. The former operating in a coded manner, the latter declarative. In a recent interview Terence Davies respectfully differentiated himself from fellow film maker Derek Jarman on his categorization as ‘gay film maker,’ declaring himself a film maker who happens to be gay; the distinction might seem trivial, but it is important. Categorizing essentializes: reducing art to a specific destiny, compromising its universality and therefore the equality of aesthetic experience.
Rancière states that he is concerned with ‘aesthetic acts as configurations of experience that create new modes of sense perception and induce novel forms of political subjectivity’ (Rancière, 2004a: 9) –– as good a definition as any of what makes art vital and emancipatory. The question of how the political agency of art is embodied in the artwork, how its meaning (sens) is organoleptically present in the sensory in the materiality of its ‘flesh’ and not just in the rhetoric outside of it, is central to the specificity of the aesthetic revolution, which is no doubt why Rancière entitled his book on the ‘politics of writing’ The Flesh of Words (Rancière, 2004b: 13). This is especially important for art dealing with sexual politics and the political subjectivization of sexual minorities. As Rancière’s fellow philosopher states in his ‘maxims of affirmationist art’: ‘Art cannot be the expression of a particularity, whether ethnic or egoistic. It is the impersonal production of a truth that is addressed to all’ (Badiou, 2006: 143). ‘Non-imperial art’ Badiou says ‘is related to a kind of aristocratic-proletarian ethic: it does what it says, without distinguishing between kinds of people’ (Badiou, 2003: n.p.). As Rancière writes: the name of any ‘injured community that invokes its rights is always the name of the anonym, the name of anyone’ and its ‘universality is not enclosed in citizen or human being; it is involved in the "what follows," in its discursive and practical enactment’ (Rancière, 1992: 60). No matter on whose behalf, the battle for equality is a battle for all, though scepticism regarding categorization in no way precludes artists’ investment in the history of their specific form of sexual culture through their work. In short, categorisations regarding same-sexuality are paradoxical, suspensive, paratactical, non-identical (Deranty, 2003: 146), which is why in the title of this paper I decided to put (‘homosexual’) under erasure, suspended, bracketed and in inverted commas.
Interestingly for Rancière, aesthetics is suspensive: ‘a way of thinking the paradoxical sensorium’ that ‘makes it possible to define the things of art’ (Rancière, 2009b: 11). ‘Aesthetic experience is experience of the ambivalent’ (Rancière, 2008a: 73), ‘its identification with a way of life is a structural contradiction of the aesthetic regime of art’ (Rancière, 2000: 23). The pure category 'art' is mixed with the impurity of non-art: ‘art is art to the extent that it is something else than art. It is always “aestheticized”, meaning that it is always posed as a “form of life"’ (Rancière, 2002: 137; Guénoun, 2000: 252; Rancière, 2004a: 26). To take a contemporary example: the artist Lukas Duwenhögger’s 2007 competition proposal for a public memorial in Berlin to the ‘Homosexual Victims of National Socialism.’ This dealt humorously with same-sex experience (cottaging–‘tea room trade’) by taking the theatrical form of a ‘Celestial Teapot’ performing the historically resonant and defiantly ‘camp’ akimbo gesture (King, 1994: 20-43; King, 2008: 41-138), with disruptive vigour and conviction on behalf of this specifically dominated form of life. Such a monument is patently frivolous and absurd, yet it disturbs: in Rancièrean phraseology ‘disturbing in the very scenery of the sensible’ and its distribution (Rancière, 2008a: 74) the humourless male fantasies of Nazi domination. As Jan Verwoert has suggested, ‘Duwenhögger (b. 1955) who lives and works in Istanbul addresses the viewer as a knowledgeable reader of queer codes’ in which ‘the Dandyist revolution is realized in barely visible gestures of refined symbolic meaning,’ an ‘art of innuendo […] for surviving under repressive social conditions.’ After asking whether these codes might not be just affirming the world as it is rather than envisioning it as it might possibly be, Verwoert positively asserts the successful public staging of homosexual equality in Duwenhögger’s work, indicating that there is an imaginative concept of freedom, the ‘liberating humour’ of a ‘different universe’ which embodies ‘a promise of other potential realities’ so that ‘you can’t help but smile at the heightened awareness it gives you the viewer of your theatrical presence on the stage of the exhibition space’ (Verwoert, 2004).
The ambivalence felt toward all terms relating to homosexuality by those who undergo them is only too understandable given this problem of categorisation, a term stemming from the Greek kathegoresthai, which originally meant to accuse someone in public (Bourdieu, 1990: 27). It would seem that there is little choice but to recognize the tragically absurd double-bind of symbolic domination: the question of how one can revolt against a socially imposed categorization except by organizing oneself according to it, thus implementing the classifications and restrictions that one resists as well as fighting for a new sexual order in which such distinctions would be indifferent (Bourdieu, 2002: 120). This is why Rancière stresses the refusal of identity and the significance of dis-identification for subjectivation, understanding politics as a process of declassification, of abandoning the identity one is given in the policing of the social order (May, 2008a: 50), and why gay and lesbian identification can only be made strategically and ‘queer’ seen as a form of dis-identification or ‘unbecoming.’ In the introduction to a journal issue devoted to ‘unbecoming’ Jean Paul Ricco quotes a significant passage from Jean-Luc Nancy regarding the question of a communal space of politics where he suggests that a ‘being-in-common’ ‘would operate a transitivity, not a substantiality’ (Nancy, 1997: 90; Ricco, 2005: 1). For Rancière, ‘Political being-together is a being-between: between identities, between worlds […] between several names, several identities’ (Rancière, 1999: 137-8). The being-in-common of ‘queer’ is just such a transitive rather than substantive subjectification and it might well be added to Rancière’s statement about how the dissidents of the Eastern bloc adopting the term ‘hooligan’ with which they were stigmatized by the heads of these regimes, and demonstrators in the Paris of 1968 declared ‘We are all German Jews,’ thus exposing ‘for all to see the gap between political subjectification … and any kind of identification’ (Rancière, 1999: 30). For homosexuals to accept categorizations unequivocally would be to accept themselves in the police order as marginalized subjects. As Todd May puts it: ‘The project of a democratic politics, a politics of equality, is to reject the marginalized position to which one has been assigned, not for the sake of another or different position, but for the sake of nothing at all other than one's own equality’ (May, 2008a: 49). One might see this non-identitarianism, as a Foucauldian ‘desubstantialization of sexuality’ (Ricco, 2002: 19) reflected in the anonymity, indetermination and non-affirmative anybody-everybody-ness (21) of the Interim 1992-93 and Songs of Sentient Beings 1995 series of photographs by Bill Jacobson (b.1955) or the promiscuous anonymity of Stephen Barker’s photographs of nocturnal cruising in Nightswimming (Barker, 1999). As John Rajchman once put it: ‘Once we give up the belief that our life-world’ is grounded in identity ‘we may come to a point where ungroundedness is no longer experienced as existential anxiety […] but as a freedom and lightness […]’ (Rajchman, 1998: 88).
This problematic of queer identification has been expressed by the contemporary photographer Collier Schorr (b.1963). Schorr prefers not to be publicly identified as lesbian, not because she wishes to remain in the closet but because such identification adversely narrows the focus of how her work is read. Because of her assertive manner in dealing with male rituals and military and sport fetishes, her photographic concerns can be reduced to a homoerotic or queer perspective. One of her own best-known statements contributed to this. When she was asked why she photographed wrestlers and soldiers, but not girls, she answered: ‘I do, I just use boys to do it’ (Schorr, 2004) and says she is interested in what her life might have been like had she been a boy. She has problems when her work is ascribed a primarily gay context. ‘The word “queer” has too much content in it’ and she would rather ‘be seen as an artist than queer’ (Schorr, 2008). She, and her photographs can nonetheless be understood as ‘queer’ in the sense that they subtly trouble normative notions of gender. Like Rancière, Schorr and fellow artist Sharon Hayes (b. 1970, USA), are more interested in ‘the performative operations of subject formation’ (Hayes, 2006: 36): subjectification rather than identification (Rancière, 1992: 61; 1999: 36). ‘Queer’ which initially freed homosexuals from the prison of categorization, in turn becomes overdetermined; there is the need again to neutralize language, ‘release the prisoners: […] scatter the signified […]’ (Barthes, 1977: 50): ‘it is within speech that speech must be fought, led astray––not by the message of which it is the instrument, but by the play of words of which it is the theater’ (Barthes, 1979: 6). This does not mean however that Hayes is not interested in political activism as her extraordinary Revolutionary Love project in which at the US Republican and Democratic conventions a group of between 70-100 people simultaneously spoke a text put together by Hayes about love, politics, gay power, and gay liberation, demonstrates; not to mention her other performative political projects in which she performs acts of appropriation in relation to political speeches of the 60s and 70s. Hayes is a contemporary artist inventing new forms of aesthetic/political intervention.
After the failure of 20th century vanguards to place art in the service of ideology by homogenizing art and politics, we know that there can be no prescriptive agenda for either; so there can be no type of art that we recognize as 'homosexual.' There is only art that tacitly or explicitly relates to same sex experience that either carries aesthetic conviction or not, and thereby asserts the equality of that experience. In other words, art, indifferent to politics as such, may still have metapolitical effects. Rancière frequently cites Flaubert's aristocratic indifference to democracy whilst paradoxically writing democratically of the ‘splendour of the insignificant.' What is distinctive about art is its capacity to invent new forms, ‘at a disruptive distance from inherited norms and expectations,’ its capacity for active aesthetic provocation rather than simple recognition (Hallward, 2001: xx). The transformative joy of such provocation and its maintenance is central to Rancière’s thinking.
In 1953 the Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) acted in accordance with this, by painting Two Figures, which has been described as one of ‘the most provocative homosexual images of our epoch’ (Farson, 1993). Though deriving from an Eadweard Muybridge photograph of wrestlers, it patently represents two male figures engaged in violent sexual activity; furthermore it did this when such acts even in private were a criminal offence; Bacon referred to it as ‘The Bed of Crime.’ The production of such an image in 1953 was a brave aesthetico-political act painted some fourteen years before such acts (in private) were legitimized in English law. Then as if anticipating this law, in 1954 he painted Two Figures in the Grass: the same sex act depicted in open public space. Identifying with the criminal underworld, Bacon famously and defiantly enjoyed his dominated deviant social status and cared little for liberalizing homosexual equality. Indeed one might ask exactly what sexual equality means? There is disagreement on this; there are assimilationists for whom homosexual equality represents consensuality with heterosexual normativity, legal parity, marital rights etc., and those who want none of it, asserting homosexual experience as fundamentally dissensually non-monogamously different.
The staging of equality
‘Against the imperative of propriety, the aesthetic regime of art asserts indifference of style in relation to the represented subject’ (Deranty, 2007: 243). Style no longer has anything to do with what is being represented in the hierarchical modes of representation of classical art but is a kind of ‘absolute way of seeing things’ (Rancière, 2004c: 147). In the ‘aesthetic’ regime, any object is worthy of artistic representation, down to the ‘readymade’: the Duchampian urinal and the Warholian soupcan or Brillo box (Deranty, 2007: 245). Here art is the concentrated expression of meaning that is already that of the world itself. The oligarchic hierarchy of perception: genres, subjects and media, categories that pre-ordered experience in the representative regime, give way to a joyful ‘aesthetics of chaosmos’: a stylistic ‘explosion’ where meaning sinks into ‘the rhythm of bodily states’ (Rancière, 2007: 45). ‘Egalitarian society is only ever the set of egalitarian relations that are traced here and now through singular and precarious acts […] among those who know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence’ inspiring ‘courage, and hence joy’ (Rancière, 2006: 97).
Aesthetic indifference to hierarchies of subject matter is evident in the vast range of subjects and the manner of installation of the wonderfully open and democratic contemporary photographic project of Wolfgang Tillmans (b.1968). Continuing the photographic project initiated by photographers like David Octavius Hill of ‘the appropriation of the commonplace’ (Rancière, 2004a: 33) his photographic opus embodies the egalitarian spirit in the particularly vivid way that Rancière describes in The Politics of Aesthetics as:
the negation of any relationship of necessity between a determined form and a determined content. Yet what is this indifference after all if not the very quality of everything that comes to pass […] available to everyone's eyes? This equality destroys all of the hierarchies of representation and also establishes a community […] as a community without legitimacy, a community formed only by […] random circulation […]. (Rancière, 2004a: 14)
Tillman invites us to share the equal power of visual intelligence ‘with anybody and everybody’; it has a special political and aesthetic resonance with regard to issues concerning freedom of expression, sensuality, sexuality, the body, and the ever-present threat of extinction as a consequence of AIDS. The banal fact that he could place a photograph of two men kissing on the first page of his US tour catalogue is a freedom won for all who value the expression of equality whatever their sexual orientation. As Daniel Birnbaum put it so eloquently in that catalogue:
His work is always that of an embodied subject […] These phenomena are […] seen by someone, and this someone is a social being living in a body and relating to other humans. (Birnbaum, 2006: 24)
The strongest element of that embodiedness is his emboldened belief in conviviality, in a ‘utopian ideal of to-getherness’ (Tillmans, 2002: 13), something he discovered early on in the gay clubbing scene in London. This sense of communal being-in-the-world is present at many different levels in his work, from his evident desire to share his lens based joys of discovery, to the single and group portraits of friends and acquaintances, to the erotically charged intimacy of his abstract works: Blushes, Peaches, Frieischwimmer; all this, as he has said, against the deathly background of personal loss from AIDS which makes companionship and comradeship all the more significant, enhancing the fragile intensity of life. AIDS has cast a long shadow over the art world, whilst at the same time demonstrating the extraordinary resourcefulness and range of abilities as artists have dealt with the issue of homosexual equality in a time of plague without succumbing to victimhood or giving way to self pity.
In every sense of the word there is something more than a little ‘queer’ about the work of Enrico David (b. 1966), one of the most engaging artists to have emerged in Britain in recent years. Nominated for the 2009 Turner prize for his solo exhibitions How Do You Love Dzzzzt By Mammy? at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel, and Bulbous Marauder at the Seattle Art Museum, his 2007 exhibition at London’s ICA was hailed as one of the best exhibitions that venue had had for decades. It contained many theatrical and musical references, and it is perhaps worth remembering that the terms ‘theatrical’ and ‘musical’ were once euphemisms for homosexual. David’s is a dandaistic world in which ‘things are freed from the drudgery of being useful’ (Thompson, 2009: n.p.). In his own words, his work borrows ‘from traditional craft techniques and design styles, using their pre-given rules and functional potential in an attempt to organize and give structure to the often chaotic nature of [his] emotional response to reality.’ In embracing design and craft David joins the growing band of artists since the sixties who broke the ‘modernist’ embargo on the divide between ‘fine’ and ‘applied’ art (Rancière refers to this in his articles ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,’ 2002, and ‘The Surface of Design,’ 2007).
In the summer of 2007, David spoke about his work Chicken Man Gong (2005) shown at the Stedelijk, commissioned by Tate Britain in 2005. This two-part work, consisting of a gong and a display case, subtly questions accepted beliefs about authority and the gendered identity of the artist’s relation to the viewer in a public art situation. In Chicken Man Gong, David has created a complex web of narratives and allusions to a variety of cultural sources. The gong stands on a leg that is clad in fishnet stockings, taken from the work of the French artist Pierre Molinier (1900-1976) known for his fetishistic photographic self-portraits in drag. In addition to this, the statue has a multicoloured tail and a head with an androgynous face. In short: Chicken Man Gong is an elegant hybrid figure ‘dedicated to the spirit, joy and honour of Chickeninity or Chickenhood’ (Verwoert, 2009: 59). Chicken Man Gong plays a theatrical and ritual role in the museum; during the exhibition the artist telephoned a museum employee with the order to sound the gong, bringing the work to the public’s notice. This work amply demonstrated the way David employs his own set of invented codes to subtly subvert established orders in life and art. The work also references what one might see as a ‘queer’ side of the Bauhaus aesthetic manifest in the mechanized manikin figure work of Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943) and his Triadic Ballet (1927). In fact David utilizes formal vocabularies from the past, particularly from the 20s and 30s quite knowingly but never totally nostalgically since he always injects them with a quirkiness of his own making. Staging is indeed the word to describe David’s modus operandi. The twenty-three gouaches that make up the work entitled Shitty Tantrum 2006-7 is, according to the text that is part of the work, loosely based on the imaginative narrative of a ‘play’ of his own invention. In his Spring 2008 exhibition at the Daniel Buchholz Gallery in Cologne entitled “Bulbous Marauder” he references the Commedia del Arte. The text accompanying this work (which can be found by following the links to David’s work on the Daniel Bucholz website) like that of ‘Shitty Tantrum,’ invites the viewer to circle down ‘queerly’ into its multiple levels of meaning.
There is a not so innocent playfulness in all these works that engages the polymorphous perversity of childhood, hence the references to asses and anality both iconographically and in the titles of works like the fetishistic manikin Sodulator. Manikins and dolls feature in much of David’s work, evoking the mechanical dolls and toys in the tales of E.T.A Hoffman, Freud’s ‘unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature’ (Freud, 1990: 339-76). We might note the relation of uncanny to queer, as‘the name for everything that ought to have remained ... secret and hidden but has come to light’ (Freud, 1990: 345). Citing a paper by Jentsch, Freud remarks that waxwork figures, dolls and automata are liable to arouse an uncanny feeling, especially when there is uncertainty about whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate. Consciously or not, David invokes theunheimlich in his irresolvable visual narratives, of which one can make, neither head nor tail. We might ask ourselves whether the artist is unraveling some childhood trauma, for children experience the enigmatic signifiers of the primal family scene as incomprehensible and therefore uncanny (Laplanche, 1992). David’s work would seem to invoke childhood memories as with the tableau Ultra Paste 2007 which attempts to reproduce and thereby re-imagine some kind of ‘queer’ anally related sexual trauma in the paternally designed bedroom of his childhood, where a dark brown stain seeps across the floor of this hygienic space. To paraphrase Rancière, in David’s work the elements are always ambivalent because of meaning and its withdrawal; when we look at it, we see a politics of aesthetics using forms of disturbance or the uncanny (Rancière, 2008a: 74). As we have seen for Rancière ‘subjectification is a disidentification, removal from the naturalness of place’ (Rancière, 1999: 36) and David actively engages the spectator: ‘art emancipates […] how we have to understand, how we have to see, how we have to read, and what we have to understand […] what emancipates is precisely the possibility of […] the viewer constructing or reconstructing that efficiency himself or herself’ (Rancière, 2008b: 180).
Finally, I turn to two artists whose work I can only inadequately touch upon in the space available. Their work challenges the ordered hierarchies of the classical representational regime by staging equality with regard to the hybridity of race, gender and sexuality with the hope of changing the world. Rancière has declared a discomfort with the notion of hybridity ‘because it seems to refer much more to the constitution of a subject rather than to processes of subjectivization’ (Rancière, 2008: 74-5). This is true if hybridity is seen as a static mix of determinate identities but not if it is seen transversally as the dislocating motion of disidentification: ‘Hybrid catches the fragmentary subject formation of people whose identities traverse different race, sexuality, and gender identifications’ (Muñoz, 1999: 31-2). Hybridity coupled with disidentification have proved significant terms for post-colonial queer theory (Muñoz, 1999: 31). José Esteban Muñoz sees disidentification as a strategy situated between identification and counteridentification, a third mode of dealing with dominant ideology, one that opts for neither assimilation nor opposition, but uses disidentificatory humour as a ‘mode of performance’ to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact a ‘redistribution of the sensible’– a ‘structural change […] valuing the importance of everyday struggles of resistance’ (Muñoz, 1999: 15, 11-12). It ‘can be understood as a way of shuffling back and forth between reception and production […] a mode of understanding the movements and circulations of identificatory force’ (Muñoz, 1999: 15, 30).
Juan Dávila (b.1946) was born in Santiago, but left Chile and moved to Australia in 1974, shortly after Augusto Pinochet seized power, and ever since his work has addressed this personal sense of rupture and the conviction that art should speak critically of those in power (Eichler, 2007). Dávila’s work frequently reveals the sexual economy that underlies power, something his own homosexuality no doubt enabled him to understand from within. His work which is both shockingly carnal and extremely sophisticated in its play with visual codes, can arouse strong critical responses, one critic voicing the views of the silent majority in a right wing newspaper by repressively describing his work as the high camp pornographic folk art of a political cartoonist undeserving of attention outside of Australia (Dorment, 2007). Such strong reactions can be seen as a measure of the aesthetico-political challenge of his work which disturbs the ‘relationship that exists between the autonomy of the spaces reserved for art and its apparent contrary: art's involvement in constituting forms of common life’ (Rancière, 2009b: 26). This is why a seasoned and informed viewer, such as the writer on South American art, Guy Brett, believes that his work needs to be registered first for its visual impact, describing that impact as switching between ‘refinement and tackiness, mimicry and invention, disgust and celebration, scorn and affection’ (Brett, 2006: 2). Brett goes on to describe the work as a ‘battlefield’ believing that this is where ‘its ethical core really lies’–‘in anger over injustice […] whether in lived life or in the mediating domain of visual culture.’ Much of his visual language is indebted to the quotidian world of comic strips and their incursion into the world of fine art through 1960s Pop. Since Dávila’s work emerged in the 1980s in the wake of notions of postmodernism, it is perhaps worth recalling Rancière reminding us that: ‘If there is a political question in contemporary art, it will not be grasped in terms of a modern/postmodern opposition’ but ‘through an analysis of the metamorphoses of […] the politics founded on the play of the exchanges and displacements between the art world and that of non-art’ (Rancière, 2009b: 51).
I first saw Dávila’s work in 1994 in Juanito Laguna a memorable exhibition at the Chisenhale Gallery, London, which consisted of a huge hybrid floor piece, riffing on the narratives of the popular Argentinian artist Antonio Berni’s (1905-81) poor boy of the Buenos Aires slums (Juanito Laguna), Bungaree (1770-1830), the Australian aboriginal who dressed in cast off European uniforms, entertained and acted as go-between for European settlers in Australia and the celebrated painting Inhabitant of the Cordilleras of Peru (1855) produced in Paris by the Peruvian painter Francisco Laso (1823-69). In the same year Dávila was included in the international exhibition Unbound: Possibilities in Painting at the Hayward Gallery, London. It was there that he exhibited his depiction of Simón Bolívar, liberator of a number of Latin American countries, as a transsexual on a half fading horse, obscenely giving the finger to the viewer. This caused a major uproar in Chile in 1994 and even strained diplomatic relations with Venezuela, whose embassy issued a formal complaint against Dávila’s image when it was circulated as a postcard. The Chilean Foreign Ministry itself formally apologized to the governments of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. It is through an analysis of Dávila’s portrait and its ‘iconoclastic challenge to all the absolutes represented by Bolívar’ (Conway, 2003: 2) that Christopher Conway discussed the ‘cult of Bolívar,’ the conservative hero, who like all unmovable idols stands for reified and eternal values in need of transformation (Mejías-López, 2005: 146-60). ‘Dávila has said, that for him the question of sexual repression is as important as political repression and has tended to be ignored in the rhetoric of liberation’ (Brett, 1990: 106).
Kent Monkman (b. 1965) is of mixed racial origins, half Cree Indian and half Anglo Irish and plays mischievously with same-sexuality, race, recreating nineteenth century romantic landscape representations of untrammelled sublimity, peopling his landscapes with natives and colonialists, reversing the roles of domination and exposing repressed homoeroticism in colonialism. Monkman trained as an illustrator and acquired the skills to convincingly mock the pretensions of the colonist’s genre of painting; and this is not all, for Monkman is a sophisticated conceptual post-performative artist utilizing theatrical talent as set designer, installation creator, film maker and performance artist. In a massive seven by twelve foot canvas entitled Trappers of Men, Monkman recreates a western landscape that the German-American painter Albert Bierstadt wrought in his 1867 canvas In the Mountains. But unlike Bierstadt's unpopulated original, this 2006 update is teeming with bodies. Bare-chested white pioneers talk and trade with dark, muscular young natives; the explorers Lewis and Clark wander through, lost and uncertain; and photographer Edward S. Curtis and painters Jackson Pollock and Piet Mondrian are shocked by the appearance of Share Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a glammed-up cross-dressing native character who stands on the surface of the water, voguing in a campy take on Botticelli's Venus.
As Rancière attests humour is the virtue to which contemporary artists most readily ascribe (Rancière, 2009b: 54). In Robin's Hood the film of the performance he created as part of Jimmie Durham’s exhibition ‘The American West’ at Compton Verney in 2005, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a wandering artist from the Great Plains of North America, journeys across the seas to study the unspoiled European Male in his native habitat in the UK. S/he meets the handsome Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, but realises too late that one can never trust a white man, especially on his own turf! Miss (Share) Chief Eagle Testickle – whose name plays on both ‘mischief’ and ‘egotistical’ – is a towering, raven-haired transvestite in four-inch heels. Monkman has developed this persona in performance, video and photographic works as well as in his paintings. Rancière says that ‘the place of a political subject is an interval or a gap: being together to the extent that we are in between––between names, identities, cultures’ (Rancière, 1992: 62). In an interview for the National Gallery of Canada, Monkman declares that he is trying to define the space between two cultures.
To conclude let us briefly consider aspects of Rancière’s ‘theatocratic’ presentation of equality that might be considered problematic. Peter Hallward raised the question of the inability of theatrically sporadic and improvisational interventions to instantiate continuity of change, and asked to what extent Rancière’s conception of equality remains a ‘merely transgressive one, and thus condemned to a variant of that same dialectic of dependence, provocation and exhaustion that he diagnoses so effectively in the logics of modernism and postmodernism’ (Hallward, 2006: 123). Hallward raises the common problem of the relationship between real world politics, social change and the kind of imaginative transformations that art projects, writing that Rancière’s egalitarianism, no less than Schiller’s notion of play risks confinement to the ‘unsubstantial kingdom of the imagination.’ It would seem that Rancière would be inclined to agree when he asserts that a significant question for the present time is whether the substitutive political role of contemporary art ‘can reshape political spaces’ or must remain ‘content with parodying them’ (Rancière, 2009b: 60). As he has said his enquiry ‘has often been suspected of proposing a return to […] aesthetic utopias’ or of being out of step with the artistic practices and political issues of the 21st century, when all he has done is to point to the ‘tensions and contradictions […] which sustain the dynamic of artistic creation’ and ‘set up in a more accurate way the issue of what art can be and can do today’ (Rancière, 2008c: 14).
As for artists, whether they are homosexual or not, there are challenges they face that only the performative political power of aesthetic experience itself can answer as they participate in le partage du sensible by staging equality as powerfully and ‘theatrically’ as they can in the hope that they might decimate the oppressive sedimentations of established order.
As Rancière sees it, the peculiar paradox of the specifically aesthetic revolution is that art is radically political not according to the ways it conveys messages concerning social or political issues or ethnic or sexual identities, but as it frames and reframes an indifferentconvivium: the liberty and equality of a common aesthetic sensorium. In a talk launching the English translation of Le Partage du sensible: Esthétique et Politique (ThePolitics of Aesthetics) at the ICA London in February 2005, Rancière described the museum as an egalitarian space for the staging of this common sensorium: the place where spectators confront art works disconnected from the inequality of ‘their former function as icons of faith, emblems of power, or decoration of palaces.’
I completed this paper in Southern Italy not far from the museum at Paestum, where the Greek mural paintings in the 475 BC ‘Tomb of the Diver’ are displayed. One of these murals uninhibitedly celebrates same sex desire: specifically the socially circumscribed pederastic desire between a bearded erastes and a smooth faced eromenos. Today we as disinterested museum spectators within the purview of the contemporary convivium of the aesthetic regime can bear witness to the contemporaneity of the timeless pleasures of education and desire. Such desire continues to be denied free expression when its staging remains tied to ethical and representational rules and regulations. Today we identify with the spectatorial relish evident in the figure on the left of this scene, and take pleasure in this image as it traces the equality of its intelligibility to anybody and everybody as we are communally ‘tied together’ by the ‘sensory fabric’ of this ‘distribution of the sensible’ (Rancière, 2008c: 4).
Roger Cook initially trained as a painter at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, and until his retirement in 2005 taught in the Fine Art Department at the University of Reading where he also taught Lesbian & Gay Studies on the Body & Representation MA. He has a PhD in the History of Art and since 2006 he has been a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies, University of London where his research interests are contemporary art, French philosophy and the historical, social and political relevance of dandyism.
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