Jacques Rancière
Jacques Rancière

Politics of aesthetics

In 2004, the English translation of Jacques Rancière’s book The Politics of Aesthetics was published. In that book, Rancière, a French philosopher, talks about the ‘distribution of the sensible’. Culture, in his view, shapes what is possible for humans to think, see, say and do.

Art, quite literally and rather fundamentally, determines our lives. Political discourse may treat an issue or crisis in a certain way, and in doing so make presuppostions that do not have to be made explicit. These assumptions - and the structure in which they are embedded - are part of the fabric of this particular distribution of the sensible. Rancière perceives of political parties as belonging to what he calls the ‘police order’ that aims to maintain a certain distribution of the sensible, namely the one in which they operate and thrive.

Rancière argues, however, that an art work has the power to upend and change this specific distribution: it can change how we think about the issue. You could think here of the images of the young Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, who drowned early September 2015 while trying to come to Europe with his family. These images changed the way in which people approached the so-called refugee crisis, away from more abstract political motives to individual consequences.

You can find The Politics of Aesthetics here. Be aware that Rancière’s prose isn’t the most accessible. Some notes on Rancière’s ideas you can find here.

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European Culture and Politics

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