History and art

Print edition : January 23, 2015
Jacques Ranciere aims to show that as one moves through the pages of history, one notices the function of art as the consequence of cultural patterns and trends in politics, religion, economics and other important areas of human activity.

JACQUES RANCIERE’S book Figures of History presents a combination of insightful historising and adept critical attention to art and the demand for equality. His critical appreciation of films and paintings allows the reader to understand the interface between history and art and between politics and the artistic creations of civilisation. Only when one gets to this intimacy with art can one become a part of the artist’s experience.

The first chapter says: “The equality of all before the light and the inequality of the little people as the great pass by are both written on the same photographic plate.” Such is the antagonism or artistic tension built into art and photography, film and painting, which succinctly describes Ranciere’s theory of aesthetics. Questions of history and politics remain foremost in his reflection on the representative power of works of art. Ranciere’s purpose in this book is, therefore, to show that as one moves through the pages of history, one clearly notices the function of art as the consequence of cultural patterns and trends in politics, religion, economics and other important areas of human activity. His meticulous knowledge of paintings and films offers pointers to his intellectual involvement with social and political history. Each painting, according to him, represents in its own way the culture of the artist’s time, leaving a stamp of his personality on art and the age.

History, according to Ranciere, therefore, is “an anthology of what is worthy of being memorialised. Not necessarily what was, and what witnesses testify to, but what deserves to be focussed on, mediated upon, and imitated, because of its greatness. Legends offer such a brand of history as much as chronicles do, and Homer more than Thucydides.” This leads to the corollary that “history is a story” as much as is a painting that depicts actions and events aesthetically organised, “a meaningful fable endowed with appropriate means of expression”. It is the “presentation of the necessary and the exemplary… the representation of a privileged instant”.

At the moment, the discipline of history is surrounded by confusion. The traditional, analytical and conceptual structures of historical knowledge are being battered. It is not possible to reconstruct the past in all its actuality as all reconstructions are provisional and interpretative.

However, it is imperative to have a historical consciousness that makes one aware of the past so that an approach to the present and the future is accordingly defined. What is significant here is the question of representation, between what is represented and the forms that the representation takes. Understandably, the forms have an inherent connection with the material they are constructed in, be it words, stone or paintings: “…a specific style and form are suited to the given subject—the noble style of tragedy, the epic or history painting for kings, the familiar colour of comedy or the genre painting for the little people”.

The laws of representation compulsorily dictate the interdependence of the form and the content. Idea and the medium always coalesce to produce the work: “…the material used is never indifferent. The texture of the language or the pictorial pigment belongs to a history of matter in which all matter is a potentiality of form.” It is clear that while the subject of a work is indifferent to the form used, the power and worth of the work depend on the style, in the words of Gustave Flaubert, as an “absolute way of seeing things”. For instance, in the case of abstract symbolism, the traditional ways of representation stand replaced by an “order of mimesis that plays a role in the community equivalent to the banished vanities of representation”. This is visible in the plasticity of the art from Wassily Kandinsky to Barnett Newman.

Ranciere’s approach to art always heads towards the unfolding of events that span a period, enabling the historian to develop a procedure of general critical analysis by which one can arrive at the growth and judgment of the correspondence between a range of disciplines to widen insights and aesthetic experience through vigorous participation in the enriching patterns of society. Ranciere takes up the problem of value, of the life-giving beliefs and ideas made visible and audible through diverse mediums such as film or painting, in the works of Claude Lanzmann, Francisco Goya, Eduard Manet, Kandinsky and Newman, giving a new robustness to civilisation and the zeitgeist of our age.

In any event, the artist has a certain well-defined function in mind which is always determined by his age, benefaction and individuality. Perceptions and sensations are captured, a representation of our collective destinies which “at the juncture of the genre painting and the mythological landscape, in the sunshine of Renoir’s or Monet’s Grenouillere ( Frogpond) or the shadows of Seurat’s Grande Jatte, another form of history painting asserts itself. In it, history puts itself on show, matter-of-fact, wonderfully, as the raw material in which light plays on the water, and games of seduction play out on riverbanks, in canoes or on sunny terraces, as the living principle of the equality of every subject under the sun.”

Crossing point

Hence, the crossing point between history and art is as old as civilisation. The Greeks produced an evocative and eternal art because of a pulsating imagination, of realism and of humanism that looked at creativity as integral to life. It is a fact that all free men in Athens could play a musical instrument and, when called upon, sing in the chorus of the drama. When the splendour had departed from Athens, time was ready for Zeno’s stoicism and its converse Epicureanism. The imaginative glory that lived with Plato and Aristotle faded into a period of sensuousness and over-romanticising. The Greeks themselves fell victim to the Romans.

The broken sword, the dying horse, and the dead child in Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” all hint at a feeling of alarm in a war-torn world. Instrumental music, on the other hand, has no recourse to perceptible symbols but through its rhythmic form underscores the emotive state vital to its times. The idea of valour and fearlessness in Beethoven’s “Eroica” is obvious in the animated power of the onrushing sweep of the composition. Daring, restless strokes and deeply contrasting colours in Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” point towards the indispensable vigour of the artist himself.

The metrical motives in Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” suggest the knocking of fate at one’s door. Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People” is a self-assured diagonal movement united with the atmosphere of solemn colours against the hazy background, which intensifies the feelings of self-determination and struggle. Considering the question of history and representation, Ranciere sees a connection between pictorial genres and the powers of figuration in the very arrangements of fables and of the power of necessary, common destiny.

The question that seems to be troubling Ranciere is: Can art really represent history or does it turn history into a devastating power? Here, he evokes Theodor W. Adorno’s comment that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, which points to the unrepresentable horror of the camps. Is this not coterminous with the anti-representative nature of modern art? Ranciere cites the example of the Slovenian painter Zoran Music, who “devotes himself to reconstructing Dachau’s corpse-filled fields as ‘slabs of white snow’ or ‘silver reflections over the mountains’”. The very erasure that the concentration camps stood for compels the artist to show “what can’t be seen, what lies beneath the visible, an invisible that is simply what ensures that the visible exists”.

Renaissance of the liberal arts programme comes invariably through attention to the study of the arts for the enhancement of cultural understanding of the heritage of the past and one’s awareness of the exigencies of the present. For Ranciere, art is important as it shows and hides, making every image a representation of what is permissible and what is not as in the case of what is seen or hidden. Indeed, the image in the very act of showing or hiding reflects the historical and the official record, thereby either imprisoning history or setting forth new dynamism in the interpretation of meaning.

For such developments, Ranciere’s interdisciplinary approach operates at a level that takes into consideration technical knowledge and experience and as the social forces reflected in art. In view of this close connection between art and life, it is evident that art engages with the artist’s religious affiliations, his economic status and that of his audience, and his political leanings, all those fundamental forces that have a direct bearing on the production of history and meaning.

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