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Essays on art, theatre and politics
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The question of whether art produces politically transformative effects has been intensely debated within critical discourses concerned with art, literature, and performance practices. The Aesthetic Exception reopens the fundamental questions that underpin these debates and examines the entrenchments they produce within critical circles. It does so for the purposes of developing a new approach that circumvents longstanding theoretical impasses, while emphatically embracing the idea that art can make meaningful interventions in the social world that enriches our political life, without collapsing into well-known contradictions. Offering wide-ranging perspectives that encompass the historical avant-garde, political activist street theatre in India, contemporary critical art practices, and postdramatic performance, among others – the book tracks three structural impasses that continue to benight debates on art’s relation to the political: the problem of aesthetic autonomy which separates art from the social world; how art can communicate political effects while remaining ‘art’; and the problem of how art relates to the terrain of real political struggle. Drawing on the classical debates of Adorno, Lukács, and Sartre, the more recent interventions of Habermas and Rancière, and the political theory of Gramsci, Althusser, and Stuart Hall – the book proposes a ‘conjunctural’ way of understanding the aesthetic possibilities that underpin political art practices. It invites readers to consider the stakes for political art today in an age plagued by widening inequalities, and the saturation of the world by the expropriative logics of globalisation. The book concludes with a call to rethink political art around the figure of the planetary conjuncture.

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Popular illegalism on the nineteenth-century stage
Tony Fisher

This chapter draws on Foucault’s pioneering work on the early political economy and his analysis of working-class ‘illegalism’ to understand how images of poverty were discursively constructed during the nineteenth century. It shows how the poor were both captured and made visible by a vast ‘theatre of poverty’, central to the emergence of what Foucault termed ‘societies of moralisation’. It argues that the theatre of poverty was rendered explicit on the stage through ‘poor plays’, such as Dion Boucicault’s melodrama, The Poor of New York (1857) – adapted as The Streets of London in 1864 – in which moralising discourse represented the poor either as the deserving victims of circumstance or as perpetrators of ‘popular illegalisms’ (from habitual drunkenness to machine wrecking). The chapter shows that although these plays were driven by an agenda of social reform, they remained indebted to the political economy’s theatre of poverty, particularly in their depiction of improvident indigence. It concludes by examining the contemporary influence of the theatre of poverty on the way today’s poor are represented, arguing that the theatre of poverty makes the poor visible, but determines the way they appear according to the circumscribed spaces made available to them by discourse’s modes of representation.

in Foucault’s theatres
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The horizon of the aesthetic
Tony Fisher

The introduction contextualises the book’s approach in relation to recent debates in aesthetic philosophy. It critiques the aesthetic theory of Jacques Rancière by showing how its promise of emancipation requires a philosophical hermeneutics that denies art the power of explicitly making that promise; and it historically situates Rancière’s aesthetic regime to reveal how aesthetic autonomy is not essentially defined by ‘dissensus’, but initially developed as the promise of consensus. Rancière’s thought, it is argued, remains consistent with the aesthetic tradition from Baumgarten onward, insofar as it enacts a split between art and truth (the capacity to say something directly about the world beyond art). This leads to a final critical point: Rancière’s concept of an ‘aesthetic cut’, installing an unbridgeable gap between art and the exterior of art, is predicated on asserting the very causal relation that Rancière claims the aesthetic regime suspends (on this basis, he denies the claims of political or committed artists). Rancière concedes, however, that art stands in an ‘accidental’ relation to the world beyond it. It can be political in an adventitious sense. However, because Rancière is looking to determine art’s politics on an a priori basis, he dismisses this contingent relation as unimportant. The introduction shows that in doing so he closes off four possible ways in which art is ‘mediated’ by its material appearance in the social world. This provides the basis for four tests that determine whether a work of art is political without relying on a causal concept of political efficacy.

in The aesthetic exception
Tony Fisher

This chapter develops the idea of the aesthetic exception, arguing that it should be grasped as the ‘dispositif’ of art – where art’s cultural and institutional location is produced. It argues that the qualifying condition for any work of art is that it is ‘excepted’ from the norms that govern other social praxes. However, it differentiates the exception from art’s supposed autonomous status, although they are closely related, by identifying the aesthetic exception as the space within which the validity of art’s autonomous status can be decided, produced, or conferred upon it. Since that space is historically configured, it is also, however, mutable and contingent. It thus opens up the artwork to the paradox of the exception in that it is the exception that permits art to challenge the very validity conditions that underpin aesthetic autonomy – the ‘rules’ of art. This opens the way for the emergence of the radical practices of the avant-garde, from Dada in the early twentieth century to Fluxus in the mid twentieth century, in which those rules are tested to destruction. However, despite asserting art as a social praxis, what the avant-garde confirms is that it is impossible for art to fundamentally break with its status of exception.

in The aesthetic exception
Tony Fisher

The chapter examines three ways in which the historical avant-garde attempted to cross the ‘threshold’ of the aesthetic exception. The very act of crossing expresses the avant-garde rebellion against both the exceptional status of art and the dispositif that maintained it, defining the avant-garde as a practice of crossing the paradoxical space of the aesthetic exception to unite art with its ‘excluded’ zones. It identifies three paradigmatic crossings. The first is Duchamp’s attempt to cancel the difference between the exceptional object of art and the everyday object via the readymade. The second opening is made onto the space of racialised alterity, via ‘primitivism’ in art. Primitivism is analysed as a radical aesthetic attitude that contests the space of the aesthetic exception by crossing the threshold of what art excludes as art. The essay traces the roots of primitivism through the curatorial critique of ethnography (Apollinaire and later Malraux), and then as an artistic intervention that demonstrates that the exceptionalism of Western art is no exception, but one aesthetic system among others. It draws on Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s reading of Picasso to show how primitivism constituted a ‘becoming African’ of modernist art. The third crossing is onto the space of ‘pathological’ artistic production through the discovery of outsider art, notably associated with Jean Dubuffet’s concept of Art Brut. The essay shows how each attempted crossing must reimpose the very thing it seeks to escape: the aesthetic exception.

in The aesthetic exception
Critical and theoretical reflections
Tony Fisher

The final chapter of the essay turns to consider some of the institutional and conceptual implications of the aesthetic exception. It does this through a critical engagement with Alain Badiou, Peter Bürger, and Pierre Bourdieu. The chapter reveals two things: first that there is a distinction between the aesthetic exception (grasped as art’s dispositif) and the institution of art; but second that as a general logic, the aesthetic exception can only be operative in practical institutional configurations, in which specific validity conditions are imposed (such as are found in galleries, museums, theatres, etc.). Where the aesthetic exception as a logic is ‘open’ (particularly after the avant-garde) to any novelty in art, the institutional site is ‘closed’. However, art practices are nonetheless paradoxically bound by the aesthetic exception, which constantly exposes the institutional validation of art to the aporia that there is no longer any ‘criterion’ for the identification of the proper work of art. This means the aesthetic validity regime is permanently suspended, with the consequence that every work of art is (however tacitly stated) an ‘agonistic’ attempt to define ‘art’ for the broader community of sense.

in The aesthetic exception
Sartre, Brecht, Adorno
Tony Fisher

The chapter examines the controversy over political effect in art. It distinguishes two periods within that debate: the classical debate and the contemporary debate that signals a ‘paradigm shift’ towards a communicative understanding of political effect. It argues that the classical debate is rooted in a hermeneutic paradigm, in which the work of art requires ‘interpretation’. Not so the art of the communicative paradigm, where political meaning resides in the participatory aspect of the work. It next examines Adorno’s critique of committed or engaged literature. Where Sartre argued against the incommunicable and sought to erase adventitious meanings from literature, Adorno proposed the opposite. Where Sartre argued for art that led to real change, Adorno argued such art rested on a self-deception. The chapter examines Adorno’s objections and the role played by the ‘autonomy thesis’ in his alternative. It shows first that political art is pointless because it ‘preaches to the converted’; that committed art was tacitly complicit in reinforcing the structures of instrumental reason; that realist art collapses the distinction between the real and art, with committed art naively assuming the production of communicative effects in the social world; and that committed art such as Brecht’s theatre infantilises its audience by means of representing the world in untruths designed to reinforce the political correctness of the artwork’s message, rather than examine the actual complexity involved. The chapter ends by asking, however, whether Adorno’s critique remains true today, and if not, what follows for contemporary understandings of political effect in art?

in The aesthetic exception
Habermas and the political
Tony Fisher

The chapter examines the philosophical underpinnings of social turn theorists, to grasp what distinguishes the political from the social within the debate – and what implications this has on how political effect is understood. It situates debates around contemporary relational/social works by considering Habermas’s theory of communicative action. The chapter draws out the critical implications of Habermas’s theory for this art of the social turn. It examines the effect of the work of art according to two possibilities speech act theory makes available: the artwork produces either illocutionary or perlocutionary effects. The social turn tends toward illocutionary effects, in Habermas’s sense, since they emphasise social interdependence. However, the chapter argues such an approach threatens a sociological reduction of the political. To counter that threat, the chapter advocates a different approach to Habermas’s – an approach he rejects: a perlocutionary theory of political effect in art. It shows how the problem with Habermas’s optimal description of the illocutionary speech act which produces social coordination derives from the assumption of political neutrality in the context of deliberative acts. It argues that the political must be grasped instead around the kind of strategic understanding that Habermas wishes to side-line, showing that a perlocutionary account is nonetheless the best way of understanding political effect in art: first because it can more genuinely grasp the strategic contexts of politics; second because it understands the unpredictable nature of political effects, which opens the way to a new understanding of how political effect works in the context of art.

in The aesthetic exception
The work of ‘dissensual speech’ in art
Tony Fisher

The final chapter elaborates on the theory of a perlocutionary model of political effect in the context of an extended example: a work by the African American artist, Dread Scott (What is the proper way to display a US flag?). It proposes such a theory draws on the communicative turn while resisting any sociological reduction of the political. It advocates a way of understanding political art as a practice of strategic incivility, as producing unpredictable effects – perlocutions – but effects nonetheless, and a means of grasping those effects in terms of their political qualities: they are dissensual effects in the sense that they transform the sensus communis into a community of dissent – a dissensus communis. The chapter shows how Scott’s work operates enunciatively around three ‘criteria’, which constitute a political speech act as political: (1) the ‘agonic’, in that it expresses an ‘adversarial’ relation (Mouffe); (2) the ‘phatic’, in the sense that it is ‘counter-interpellative’ and able to ‘disarticulate’ existing fixed discursive subject positions in order to help rearticulate them ‘hegemonically’ (Mouffe and Laclau); and, finally, (3) the ‘parrhesiastic’, in that in asserting a social truth the work of art necessarily risks direct confrontation with a power that would rather not hear it (Foucault). The chapter demonstrates how this performative understanding applies to Scott’s work, which provoked antagonism from its audience, a presidential reproach, a ban from the Senate, and, eventually, a change in the law, with the Supreme Court effectively agreeing with Scott that it is unconstitutional to ‘mandate’ patriotism.

in The aesthetic exception
Tony Fisher

The chapter begins by proposing a game that invites the reader to imagine the taxonomy of the political theatre, which while impossible is nevertheless implicit in any discussion of the political theatre. This taxonomic ruse is used to develop the essay’s central thematic via an analysis of the theatre of the Russian (October) Revolution: that what the revolutionary theatre founded was nothing as solid as a tradition of political theatre, but it did inaugurate the problem of the political theatre. The chapter shows that central to this problematic is the relation of theatre to the ‘new’: to the new society it seeks to model, and how the new theatre must be related to the old theatre that preceded it (whether articulated as continuity or radical epistemic break). It argues that the dialectic of the new constitutes the central paradox of the political theatre that can be pursued as a genealogy of the problem of the political theatre. The chapter examines this problematic as it emerges in several key controversies that permeate the revolutionary discourse on political theatre – from Rolland, Meyerhold to Lunacharsky and others involved in debates around ‘Proletkult’ (proletarian culture). It describes the central contradiction of the revolutionary theatre, via three tendencies: the avant-gardism of Meyerhold, the ‘Agitki’ theatre of troupes such as the Blue Blouse, and the ‘spectacular’ statist theatre of Evreinov, arguing that the political theatre in its classical phase was predicated on a contradictory need to reconcile propagandistic function with the experimentalism of a ‘new’ theatre.

in The aesthetic exception