Rancière, J. (2011) The Emancipated Spectator. (s.l.): Verso.

Firstly this book is opaque and difficult to read. Having read over 20 academic books and many more essays a clear pattern is emerging. The level of opaqueness is directly related to two things; the clarity of thought/skill of the writer, and the intended audience. Strangely, the opaqueness (including tortuous and indecipherable sentence structure) isn’t connected to being academic per se as there are plenty of academic texts written in plain English (which are therefore accessible with work) – I might have to look up words and theories but their argument is laid out with clarity.

There are obviously good and bad writers in any field so that might account for some of the difference.

Knowing little about academia, status, peer pressure, income, funding and motive I don’t want to speculate as to the reasons for inaccessible texts. However, I have noticed that the more political the writer, and narrow their audience, the more inaccessible, and therefore exclusive, the text. This is particularly upsetting as some of the observations in these texts such as in Haraway’s ‘Cyborg’ text [Haraway, D. (1990) ‘Chapter Eight: A Cyborg Manifesto’ In: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women : The Reinvention of Nature. London, UNITED KINGDOM: Taylor & Francis Group. pp.149–182.] are prescient and would benefit society. However, hidden away in the Socialist Worker and written in a way that guarantees her observations will not reach (and therefore benefit) society she precludes the very thing she argues for, political change.

Returning to the ‘The Emancipated Spectator’, this was circuitous with whole passages of indecipherable text. However, there was enough ‘meaning’ to warrant reading, and I hope I have culled some useful observations.

Primarily, it deals with the spectator, in the spectator/maker/object triangle, and argues that spectators should be transformed from passive consumers to active producers. So it follows a well trodden Marxist path of making art part of everyday living and destroying the category of artist, as the social body lives and creates art rather than a privileged elite. Ignoring the arguments around who instigates and controls this new social art, and therefore becomes the new privileged elite – and to what purpose they exercise that control – the book also has some very useful observations about the dynamics of spectatorhood.

I have attempted to understand the most useful observations for me as a ‘maker artist’ and set them down below

1. Representational art has cause and effect, and a narrative.

If I am painting a tree, even if I abstract it, the tree is the ’cause’ and I ‘effect’ is my painting. I explain the tree thereby creating a ‘narrative’, and a narrative is driven by thoughts.

2. Aesthetic art does not have a narrative and resists thought.

The beautiful shots in a film, such as where train lines become a matrix of geometric shapes unconnected to the narrative of destination, stand alone. There have no cause and effect and are complete in themselves.

This makes me think there are two types of abstract art. Representational abstraction which has a cause (however hidden) and effect, and stimulates narrative. For example when we see a semi abstract landscape and think about landscapes we have seen. And aesthetic abstraction which resists thought.

This is important to me as I think about my practice and where to place it inside abstraction, and what I am painting and why.

3. Photographs are constructed realities not truths.

I found this very interesting.

A photograph only tells one version of the truth, it is not a record of the truth. It is never ‘the whole’ but is often taken as such. It is always inside (part of) a meaning system which is mediated, by the press or politics for example. The meaning of the photograph is always to do with the positioning, framing, of the spectator by the producer.

If we know in advance what we see, and what to make of it, then the image is unlikely to change our gaze or the landscape of the possible. For example in the sixties collaged photographs of American soldiers from Vietnam inside domestic settings built on an anti war movement, it didn’t create that movement or (necessarily) lead to civil protests. This means that any image that we can place in a mental ‘box’ is unlikely to challenge our thinking in new and radical ways, it can only nudge us in a certain direction… this is why images of the intolerable such as starving children of drowned refugees fail to move us, we already know what we think of the ‘reality’ they portray.

By contrast an image that we don’t know in advance, and don’t know what to make of, can make us think anew. The cover of this book features a pair of eyes, we look at it and dismiss it as something we don’t understand… it is a woman’s pair of eyes like any other, not showing emotion… neutral.

When we discover that this pair of eyes saw her whole family slaughtered in ethnic cleansing it jolts us into considering the image anew. We can create a new gaze and a new landscape of the possible… which can force us to look at our prejudices.

This doesn’t directly relate to my practice but has made me realise how untruthful images are… how can they represent a complex political and social reality… or capture the feeling of wind..the smell… the noise… suddenly photographic ‘reality’ seem paper thin, whereas before they were ‘solid’… and their meaning generated by the caption (framing) as much as, if not more than, by the photograph itself.

To what extent does ‘framing’ and foreknowledge determine the meaning and/or experience of paintings?

4. Photography stands between art and non art.

This is closely related to the point abaove.

Traditionally photographs were thought to be objective because they duplicated reality ‘passively’ while paintings were made actively by artistic process.

However, all photography involves the photographer’s intent and mechanical process. The process involves framing, out of the unlimited possibilities why do we choose that subject at that instant in time, and conscious and unconscious aesthetic choices.

If we think of a portrait we have the characterisation of identity and the arrangement of a body in space. Added to this the process is now far from mechanical (if it ever was) and images are routinely manipulated in the same way an artist uses paint on a canvas.

Sol, although photographers differ in skill and experience, every photograph is subjective and artistic.

A final point is the similarity between modern uncontextualized photographic portraits and classical portraits – where the original contextualization has been lost. Both are ambiguous and we are left with a body in space, an aesthetic regime, and very little representational narrative… though, no doubt, we will try and construct a backstory?

5. The image has become our new reality.

Rather than be a partial reflection of an external reality the image itself has become the reality. So the images on the news of, say America, have become our ‘reality’ of America. We find it hard to distinguish the image of something from the reality of that thing, and in many cases the image is the ‘reality’.

6. Commodification of images.

Like Midas the market turns everything it touches into gold, and images have been commodified.

Images are produced as a product and sold in the same way as apples and pears. They are not somehow special, just another product satisfying a need. This begs the question of who makes them and who produces them… and to what purpose?

If photographs satisfy a need then they are always partial, so therefore it is dangerous if we take them as the truth. We may be suspicious over advertising photographs because of their obvious connection to selling but maybe we should treat all photographs with caution.

7. Reality hidden behind the spectacle.

This has already been touched on but spectacles make more dramatic (saleable) photographs than ordinary life and complex truths can easily be hidden by a striking image that, like a still from a movie, we will glance at and move on.

8. Lies become truth.

Because we still tend to see photographs as objective and truthful, and images become reality, it is easy to make a false image and pass it off as the truth. This is particularly problematic as we struggle with fake news and lies passed off as truth by powerful figures with media connections.

9. Images as a new totalitarianism.

In a human body liver cells can’t be brain cells, or skin cells muscle cells. Our bodies are composed of millions of differentiated cells working collaboratively to feed and carry our brains around.

However, in society everybody has the potential to be equal. If it were a human body the liver and brain cells would be interchangeable. So why wouldn’t all the liver cells want to be brain cells? In America in the WW2 it was said black men couldn’t be pilots because they were natural cowards and lacked the intelligence to operate complex machinery, as the Red Tails (one of the most successful group of fighter pilots were black) proved this was a lie.

There are two ways to stop people having an opportunity to be equal (apart from having a physically totalitarian state). Firstly make everybody think they can be a equal (when they can’t) or secondly make everybody think they can’t be equal and have a natural place in society.

American democracy goes for the first and says everybody is what they make themselves to be, anybody can rise to the top. This ignores the reality that success is largely determined by economic resources and access to education, and is not equally open to all. The myth is supported by millions of images of poor people being successful. Victorian Christianity had a belief system which put everybody in their ‘natural’ place… ‘the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate’ and had an image bank to support this.

Again the question is who produces and controls the images which go out into society and become the ‘truth’, and who benefits?


I took much more about the status of photographs from this book than role of spectator and it has changed the way I consume, and think about, photographs.

In relation to my practice it has made me think about representational (narrative/thought driven) and aesthetic art.

What art do I want to make and why?

It has also made me consider what art is? Is an artistic agenda any different from a political agenda? Does my believing I have a better way of living make agenda any less of an agenda than a mainstream one?

What is the value of figurative art that tells the ‘narrative’ of tree? Or a sunset? Do I want to make art that generates narratives, however beautiful, or make aesthetic art? What is the value of aesthetic art?

For my practice, at the moment, I would like to make aesthetic art. It has a value for the soul.

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