Art & Development

interpreting the emancipated spectator

In his speech on The Emancipated Spectator, the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Ranciére examines the ideas of the spectator and the theater (which can easily be extrapolated to visual art). He aligns Artaud‘s, Brecht‘s and Debord‘s criticisms of the theater and spectacle with Plato’s fulminations against mimesis (no to representation and art, yes to reality; no to conflations of spectatorship with passivity). He explains that the actor-spectator relationship is too much like traditional pedagogy: hierarchical, active v. passive, stultifying.

I was surprised how much Ranciére’s ideas relate to popular education, an area I studied ages ago as an idealistic activist/youth worker. Those experiences will shape how I understand institutional power and privilege for the rest of my life. So when I arrived at graduate school, I was surprised that some co-horts could name-drop Hegel or Adorno, but understood race and class on Oprah’s terms — on interpersonal levels rather than systemic ones.

It’s interesting to see contemporary art critical theory (Ranciére’s writings and interview has appeared in Artforum) overlap with radical pedagogy. Raciére’s description of the conventional schoolmaster sounds like Paolo Freire’s “bank” model, in which students are empty piggy banks that must be filled with knowledge by teachers. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Friere describes an alternative “each one, teach one” model where everyone’s knowledge and capacities are respected and valued. In Ranciere’s words,

Emancipation is the process of verification of the equality of intelligence…. the “ignorant master” … does not teach his knowledge to the students. He commands them to venture forth in the forest, to tell what they see, what they think of what they have seen, to check it and so on.

Ranciére goes on to point out that even if works of propaganda have fallen from favor, dramaturges or performers still put

pressure on the spectator: maybe he will know what has to be done, if the performance changes him, if it sets him apart from his passive attitude and makes him an active participant in the common world. This is the first point that the reformers of the theatre share with the stultifying pedagogues: the idea of the gap between two positions. Even when the dramaturge or the performer does not know what he wants the spectator to do, he knows at least that he has to do something: switching from passivity to activity.

This is a fundamental flaw in art that aims to mobilize the viewer, and this is what I was alluding to when I wrote the post, Why I Am Not Making Activist Art for Activist Imagination:

The assumption that the viewer needs to be educated or inspired by the artist can imply an unequal relationship. This seems aligned with outmoded Modern and pre-Modern notions of the artist as genius – where an artist’s talent qualifies him to grant a gift of beauty or rare vision to the viewer. But instead of bestowing something upon recipients, I like Lewis Hyde’s idea of a gift: a symbol that forms a social bond.

What social bond? I think the work of art mediates a relationship between the artist and viewer.

artist, work of art, viewer

As does Ranciere in regards to theater:

…the performance itself… stands as a “spectacle” between the idea of the artist and the feeling and interpretation of the spectator. This spectacle is a third thing, to which both parts can refer but which prevents any kind of “equal” or “undistorted” transmission. It is a mediation between them. That mediation of a third term is crucial in the process of intellectual emancipation. To prevent stultification there must be something between the master and the student. The same thing which links them must separate them….

So what does Ranciere propose?

We have not to turn spectators into actors. We have to acknowledge that any spectator already is an actor of his own story and that the actor also is the spectator of the same kind of story. We have not to turn the ignorant into learned persons, or, according to a mere scheme of overturn, make the student or the ignorant the master of his masters.

This, I think, is a central question in participatory art — when artists challenge their sole authorship, who is to say that viewers have anything invested?

Ranciére goes on:

Spectatorship is not the passivity has to be turned into activity. It is our normal situation. We learn and teach, we act and know as spectators who link what they see with what they have seen and told, done and dreamt. There is no privileged medium as there is no privileged starting point….

This is what emancipation means: the blurring of the opposition between they who look and they who act, they who are individuals and they who are members of a collective body….

An emancipated community is in fact a community of storytellers and translators….

This resonates with a lot of ideas in contemporary art: the end of the division between art and life, the skepticism that many contemporary artists feel about their privileged position of authorship, and the desire to create artworks that enact generosity, reciprocity and exchange.

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4 thoughts on “interpreting the emancipated spectator

    • This speech is widely reproduced, so I’d be very surprised if we had the same publication.

      I link to a PDF. The PDF itself does not have page numbers. PDFs are searchable.

  1. Hi Christine, this is a very interesting piece, as is your art practice, and very much look forward to exploring it more fully. I would love to read your piece reference in this article, Why I Am Not Making Activist Art for Activist Imagination, but the link doesn’t seem to work. Is there any chance there is another place I can find it?

    • Hi Amanda, Thanks for your interest. Sorry for the broken link. Actually, that essay was posted on the Kearny Street Workshop blog, which is no longer up, and unfortunately I don’t think I have a copy of it. But I can tell you that when I was making new work for Activist Imagination, I was thinking about the role of the artist and viewer, and how both are citizens with similar capacities to act in the world. I was skeptical of the onus of activism being put on artists, when arguably it is all of our responsibilities. So my projects were about emptying my work of myself, but asking the viewer to consider their perspectives, roles, and positions.

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