Figures of History
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In this important new book the leading philosopher Jacques Rancière continues his reflections on the representative power of works of art. How does art render events that have spanned an era? What roles does it assign to those who enacted them or those who were the victims of such events?
Rancière considers these questions in relation to the works of Claude Lanzmann, Goya, Manet, Kandinsky and Barnett Newman, among others, and demonstrates that these issues are not only confined to the spectator but have greater ramifications for the history of art itself.
For Rancière, every image, in what it shows and what it hides, says something about what it is permissible to show and what must be hidden in any given place and time. Indeed the image, in its act of showing and hiding, can reopen debates that the official historical record had supposedly determined once and for all. He argues that representing the past can imprison history, but it can also liberate its true meaning.
only thing possible, because art always entails the presence of an absence; because it is the very job of art to reveal something that is invisible, through the controlled power of words and images, connected or unconnected; because art alone thereby makes the inhuman perceptible, felt. Alain Resnais had already contrasted photographs of survivors and corpses taken when the camps were opened up with the mutism and indifference of the surrounding natural environment (Night and Fog). Claude
History is that none of its scenes or figures is ever equal to it. Take the character, in Goya's canvas, The Third of May (El Tres de Mayo), whose arms form a cross and who, alone, faces things, but also cries for no one, caught as he is between two masses of anonymous bodies that rule out his gesture's having any impact and his words' having any echo: at his feet lies a heap of executed men crushed against the ground; facing him stand the compact group of executioners, represented from behind,
the future Mandelstam was to celebrate in 1917 in two deliberately ambiguous lines: O Sun, judge, people, your light is rising over sombre years. But the sentence of light is not only, as some would have it, the history of the new myths of the red sun and the bloody catastrophe they led to. It may, more simply, be the ‘justice’ that the images from Mother Dao do to the colonized of the recent past. Dutch colonizers in Indonesia took those images to celebrate their work civilizing the natives.
voicing the situation, for turning it into fiction. What it thereby accompanies on screen is a minute yet decisive change in the appearance of the faces and attitudes of the colonized, in the ‘happiness’ they express: they respond to the surprise of these imposed exercises with attention, with a certain pride in playing the game, as perfectly as possible, before the blackboard at school or the iron at the forge. They quietly assert their equal aptitude for all kinds of learning, for all the rules
zero-sum exchange that gets the creases on a face or the cracks in the ground to talk, purposely muffling the voices and silencing the words. The show-and-tell machine gives vividness to every life only to take it back immediately for itself. To actively work as history, then, comes close to being an art that is conscious of its radical distance from what apes it – namely, the world machine that makes everything equally significant and insignificant, interesting and uninteresting; the information