Jacques Rancière’s Emancipated Spectator: How Should Art Engage Us?

What is it in art that moves us? How can an artist manage to authentically say anything? Rancière attempts to answer these questions through the notion of the emancipated spectator.

Apr 15, 2023By Klejton Cikaj, MSc in Social Philosophy, BA Philosophy
jacques ranciere emancipated spectator


Due to his emphasis on the significance of equality in comprehending politics and democracy, French philosopher Jacques Rancière has been dubbed “one of the most sophisticated contemporary theorists of democracy and egalitarianism.”


Rancière is interested in analyzing the spectator and the spectacle they observe, the detached mode of being in the world which grants us a safe distance from engagement. Is there something evil about the act of spectating? How can passive observers be transformed into engaged agents?


Jacques Rancière on Spectating: An Introduction

spectator lautrec
A Spectator (from Le Café Concert) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893, via the Met Museum.


Jacques Rancière is best known for questioning conventional notions of social hierarchy, power, and knowledge as well as for pushing for a more egalitarian approach to society and education. His writings are primarily concerned with social justice issues and universal liberation, including that of those who lack privilege or power. In order to build a more just and equitable society, he emphasizes the significance of questioning accepted norms and structures.


Rancière starts his investigation by calling us to abandon the traditional notion of the theater – which is played for a spectator, detached and passive – and to embrace drama, which represents involvement and activity.


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For him, there is evil in the act of spectating. The spectator is divorced from both the capacity to know and the power to act. Their pleasure is derived from this impotence and ignorance. The spectator should be removed from this position of divorced and detached examination of the spectacle which is being offered on stage.


The passive observer should be transformed into an engaged part of the community. The theater remains one of the only places where the audience is aware of its collectivity. The community is put in possession of its own energies. In the spectacle, the spectator contemplates an activity which he can not engage in. The spectators’ essence and agency are turned against them. This idea is borrowed from the Brechtian paradigm:


“Don’t expect the theater to satisfy the habits of its audience, but to change them.”
Bertolt Brecht


Rancière on Critical Thought and Its Misadventures 

rosler balloons
Balloons from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home by Martha Rosler, c. 1967-72, via MoMA


By Rancière’s time, critical theory had become pervasive in almost every field of study, from the theater to paintings to the social body and the economy itself. According to Rancière, the critical approach attempts to make one aware of the repressed, ugly parts of the system in which they are complicit in.


He takes the example of a montage titled “Balloons” by Martha Rosler. In the image we’re presented with a Vietnamese man carrying a dead child, but the image is placed in the frame of a comfortable upper class US home. On one hand, the montage is a critique of how the public perception was shaped by mass media, the war, murder, banality, barbarism, all filtered through the sterile screen into the air-conditioned, well-furnished room of the complicit American.


On the other hand, it brings the logic of imperialism home, it brings the consequences to its doorstep and makes the screams of the innocent difficult to ignore. It attempts to shake them from their apathy. It also tells us that the comfortable upper middle class suburban life is maintained through war and disaster somewhere else, making the contradictions of global capitalism ever more unavoidable.


Josephine Mecksepers untitled
“Untitled”, 2003, by Josephine Mecksper, via ResearchGate


This is contrasted to a work by German artist Josephine Meckseper called “Untitled” which depicts protests against the war in Iraq, but the center of the image is focused on a bin which is overflowing with trash. This suggests that the protest is itself following the same logic of image and commodity consumption which leads to imperialist wars in the first place.


Rancière argues that these images contain a similar logic of pointing out contradictions but have a big difference. The Vietnamese man with the dead child cannot be assimilated in the suburban home background, the contradiction is jarring. In Meckseper’s work, the contrasting images belong to the same flat field of commodity exchange.


Rancière wants us to avoid falling into a left-wing trap of melancholia, which denounces all social critiques as critiques which reinforce the logic they claim to oppose. The critical approach provides fuel to this melancholia and nihilist attitude. By focusing on why things haven’t changed, it repeatedly makes the argument that things will never change and thus falls into a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Aesthetic Separation and Community

seurat bathers
“Bathers in Asnières”, 1884, retouched 1887, painting by Georges Pierre Seurat, via National Gallery, London.


We live in a time of separation. People are lonelier than ever before, which is unusual given the sheer number of people on Earth: we are numerous but alone. Western societies where advanced capitalism and rugged individualism have free reign produce an epidemic of loneliness and mental illness. Our connections with others have dispersed. The only relations that remain are those perpetuated and mediated by capital, those relations where there’s always self interest involved.


A group of French artists proposed a projected tiled “I and US”, comprising in a space where someone could exist in complete solitude, encapsulating the modern need to be apart, disconnected from the inflow of images and capital, something which is rendered impossible in the ordinary life in the Parisian suburbs.


3d movie audience
Movie audience wearing special 3D glasses. J. R. Eyerman—The LIFE Picture Collection, via the Times.


Human beings are tied by the same field of sensation which defies their way of being together in the world. Politics should aim to transform this sensory field, to show the community new ways of experiencing themselves, new ways of configuring their relations to each other. Seurat’s painting, Bathers at Asnières, for Rancière, encapsulates the conflict inherent in the notion of community leisure itself:


“Seurat evinced both the enigmatic potential of popular bodies that gained access to ‘leisure’ and the neutralisation of that potential.”


An aesthetic community is a community of sense, a sense which ties them together to the fabric of society. Separation and aloneness cannot escape this communal sensibility, in our own fracture, we experience connection.


The Intolerable Image: Alfredo Jaar

“Real Pictures”, 1995, by Alfredo Jaar


Alfredo Jaar was an artist dedicated to capturing the Rwandan genocide in motion, a genocide in which 1 million Tutsi were massacred. His images were put into black boxes which contained a description, alluding to the impossibility of the true representation of the ruthless brutality which was taking place. The black box also symbolized a coffin in which the victims depicted could finally rest.


Rancière talked about the image titled ‘The Eyes of Gutete Emerita’, an image which is also the cover of The Emancipated Spectator (in most editions). Jaar took thousands of photos of the massacre but felt that their mere publication would fail to make any change, that his images would quickly be assimilated into the inflow of other images and fail to say anything at all, neutralized before they could speak.


In the black box, the image is invisible. The only visible thing is the description. Finding a way to say something becomes the political task of the artist, whose work can easily be rendered banal, drowned in a sea of similar images which fail to trigger the viewer.


For Rancière the trap which Jaar is trying to escape isn’t set up by how numerous similar images are, but by the fact that the bodies displayed by the images are incapable of returning our gaze. The bodies are nameless. The system of information doesn’t numb our sensibility through excess, but through the careful interpretation of those who are able to decipher the inflow of images. The black boxes depict not a nameless body, but a body-less name.


The intolerable image: Kevin Carter

little girl vulture carter
“The vulture and the little girl”, March 1993, by Kevin Carter via WordPress.


In 1983, following mutinies launched against the Sudanese army, the SPLA (Sudan people’s liberation army) was officially created. What would follow would be one of the longest civil wars in the recorded history of Sudan, lasting from 1983 to 2005. During this civil war, anywhere from 1 to 2.5 million people died, mostly due to drought, famine and starvation. One such famine took place in 1993.


A South African photographer, Kevin Carter, took a photo during the famine. The photo was titled “The vulture and the little girl”.  It depicted a child crawling on the ground, stripped to her bare bones, and in the background, a vulture patiently waiting for starvation to finally kill her. Shortly after being awarded the Pulitzer prize for this photograph, Carter committed suicide. It might have been because of the trauma of witnessing the famine, but it might have also been because of the backlash he received for the photo. Wasn’t he, after all, just like a vulture – waiting for the right moment to take the picture instead of helping out the poor child?


Carter actually did help the child afterwards, but nonetheless, the cynical reactions remained. The west, so appalled by the confrontation with reality, deflects back at those who manage to threaten its apathy. This is the conundrum in which art finds itself in the age of the spectacle. In this endless flow of images, how could it manage to break the confines of its frames in order to say something? How could it not get trapped in the same flow of apathy? How could it not join the spectacle?


This can only be achieved through genuine subversion, from art which mocks the spectacle which tries to neutralize its effect. Irony or awareness aren’t subversive anymore. In fact they only serve to enforce the logic of the spectacle. Subversive art today does something radical: It dares to take things seriously. Everywhere we’re invited to experience everything as weightless, distant, divorced from us. Subversive art forces us to take things seriously, it brings uncomfortable truths right to our doorstep.

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By Klejton CikajMSc in Social Philosophy, BA PhilosophyKlejton holds an MSc in Social Philosophy from the University of Tirana in Albania. Klejton has a deep interest in all philosophy-related fields, from metaphysics to epistemology, to the philosophy of mind and politics. Klejton is dedicated to making the substance of philosophy accessible to regular readers without diminishing its quality.