Rancière on Art – Glossary of Terms

The below are my own notes which I used to help make sense of Rancière’s work on art. There is an excellent – more general – glossary at the back of the english translation of The Politics of Aesthetics (2004) that might be useful to read in tandem for concepts such as aesthetics, the distribution of the sensible, the police, politics etc.

The clearest summaries I have found on the topic were Tanke (2011) and Deranty (2014).

Mimēsis – A re-presentation. There are two possible translations to the word mimesis, (1) ‘imitation’, a repetition following rules, precepts and examples, and (2) ‘representation’ where it is possible for political entities to appear (Robson, 2005). Not internal to art – but part of a regime of the identification of art. Mimesis means the correspondence between poiesis (a way of making or doing) and aisthesis (what appears to the senses). For Rancière it underpins the distinction of what is and is not art.

Poiēsis – A way of doing or making – from the ancient Greek poieîn, to make. Part of the Aristotelian categorisation of human activity. It can be distinguished from paxis (practice) which is an act that is complete in itself. By contrast, poiesis exceeds the activity itself – it is about creating and forging something new (Perazzo Domm, 2019).

Aisthêsis – What appears to the senses. It relates to “the realm of affect, sensation, emotion and perception, dimensions of experience” (Ingram, 2015: 3). It concerns the connection between the  human capacity for feeling and understanding. Aisthesis, therefore, is the sensible fabric of experience within which art is produced. It is not internal to art – but part of a regime of the identification of art. 

Art – “What the term ‘art’ designates in its singularity”, Rancière writes, “is the framing of a space of presentation by which things of art are identified as such” (2009: 23). “There are not always occurrences of art, although there are always forms of poetry, painting sculpture, music, theatre and dance” (Rancière, 2009: 27). “To establish the edifice of art means to define a certain regime for the identification of art, that is to say a specific relationship between the practices, forms of visibility and modes of intelligibility that enable us to identify the products of these latter as belonging to art or to an art” (Rancière, 2009: 28).

Art and the political – Rancière’s thought on the relation between art and politics are ambivalent (Ingram, 2015). In places it appears that aesthetic politics is possible through art itself as an intervention (see artistic practices, below). He also writes, “art is not, in the first instance, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world [… or] the manner in which it chooses to represent society’s structures, or social groups, their conflicts of identities” … “it is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which [it does so]” (Rancière, 2009: 23). However, there is no “straight line between perception, affection, comprehension and action” (Rancière 2009, 103) and so one cannot preempt what political events art might bring about.

Artistic practices – “‘ways of doing and makingthat intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making as well as in the relationships they maintain to modes of being and forms of visibility” (Rancière 2010: 13).

Regime of art – Defines the specific ways in which a given epoch conceives of the nature and logic of artistic representation. How conceptions of what artistic representations are is situated within the distribution of the sensible. Defines the basic features within which each artists develops their mode of expression. These are meta-historical categories. They link (1) social and material features of the world with (2) what is significant and worthy of representation, (3) the discursive articulation of meaning, (4) the artefacts in which meaning is expressed (e.g. verbal, cinema, pictorial) and (5) the community to which the artist addresses themselves (Deranty, 2014). Each regime aims to deal with the gap between poiesis and aisthesis.

Ethical regime of art – Artistic representations are considered only with regard to a truth or communal reading outside of art itself. Artistic representations are judged according to their ontological veracity.  In other words, this relates to their ‘truthfulness’ against an ideal model. Artistic practices are judged in accordance to their direct more and political worth (and this is present today, think for instance about the alleged negative moral impact of video games) (Deranty, 2014). Though it predated the representative and aesthetic regimes it has not disappeared today. This regime is articulated in Plato’s views on art.

Representative (or poetic) regime of art – There is a ‘fictional principle’ in the representative regime – artworks are imitations. These fictions are afforded with their own time and space. Fiction, however has its own rules which is why the idea of ‘genre’ exists. What rules should an artists follow and according to what rules will they be judged (Deranty, 2014). There is therefore, a principle of convenance in this regime, defining what is right and proper. In other words, rather than simply reproducing reality, works in the representative regime obey a series of axioms that define the arts. These dictate things like the subjects to be depicted in art, how they are to be treated and the kinds of responses that depictions should elicit (Tanke, 2011). This liberated the arts from the moral, religious and social criteria of the ethical regime. Poiesis and aisthesis are pegged to one another by a common account that gives these dimensions of art a systematic integrity.  This regime is articulated in Aristotle’s Poetics.

Poetics – the name of a general system of representation between meaning and world.

Aesthetic regime of art – This regime has come into dominance over the last two centuries. Towards the end of the c18th, and throughout the c19th and c20th, artists ventured into new frontiers, considering subjects previously off limits – such as the lives of ‘common’ people. There were no longer any pregiven rules for distinguishing objects of art from other products of everyday life (Tanke, 2011). It abolished the hierarchy present in the representative and ethical regimes of arts. Mimetic representation is much less convincing and the relation between this and conduct is also questionable. Plays, poems and paintings no longer transmit ‘correct’ knowledge or establish proper behaviour (Ingram, 2015). There is a “break between sensation and cognition, affect and reason poesis (artistic intent) and aesthesis (sensory experience)” (ibid:  5). However, even under the new regime, modern art is still partly under the influence of representative logic. Aesthetic practices contest, impact and change what can be seen, said and done – and it is this that gives them political purchase. They are formed out of the everyday but also go beyond it in creating something new.

To Reference

Blakey, J. 2021. Rancière on Art – Glossary of Terms [online]. Available from:

List of References

Deranty, J.P., 2014. Jacques Rancière: key concepts. Routledge.

Ingram, A., 2016. Rethinking art and geopolitics through aesthetics: artist responses to the Iraq war. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers41(1), pp.1-13.

Perazzo Domm D. (2019) Dance and/as Poiesis, Poetry, Poetics. In: Jonathan Burrows. New World Choreographies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. 

Rancière, J., 2009. Aesthetics and its Discontents. Polity.

Rancière J 2010 Dissensus: on politics and aesthetics Continuum, London

Robson, M., 2005. Jacques Ranciere’s aesthetic communities. Paragraph28(1), pp.77-95.

Tanke, J.J., 2011. What is the aesthetic regime?. Parrhesia12, pp.71-81.