Juliane Rebentisch: Realism Today: Art, Politics, and the Critique of Representation
Realism Today: Art, Politics, and the Critique of Representation
(S. 245 – 261)

Juliane Rebentisch

Realism Today: Art, Politics, and the Critique of Representation

Übersetzt von Gerrit Jackson und Stephen Packard

PDF, 17 Seiten

Juliane Rebentisch takes up the discussion of changing and redistributed forms of realism in current arts. Starting from the dissolution of boundaries between the arts, a stated experiential quality of art, and a societal change towards a performative turn, Rebentisch reconsiders concepts of realism: While maintaining a fidelity towards the object and its necessarily consequential involvement in ethical, political, and aesthetic discourses, she emphasizes that contemporary (and especially resistant) art does not refer to realities as much as it critically questions a society that consists in reality’s representations. This leads to another plea for a post-mimetic realism.

 Primarily instigated by the 6th Berlin Biennale in 2010, the German discussion over the possibilities of an aesthetic realism has come to new life; arguments have been exchanged in academia as well as in the broader public sphere.1
 Participants in these debates are recognizably attracted by the concept of realism, but they also evince a certain hesitation to claim the label for their own practice or to actually use this highly fraught term to describe contemporary art in general. Instead, their arguments quickly veer toward very fundamental issues; it is the ethics and politics of today’s art most generally that are at stake.2 Yet it strikes me as no coincidence that the general problem of the relationship between art and reality and the related issue of whether and how to accept the heritage of the realisms of the twentieth century become prominent at a time when contemporary art receives greater attention from institutions and critics. For the normative sense of contemporary art is that it should make its historic present present to us. It is supposed to be an art of its time – with regard both to the state of artistic consciousness (in technical as well as critical terms) and to its relationship to the social and cultural reality in which it originates. These two criteria decide whether an art is worthy of its present, whether it can do justice to it. That also means that there may be current artistic productions that fail to meet this double requirement, because they are anachronistic, regressive, or obsolete in one or both of the dimensions I have mentioned.

The debate on realism has always closely tied the notion of artistic progressiveness to the question of how artistic production relates to its social and cultural outside. To isolate considerations of formal creation from art’s reference to that outside is to bid farewell to the project of realism. For unlike such formalism, realism is by definition impure. It is always already open to an ethical, political, and epistemic demand: realism – as a stance, a project, a production – requires fidelity; fidelity, that is, to a reality that needs to be done justice in ethical, political, and epistemic terms. Realism attests to reality; it does not engender it. This implies that those who commit themselves to the realist project, and hence to fidelity to reality, must be the contemporaries of this reality. On the other hand, the realist project amounts to more than a positivist or automatic registration of something already given. Realism thus opposes formalism, but it does not necessarily oppose abstraction.

The relation of art to its social outside cannot be dissociated from questions of representation. For realistic art renders an image of reality. This means that the relationship between realism and reality is dialectical: the image of reality does not exist before realistic representation; but what is represented is still considered to be a given, however latent, or else the representation would not be realistic. The project of realism brings forth, makes visible – realizes – what is given as reality. Now realism was understood as a decidedly critical project in the great aesthetic debates of modernity, as distinguished from naturalism by the fact that the reality that appears in this general definition is social reality. But the critical perspective contains more than that. For the realistic image itself is supposed to have a potentially interventionist quality. It does not merely aim at representing the social world, but at once also at changing it. This lends the realist’s fidelity to reality a double character: it is committed to what is given, yet for the sake not of this given but of the possibility of its practical transformation.

What we have to consider now, however, is how we are to understand this nexus more specifically today. For those who currently return to the problem of realism do so in light of changes which art and its theory have undergone over the past forty or fifty years – profound changes, no doubt, that are not least associated with a crisis in the philosophy of history and its constructions that defined the modern debate on realism. The key terms we may use to outline the most crucial of these developments are the dissolution of boundaries and experience. The former concept – the German has a single noun for it, Entgrenzung – has in recent years become a widely established title for a development in art that, as it pursues modern art’s impulses toward open work-forms with a new radicalism, fundamentally calls into question not only the system of the arts but also the closure of the individual work. Yet in doing so it subverts the presupposition on which any aesthetic of truth, including that espoused by the philosophy of history, rests, as such an aesthetic must rely on the idea that the work is an objective given. The concept of experience, on the other hand, has become a key term in an aesthetic theory that has evolved not least in response to the tendencies toward boundary-dissolution in the arts; to this theory, the truth-content of the works of art can no longer be understood within the conceptual framework of a philosophical system nor, hence, of a historico-philosophical construction.

And yet a certain urgency still pertains to the question of contemporary realism –particularly in the realm of the visual arts, where developments toward the dissolution of the boundaries of art and between the arts have been most radical3 – indicating that the question of art’s relation to social reality is fundamental; it concerns even our contemporary understanding of art at its very core. For it entails questions about the ethics, the politics, and the epistemology of art – and these are hardly mere ancillaries to the conception of art itself. Rather, they concern art’s right to exist at all: the question, Wherefore art? This question, however, has become a problem only under the conditions of modernity. For it is art’s attainment of autonomy, its liberation from service to church and state, that gives rise to the discomforting thought that art might have cut the ground from under its own feet by emancipating itself from these functions, that its freedom might be no more than a veil over its servitude to a new master: the market. The discourse of realism has insistently highlighted the question, Wherefore art? – and that explains the central role this discourse has played in debates over aesthetic modernity. Today’s return to the problem of realism in art and art theory, too, is about these fundamental issues and not merely about an -ism to be filed among all the other -isms in a history of styles. The quickest glance at the great debates over realism of the 20th century may clarify what is systematically at stake; it will at once serve as a backdrop highlighting the situation in which the problem of realism is taken up again today.


As is widely known, Georg Lukács believed that art primarily served political insight. In showing the reader details of his own social reality, the realist novel is supposed to present to him that reality in its entirety – its laws, the tendencies of its development, and the role of man within, in short: its objective truth.4 The possibility to recognize that truth at all is of course predicated on socialism. What makes this definition of art problematic in the first place is the idealist premise of a philosophy that not only claims insight into the totality of reality, but even into the logic of its historical unfolding.5 For our context, however, it is just as problematic that this model reduces the function of art to illustrating vividly what has already been understood. Yet the primacy of extra-aesthetic social analysis defined not only Lukács’ theory of realism, but also that of his opponents. For example, the so-called expressionism debate of the 1930s – among its participants, all in exile, Ernst Bloch was Lukács’ leading opponent – already revolved around the question whether expressionist depictions of the rifts that mar the world and the subjects alike express the true nature of late capitalism, or are mere symptoms of false consciousness, obstructing actual insight into that nature. Whether the one or the other side was right, however – whether the realism of totality or, on the contrary, the realism of diremption, the novel of the 19th century or that of 20th-century expressionism, was to be distinguished as realist or rejected as antirealist – is a question whose answer is found not in close contemplation of the art, but rather on the territory of the philosophy of history.6

When Theodor W. Adorno began to quarrel with Lukács’ notion of realism in the late 1950s, he, too, returned to an extra-aesthetic philosophy of history. Although the pessimism of his critique of reason was diametrically opposed to Lukács’ socialist optimism, it drew no less vehement opposition. Indeed, the objections Jürgen Habermas raised against the totalizing traits of the critique of reason first framed by Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the Dialectic of Enlightenment7 could not but damage the plausibility of the dialectical construction Adorno had used in his aesthetic theory to recover the aspirations of critical realism in his own fashion. What is most immediately remarkable about Adorno’s response to the challenge of realism, however, is that it goes hand in hand with a defense of aesthetic difference. For unlike Lukács, Adorno does not conceive of the relationship between art and science as one of kinship. Art, he writes, “will never say, as knowledge usually does: ‘this is so’ […] Instead, it says, ‘this is how it is.’”8 Objectivity in art, in other words, is not created by pulling into art an external and already given meaning as though that meaning could remain in art what it was. For though art may receive its materials from reality, it does not conserve them unaltered; they are transmuted into an image. The quality of semblance that distinguishes art from reality cannot be subtracted from it. To reduce it to a purely external feature, as though art “were merely reproducing the world,” just “without claiming to be immediately real itself,”9 is to misapprehend the essence of art. Aesthetic objectivity, Adorno argues, thus arises quite differently: only in and through the intrinsic organization of the work of art – in its coherency.

At the same time, however, Adorno charged this notion of aesthetic difference itself with the contents of a philosophy of history. On the one hand, he considered the coherency of aesthetic structural creations to be in and of itself an expression of a reconciled coalescence of rationality and mimesis, which he contrasted with a historical reality determined throughout by instrumental reason as its negative image. But as this theory of reconciliation defined art as fundamentally separate from an unreconciled reality, it could fulfill its realist commitment to making an unreconciled state of affairs appear only by enacting a paradox: it had to turn against the aspect of untruth about the truth of the aesthetic semblance of reconciliation itself, by coherently shaping the negation of aesthetic coherency.10 Formalism and realism thus coincided in Adorno. For it is the principle of the creative formation of coherency itself – not the concrete material rendered coherent in each instance – that is here made to bear the historico-philosophical burden. Yet this move ultimately identifies the concrete content of the individual works with an idea of art in general that has its place in a philosophy of history.11 Even Adorno’s virtuosity in interweaving his idea of art, motivated by his philosophy of history, with the analysis and assessment of concrete works, could not quite conceal the unmediated identification of this idea with the concrete content of the works. To the contrary: the dogmatic features and probably also the esotericism in Adorno’s criticism rendered this problem most conspicuous.


Today, we find ourselves far removed from these approaches to the problem. By allowing elements of reality to permeate the boundary separating it from that reality, contemporary art subverts a premise on which socialist realism’s central notion – that art should represent the world by way of a model – is based. For this notion depends not least on our ability to distinguish the model from what it represents, i.e. empirical reality. Contemporary art, on the other hand, in its tendency to dissolve boundaries, destabilizes the distinction between art and non-art, between artistic representation and empirical reality. Yet by doing so, it evidently contravenes Adorno’s formalist meta-realism as well. For even the idea of a reconciliation to be experienced in art – however dialectically refracted it may be – is tied to the presupposition of a “second reality”12 of the work separate from all other reality. It is not by chance that Adorno conceives the adequacy of the work as the objective coherency of its structure.

However, contemporary art does not simply suspend the difference between art and non-art, between artistic representation and empirical reality. Rather, it understands that difference in a fundamentally different way: the difference between art and non-art can no longer be objectivated as a border between a self-contained work of art and its outside, but manifests itself in the specific reflective structure of the experience that distinguishes our relation to art from all other theoretical and practical manners of living in the world. The aesthetic quality of the object is not tied to certain properties of the object that are defined in advance, but must instead be understood as the product of a process of experience initiated in the engagement with the object. That is to say, the aesthetic object becomes apparent as an aesthetic object only in its interaction with an experiencing subject; the latter is likewise transformed as it relates to the object, becoming an aesthetic subject. Subject and object of aesthetic experience, in other words, are aesthetic only through and in their becoming aesthetic. If, under the conditions of the dissolution of boundaries, the aesthetic can no longer be understood as the objective other of the non-aesthetic, that does not imply a renunciation of aesthetic thinking but rather a shift within that thinking.13 Far from facing the non-aesthetic as its external other, the aesthetic consists solely in its reflective transformation.

This might best be explained by examining some spectacular cases of art integrating elements of an extra-artistic reality. In 2000, Santiago Sierra exhibited illegal immigrants in cardboard boxes at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; on other occasions, representatives of the international precariat allowed him to tattoo a line onto their backs, or dye their hair for money.14 But such reality bites do not make art disappear into life – the agents in turn become dramatic actors and thus elements of an exhibition or performance. Just as these works obviously cannot be totally abstracted from the bodily and social reality of their performers, the beholder also cannot be prevented from viewing them not primarily as a moral and/or political reference to the precarious living conditions of the extras, but as ultimately staged – and hence, in the broadest sense of the term, fictional – works of art. This very fact provoked a certain moral discomfort in Sierra’s audience. He was accused of exploiting his performers for the effects of a media spectacle whose putatively enlightening effects actually came down to the standards of the schadenfreude pornography mass-produced for today’s commercial television stations, where the reality and liveness of the miserable is turned into a showcase fetish.15 We might ask, of course, whether an art that so obviously brands itself as cynical is in fact really cynical. The artist indeed believes that he is merely holding a mirror up to the cynicism of society – which would in turn render him decidedly uncynical. By itself, that is hardly enough to acquit Sierra’s art of the charge that it operates in a manner continuous with a spectacular logic which is part of the problem of exploitation rather than part of its solution. But that charge ignores a crucial factor that makes Sierra’s works function in more complex ways than the artist himself seems to have conceived: it is precisely by deranging the boundaries between fiction and reality, between art and non-art that Sierra’s work – in contradistinction to reality shows on television – problematizes the position of spectating or beholding. The spectator or beholder here becomes a part of what is going on; he shares some responsibility for the situation. Still, the moral act of freeing the illegals from their undignified position beneath the cardboard would imply no less of a categorical mistake than that of the yokel Stanley Cavell mentions who storms the stage in order to save Desdemona from the black man.16 Yet it is obviously no more instructive to merely insist that what we are looking at is just art. The very point of these works, if they have one at all, is the situative discomfort that calls the accepted safety of the audience’s position into question, and does so to the very degree to which the boundaries between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic, between art and non-art, between reality and fiction are at stake in a doubtlessly serious aesthetic play.17 Yet this play does not elicit any specific political stance. It does no more than reflectively address the position of the spectator, including the moral problem of voyeurism it may entail in extra-aesthetic contexts.

Even the most drastic adoption of elements of reality into art, however, is anything but a simple expression of its greater proximity to reality. In art – and today’s boundary-dissolving productions illustrate this with particular clarity – reality is always a highly ambivalent parameter. The elements taken from extra-aesthetic contexts and adopted into art do not, that much is clear, signify reality; but neither are they simply reality, as Peter Bürger claimed in his Theory of the Avant-Garde.18 Instead, they linger in a peculiar in-between: removed from their original contexts and brought into one of representation, they become dissimilar to themselves without ever clearly adopting the status of a sign for something else. How – and that always also means: as what – they appear to us in any particular instance is accordingly not an objective fact, but inseparable from ourselves and the imaginative dimensions of our experience.

Aesthetic semblance, however, can then no longer be understood as a semblance of reconciliation in the objectively given coherency of the thoroughly composed work of art; rather, it manifests itself as the correlate of aesthetic experience on the side of the object.19 Because the processes of aesthetic experience never terminate in some objective meaning, the viewer is at once confronted with himself: in the mode of aesthetic semblance, he encounters his own projection of meaning along with the cultural and social influences that shape it. For a theory of experience, it is precisely here that the aesthetic harbors a unique ethical-political potential, created in and by the very suspension of immediate understanding in favor of a reflective engagement with its cultural and social horizons. Whether such an experience leads to an actual change of mind that might pass into political action, however, is a matter art itself does not decide.


To the extent that we may nonetheless maintain a cautious reference to an ethical-political potential of aesthetic experience, the latter must be defined on the basis of an intrinsic logic of the aesthetic, of aesthetic difference. Yet from the perspective of a theory of experience, this aesthetic difference no longer coincides with that between reconciled semblance and real unreconciliation. Today’s advanced art, in fact, firmly defies any attempt to commit it to a utopian position separated from reality by an unbridgeable chasm. It is a turn not against utopia altogether, but toward a different understanding of the utopian. Art no longer offers itself as the placeholder for utopia, because it is faithful to the fact that utopia’s original place is not in art but in politics.

We may well recognize a certain parallelism between this shift and developments in critical theory: when Adorno portrayed art as the residue of the utopian other, he did so not least based on his problematic diagnosis that the sphere of conceptual thought was thoroughly corrupted, as it were, by instrumental reason. Habermas’ critique of this diagnosis fundamentally changes the constellation of reality, art and utopia. As he argues convincingly, conceptual thought comprehends not only the objectivation of reality in the context of instrumental action, but also the intersubjectivity of communication, the mimetically open relationship between subjects.20 Therefore, “the utopian perspective migrates into the sphere of discursive reason itself.”21

The title of the utopia associated with this perspective is a “communication free of domination.” But if this utopia is to be understood as practical and political, the idea that we can experience no more than an anticipative semblance of it, and worse, experience even that much only within art, would amount to a betrayal of its practical-political core. It is precisely in the name of political utopia that the utopian pathos must be subtracted from art.22 Under these circumstances, to persist in stylizing art as the semblant fulfillment of a good, true, and right life is no more than an ideological degradation of art to a mere affirmative beautiful semblance that compensates for a bad reality and thus contributes to its continuance.

But we also cannot dispose of the problem of a compensatory functionalization of art by negating all aesthetic difference – and that means: the aspect of semblance in all art – and turning art directly into an instrument of the practical-political realization of utopia. That is the problem of today’s relational aesthetics in particular.23 To declare art a privileged medium of social integration is to perform a paradoxical sublation of art and life that cements the very difference between reconciled artistic practice and unreconciled reality. The difference, however, is then no longer aesthetic but social: a communicative practice celebrates itself in the protected space which the institutions of art afford, and relates to its other, to unreconciled conditions, merely from the distance of such privilege.

If there is an idea in Adorno that critical contemporary art can connect to at all, it is that the utopia of reconciliation can appear in authentic, uncorrupted art only in an act of negation: in and through its reference to an unreconciled reality. But as the concept of utopia has shifted, so has that of unreconciled reality. Reality can be called unreconciled no longer because it is entirely controlled by instrumental reason, but because the communicative relationships between its subjects are factually distorted. These distortions, however, arise not only from processes of economization and bureaucratization that “colonize” a communicatively integrated life-world from the outside, as Habermas suggested in his Theory of Communicative Action;24 rather, they also result from unequal social distributions of power inherent to the process of communicative action itself.25 As the early Habermas himself had pointed out in Knowledge and Human Interests,26 this explains why there are struggles that must first confront the social conditions of reasonable communication so that communicative action may be set free and rendered communicative in the first place. Yet as Jacques Rancière in particular has emphasized in recent years, such struggles are always also contentions over the communicative parameters and social patterns of perception, the vocabularies and images in which a society articulates its self-conception.27

Struggles for recognition have shown that the question of representation is not merely an issue of symbolism. Representation creates and maintains social perception as a part of the materiality of social reality: it constitutes a differentiation within the field of the sensible that assigns some to the center, others to the margins, affording more rights and greater political weight to some than to others. The problem that women, blacks, or gays face, as the American art critic and theorist Craig Owens wrote in the 1980s, is not a lack of representation. Rather, the hegemonic representations of these groups are such that the visibility they grant them reinforces their very political invisibility.28

But while social movements work to oppose hegemonic representations with representations of their own in order to enable the marginalized to represent, and speak for, themselves – in short: to make them appear as political subjects –, the critique of representation in the arts articulates itself in a fundamentally different way. For the sea change in aesthetic thought has consequences even where art turns to the problem of representing the world and thus seems at first glance to operate within the paradigm of the old realism: art today refrains from seeking the true image. It is no longer engaged in disrupting the opaque surfaces of the world in order to reveal its hidden meanings, its laws or its truth; instead, it engages with a world already disclosed by representation. The reality to which contemporary art refers in these contexts, and of which it makes us conscious, is the reality of representation. And yet the act of bringing that representation to present itself is initiated by artistic operations that deliberately subvert the referential inference from representation to what is represented. This also means that the critique of representation cannot, or at least not primarily, be conceived as a contribution to the political visibility of marginalized groups.


It is here that art today differs explicitly from those realist projects that take the critique of representation to be mostly concerned with criticizing the exclusion of the poor and oppressed from the worldview of the powerful. Think of the historic example of Jacob Riis, whose photo reportage How the Other Half Lives confronted the upper and middle classes of late 19th-century America with the conditions in the slums of New York.29 As late as the 1970s, the same impulse motivated Jacob Holdt’s documentation of African-American ghettos.30 These realisms, their enlightening potential notwithstanding, always already had a double flipside: on the one hand, they exploited their subjects; on the other hand, the images thus produced lent themselves to voyeuristic consumption. The problems of a realism so conceived became evident once more in the wake of the AIDS crisis. Douglas Crimp, for example, harshly criticized Nicholas Nixon’s People with AIDS31 for a return to a conception of realism that is perhaps well-intentioned, but factually reactionary in its exploitation and fetishization of its subjects.32

But the debates over an activist use of photography during the AIDS crisis have also forcefully drawn our attention to another problem, one that demonstrates that art does not simply withdraw from the task of political representation on a whim, but that this abstinence has to be understood as an insight into the intrinsic and fundamentally different logic of the aesthetic. For these debates revealed that it was impossible to decide, without further context, which picture would best accomplish the task of representing the crisis. Depending on the context, it might make sense to show the mortal suffering of those stricken by the disease in detail – or on the contrary, to refrain from dragging it all into the light.33 It was context that decided whether and in what form it was politically sensible, or morally adequate, to show images of suffering. It is no coincidence that a combination with text was often sought in order to extend the images toward their political context,34 corroborating Walter Benjamin’s insight that “all photographic construction must remain arrested in the approximate” without “inscription.”35 Taken by itself, it seems, photography almost inevitably succumbs to the ideological – Roland Barthes would have said: “mythical”36 – tendency to sanitize what it represents by suppressing the complexity of the political contexts with which it is tied up. For the picture without any commentary, as Susan Sontag has also emphasized on several occasions, can do no more than register misery; it shows that misery exists – but explains nothing.37 It can thus at best appeal to a politically empty and quickly transient compassion, a sympathy for humankind in general that lacks the necessary focus to translate into a self-sustaining motivation of political practice. It is easy to get used to the fleeting effect of such pictures – and to the mere factuality of the misery they document. This is why those artistic productions remain unpersuasive whose sole claim to the political rests in the fact that they depict some miserable circumstances. Their only immediate political effect is the exploitation of their subjects by the artist under whose name the images are shown. To avoid such politically and morally counterproductive effects, the image requires further explanation – in the form of a political commentary, for instance, that relates my own world to that of the image and points out my implicit place in the image. What I am driving at is quite a familiar nexus: the more defined its context, the better the meaning of an image can be controlled. Control over its context, in other words, though it can never be total, is what any documentary must attempt if it aspires to enlighten. This also means that the documentary image is not created in the instance when it is shot, but in retrospect, in the work of its contextualization. The controlling regard for the context, then, is a crucial component not of any photograph, as Benjamin had suspected toward the end of his Little History of Photography, but certainly of any documentary use of pictures.38


Now the debate over the political use of pictures only raises the question of a politics of art with renewed urgency. Art, I would argue, functions as the structural irony of the documentary register; for in an inversion of the logic of enlightening documentation, it functions by isolating its elements from the contexts in which they are embedded in the life-world. This allows for the form of depiction to assume a potential independence from the depicted content, gaining a weight of its own and coming to the fore in its own material reality. This does not result in a formalism, however, but rather in a tension between the depiction and the depicted that disintegrates all evident meaning and calls the referential inference from the representation to the represented into question.

From the perspective of the documentary, oriented as it is towards an offering of insight, this would certainly seem to be a highly problematic dynamic. We might even say that it confirms an age-old – in fact, Platonic – resentment against art: that it requires a specialization in questions of representation but is nonplussed when it comes to the truth of what it represents. But what Plato could only regard as a weakness turns out, at this juncture, to be the specific strength of art. For it employs this dynamic to serve a critique of representation that, unlike the enlightening critique of representation in documentary works, proceeds in a strictly negative fashion.

As an example, consider The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, a fairly well-known work by the American artist Martha Rosler from 1974–1975. It consists of a series of sheets, each of which combines a black-and-white photograph with a text plate showing a few words arranged in the style of concrete poetry. The conventional photographs of derelict shops on New York’s Bowery show nothing spectacular; they simply quote some very familiar sights from the neighborhood. The words assembled in the text plates, on the other hand, are taken from no less familiar descriptions of what was then a so-called deprived area, focusing on the desolate state of its perpetually intoxicated residents. This is obviously a form of montage, not just of images and text, but of fragments of reality into art. But these fragments collected from reality are already representations of reality. Her claim to accuracy, as Rosler later commented on her work, was made “in relation to representations of representations, not representations of truth.”39 If we were to call Rosler’s piece a documentary of the realities of the Bowery, we would therefore have to call it at best a documentary of the second order. But even that description strikes me as ultimately misleading. For the critical potential of this work unfolds decidedly not in the enlightening logic of the documentary, but rather in that of the aesthetic. The work explains nothing; text and image precisely fail to converge in one meaning. Instead, we, the beholders, are required to establish the connection between image and text in an experimental act. We can only quote the contexts in which it might make sense to assign these words to these images, but there is no objective basis for this act within the work itself. In aesthetic experience, we gain no more than a refracted sense of the meaning of that present which the art presents, so that the way any particular representation appears – and that means: what it makes appear – at once refers us back to ourselves and to the cultural and social worldviews at work in our acts of understanding. Such art precisely disrupts an approach aimed at enlightening us about a state of affairs in the world, in favor of a reflective confrontation not only with the political implications of culturally and socially fabricated worldviews, but also with the cultural and social prejudices with which we ourselves face the world and its images.

The question may be raised whether the strict opposition between documentary procedures on the one hand and their ironic representation in art on the other hand is in fact plausible. Yet I believe that any art that deserves its name refers to the logic of representation in a negativist-ironic fashion, even in cases in which we may at first be tempted to assign it to the documentary genre. One good example would be Allan Sekula’s idiosyncratic photographic essay Fish Story40; another, Sharon Lockhart’s formally rigorous film Lunch Break (2008). Both take up a positively classical genre of critical documentary photography: labor. But they do so in a way that reflectively blocks any attempt to read the images they generate as pure and simple representations by always also exhibiting the strategies of representation themselves.

Yet art that suspends our direct access to the world and documentary work bent on enlightenment are not rivals for the same project – the point obviously cannot be to pit one against the other. In order to take seriously the intrinsic logic of art, however, we have to accept it as complementary to the logic of the documentary. In it, art remains faithful to the double aspiration of the old realism: fidelity to the given for the sake of its practical transformation. For it is in and through its negativity that this art enables a distancing reflection on the implications of our existing worldviews – and our investment in them –, and opens them up for the possibility of change.

Again, such a genuinely aesthetic experience does not relate to the utopia of a communication free of domination in the manner of its semblant fulfillment. Rather, the aesthetic suspension of the logic of culturally and socially operative representation remains fully conscious that, in political terms, its word cannot be final. Politically, the logic of representation simply cannot be suspended. There can be no justice and no freedom without determined political subjectivity, and that is to say, without its political and juridical representation. The new social movements have always demanded a different representation, transforming the political invisibility of the marginalized into a political visibility. Far from suspending the logic of representation, the partial political successes they have achieved have reinstalled this logic by framing a new political subjectivity: workers, women, homosexuals, blacks. But any political representation contains an aspect of flat-out assertion that is concealed to the extent that it veils its own rhetorical nature. For as a rhetorical act, any representation always also indirectly points toward the indeterminacy of what it first renders determinate – and hence toward a potentiality that may always also call it into question again. So if art refrains from any positive representation of social reality, it does so not least in order to expose social realities as representations, and thus expose also their rhetorical nature, suspending the naturalizing inference from the representation to those it represents. Art gains (meta-)political meaning not least by revealing the positing acts, along with their rhetorics, at the foundations of our political worldviews. In doing so, it points toward the potentially endless struggle over the conditions under which a communication free of domination would be possible.


1 Originally published in German as “Realismus heute. Kunst, Politik und die Kritik der Repräsentation,” WestEnd. Neue Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 2 (2010): pp. 15–29. 

2 Witness the debates over realism in the pocket guide to the 6th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, which bore the title what is waiting out there; compare Kathrin Rhomberg, ed., was draußen wartet / what is waiting out there: 6. Berlin Biennale für zeitgenössische Kunst / 6th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art (Cologne: DuMont, 2010).

3 Of all the arts, the visual arts have most distinctly developed into meta-arts. After Duchamp’s radical inclusion of non-artistic elements in art, they are no longer solely or even primarily oriented by the questions, What is painting? or, What is sculpture? Instead, these questions are now subordinate to the more fundamental question, What is art? But once the concept of art as a whole is at stake, it can no longer make sense to conduct the engagement solely on the previously demarcated territory of a theory of the genres. That is why institutions devoted to the visual arts have made an unquestioned policy of being open to inter-media experiments whose roots lie in other arts; think of artists in the wake of John Cage – from Yoko Ono to Tony Conrad – as well as representatives of experimental film – from Harun Farocki to Michael Snow: today they all find their audiences primarily in visual arts institutions. The theater, too, to the extent that it has become postdramatic, laps over into installative and performative practices that might just as well be categorized as visual art. In a parallel development, the (academic) critical discourse of art that has accompanied these shifts has long ceased to be the privilege of art historians, and has become open to interdisciplinary exchange. These developments explain why today’s engagements over the concept of art as such will with striking frequency, though of course not exclusively, take place in the institutional framework of the visual arts.

4 Compare, e.g., Georg Lukács, Wider den mißverstandenen Realismus (Hamburg: Claassen, 1958), p. 105.

5 See the criticism of this point in Lukács in Albrecht Wellmer, “Kommunikation und Emanzipation: Überlegungen zur ‚sprachanalytischen Wende‘ der kritischen Theorie,” Theorien des Historischen Materialismus, ed. Urs Jaeggi and Axel Honneth (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1977), pp. 465–600, pp. 477–478, and Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, trans. Thomas McCarthy (vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1984; vol. 2: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1987), vol. 1, p. 364.

6 For a critique of the debate over expressionism from the perspective of aesthetics, see also Rüdiger Bubner, Ästhetische Erfahrung (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1989), pp. 24–26.

7 Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1, pp. 366–399.

8 Theodor W. Adorno, “Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács’ Realism in Our Time,” Theodor W. Adorno, Notes to Literature, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 216–240, p. 232.

9 Ibid., p. 224.

10 Accordingly, the this-is-how-it-is of art contains an ambivalence that dialectically enacts within itself the realist project’s double aspiration to be faithful to reality – in the insight into the bad existing state of affairs, and in the perspective toward reconciliation. The this-is-how-it-is of aesthetic coherency, then, must remain related within the work itself to the this-is-how-it-is of an unreconciled real world. Yet even this second meaning of art’s this-is-how-it-is does not coincide with the assertive statement that this is so. Art does not predicate unreconciled reality; it expresses it. Its aim cannot be the coherent representation of an unreconciled world – as though art were nothing more than yet another cognitive medium. Rather, the aspiration to render an unreconciled world apparent requires acknowledgement of the chasm that severs art from reality; it can refer only to the plane of aesthetic semblance itself. For the ambivalence of Adorno’s this-is-how-it-is more generally, compare Alexander García Düttmann, So ist es: Ein philosophischer Kommentar zu Adornos Minima Moralia” (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 2004).

11 For a more detailed critique of this point in Adorno, compare Albrecht Wellmer, Zur Dialektik von Moderne und Postmoderne: Vernunftkritik nach Adorno (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1985), pp. 31–32.

12 Bubner, Ästhetische Erfahrung, p. 33.

13 For a more extensive discussion of this point, compare Juliane Rebentisch, Ästhetik der Installation (Frankfurt/ M.: Suhrkamp, 2003).

14 The works bore the simple titles Workers who cannot be paid, remunerated to remain inside cardboard boxes (KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2000); 250 cm line tattooed on 6 paid people (Espacio Aglutinador, Havana, 1999); 133 people paid to have their hair dyed blonde (Arsenale, Venice, 2001).

15 On what appears, at least at first glance, to be a close proximity between “a sensationalist new realism in the visual arts” and “new formats in the mass media,” Diedrich Diederichsen, “Realitätsbezüge in der bildenden Kunst: Subjektkritik, Repräsentationskritik und Statistenkunst,” Realismus in den Künsten der Gegenwart, ed. Dirck Linck, Michael Lüthy, Brigitte Obermayr, and Martin Vöhler (Berlin: Diaphanes, 2010), pp. 13–28, pp. 14–15.

16 Compare Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love. A Reading of King Lear,” Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 329.

17 It is not by coincidence that the concept of the situation taken in this sense becomes relevant also in the contemporary postdramatic theater; compare Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. Karen Jürs-Munby (New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 122–25.

18 Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 78.

19 As Bubner (Ästhetische Erfahrung, p. 43) explains this phenomenon, “there is no image in which that, and nothing but that, is to be seen which the beholder sees in it; no poem in which that can definitely be read which we read in it; and no piece of music where listening closely is enough to hear what offers itself in the aesthetic experience […]. The aesthetic experience sees something that cannot be ascertained, and that is there, for that very reason, ever and again.”

20 Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1, pp. 389–390.

21 Wellmer, Zur Dialektik von Moderne und Postmoderne, p. 21.

22 For the critique of the aesthetic utopia, see also Martin Seel, Die Kunst der Entzweiung: Zum Begriff der ästhetischen Rationalität (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1985), pp. 325–333.

23 I am referring only to the program of relational aesthetics – compare especially Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Presses du réel, 2002) – and not necessarily also to the art associated with it. For what the latter accomplishes is, upon closer inspection, usually fairly distinct from social integration: it consists in turning participation into an object of aesthetic reflection, precisely stripping it of its immediate practical meaning. See also Juliane Rebentisch, “Participation and Reflection: Angela Bulloch’s The Disenchanted Forest x 1001,” Angela Bulloch, Angela Bulloch: Prime Numbers, exh. cat. (Cologne: Walther König, 2006), pp. 87–107.

24 Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2, p. 522.

25 For a critique of this point in Habermas, compare Axel Honneth, Kritik der Macht: Reflexionsstufen einer kritischen Gesellschaftstheorie (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1989), especially pp. 296–306.

26 Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1987), pp. 53–63.

27 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 43–60.

28 Craig Owens, “’The Indignity of Speaking for Others:’ An Imaginary Interview,” Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, ed. Craig Owens, Jane Weinstock, and Barbara Kruger (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 259–262, p. 262.

29 Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives [1890] (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009).

30 Jacob Holdt, American Pictures: A Personal Journey through the American Underclass (Copenhagen: American Pictures Foundation, 1985).

31 Nicholas Nixon and Bebe Nixon, People with AIDS (Boston: David R. Godine, 1991).

32 Compare Douglas Crimp, “Portraits of People with AIDS” [1992], Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2002), pp. 83–107.

33 Dirck Linck, “‘Mourning and Militancy:’ Künstlerische Reaktionen auf die Aids-Krise,” Realismus in den Künsten der Gegenwart, ed. Michael Lüthy, Brigitte Obermayr, and Martin Vöhler, pp. 29–50, p. 44.

34 Ibid., p. 46.

35 Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” Selected Writings, vol. 2: 1927–1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 527.

36 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), pp. 144–145.

37 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 42 and pp. 116–117.

38 See also Juliane Rebentisch, “Das dokumentarische und das ästhetische Bild,” Chile International. Kunst – Existenz – Multitude, ed. Andreas Fanizadeh and Eva-Christina Meier (Berlin: ID-Verlag, 2005), pp. 45–58.

39 Martha Rosler, “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)” [1981], The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, ed. Richard Bolton (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), p. 303–342, p. 325.

40 Allan Sekula, Fish Story (Düsseldorf: Richter, 2002).

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Juliane Rebentisch

ist Professorin für Philosophie und Ästhetik an der Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach. Von 2003 bis 2008 war sie Mitarbeiterin am Sonderforschungsbereich »Ästhetische Erfahrung im Zeichen der Entgrenzung der Künste«. Ihre Arbeitsschwerpunkte liegen in der Ästhetik, der Ethik und der politischen Philosophie. Sie hat zahlreiche Publikationen zur Gegenwartskunst verfasst.

Weitere Texte von Juliane Rebentisch bei DIAPHANES
Anneka Esch-van Kan (Hg.), Stephan Packard (Hg.), ...: Thinking – Resisting – Reading the Political

This volume contrasts a number of recently suggested concepts of the political – each of which connects to certain instances of art and literature in its discourse – with questions concerning the rigidity of those connections: How strongly do such claims to politics depend on their specific examples, what is the scope of their validity to understand art with regard to politics, and how can they help us grasp the political within other pieces of art? In each case, manners of thinking concepts of the political, the mutual resistance of such concepts and their academic treatment, and the turn towards specific readings informed by those concepts converge.

The essays collected in “Thinking Resistances. Current Perspectives on Politics, Community, and Art“ engage with political phenomena in their interrelations with arts as well as with recent theoretical and philosophical perspectives on the very meaning of politics, the political, and community.

With contributions by Armen Avanessian, Friedrich Balke, Judith Butler, Simon Critchley, Anneka Esch-van Kan, Josef Früchtl, Andreas Hetzel, Jon McKenzie, Dieter Mersch, Chantal Mouffe, Maria Muhle, Nikolaus Müller-Schöll, Stephan Packard, Wim Peeters, Jacques Rancière, Juliane Rebentisch, Gabriel Rockhill, Frank Ruda and Philipp Schulte.


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