Rancière, The Future of the Image Chapter 4 ‘The Surface of Design’

This semester I have been part of a group reading The Future of the Image by Jacques Rancière. In preparation for our workshop on Friday, to be led by Dr Oliver Davis (Warwick University), we are rereading Chapter 4 ‘The Surface of Design’. I will admit that this was not my favourite chapter and coming back to it still does not inspire me in the way some of Rancière’s other writings have largely, I think, because it does not get to grips with the political significance of the shift to the aesthetic regime of art or the role of the spectator. However, since the reading group began my reading of Rancière has expanded and been helped along by the discussions we had as part of the reading group and, on the second (third?!) reading I have got a lot more out of it – or at least I think I have. We’ll see on Friday!

The chapter is based around an argument for the connection between Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry and the work of the designer Peter Behrens. In some ways this exploration is similar to the chapters in Aesthesis where Rancière is presenting ‘scenes’ (moments) in the development of the aesthetic regime of art. In this chapter, he argues that the coincidence between the work of Mallarmé and Behrens is symptomatic of a shift in the way in which art was understood.

Both Mallarmé and Behrens were working towards streamlining and a reduction in their practice to what was essential and shared a concern with layout and a ‘graphic language’ (95). Their work was not concerned with ‘resemblance and prettiness’ (95) i.e. it was not concerned with mimesis (which Rancière defines in The Emancipated Spectator as the correspondence between poiesis and aesthesis (60-61)).

Their interest in streamlined forms is connected to new (albeit differing?) visions of society but the political implications of the turn to the aesthetic regime are less well worked out here than in The Emancipated Spectator.

As a result of changes in the conception of art and as a result of their art (perhaps even more so the latter than the former) their work comes to be linked on a ‘shared surface’ or spectrum. It is no longer separated by the way art was categorised in opposition to functional objects.

Their work is part of the new aesthetic regime of art in which art is not judged according to criteria of imitation or in opposition to its utility. In other words, there is no separation between art and production, utility and culture’ (97). It is in this regime, therefore, that advertising logos can be considered art just as much as poetry.

At the same time as art hierarchies are being broken down so too are social hierarchies as who can produce art is no longer circumscribed. Again, this aspect of the argument is developed more elsewhere and the focus in this chapter is on the way in which the move to the aesthetic regime of art changes what can be thought of as art and removes the hierarchies and divisions between different forms of art.



Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image (London: Verso, 2009)

Jacques Rancière, Aesthesis. Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (London: Verso, 2013)

Questions arising from this reading:

Is this change caused by a shift in critical approaches to art or to the changing practices? Here it seems to be artist driven but in Aesthesis it seems to be more criticism / institution led.

Author: Dr Sarah Bowskill

Lecturer in Latin American Studies. Expertise in Mexican literary and digital cultural studies. Interested in the politics surrounding the reception, distribution and circulation of literature and cultural production particularly relating to gender studies.

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