What if Life, Permeated by Art, Becomes a Work of Art?

Sabina Holzer ’13
Carola Dertnig, Felicats Thun-Hohenstein (Hgs)
Performing the Sentence: Research and Teaching in the Performative Fine Arts
Sternberg Press, 2014


Introduction: In the following text I relate Jacques Rancière’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which was first published in 1987, with the artistic practice of performance. I claim that “equality” in the “universal teaching” proposed by Rancière is practiced by performance artists, who again and again confront conventional categories and risk their social affiliations. I emphasize Rancière’s materialism, which opposes explanatory schemata and insists on a verification of language through practice, using various text materials, i.e., sections and intersections. The “sections” are divided into three parts through which I deploy my argument; the “intersections” are disruptions and are meant as subtext.

In the first section I introduce the key principles of the intellectual project called “universal teaching,” which forms the basis of Rancière’s reflections; in the second, I assign the de-hierarchization to performance, spot the difficulty of institutionalizing it, and discuss what performance could mean as a contemporary art practice. The third section, finally, points out the social and working conditions today. Art often gets commodified and related to a certain aesthetic regime that is supported by the establishment. Without being unduly romantic, I aim to elaborate my thought that performance as an artistic practice always finds ways to modify trendy and dominant regimes of the visible, the sayable, and the possible.

The three intersections deal especially with the deregulation of the categories of subject/object, mind/matter. This idea is associated with Rancière’s argumentation that the overestimation of verbal language creates a social order. It is linked to the following quote with which I would like to commence my text:

“There is no language of reason. There is only a control of reason over the intention to speak. Poetic language that knows itself as such doesn’t contradict reason. On the contrary, it reminds each speaking subject not to take the narrative of his mind’s adventures for the voice of truth. Every speaking subject is the poet of himself and of things. Perversion is produced when the poem is given as something other than a poem, when it wants to be imposed as truth, when it wants to force action. Rhetoric is perverted poetry. This means that it too falls in the class of fiction. Metaphor is bound up with the original resignation of reason. The body politic is a fiction, but a fiction is not a figurative expression to which an exact definition of the social group could be opposed. There is really a logic of bodies from which no one, as a political subject, can withdraw.” [1]

Jacques Rancière wrote his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster – Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation as an intense argument for heterogeneity in languages and different ways of speaking and utterance. Furthermore, the book is an intense reflection on equality—which is, as Kristin Ross writes in her introduction, “the founding term of our political modernity” [2]—and questions some of the dominant orders of class, conventions, and categories that our Western democratic capitalistic society is built on, and still relies on. In Rancière’s view, thoughts and words are material, and language develops in the application of a certain order using (any) material. “In the act of speaking, man doesn’t transmit his knowledge, he makes poetry; he translates and invites others to do the same. He communicates as an artisan: as a person who handles words like tools. Man communicates with man through the works of his hands just as through the words of his speech: When man acts on matter, the body’s adventures become the story of the mind’s adventures.” [3] This is Rancière’s materialistic version of the speech act.

— First interjection: The body is the body. We are all bodies. Some of us are more aware of it, some of us less so. Sometimes this awareness is related to gender, age, or culture. We realize that we are many bodies. We become aware of being bodies through the way we are treated and the way others relate to us. Because of being bodies, we can be touched and moved. In order to function in this society we are living in, we learn to move in a certain way. We learn to behave according to our sociocultural environment. We stand vertical to communicate with each other. We look each other in the face—mostly we do not close our eyes and touch another person to share our thoughts. Nor do we turn away or lie down if somebody is speaking to us. We, as bodies, know how heavy the glass is we want to drink from, or how far away the door we want to open is. We, being bodies, know a lot and are very quick and very slow. We are bigger than we are and smaller than we are. We are and are not bodies. We are one and many bodies at the same time, and we are surrounded by bodies. Some of them are called human, some of them have different names. All of this is body. The body is the body. It is alone. It is separated. Like human beings, who are beings of distance. Their language does not unite them—it is instead the effort of translating this arbitrary language (which at no time was given by God, nor is it a given law) which unites them. —

In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Rancière describes a method of teaching that he calls “universal teaching.” He relates the term to an intellectual experiment by Monsieur Joseph Jacotot, a lecturer of French literature who had already had a long and eventful career, holding very different positions during the turmoil and disquietude of the French Revolution (1789–99) and the following Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). He took on a tutorship during his Dutch exile in 1818, although he didn’t speak a word of Dutch. In order to communicate with his students, who spoke a different language than he did, he had to find something they had in common. With the help of François Fénelon’s bilingual novel The Adventures of Telemachus, which had just been published (in 1699), he asked his students to read the French text with the help of the translation. When they were halfway through the book, he instructed them to carry on with this principle, i.e., repeating the parts they understood and persisting in applying them until they would be able to recite them in French. The project was very successful, and even Monsieur Jacotot himself was surprised by the eloquence with which the students were able to share their thoughts and interpretations of Telemachus. Even though he knew that teaching was not about stuffing students with knowledge and having them repeat it, he still always expected some explanation to be necessary in order “to distinguish the essential from the accessory, the principle from the consequence.” But this time, he had explained nothing. The students had learned how to use the language and create sense by themselves. “Were the schoolmaster’s explications therefore superfluous?” Rancière asks with Jacotot. “Or, if they weren’t, to whom and for what were they useful?” [4]

“Universal teaching” exercised the following principles day by day: “1. All human beings have the same intelligence. 2. All is in everything. 3. The teacher does not transfer his knowledge through explanations. One can teach that wherein one is ignorant.” For Rancière the reason why this way of teaching fails if anchored institutionally or constituted as a method is that institutions are afraid of its consequences. “For as the usual instructor needs inequality, no government, no army, no school, no institution will ever produce a single emancipated human being,” he states. “As soon as universal teaching is constructed as a method and becomes part of the programs of reformatory or revolutionary parties, it is corrupted. Universal teaching can never specialize in producing a certain category of social actors. Only a human being can emancipate a human being.” [5]

Rancière distinguishes between intelligence and will. Everyone has the same intelligence, but the will is closely related to attentiveness, which is “an immaterial fact in principle, but material in its effects: we have a thousand ways of verifying its presence, absence, or its larger or smaller intensity.” [6] Teaching is an encounter of two wills and intelligences. If the one will connects with the other, it is fine; however, if the one intelligence connects with the other, stultification is enforced. Whereas the act of an intelligence that only obeys itself, even if the will obeys another, is emancipatory. For Rancière, it is the artist who, by and by, opposes the professor’s stultifying lesson. “Each one of us is an artist to the extent that he carries out a double process,” he states. “He is not content to be a mere journeyman but wants to make all work a means of expression, and he is not content to feel something but tries to impart it to others. The artist needs equality as the explicator needs inequality.” [7]

“Everyone is an artist!” The famous utterance by Joseph Beuys brings us to performance art’s similar ambivalence and struggle with institutions and dominant powers. Each performer makes his or her own definition of performance in the very manner of its process and execution. Performance developed in the twentieth century “as a permissive open-ended medium with endless variables. […] Art historians have no ready category in which to place performance,” Roselee Goldberg states in her text “Performance: A Hidden History.” For a long time performance artists and their work were rarely able to participate in the powerful legitimation of art institutions and academies and become part of officially recognized history. Goldberg points out that, “Although performance is now becoming generally accepted as a medium of expression in its own right, relatively little is still known about its rich and extensive evolution.” [8 ] As an applied critical practice, performance transgresses territories of disciplines and identities and challenges institutions, critics, art historians, and even other artists who want to develop and refer to a certain school or style in order to gain acceptance and support from the establishment. Because of its transmedia nature, the history of performance is written again and again in different ways, from different perspectives. Today the term “performance” has become part of our daily language, whether we talk about business, sports, or entertainment. The artists’ claim of keeping the line between art and life fluid and distinctive has been realized in the past twenty or thirty years [9], but within a commercialized realm. In our service-oriented society, even the ephemeral character of performance (which used to take a radical stand against commercialization) often is commodified by the (art) market and becomes part of the society of the spectacle. How can a lineage of performance-related artistic practice be constructed without creating an exclusive discipline? And what could it be necessary for?

— Second interjection: If every human being is an artist, every artist needs equality, and all is contained in everything, then our whole life, permeated by art, is a work of art. Down with masterworks, with gentrified theater and formalisms! In the twenty-first century, the self as it has appeared until now from biological viewpoints and with regard to function is no longer applicable. Just as representative democracy, which fulfills its functions through the election of a few who “speak on behalf of you,” is no longer applicable. “Recollect that in you which cannot betray you.” Truthfulness is not what “connects” people; it is singular, a “principle of the heart” that sends us into the orbit of a researcher. It is not society, its institution, and its aims that we have to listen to, for these are forms of aggregations. But people in fact are united by forms of non-aggregations. People are united because they are human beings, i.e., people of distance. Spatial being. Spatial material. Material in space. “I am taking part of the aesthetics of my private life, my private environment to public places. I have tested the function of chaos. For me that was a possibility to conquer a space. I found out that in a certain sense it has an anti-fascist structure, because one cannot control anything. There is no order.” [10] There are no neutral spaces. “Free aesthetic play promises the abolishment of the discrepancy between form and matter, between activity and passivity, between object and subject. It is the abolishment of the discrepancy between a full mankind and a sub-mankind.” [11] —

At the end of the book Art Works. Aktion. Zeitgenössische Kunst by Jens Hoffman and Joan Jonas from 2005, there is a discussion between artists from different performative fields, curators, and historians about the term performance: Performance art has become a kind of historical style that deals with a Western, American/European way of abstraction and meanwhile is fraught with aesthetics and ideological conventions that are inappropriate in our globalized society. Performance, on the other hand, mostly creates a setting according to theatrical conditions of perception, i.e., entertainment. The term performative could relate to dance and performance and its critical practices in the 1950s and ’60s. But also dance, even if it is contemporary, still (or again) seems to be struggling with a stigma of physical virtuosity and aesthetically traditional values. The term extended choreography as an organization of time, space, and different possibilities of production would closely relate to a contemporary notion of performance. But despite these terminologies, the really interesting and important point is that art is recognized as a cultural practice in which the space between artistic action/ event and reception is a social space. This leads to a different way of thinking about spectatorship, reception, and public participation. Instead of being fixated on the work of art and its interpretation, one could look at the social situation in which art takes place. This would shift the order between subject/object, concept/matter and social/cultural conventions. A work of art does not just present a situation with images and words; it also establishes it. Instead of commenting on society with visual and verbal metaphors, it creates and performs the social relationship. “We all know the signification of a door. You enter or exit a space through it. But if one asks about the performativity of this door, one alludes to the situation established by this door: the door can connect, separate, or exclude.” [12]

Jack Hauser, a visual artist based in Vienna who often works in the field of contemporary dance and extended choreography, had a door that he had taken from his art project “Wohnung Miryam van Doren” moved through the Lentos Museum of Modern Art in Linz during the Triennale in 2010. “The door (was) rolled from museum hall to museum hall every day and stood in the way there for several triennial-months. It showed itself, frameless and mobilized—more than just opened, but unhinged and set free, in dialogue with all the other artworks whose home the museum has become, where they are paid attention to and still may speak freely.” [14] It was part of an installation called “Linz.Wohnung.Miryam.van.Doren.mobil” created from different objects taken from “Wohnung Miryam van Doren,” which is the apartment of the fictitious character Miryam van Doren. Hauser regards himself as her collector and proposes that one gets to know Miryam van Doren through the environment. During the opening and closing of the exhibition at Lentos Museum, there were additional performances lasting three and four hours with five other artists (working in the fields of performance and contemporary dance, performance and media art, and one of them a passionate amateur) [13] who followed a score developed by Jack Hauser roles and identities constantly shifted, the artists were present, materials were performing, visitors became part of the the artwork. It was a complex setting engaging in a vast variety of practices and concepts which overlapped and infused with each other

Today we are part of political systems striving to equalize methods in order to get standardized results. The currently practiced progress—which elevates progress to the state of a governable explanation of social order under the dictate of efficiency—shackles the order of society, promotes its stultification and the most elementary hierarchy of good and bad. Standards are set to keep our cultural values, which otherwise would go down the drain, is the tone of the argument. But already in the nineteenth century, this kind of justification was given in order to control emancipatory tendencies and keep the social order of inequality. “In Jacotot’s day there were all kinds of men of goodwill who were preoccupied with instructing the people. […] All these good intentions came up against an obstacle: the common man had very little time and even less money to devote to acquiring this instruction. Thus, what was sought was the economic means of diffusing the minimum of instruction judged necessary for the individual […] Among progressives and industrialists the favored method was mutual teaching. This allowed a great number of students, assembled from a vast locale, to be divided up into smaller groups headed by the more advanced among them, who were promoted to the rank of monitors. In this way, the master’s orders and lessons radiated out, relayed by the monitors, into the whole population to be instructed.” [15] Jacotot called this “the perfected riding-school” producing dressage horses. [16] It completely differs from the approach of the ignorant schoolmaster, who does not perform his or her knowledge but gets the other involved with his or her intellectual competencies through (the art of) observing, comparing, and combining in order to understand and practice the various forms of making.

— Third interjection: “One must learn near those who have worked in the gap between feeling and expression, between the silent language of emotion and the arbitrariness of the spoken tongue, near those who have tried to give voice to the silent dialogue the soul has with itself, who have gambled all their credibility on the bet of the similarity of minds.” [17] Turn to those who deal with this distance, question them. Investigate their works. One has to learn to question what one does oneself. Again and again. Universal teaching as the relationship of two people “who do not know how to read the book” dealing with this distance between emotion and expression. As a relationship of several, a temporary community of strangers who perform a joint research project in which each may follow his/ her own intelligence. This research is process and product and for sure deludes the lines of the system of art in society. It unfolds them ever anew in reflective actions in order to create “an experimental rather than an objective image, an image that does not point out its hidden meaning but complies with its production conditions.” [18] —

Our mediated society today opens new ways of working, communication,
and participation via Internet, social media, and virtual realities. At the same time, our European sociocultural context nowadays is pressed by the unpredictability of living (working) conditions, minimum wages, increasingly de-structured and mediated work modes, and a new category of creative self-employment, which transforms artistic activity into an economic enterprise. Art institutions are confronted with the demands of study regulations and are assessed mainly by their numbers of visitors. The position of the artist seems to be disappearing from the social script.

Nevertheless: “Artists need equality. And all human beings are artists” is the assumption that should be maintained under all circumstances. “Keep going, see what you’ve done and what you can do, if you use the same intelligence you’ve already applied by being equally attentive to every matter, by not letting yourself be deterred from your path.” [19] That is the ignorant schoolmaster’s lesson. Without tapping into the neoliberal capitalistic individualization of “you are the master of your own faith,” Rancière does make clear that his claim of equality requires continuous practice, verification, and self-discipline. Even if today “self-organization,” “experimentation,” and “collaboration” are mostly, in one way or another, part of the curricula of art universities, one has to be aware that this might just be technocratic rhetoric. Even if some institutions may offer temporary protection from the unacceptable dehumanizing dynamics of the neoliberal capitalistic market. Yet they are extensions of a political-economic system whose interest is to maintain inequality between people by devaluating ways of doing and existing. Participating within this institutional frames challenges each singular person (teachers, students, administrators, the school janitor alike) wether universal teaching as a claim and trust in equal intelligence is exercised. Everyone is challenged to perform the ignorant schoolmaster for overlapping systems of diversity to appear.

Performing artists, who now seem indispensable and are an integral part of art history and institutions, had “the heart to follow their own reason.” They took their own aesthetic position in relation to issues in their surroundings, without being recognized. They were part and not part of a dominant sociopolitical system with a certain aesthetic regime. They created other systems and looked to those who did the same. In spite of political opposition and media differences, the artists took a personal, joint risk whose outcome was unknown to them. Many artists still do so now. [20] As all ignorant schoolmasters do.

Conclusion: In relating The Ignorant Schoolmaster by Jacques Rancière to the artistic practice of performance art, I formulated the question of how an art practice, which is regarded as a “permissive open-ended medium with endless variables,” can prosper through systemic empowerment and institutional recognition without being absorbed by it. Since one of the major claims of performance art was the permeation of life and art, the critical attitude has to be applied to both segments, which obviously interrelate more and more nowadays. Any dominant structure, be it anchored in political or economic ideologies, diminishes multiple ways of producing and living, and enforces the superposition of a certain aesthetic regime.

“All is in everything” is one of the principles Rancière reflects upon. I followed this line of thought and came to the conclusion that every body participates in this dominant regime and system, but at the same time has possibilities to emphasize and support different values, relating to and creating other systems than the dominant ones. Artists create their own practice and relate to those who do the same, and are, among those who do the same, the ignorant schoolmasters.


[1] Rancière, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991, p. 84.
[2] Ibid. p. xxiii.
[3] Ibid. p. 65.
[4] Cf.: ibid. p. 4
[5] Cf.: ibid. p.102
[6] Rancière, Jacques, see note 1, p. 51.
[7] Ibid. p.70, 71.
[8] Cf.: The Art of Performance – A Critical Anthology. Edited by Battcock, G. and Nickas R. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1984, pp. 24–36.
[9] Reference to Allan Kaprow: in Assemblages, Environments and Happenings, “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and as perhaps indistinct, as possible.
[10] Museum in Progress, Conversation with Elke Krystufek. Vienna, May 1997.
[11] Versehen. Tanz in allen Medien. Edited by Ploebst, H. & Haitzinger, N., Munich: epodium Verlag, corpus Vienna and the authors, 2011, p. 130 (translated David Ender).
[12] Cf.: Perform (Art Works). Edited by Hoffman, J. and Jonas, J. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, pp. 178–184 (translated by the author). Participants in the dialogue: Carlos Amorales (visual artist living in Amsterdam and Mexico City), Ritsaert ten Carte (visual artist, former director of Mickery Theater Amsterdam), Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset (artists, living in Berlin), Tim Etchells (author and artistic director of Forced Entertainment in Sheffield), Coco Fusco (works as artist, author, and curator in New York), Dorothea von Hantelmann (art historian, author, curator; lives in Berlin), Jens Hoffmann (exhibition organizer at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London), Chrissi Iles (curator for art films and videos at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York), Joan Jonas (visual artist, New York), Lisette Lagnado (art historian, author, and curator; lives in São Paulo; coordinates the Hélio Oiticicia Archives in Rio de Janeiro), Xavier LeRoy (works as a choreographer in Berlin), Tim Lee (visual artist; lives in Vancouver), Yvonne Rainer (artist, choreographer, and filmmaker in New York), Martha Rosler (visual artist; lives in Brooklyn, New York).
[13] Jack Hauser (with M1+1) with: David Ender, Jack Hauser, Sabina Holzer, Sabine Maier, Michael Mastrototaro, Anton Tichawa.
[14] http://www.corpusweb.net/miryam-van-dorens-tuer.html (translated by David Ender).
[15] Rancière, Jacques, see note 1, p. 17.
[16] Cf.: ibid. p.127.
[17] Ibid., p. 68.
[18] Rancière, Jacques. Das ästhetische Unbewusste. Zurich–Berlin: diaphanes, 2006, p. 21 (translated by David Ender).
[19] Rancière, Jacques, see note 1, p. 51.
[20] Following the de-hierarchization proposed by Jacques Rancière, I would like to thank a few people in my current immediate surroundings who accompany, stimulate, and encourage my transmedia artistic research, development, and production: Meg Stuart, Vera Mantero, Jeroen Peeters, Philipp Gehmacher, Milli Bitterli, Lux Flux, David Bergé, Markus Schinwald, Boris Charmatz, Sigrid Gareis, the team of Im_flieger, the editorial team of www.corpusweb.net, deufert&plischke, Marcus Steinweg, Lilo Nein, the somex group, Elke Krystufek, and most of all Jack Hauser for his inspiration, support, endurance, and poetry in his work and practice.