Pedagogical Impossibilities

Rethinking the curatorial approach of the 31st Biennial of Graphic Arts in light of its ambition to bypass its institutional snares and give space to the “emancipated spectator”. While also addressing some of the ambivalences regarding Ranciere’s conception of emancipation and the notion of subjectivity that it implies.

Ever since the supposed occurrence of the pedagogical turn (O’Neill & Wilson, 2010) in the past decade or so, the discussion of emancipatory potential of contemporary art and its correlating institutions seems to be at a certain high. The question not only how to critically engage the audience — which has already been raised by various art practices that served as the basis for conception of relational aesthetics (Bishop, 2004) and supposedly produce the so-called microutopias (ibid., pp. 54), changing society here and now on a micro level, relieved of the pressure of a total breakage with the present in the sense of revolutionary emancipation — but also how to envision an alternative production of knowledge that would in the basic Foucauldian sense correspond to this microutopistic production of subjectivity (1) (therefore creating a form of resistance immanent to the productive mechanisms of power (2)) is ever more represented in the discourse on curating and production of contemporary art.

Its basic theoretical influences seem to be Foucault’s conception of power (which is not restrictive but rather productive, manifesting through the production of knowledge and subjectivity — see Foucault,1980, 1995, etc.) and Ranciere’s idea of an emancipated spectator (Ranciere, 2009), closely linked to his conception of the politics of aesthetics (Ranciere, 2013) and his idea of alternative production of knowledge (especially its emancipatory potential) as presented in The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Ranciere, 1991). Both represent a de-hierarchical and disseminated conception of the triad subject-knowledge-power, out of which (as already described in the context of relational aesthetics by Bishop — see Bishop, 2004, pp. 52) the majority of art projects (3) derive the idea of an artwork in flux or in other words an artwork that is “[…] open-ended, interactive and resistant to closure, often appearing to be ‘work-in-progress’ rather than a completed object” (ibid.). An artwork that functions more as a riddle or a learning tool, producing the same emancipatory effects as originally conceptualised by the two theorists, although it remains unclear if and how they actually achieve this.

The 31st Biennial of Graphic Arts, held last year in Ljubljana, is a clear example of this conception of microutopistic potentials of contemporary art, its curatorial needs, and its misunderstandings. Titled Over you / you and curated by Nicola Lees, it explored “the sociopolitical characteristics associated with graphic arts, particularly in relation to reproduction, publicity and community” (Lees, 2015, pp. 8), referring to the democratic potentials of the graphic medium in general as well as to the biennial’s own structure and history as a space — albeit heavily conditioned by specific political conditions of the former Yugoslavia (especially its role in the Non-Aligned Movement) — where ideas could be exchanged, mixed and distributed.

This exploration was not limited only to the exhibited artworks, but was implemented in the very structure of exhibitions. The artworks were disseminated across a variety of exhibition locations in Ljubljana, disregarding the established norms of grouping and construction of linear narrative, so that the works from the same artist could be divided between different locations and exhibited among other works that were not aesthetically or conceptually related to them. The goal of such an approach was to deconstruct the well-established form of the exhibition and set loose a sort of ludic production or synthesis of meaning by forcing the spectator to rely on his/her own playful and poetic decoding of the exhibited artworks, creating his/her own fragmented meaning of the exhibition, all while remaining free from implicit presuppositions of the established exhibition format, the authority of the professional explanation and discourse, and from ideological impositions of art in general.

The main curatorial input was therefore not so much in the form of a statement, as is common for exhibitions that have a similar goal of exploring sociopolitical characteristics, but instead in its structure, in the breaking of the form, in the erasure of the curatorial input itself where the only influence that the curator supposedly has on the reception of the exhibited art is in the clearing of the disciplining structure of the art institution (in the dismantling of the mechanism of power) so that the correlative subject of the exhibition could have access to or be a part of an alternative production of meaning and consequentially knowledge.

But if the only necessity to achieve this knowledge is to get rid of the disciplinary form of exhibition, then the relation between the subject and power is strictly negative (the force of repression being outside the subject (4)) and the subject in its full authentic expression (would it not be hindered by the established and ideologically distinguished norm) already on the track of emancipation (5). This means that while the reason for breaking with the normative form of exhibiting is based on the conception that the subject is constituted and marked by the institutions that discipline its body (that power is not something that is outside the subject, but rather constitutes the subject, as mentioned at the beginning) (6), the actual process of ‘the breaking with’ (the goal to cleanse the exhibition format from problematic institutional influences) forgets its own primary conviction (i.e. the illusion of the authentic) and affirms the original, fully rounded and authentic subject.

This means that although the exhibition does seem to take the form of a riddle (instead of ‘the explanation’ (see Ranciere, 1991, pp. 4–8)), which means that instead of mediating knowledge (7) it operates with a lack of knowledge, with a problem that takes hold of the subject and puts it in a state where he (similar to a child learning language) figures it out on his own, the simple dissemination of artworks achieves questionable results.

The problem lies especially in the difference between the riddle that takes hold and molds its subject accordingly (8) and a simple lack of explanation that still demands a pre-existing, fully rounded subject with an ability to patch the multiplicity of the sensible (in our case artworks) into a meaningful whole. The first presupposes a subject that is mouldable by the specific situation and its circumstances (these being democratic in the Rancierean sense, engaging the subject as a will towards emancipation), while the other presupposes a subject that is not moulded, but has to itself mould the sensible data (in accordance to its own image of thought (9)) in order to make it perceivable (which makes it a Kantian transcendental subject; a figure of the judge (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994, pp. 72) – removed (and kept at a distance) from the actual situation that is the subject of judgement).

This confusion between the ‘riddle’ and the ‘lack of explanations’ can explain how the base of the problem that the described curatorial concept is supposed to solve (that is: the institutionally constituted nature of the subject) is lost in the actual execution of the solution. But how does this confusion occur? If the problem already implies this conception, how come that it disappears in the actual process of execution?


The way that the subject is addressed in the described curatorial situation refers to Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster. The ambiguity is identical, which is why it might be useful to further examine it.

In his work Ranciere devises an intervention into traditional pedagogy, heavily dependent on the paradigm of ‘explanation’, where knowledge is reproducible only through mediation from ‘the one who knows’ to ‘the one who doesn’t know’ (i.e. on the differentiation between the ‘capable’ and the ‘incapable’ — the primary difference or rift that according to Ranciere (see Ranciere, 2009, pp. 12) produces all further differences which could be described as social inequality).

This is done on the basis of a specific pedagogical project. A project carried out by Joseph Jacotot in 1818, which Ranciere’s describes as a “[…] philosophical experiment in the style of the ones performed during the Age of Enlightenment.” (Ibid., pp. 2) A sort of inquiry into the question whether “[…] all men [are] virtually capable of understanding what others have done or understood?” (ibid.) Or, in other words, an attempt to establish whether the presupposition of an equally distributed common sense, as articulated by Descartes (10), could be true.

Described as such, the project implies a universalistic conception of the subject with an immanent ability of thought, which Ranciere seems to incorporate into his further examination of emancipation as a subject with an immanent ability to emancipate itself (11). But is this direct application legitimate?

The presupposition of an equally distributed common sense has been heavily questioned in the context of the critique of universalism. Deleuze, for instance, defines it as an implicit presupposition that serves as the basis for the whole philosophical tradition. A presupposition that the thought itself is always not only possible but also actual and ‘naturally correct’ — that it can be hindered at most by an illegitimate usage of cognitive abilities (in Kantian terms: illusion) where thought “[…] in its natural state […] confuses its interests and allows its various domains to encroach upon one another.” (Deleuze, 1993, pp. 137) From this he derives that philosophy, which without a doubt “[…] refuses every particular doxa; [which] upholds no particular propositions of good sense or common sense [nevertheless] retains the essential aspect of doxa — namely, the form.“ (Ibid., pp. 134) In other words, it creates an image of thought  (see ibid., pp. 129—167) which despite its critical tendencies doesn’t reflect or question the well established values (12), but is instead a “[…] celebration of monstrous nuptials, in which thought ‘rediscovers’ the State, rediscovers ‘the Church’ and rediscovers all the current values that it subtly presented in the pure form of an eternally blessed unspecified eternal object.” (Ibid., pp. 136)

These doubts could be easily applicable to Ranciere’s project of egalitarian emancipation, making it anachronistic and naive. But Ranciere’s wager on the general ability to emancipate oneself, an ability that is apparently not defined or limited by social or geopolitical conditions, but rather equally accessible to all, even if just as a look through the window (see Ranciere, 2009, pp. 71), is more complex than it seems at first glance.

While the aforementioned enlightenment perspective is the starting point of the Ignorant Schoolmaster, it drastically changes through the progression of the book. In the chapter The Ignorant One’s Lesson, specifically in the subchapter To Each His Own (Ranciere, 1991, pp. 33–39), the double limitation of the traditional pedagogical paradigm where “[…] the consciousness of what [a child] does is drawn from a science that is not his own; [and] the consciousness of what he is leads him to doing nothing other than his own task” (ibid., pp. 34) (13), is flipped by Ranciere’s definition of emancipation, which he defines as “[…] each man becoming conscious of his nature as an intellectual subject, [or in other words] the Cartesian formula of equality read backwards.”(14) (Ibid., pp. 35)

The egalitarian distribution is thus not applicable to a Cartesian subject as the thinking substance, as Ranciere flips the Cartesian formula and applies the egalitarian distribution to a subject as a plain will (15) to emancipate (oneself), making it more a Nietzschean than a Cartesian or (consequentially due to the impact of Descartes’ heritage on the later philosophy of enlightenment) an enlightenment project.

In this sense, Ranciere’s subject is still a subject based on general equality (based on equal capabilities of thought) and as such similar to the one of Descartes. But what distinguishes it from Descartes’ is that it loses the character of the subject; that what seems to be addressed in The Ignorant Schoolmaster is not a form of subjectivity, but rather the conditions of how to achieve it (whatever ‘it’ may be).

In relation to this, emancipation, as defined by Ranciere, refers only to a vague notion of humanity – an abstract notion, written in cursive, whose general character leaves room for ontological change or becoming. Leading us to think that what really interests him is not so much a form of subjectivity that would serve as the basis of emancipation, but the power relation that constitutes it (i.e. the process of subjectification, not the subject itself).

This would explain why Ranciere approaches it from a marginal standpoint of Jacotot’s project, evading general judgements and constructing a character of the ignorant schoolmaster, which in itself is not an actual person, a social role, nor a profession or a psycho-social character, but rather a lack of all of the above, a lack of subjectivity, a person in self-constituting relation to himself — although not even that (16): just a set of conditions for the breaking with the particular power relations of disenfranchisement (manifested most clearly in the traditional pedagogical paradigm).


The curatorial approach of The 31st Biennial of Graphic Arts follows the conceptual topoi of Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster. It works with the lack of curatorial input in order to break with the normative exhibition format and supposedly the disciplinary character of its underlying institutional workings. The aim of this gesture is to produce a ludic genesis of meaning and consequentially alternative production of knowledge with its emancipatory potential. As such it is an application of Ranciere’s pedagogy as antipedagogy where the character of a schoolmaster (the traditional pedagogical paradigm) is replaced by an ignorant schoolmaster (a lack of a schoolmaster) in order to break with the persisting power relations (and related social exclusion) produced by the traditional pedagogical regime.

This would mean that the aforementioned confusion regarding the ambiguous character of the addressed subject in the described curatorial approach could be easily explained by the same ambiguous character as that of Ranciere’s subject of emancipation, as the latter only seems Cartesian, but is instead more Nietzschean (more a desubjectified will to emancipate than a well-rounded ego), so the described curatorial approach only seemingly applies a Cartesian well-rounded subject, while in actuality addresses the same sort of will as does Ranciere.

But the problem is that the lack of curatorial input is not the same lack as that of Ranceire’s anti-pedagogy. Ranciere’s lack of the schoolmaster is not just a simple absence. The child is not completely left to his own devices: collecting the scattered pieces and combining them into a meaningful whole all by himself. Although autonomy of the person/child is in fact implied, what is needed for emancipation is still a situation of the ignorant schoolmaster, an ensemble (17) of conditions (18) that set in motion the child’s self-constituting and even emancipatory process. This ensemble brings forth “the unconditional exigency of the will” (ibid., pp. 38) by establishing new intersubjective relations where equality of intelligence can be recognised and affirmed (see ibid.).

The simple dissemination of the described curatorial approach fails to meet these conditions. It removes the established forms of exhibition, erasing the mark of institutional mediation of meaning by refraining from all the established modes of presentation, which complicates the process of meaning production, but leaves the primary method of its decoding intact: the exhibited material is still the exhibited material, set firmly in its function. While the book (in Ranciere’s case the Telemach) can be used (in order to read its contents) or ‘misused’ (used as a semiotic table or a tool for the ‘situation of the ignorant schoolmaster’ (19)), the exhibited art remains restricted to the prescribed institutional context. This means that the exhibition is disturbed only in its form, abstractly, reaffirming the exhibition space as something removed from the outside, as a white cube where the subject is placed in the role of a distant spectator as a consumer: placed in a curated environment and removed from his/hers usual surroundings and routines (20). Setting a symbolic divide between the space of ‘culture’ (21) and the subject’s actual place in the world while producing a hierarchical division between the ones who are ‘civilised’ and the ones who aren’t, leading to results contrary to those first envisioned (22).

The institutional frame with its hierarchical methods of meaning mediation is therefore left unquestioned, leaving no space for the emergence of the necessary intersubjective relations of recognition. But although one might think of this as a failure on the part of the curator and the institutional machinery that he/she represents, the real snare is that emancipation is not something that a curatorial approach can even strive for. It is not their problem to solve. If the whole point of Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster is that the proletariat can emancipate itself without the condescending mediation of teachers etc., be it in the privacy of their own homes or in the public space of an exhibition space, than their emancipation is possible as much in the art institution of the past (where the established norms of presentation and meaning mediation are still intact) as in the art institution of the present (or even the future). The conditions of emancipation lay in their own hands and not in the dismantling hands of the ludic curator.



  • Bishop, C. 2004. Antagonism and relational aesthetics. In: October Magazine, vol. 110 (Fall, 2004). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  • Deleuze, G., 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control. In: October Magazine, vol. 59 (Winter, 1992). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  • Deleuze, G., 1993. Difference and Repetition. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F., 1994. What Is Philosophy? New York: Columbia University Press
  • Descartes, R., 2003. Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
  • Foucault, M., 1980. In: Gordon, C. (ed.), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Foucault, M., 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Lees, N., 2015. Over you. In: Lees, N. & Bottai, S. (ed.), 2015. 31. grafični bienale / kratki vodič = short guide. Ljubljana: Mednarodni grafični likovni center.
  • Lepenis, W., 2006. The Seduction of Culture in German History. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Nietzsche, F. Ecce homo: how one becomes what one is & The Antichrist: a curse on Christianity. New York: Algora Publishing.
  • O’Neill, P. & Wilson, M., 2010. Curating and the educational turn. London: Open Editions / de Appel
  • Ranciere, J., 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Ranciere, J., 2009. The Emancipated Spectator. London & New York: Verso.
  • Ranciere, J., 2013. The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury.

[First published at ŠUM Journal (link), republished with corrections.]


(1) I.e. Replacing the traditional pedagogical model and its role in the production of the disciplined subject.

(2) Referring to the immanent connection of power, knowledge, and subjectivity. See Foucault’s body of work or Foucault, 1980.

(3) The shift from ‘artworks’ to ‘art projects’ already corresponds to the same discursive turning towards the described ontology of art.

(4) Otherwise the elimination of the disciplinary form of the exhibition would also imply an elimination of the subject in question.

(5) Meaning that the curatorial project is trying to achieve the once supposedly lost original and pristine nature of the subject.

(6) Foucault talks about total institutions (prisons, mental facilities, etc.) but in the Post-Fordist economy and in the society of control (see Deleuze, 1992, pp. 3–7) the institutions of leisure time and lifelong learning represent a crucial contribution to the formation of the designated subjectivity.

(7) Mediating knowledge as a hierarchical, top-down process that, following Ranciere, constructs the actual divide between ‘the one that knows’ and ‘the one that doesn’t know’, the divide which maintains the oppositions of inequality (see Ranciere, 1991, pp. 4–8).

(8) Corresponding to the construction of the figure of the idiot that questions the basic premises of common sense (see Deleuze, 1993, pp. 130).

(9) For critique of the image of thought, applicable to our case, see Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, chapter 3 (Deleuze, 1993, pp. 129 –167).

(10) “Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed.” (Descartes, 2003, pp. 3)

(11) Surpassing the aforementioned primary rift between the capable and the incapable by means of auto-pedagogical self-actualisation (“The method of equality was above all a method of the will” – Ranciere, 1991, pp. 12).

(12) Referring to Nietzsche’s genealogical project and his notion of the transvaluation of values (see Nietzsche, 2004).

(13) This double limitation is based on the traditional division of the pedagogical process where instruction (the separation of the child from his surroundings and environmental routines in order to prevent him from forming faulty notions – see Ranciere, 1991, pp. 34) is separated from moral education (the teaching of the virtue of staying in his condition, taught by example by his father – see ibid., pp. 35).

(14) By which he means: “We turn his thought around and say: ‘I am a man, therefore I think.’ The reversal equates ‘man’ with cogito. Thought is not an attribute of the thinking substance; it is an attribute of humanity.” (Ibid., pp. 36)

(15) “[…] man is a will served by an intelligence.” (Ibid., pp. 51)

(16) This would again bring him to the enlightenment ideal, as it is exactly the subject as Fichte’s and later on Hegel’s self-constituting self.

(17) In the case of Jacotot’s project The Telemach and the necessity of the situation (the impossibility of communication and consequentially explanation (see Ranciere, 1991, pp. 1—4)).

(18) These being a “[…] thing in common, placed between two minds […]” (ibid., pp. 32) that functions as a “[…] source of material verification […]” (ibid.), serving as a basis for the establishment of the intersubjective relation of equality.

(19)  Where a parent can ask their child about it, use it as a test and affirm their child’s intellect (see ibid. pp. 30).

(20) The resulting divide reestablishes a similar double limitation as that of the traditional pedagogical paradigm where — as mentioned before — “[…] the consciousness of what [a child] does is drawn from a science that is not his own; [and] the consciousness of what he is leads him to doing nothing other than his own task” (ibid., pp. 34).

(21) The local specificities of the notion being heavily affected by Germanic cultural influences and consequentially tightly bound by their conception of ‘high culture’, which was formed around apolitical tendencies, more precisely as a compensation for Germany’s historic political inabilities (see Lepenis, 2006). All of which even further supports the claim of the reestablishment of the double limitation (see footnote 19 and 21).

(22) Reestablishing the divide between the ‘capable’ and ‘incapable’ that, as said before, leads to general inequality (Ranciere, 2009, pp. 12).

Author: Domen Ograjenšek

Writer, art critic, curator

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