Agonism, according to Chantal Mouffe, is essential to the function of democracy: it is the recognition of how the social and political elements of society interact within spaces of hegemony, spaces, which in turn, have been formed by previous iterations of hegemony. The social, for Mouffe, are acts that are taken for granted: they obscure their own origins from within institutions and their attendant hierarchical and political rules. The political is related to how social practices are made visible within society; both are inextricably linked to hegemony, or how power relations are structured. Mouffe recognises, following Heidegger’s definition of existentials, that the political and the social are necessary parts of life; her important contribution to the discussion is that they are constantly shaping power relations, and that these relations are always changing.
If politics involves the practice of laying bare – making visible – the structures of authority, critical art is then “art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate…giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony.” Here, it is evident that Mouffe does not see a divergence between the aesthetic and the political; each has a clear function in upholding the other. In recognising the link between the two, Mouffe is able to center the importance of public space: the multiple arenas in which hegemony can be confronted and challenged. In contrast to the notion of liberal pluralism – that thinking politically is merely thinking from different points of view and coming to an agreement – Mouffe argues for the agonistic approach that unveils dominant discourses of power. Artistic practices that contribute to this unveiling, that foment dissensus – here Mouffe cites the Yes Men’s parody of the WTO website in 1999 – these are the practices which represent the agonistic and democratic model.
Presentation to the World Trade Organization concerning labor privatization (1999), Yes Men
Dissensus and the relationship between aesthetics and politics is also a key project of Ranciere, who argues that the connection lies in the “configuration of a specific world, a specific form of experience in which some things appear to be political objects, some questions political issues or argumentations and some agents political subjects.” Like Mouffe, Rancière, is concerned with the questions of possibility: what can be made visible, and who makes it so? Democracy is not just a particular system of politics but “a certain sharing of the perceptible, a certain redistribution of its sites.” Mouffe and Rancière share an interest in examining what is allowed to be perceived and the spaces in which perception can take place; mostly they differ in whether hegemony is the source of consensus.
Why take these philosophies into consideration when approaching the curatorial? How could principles of dissensus – which privileges opposing viewpoints without a direction toward agreement – relate to curating, which more often than not, emphasises cohesion? Both Mouffe and Ranciere draw concern to structures of power embedded within societal relations. However, both acknowledge the ability of institutionalised hegemony to co-opt artistic practice; art can be seen as a tool of fascism, as Benjamin warned, as much as it can be used to further democracy.
To escape this impasse, curators ought to focus on practice that encourages dissensus rather than impeding it; specifically, they must be willing to concede that the traditional practice of curating – one that situates itself as a wholly separate entity from the realm of politics – is no longer appropriate. Critically, examining the goals of curation is a necessary step. In the wake of relational aesthetics and its subsequent backlash, selecting and presenting works to ‘create a dialogue’ must go beyond the usual motions of exploiting ‘juxtaposition’ and ‘tension’. Curatorial practices that rest on representing or accounting for difference for the sake of visibility must be eradicated in favor of work that explores the nuance of dissensus: how can art encourage us to interrogate hegemony?
Mouffe and Ranciere’s arguments for the importance for open, polemical spaces for dissensus to occur offers a new perspective on the curatorial. Critical consideration of curatorial space should not simply be conceived of as a matter of taking art to the streets, though that isn’t out of the scope of the project. Rather, in conceiving of spaces in which dissensus can occur, curators must consider how spaces manifest political exclusion – in their histories, designs, and agendas. Again, this is not just a matter of “accessibility,” though that is part of it; it is a matter of how political dissensus can be impeded within a particular space and time.
To this end, questions of “inclusivity” must also go beyond the usual framework of representing diversity. Inherent to democracy’s logic is an emphasis on “the people” as a means to describe a wide swath of person who share commonalities, but as Rancière argues in his Ten Theses on Politics, this emphasis should be placed on “the part of those who have no-part”: elements of persons who are neglected, or not counted. He does not mean to simply argue for the inclusion of subalterns or the disenfranchised in the political machinations of voting, but rather to acknowledge that the abstract and material ways of determining inclusion and exclusion rest on a logic of permissibility.
Critical curatorial practices must therefore not only consider which artists, curators, critics, etc. they can select from a range of different ethnicities, genders, etc. but also where the logic of this selection arises from. This means rather than thoughtlessly trying to meet quotas for the sake of a ‘diverse’ exhibition, curators should consider: how does artistic practice privilege certain forms of expression? How does curatorial practice privilege certain forms of exhibition? Which systems of thought does curating uphold, and why? These are essential to an understand of dissensus, and more importantly, to creating a critical democratic practice of curating.
Tausif Noor is a graduate student at Goldsmiths, University of London, studying Art and Politics. He is a 2014-15 Fulbright Fellow and a graduate of Dartmouth College, where he studied art history and government.
 For more on Mouffe’s conception of agonism, see Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (London: Verso, 2000)
 Chantal Mouffe, “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art and Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts, and Methods, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 2007
 Ibid, 5
 Jacques Rancière, “The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics,” in Reading Rancière: Critical Dissensus, ed. Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp (London: Continuum, 2011), 7.
 Jacques Rancière, The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 104.
 Jacques Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics,” Theory and Event 5:3 (2001), 6
Chantal Mouffe, “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art and Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts, and Methods, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 2007
Jacques Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics,” Theory and Event 5:3 (2001), 6
Jacques Rancière, “The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics,” in Reading Rancière: Critical Dissensus, ed. Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp (London: Continuum, 2011), 7.
Jacques Rancière, The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 104.
Featured Image: Presentation to the World Trade Organization concerning labor privatization (video still) (1999), Yes Men