The best way to read a highbrow book is quickly

There are a lot of verbose and obscure articles and books in the art, art / philosophy and art / critical thinking world. I’ve had the (dis)pleasure of reading a few of them.

During my recent assessment, one of the two tutors assessing me (the intellectual one) recommended a book to me. That book was Jacques Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator. Being the good student that I am I hurried off straight away after my assessment to Amazon to purchase a second-hand copy of this book. I decided that this book would be a good read for a train journey to London. There would be few distractions on a long train journey and my life is currently full of little distractions (including a very talkative six year old).

Jacques Ranciere and his cat

Jacques Ranciere and his cat

I started reading it a couple of days before I went to London but didn’t get very far. So I picked it up again as we pulled out of Shrewsbury station and continued the read with much hope for enlightenment and enthusiasm for some intellectual stimulation.

The highbrow book in question

The highbrow book in question

However, shortly after starting, I was soon frustrated. The book is not an easy read. The language is as verbose and obscure as the best of them. After reaching page 20 by Birmingham New Street I was tempted to finish reading at the end of the first chapter (to return to later) and pick up my spare book to read instead (Owen Jones’s The Establishment in case you are interested). However, something made me persevere as we boarded the London-bound train (I don’t like giving up). I struggled on through sentences such as:

It might afford an occasion for a radical differentiation from the theoretical and political presuppositions which, even in postmodern form, still underpin the gist of the debate on theatre, performance and the spectator.

This is a good example of a sentence I was having to re-read at least twice before I felt able to move on to the next sentence. This way of reading is slow going and painful. It makes you question why you are trying so hard and usually renders you more angry than enlightened.

Then around page 44, I decided that giving up would be the wimp’s way out and to keep reading would make me proud. So I decided to keep reading and to not stop, even if I was confused and to not analyze or try to unravel. So I just read. And once I had made that decision, I read and I read. I couldn’t put it down and some lightbulb of understanding in my brain clicked. I got it. I could understand it. I knew what he was on about and it was good and interesting and pertinent to my art practice. The tutor who had recommended it to me was right.

The basic message of the book can be summarized as thus: Historically, there is a division between the actor (read: artist) and spectator (read: viewer) as expressed by Plato. Plato believed that theatre was evil and pointless (i.e. theater with a message dished out to a passive spectator). In this scenario, the actor / artist is seen as intellectually superior as he transmits his message to a passive, ignorance spectator. This is Not A Good Thing. The spectator (viewer), argues Rancière, needs to be emancipated. The artist and viewer are on an equal intellectual footing and should be treated as such (despite what the modernists might have you believe). So the role of the artist is to present a piece of artwork that assumes that spectator is capable of reading into it a message and gaining their own knowledge from it, even if that is different from the artist’s intention. The way to do this is through the notion of the ‘pensive’ image. In other words, the image that thinks or allows for thinking to take place.

Now that, to me, makes sense. So my recommendation to anyone reading a challenging book is read, keep reading, and keep on reading. It will make sense. I promise.



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