Sarah Késenne: A concise lexicon for a pedagogical emancipation in contemporary art

Doctoral Project

Sarah Késenne, PhD

A concise lexicon for a pedagogical emancipation in contemporary art. Towards a different view of participation in the light of the 'educational turn'.

Our study takes the lack of a sufficient emancipatory vocabulary within the 'educational turn' as a starting point. It investigates the possibility of a pedagogical emancipation in the light of this discussion and proposes a lexicon to discuss it critically. The ‘educational turn’ refers to a recent dynamic of conversations and practices concerning an educational dimension of contemporary art. Discursive and participatory strategies are seen to take a critical position towards the effects of globalization and neoliberalization in higher education and the art world, rather than referring to an emancipatory potential of spectatorship. In this regard, there is an unease about using art for the political awareness of spectators (Allen, 2011; Bishop, 2012; 'O Neill & Wilson, 2010; Thorne, 2017; Vella, 2015).

In this study, we respond to this discussion by constructing a lexicon of three notions that describe the educational value of contemporary artworks from the perspective of 'a pedagogical emancipation'. We explore this in a first research phase using a double reading of Jacques Rancière's thinking on art and emancipation, differentiating between emancipatory, pedagogical and aesthetic meanings of art. For the second research phase, we discuss the three artworks Die Klau Mich Show (2012), The Sinthome Score (2015) and The Joycean Society (2013) by the artist Dora García. As forms of informal, unregulated research, these artworks relate to this 'educational turn'. But in their invitation to a free interpretation, they also necessitate an examination of the positioning implied in this invitation.

We approach pedagogical emancipation as an unforeseen appropriation by participants using the artworks as practices to verify an equal position. In the dislocating speech and in the redistribution of roles of interpretation, we see a emancipatory 'capacity' of participants that is also the primary object of this study. Participants can use the democratising and horizontalising concepts of critical art 'negatively' to show that their equality is still another one than that assigned to them by the art work.

This approach results in the use of the three notions of “fictional interference”, “figuring” and “paraphrasing”, each exploring in a different way the relationship between the artwork and pedagogical emancipation. The relevance of this perspective is to understand artworks that are part of the 'educational turn' no longer as homogeneous critical practices but as a series of polemical interpretative activities in which equalities are evoked and verified. We thus advance a pedagogical view of critical art without depoliticising it. By allowing the three notions to emerge from the situated audience participation, we concretize and verify the critical, pragmatic and  hermeneutic claims of the ‘educational turn’.


  • Prof. dr. Jan Masschelein (supervisor, KU Leuven)
  • Prof. dr. Tom Van Imschoot (co-supervisor, KU Leuven/LUCA)

Research Unit: Image

Duration: 2011 - 2021