What Have We Done with the Autonomy of Art?

Among the decenterings we have witnessed recently is the erosion not only of art’s autonomy but of how the term “autonomy” itself might mean. The increasing discursivity of both art practice and the institution of art has not stopped us from calling any number of phenomena “art.” And as critics have grappled with the contextualization of contemporary art practices they’ve framed the issue in a variety of ways, splintering autonomy’s signification.

Perhaps the most conventional framing (if not the conclusion it led to) can be found in Kelly Baum’s response to October’s “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’” in which she wrote that, “art is now defined by its dis-identification with the discipline of art.”[1] In contrast to modernist art—which, as Baum quotes Greenberg, used “the characteristic methods of [the] discipline… to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”—contemporary art “secedes from the very field to which it belongs,” sacrificing, in the process, “a great deal of legibility and autonomy.” Contemporary art, Baum argues, wants to do more than transcend the boundaries that set it apart and rid itself of the attributes that make it identifiable as art; it wants to understand itself as “something altogether other.” This is a centrifugal process, one that doesn’t collapse art and life but imagines art “fleeing its own center.” For Lucy Lippard, writing about conceptual art in 1973, what was at stake was the “expansion of what ‘art’ can mean”—precisely the opposite of the situation today as Baum sees it.[2] And yet, we might ask, can contemporary art be said to have a center from which it can flee?

In contrast to Baum, Claire Bishop, in a recent book on what she calls “participatory art,” relies on an interpretation of autonomy that she derives from Jacques Rancière’s reading of Schiller. In a 2002 article Rancière challenges the notion that art cannot be autonomous and political, arguing that, “The ‘autonomy of art’ and the ‘promise of politics’ are not counterposed. The autonomy is the autonomy of the experience, not of the work of art.”[3] Bishop’s primary reason for deploying Rancière is that critical assessments of participatory art have tended to involve judgments of its ethics rather than its aesthetics. Because autonomy doesn’t preclude the “promise of politics” and is related specifically to the aesthetic experience for Rancière, his theorization threads the needle in the correct way. In Bishop’s reading, if Rancière’s aesthetic regime of art is a sphere that is simultaneously “at one remove from politics and yet always already political,” participatory art can belong to the autonomous regime of experience while “channeling its symbolic capital towards constructive social change.”[4] Although it should be clear that this is the case, the philosopher Peter Osborne affirms that the autonomy of the aesthetic is not the same thing as the autonomy of art, which means that Bishop can claim the aesthetic autonomy of the work she’s arguing for without actually having to confront the question of its (meaning art’s) autonomy.[5]

Finally, Sven Lütticken appears to go one step beyond Baum when he states that, “art is indeed post-autonomous,” although he qualifies this assertion carefully.[6] Concerned about the implications of the integration of art into the “creative industries,” Lütticken is arguing for what he calls “the aesthetic” or “aesthetic practice,” whose difference from art lies precisely in its challenge to art’s autonomy. “[A]n act or, beyond that, a praxis can be termed aesthetic insofar as it lets autonomy appear sensibly as a problem in the world.” If we’re dealing with a post-autonomous art, then, it’s only because autonomy has become such an urgent problem, and aesthetic practice actually “sides” with autonomy—or “with more important forms of autonomy than that ‘of art’”—by turning its back on the autonomy of art. Lütticken’s post-autonomy is simultaneously a rejection of the concept and a recuperation of it in a different form.

So which is it? Do we retain the concept but turn away from the autonomy of art toward aesthetic autonomy or a “more important form of autonomy”? Or do we allow for the possibility that art is engaged in a process of “self-othering and auto-defamiliarization,” as Baum argues? Or do we reconceptualize autonomy in yet other ways? More to the point, could it even be the case that an effect of this decentering, however unintended, is the instrumentalization of art’s autonomy? And even if that’s not the case, where does this leave our already fractured discourse?


[1] Julia Bryan-Wilson et al., “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary,’” ed. Hal Foster, October 130 (Fall 2009): 95. All subsequent Baum quotations are from this source.

[2] Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), xxii.

[3] Jacques Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes: Emplotments of Autonomy and Heteronomy,” New Left Review 14 (April 2002): 136.

[4] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012), 7; 13.

[5] Peter Osborne, “Theorem 4: Autonomy; Can It Be True of Art and Politics at the Same Time?,” onlineopen.org, May 1, 2012, 1.

[6] Sven Lütticken, Cultural Revolution: Aesthetic Practice After Autonomy (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), 14. All subsequent Lütticken quotations are from this source.

Contributor

Mary Leclère

MARY LECLÈRE is associate director of the Core Program, the postgraduate residency for artists and critical writers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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