Autonomy Again

Peter Osborne explains Adorno’s position on art’s autonomy by saying: “Autonomy is never a ‘given’. In so far as it exists, it is the individual achievement of each work: the victory of technique (the principle of internal organization) over social conditions. Autonomy is the achievement, in each instance, of the production of a law of form.” Osborne goes on to say: “There are grounds for believing that autonomy is becoming ever harder to achieve.” The individual work, for Osborne, has been eclipsed by the exhibition-form as the site of art’s universalization. Does the exhibition-form therefore become the site of contemporary art’s accomplishment of autonomy? “The art market may still be trading in individual works, but it is the exhibition that is the unit of artistic significance”, he says. Are curators not artists, therefore, the new agents of artistic autonomy, too? Could we say, for instance, that certain Adornian philosophers (Bernstein et al) may still expect individual works to win art’s autonomy one work at a time, but it is the exhibition today that secures art’s autonomy?

Taking a different tack. Institution theory argues that individual artworks are powerless in the face of the institutions that assign the status of art or non-art to all candidates. This ‘corrects’ the modernist ideology that artworks carry their own claims to art-status in their form. Osborne’s Adornianism appears to combine the two extremes. Autonomy can’t be given by art’s institutions; artworks must win autonomy through their technique; but, the social relations of art have somehow imposed themselves in such a way that individual artworks have lost some of their capacity for winning art’s autonomy.

Typical of Adorno, this formulation brings the individual (in this case the artwork) with the social system (art’s autonomy) directly. It lacks mediation and what we might call the grammar of institutionalization. That is, there is little or no reflection on the intermediate agencies through which individuals operate, circulate and so forth, which means that the collective arrangements (both hegemonic and emancipatory) through which autonomy might be recuperated, threatened, preserved or extended, are all absent from this account, as they are from modernism’s formalist autonomy and institution theory’s de-agentification of the artist and artwork.

Osborne recalls Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory of the culture industry through a “threefold distinction of popular culture, culture industry and autonomous art”. This comes after Osborne has claimed that contemporary art appears today within not outside the culture industry. What Osborne does not raise here, interestingly, is the fraught question of the distinction between popular culture and autonomous art. What is it that makes art autonomous in contrast with popular culture? Is this meant to be a technical question of art’s internal organization? Is it meant to be better? More critical, perhaps? Osborne holds off such questions by saying that these three categories of culture are not pure forms: “the terms distinguish cultural products and practices on the basis of whichever of the three rationalities dominates within the productive logic of each particular work”. Crucially, this solution shifts the question from the qualities (or quality) of artworks to the (economic? social? intellectual?) conditions under which they are produced. It is possible, therefore, to preserve the hierarchical taxonomy without the appearance of elitism and formalism in which it is rooted.

Following his comments on contemporary art’s relationship to the culture industry Osborne explains that autonomous art was always for sale and that the market was always “the social basis of art’s autonomy”. This is half true. I don’t want to reduce the question of art’s autonomy to the technical question of art’s decommodification, since this implies that there is no threat to art’s autonomy from the state, or that commodity society cannot enter art indirectly through the transformation of the subjectivity of the artist or viewer, as Lukacs argued. Nevertheless, if we take commodification as an example it is clear that there is no technical answer to it. No work of art can be victorious over commodification through the principle of internal organization. In fact, we can only answer the question of whether an artwork has or has not been commodified by looking away from the artwork. One must examine art’s mode of production and a work’s passage through the market, for instance, in order to get to grips with its relation to commodity exchange. Is autonomy not also determined externally to the work itself? Or, perhaps, is the agency of the artwork in winning art’s autonomy not dialectically overdetermined by art’s social relations, economic relations and so on?

Is autonomy an old-fashioned word for criticality? Did the concept of ‘critical distance’ capture the full meaning of the word autonomy? Is autonomy necessarily critical? Is criticality in art necessarily autonomous? Is criticality a ghost of autonomy – ie the appearance of autonomy, much like the fake independence of the hysteric, which is nothing but a mask for the absence of autonomy? If autonomy is self-determination, then isn’t criticality the determination of the self through its relation to power? There are two variants of the concept of self-determination, one in which the artist is not compromised, and the other, more absolutist, in which the artwork corresponds to the essence of art. Criticality does not seem adequate to either of them. Is the relation to power the key to autonomy? Is art’s autonomy concerned primarily with marking a differentiation from power only insofar as it impinges on art, or can the autonomy of art be won by marking art off from power generally? Is autonomy future-oriented? Is autonomy utopian? Is the dialectical counterpart of criticality something like submission, recuperation, institutionalisation, incorporation and commodification, or is it more like unself-conscious, cliched, pat, hackneyed, commonplace, naive, philistine? And finally what is the role of heteronomy in the winning and sustaining of autonomy?

Where and how is art’s post-autonomy determined? If post-autonomous art is that art which is utilitarian, actually doing things and having real determinate effects, then this is accomplished by the work itself. The difficulty of approaching such work aesthetically or interpretatively is not absolute but the work can be said to exceed taste and exegesis. The competent and sensitive art viewer (as connoisseur and/or reader/decipherer/co-producer of meaning) can find no purchase in the work to exercise their skills and sensitivities. Values are presented in the form of facts. But, is post-autonomy the defensive insistence on the agency of the artwork at the historical point at which the work of art is no longer capable of establishing the autonomy of art?

It is hard to reconcile the Adornian location of art’s agency of autonomy within the internal organization of the artwork with Marx’s ontology of flows and metamorphoses or his dialectical dynamism of subject and object, individual and totality, and his conception of real abstraction. If autonomy signifies art’s emancipation from instrumentalization in the fullest sense of being shaped by concerns internal to art’s own discourses and values, and if this kind of autonomy is still possible, then it can be accomplished only through the alignment of artists, artworks, institutions, critical frameworks, traditions, methods of circulation, apparatuses of production and consumption, technologies of distribution, mechanisms of value, modes of care for the self, and so on and so forth. The internal organization of the artwork cannot be excluded from this but it cannot be counted on to do all the work required of art’s institutions and art’s broader community, which is to say the dead labour and living labour of art’s collective agency of autonomy.

Or is autonomy a myth? Isn’t it the artistic equivalent of the bourgeois concept of individual liberty or freedom which is not liberated or freed from anything in particular but is liberty or freedom as such? Liberal freedom appears as freedom from everything or absolute freedom whereas in fact it is the specifically bourgeois form of freedom elevated hegemonically to the formal freedom of all individuals, actual or ideal. Osborned rightly points out that capitalist sociality is abstract. What he doesn’t say is that capitalist autonomy is abstract, too. Just as the liberation from Feudal constraints on individuals, including constraints on commerce, appears to the bourgeoisie as liberation from all constraints, art’s emancipation from Academic constraints appears as autonomy itself. However, if the current conception of art’s autonomy is thoroughly bourgeois this does not mean that it ought to be abandoned in the way that private property is to be abolished. The question that we need to open up is what autonomy would be like within a post-capitalist sociality.