The Autonomy of Art
12/12/2022 | Written by Michael Wimmer. This blog reflects the personal opinion of the author.
The past and future of a highly charged concept in the context of Wolfgang Ullrich's essay "Art after the End of Autonomy".
The conductor Teodor Currentzis has recently caused a stir that, upon first glance, has nothing to do with his artistic activities. The media attention was mainly related to his refusal to take a stand in the current war in Ukraine. The Viennese newspaper Falter recently described him as an “ingenious turncoat” who would try to conceal his privileged position in Putin’s Russia in the hope of being able to further expand the star cult around his person in Europe. Already in the summer, therefore, the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, Markus Hinterhäuser, had to go out to defend his star guest. Now his new, transnational ensemble “Utopia” is supposed to help make him unassailable in the face of civil society expectations of his political classification, or to let him float as an artist above all social lines of conflict.
My guess is that only a short time ago, a controversy about the socio-political context in which art takes place, carried out publicly with such vehemence, would have drawn in only a few people with an affinity for art. But quite obviously we have entered a new phase of sensitivity. It is, among other things, the result of a growing interest in questions of post-colonialism, diversity or racism, or the assertion of indivisible human rights also in the art business, which requires all people, including artists, to take a stand as potential role models. They should no longer be the only ones allowed to hide behind a defensive wall of artistic autonomy, behind which all kinds of undesirable developments are allowed to proliferate without sanction. Currentzis, his sponsors (Servus TV and the Mateschitz Foundation have stepped in at short notice for the Russian VTB Bank) and the cultural managers who engage with him (who, for understandable reasons, are reluctant to have one of their currently fattest cash cows maligned) must also take note of this.
The concept of autonomous art as an outdated ideology of bourgeois society?
This expresses an increasing perplexity about how to deal with politically appropriated artists (or artists who have allowed themselves to be politically appropriated). This makes it all the more overdue to reconsider the concept of artistic autonomy. It is therefore fitting that the art historian Wolfgang Ullrich has recently published an essay entitled “Art after the End of Autonomy”. In it, he attempts to level the categorical difference between art and society, with which artists have justified their outstanding position in ever new ways, both in the direction of the market and in the direction of politics, and thus to transfer art to a new system of coordinates. According to Ullrich, this ideological separation has long since been overtaken by the realities of the art business; the embedding of all artistic activity in its (socio-)political context has become a matter of fact.
Autonomy of Art vis-à-vis the State – Autonomy of Art by the State
Before we can go into his considerations in detail, a short prehistory is necessary, which remains largely unmentioned by Ullrich. After all, the autonomy of the arts represents a central cultural-political battlefield in which very different groups of actors defend their interests. To simplify matters, a distinction must be made between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of artistic autonomy. While the former refers to the relationship between artists and the state, the latter refers to the reciprocal relationships to which artistic production, and moreover its reception and mediation, is exposed by other areas of society.
Ullrich ignores the fact that for the longest time political elites have claimed a monopoly on determining the boundaries of artistic activity. As such, they had an interest in using art to legitimize their claim to power. Moreover, as a small, wealthy and educated social group, they acted as knowledgeable patrons who brought detailed ideas about content into the business with the artist (see, for example, Michael Baxandall: “Die Wirklichkeit der Bilder” or Martin Warnke: Hofkünstler: Zur Vorgeschichte des modernen Künstlers). These ideas of dominance did not fundamentally change with the advent of modernity. But with the “disenchantment of the world” the demands increased to shape life as independently as possible within the framework of the existing constitution, thus redrawing the boundaries between freedom and dependence. And yet (or precisely because of this) the powerful did not cease to prevent criticism – even from such prominent artists. This included the ruling moral doctrine that was imposed on the subjects and that was not to be called into question by artistic achievements. As a rule, a comprehensive censorship system ensured that the growing claims to autonomy had to break through the rigid governmental guidelines or could only be circumvented by an array of tricks.
These restrictions were supposed to come to an end with the end of feudal claims to power. But they did not, because the temptation of the rulers to keep their critics from art and science at bay was too great. This was especially true of the authoritarian forms of rule of the 20th century, which attempted to instrumentalize artistic creation for their own legitimation and self-aggrandizement. But even democratic societies have repeatedly set limits for artists when it came to distinguishing “good”art from “bad” art. In the 1970s, for example, the Austrian parliament was still confronted with a series of censorship debates, which were to come to an end only with the adoption of the basic state law of “freedom of art” in 1982. It was only with this decision that the state was to step down as an authority that influenced content.
The decision to grant state-guaranteed autonomy, however, was by no means the end of the discussion. On the contrary, the discussion shifted from the vertical to the horizontal level. Already in the course of the adoption of the “freedom of art” as a constitutional right, the social democrats in power at the time pointed out that artistic autonomy could not simply be taken for granted as soon as the state ceased to exert its influence.
The autonomy claims of art and the exploitation interests of the market economy
It would have to be taken into account that, on the one hand, a number of possibly conflicting state goals, such as freedom of religion, prohibition of National Socialist resurgence, gender equality, but also the integrity of humans and animals, would at least limit the autonomous claims of art. More serious, however – according to the left-wing argumentation of the time – would be the restrictions imposed by prevailing values. The central danger at that time was seen as the effects of a capitalist market economy, which would lead any claim to autonomy ad absurdum, because art would also be subject to the game of supply and demand. Accordingly, there were great demands for special protection, now no longer against but by the state, which would be given the task of creating “spaces of opportunity” that were not ostensibly exploitation-oriented with the help of funding measures, in order not only to guarantee artistic autonomy claims, but also to ensure them materially.
The result was the adoption of the Federal Art Promotion Act in 1988, in which the state committed itself to guaranteeing an autonomous status for art, regardless of the social context of its production, mediation and reception conditions, within the framework of an increasingly differentiated funding system. In retrospect, this led to a complete reversal of the relationship between the art business and the state within just a few years: Whereas just a short time before the state was feared as a major influence on artistic events, it now mutated into a guarantor of artistic autonomy. Art was no longer only to be protected from state encroachment, but was also to be shielded from all hostility from other groups of social actors. In order to give art a special status that would keep artists – see Currentzis – out of all social conflict situations (regardless of their personal values).
And now this: these days, one of the pioneering international art fairs, Art Basel in Paris, presents itself as a grand marriage of art and commercial luxury brands. As if the categorical separation of art and commerce had never existed, we are presented here with a far-reaching confluence of the art business and the fashion industry, which turns traditional notions of an autonomous claim to art into their sheer opposite.
In his essay, Wolfgang Ullrich shows that this is not an isolated case. Already in the exposition, he gives five examples of new alliances between the ambitions of individual prominent artists and the specifications of brand-name manufacturers. Instead of being in opposition to each other, they ideally complement and support each other in creating public attention (and thus economic impact). Almost euphorically, he describes the making of sneakers by Takashi Murakamis and Faith Ringgold, whose output playfully transcends previously categorical boundaries by becoming as coveted by a fan base as they are celebrated in museums, thus completely recontextualizing the notion of art.
This form of liquefaction of hitherto seemingly ironclad claims to autonomy points, for the time being, to a universal victory of consumerism as a form of communication that dominates everyone and everything and no longer tolerates any special status for selected forms of production and reception, even if it is art. It requires little imagination to conclude from this that a resulting subordination and incorporation of art, too, into the market-economy regime will have grave consequences for its autonomous status.
Art as a medium that sets out to meet societal expectations
Ullrich sees postautonomous artifacts emerging in the transition from bourgeois to mass consumerist societies, whose character would be fundamentally different from earlier ones: While autonomous art sought to elude the immediate striving for possession in order to be received with “disinterested pleasure” – in principle by everyone equally – at special places of the community defined as neutral, postautonomous art was designed for possession. It proves to be an expression of demonstrative individualization. Without owning it, one does not belong to the chosen community.
In this way, art no longer fulfills its purpose in its reception (for which the bourgeois era has demanded a great deal of preliminary work from people to become knowledgeable), but in its possession. Their purpose is no longer fulfilled in the expectations of social distinction gains. Rather, it is based on the fulfillment of functions such as soul comfort, talisman, or even brand product that wants to be used concretely. Ullrich speaks of an activist-consumerist art that no longer wants to be negotiated in extraterritorial places, but finds a place in the everyday life of those who possess it. As such, it is no longer relegated to its aura as an individual piece, but exists in many variants and versions, each describing different properties and possible uses.
Such an attribution of function has consequences for form and content: if “autonomous artists” were still intent on using their new, state-guaranteed freedom to criticize the prevailing conditions or, in the individual case, to put their fingers in the wound, then they would have to be able to do so. While “autonomous artists”, with their new state-guaranteed freedom, were still aiming to criticize the prevailing conditions or to put their fingers into the wounds of societal aberrations in order to provoke entrenched views, we are now entering a phase of artistic creation in which the friendly and cute (and thus the marketable and easy to sell) are given preference over the incomprehensible, provocative, sublime or even disgusting. This also means, however, that such art – as an expression of the complex history of European modernity – no longer wants to be questioned for its deep hermeneutic meaning, but wants to be understood as an easily manageable consumer good among many others and thus as a component of a spectacular ‘here and now‘. For a deeper distinction between autonomous and post-autonomous art claims, Ullrich refers to Milena Burzywoda’s initiative “artistunderground”.
The autonomy of art as a historical special case – With a beginning. And an end?
In a chapter tracing history, Ullrich tries to derive his redefinition of art historically. In this, art was for him always a medium of demarcation. In its religious use in pre-modern times, it served above all to distinguish the sacred and transcendent from the baseness of the profane. With the assertion of secular world views, the need to demarcate oneself not only from a beyond that legitimized power, but also from the past, changed, overcoming the characteristics of the previous generation. It was necessary – each time anew – to free oneself from existing constraints in order to enter new aesthetic territory.
In the end, the ultimate proof of art was that “which is not considered art.“ The resulting claims to autonomy were supposed to refer to freedoms that claimed to leave existing notions of art behind: Art should irritate, it should alienate, it should not ingratiate itself, and it should contain an incomprehensible (enigmatic) remainder. Sooner or later, however, this process had to lead to it’s own overcoming.
Autonomous artists who supply their evaluation standards at the same time
The dilemma became apparent at the latest when the handling of art created in this way made an assessment of quality impossible. To the extent that artists claimed to have entered new territory, they refused to accept objectifiable criteria that could have provided information about their specific aesthetic and, beyond that, their social effects. Thus their evaluation amounted to simple claims to power by those who sit at the levers of the art business, without the foundations of their decision-making being able to be adequately communicated to an audience trimmed to affirmation.
What was expressed here was not only the claim of an autonomous artist who claimed to overcome his or her historical predecessors, but also the will to be able to evaluate his or her own achievements in the absence of any possibility of comparison. It is easy to see that such an idealization of “autonomous artists” is a historical exception. The ambition to put one’s own artistic work and its evaluation into one without any influence of external circumstances contradicts the democratic constitution of modern societies, which is based on publicly argumentative justification of social action. And so artists must also acknowledge that an unreflected claim of autonomous art cannot withstand the force of contemporary social realities.
Artistic Avant-Gardes Intervene in Society
The stylization of artists as extraterrestrial exceptional figures, whose quality would prove to be their refusal of any reference to prevailing social contexts, did not remain unopposed. Thus it was a basic concern of the artistic avant-gardes of the 20th century to relate their actions to practices and rules of fields outside of the art realm. Examples of this are the Fluxus movement as well as the initiatives around “Relational Aesthetis“. Admittedly, they all have to accept the reproach of having had little interest in equal cooperation with representatives of “non-art” political fields. Instead, they aimed to put their own aesthetic stamp on them.
The consequences of globalization are still largely unreflected in their implications for the art business (the disaster surrounding the documenta fifteen and its helpless handling of set pieces of specifically European history has made clear how much still has to be done for this). As a central representation of European Enlightenment (and thus of bourgeois individualism), “autonomous art” is today more than ever suspected of perpetuating Western postcolonial forms of domination. In the context of the renegotiation of existing power relations, Ullrich points to the return of the art and curiosity chambers in the context of international auctions, in which skeletons of dinosaurs are placed, seemingly without intention, on an equal footing with brand-name items such as Ferrari, alongside the output of a Picasso and Basquiat. There, art mutates into a branded article like any other, whose specific art-historical context remains largely irrelevant, at least for wealthy non-Europeans as long as a reference to a “patriarchal colonialism” can be avoided (the anonymous purchase of the work of art “Creator mundi” attributed to Leonardo da Vinci by a member of the Saudi ruling family seems particularly symptomatic in this context).
If Ullrich has his way, then the current repositioning of art also imposes new approaches on the personnel securing its existence, such as curators. To the extent that fewer and fewer people want to penetrate the “ontological depths” of art, the opportunities lie in the contextualization of art, thus in the creation of the manifold references that characterize a world-oriented art production (and its reception). Paradigmatically, this could already be experienced in the context of Documenta 14, whose selection criteria were much more politically than genuinely artistically directed. This should apply all the more to its successor, documenta fifteen, which from a non-European perspective should allow a redefinition of what art is still capable of achieving today in a global context beyond traditional notions of its autonomy.
The mass use of social media (also by artists) leads any one-sided claim to autonomy ad absurdum – The recipients are becoming increasingly important.
There is a lot to be said for the assumption that technological development will ultimately determine the continued existence of an autonomous status for art in the current phase of social transformation. It is already easy to foresee that the so-called social media are imposing new modes of communication that are also having a serious impact on the way artistic phenomena are dealt with. Designed for rapid interaction, they give art the character of a message that is fulfilled in the willingness to pay attention. In this way, however, the recipients become increasingly important. As the actual driving forces of a technologically driven emancipation, autonomous art claims remain alien to them as long as they cannot be applied to activist projects that – against rampant individualization and isolation – bring communities to strong convictions and become inspiring for their will to create. This all to constitute a new concept of art that is measured by how well it can be used as a trigger for economic, social, and political engagement.
In the two concluding chapters, Ullrich addresses the failures and successes of post-autonomous forms of art. Like many before him, he points to the initiator of an art that questions itself, thus to Marcel Duchamp, who more than a hundred years ago already questioned the hitherto prevailing history of art: As a style-forming troublemaker, he succeeded with his readymade “Fountain” as early as 1917 in calling into question all previously prevailing self-understandings of the art business. With him, the artist was born who no longer knows “what he is doing and why he is doing it“. And thus – even if unconsciously – completely surrenders himself to the interpretation of his surroundings.
With his urinal transformed into an artifact, Duchamp referred to a categorical difference between artistic intention and its realization, which only the viewer is able to overcome. As the new subject of the art business, it is incumbent upon the viewer to decipher the work. It is their task to establish the connection to the external world and to give the artistic production the meaning that is potentially contained in it. Contrary to all autonomous claims, the viewer has since made the decisive contribution to the “creative act” of art, which is capable of explaining what is already (hidden) in the work.
Autonomy as an attempt to maintain power
Not only the authorship of the artist comes under suspicion, but also a concept of work that increasingly proves to be a form of exploitation and expropriation of the recipients. If in the traditional settings of the perception of autonomous art the recipients are supposed to behave submissively and not autonomously, then therein lies an outdated asymmetry of power that corresponds less and less to the demands of a diverse society.
In this way, the revaluation of the recipients is directed against the existing forces of persistence for the maintenance of a right of the strongest, with which an excessive individualism of individual artists is to be removed from the dangers of increasing conflicts of interest. In this way, against all evidence, art is once again constituted as a free space in which a few beneficiaries of liberal democracies are able to live out their freedoms in excessive form, even if it is in places where things are undemocratic and where groundless discrimination is allowed.
There is much to suggest that the claim of autonomy of art, after more than a hundred years of avant-garde attempts to relate art and life to each other, has degenerated into a claim to power that can no longer be legitimized, whose representatives claim to have to maintain the boundaries between art and non-art and – to their own advantage – defend them at almost any price.
Along a very selective choice, Ullrich refers at the end of his reflections to artistic strategies of appropriation that move hitherto excluded members of social groups into the center of artistic interest, without examining their quality claims in detail. These include quite traditional works of art such as Kerry James Marshall’s “Past Times,” which aims to valorize clichéd pejorative ascriptions of others as a source of self-confident claims. Beyoncé & Jay-Z’s attempts to liberate the Louvre from its traditional attribution in the context of their performance of Apeshit by The Carters in order to enable a new linkage of high and pop are also not to be missed.
The manifold attempts, on the other hand, to give art new relevance – beyond autonomous claims – as a contribution to political activism are largely left out. In the post-autonomous age outlined by Ullrich, the tendency to subjugate art to market events triumphs over current attempts to once again give art special relevance in the course of the new political struggles. One cannot forget what untapped (though not unproblematic) potential lies in the inclusion of art in the further development of social coexistence, far beyond the narrow confines of an autonomously constituted art business.
With these attempts at the latest, we sense that the emancipatory potential that may once have lain in the claim of the autonomy of the arts has come to its (temporary) end. In his essay “Art is Free? – An Argument for Art Autonomy“, the Israeli historian Moshe Zuckermann recently made an offer of mediation, according to which the autonomy of art would always be in relation to what lies outside of it. In doing so, he attempts to put beyond dispute that every “outside” always influences the “inside” of any artistic activity. And so, when we talk about the future of art, we cannot avoid the context in which art takes place.
It would be beneficial to Teodor Currentzis and Co., but also many others, to integrate this inescapable relationship more strongly than before into their self-presentation.