Before embarking on a discussion about the authority of art one must wonder if art is autonomous. Does it has a power of its own capable of influencing other powers or its use is to ornament and acclaim the already known powers?1
On one hand, art offers a cultural legitimation to those elites that have access to a certain type of knowledge and the resources necessary to its reproduction; on the other hand, art can be of a hard to swallow pluralism. The values it represents are no longer chubby cherubs and virginal Madonnas. These are all but extinct, even if the time of such values dawned. This is the beginning of “that thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name of Kitsch: popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc.”2. Let us squeeze in everything that reminds us of old oppressions – sex, religion, country and inherited privilege.
Art’s authority could not be derived anymore just from sustaining L’Ancien Regime of declining aristocracy, especially when the bourgeoisie started amassing more power and more money than the nobility could. Besides, capitalism itself set free the artist and his art. They could from now on survive without a patron. Well, in a manner of speaking. There was never a complete breakup; the munificent patron was replaced with the profit driven capitalist. The latter one represented a democratization of art insofar as it opened art to new social demands: interior design, architecture, furniture design etc. Arthur Danto’s Artworld appeared once the market was ready for it. Although an art market existed since the sixteenth century3, with the rise of oil painting and codpieces, only the ability to multiply and freely reproduce an art work cumulated with the appearance of new mediums (daguerreotypes, cameras, film) an Artworld is established and a true bureaucracy of art is made possible. For the latter to function as it should, consent and recognition were necessary. The autonomy of art seems to be in its beginnings nothing more than a rupture from the old traditions. It wanted new social relations and new relations of production. The dense atmosphere of various revolutionary desires and utopias in the nineteenth century made it possible for artists to be zealous in their claims for a new art and a new society. The artist’s authenticity was at stake, becoming a cogent claim for the new order.
Contemporary art’s social position needs a much more elevated sense of authority and power than before. First of all, it must justify and legitimize its own practices in the new territory made accessible by the new mediums of expression. Secondly, there is a global competition on the art market. The contradictions that art generates, the levels on which the artistic discourse slides are multiplied with the more varied means of expression and with its ignored/transgressed/set new-found boundaries. Art still finds patrons by furnishing them with a necessary differentiation between social classes, also covering in the process the material cost of art production which is the more expensive as it is innovating. Art installations cannot be produced for sale as a painting can be. Such a limitation brings out the private parties interest in taste hierarchies.
The autonomy of art is not just a relative autonomy of various social forces but also an autonomy understood as a lack of dominant aesthetic tastes. Even if there are hierarchies of taste (constructed by various forces and their own class interests), there are no more hierarchies – at least it should not be the case anymore – of different mediums through which art is produced. Such equality between dissimilar means of expression affix art’s autonomy as a form of democratic pluralism. From this point of view, art is autonomous by being neutral of the ways in which the artistic message is propagated. Their plurality can short-circuit attempts to control certain artistic discourses (anti-system, anarchic, radical left etc.). This is a very important aspect: only when equal aesthetic rights are bestowed on every mean of expression these can influence and impact the politically biased tastes of the ruling elites.
Once the artistic discourse is clearly delineated and relative to the Artworld’s internal criteria, the artist’s autonomy is reduced. But only with the entering into the organized Artworld the art work derives its cultural authority. Even if, in an ideal sense, “independence” would require a lesser integration into the functional system of the pre-existing Artworld, it is a necessary step to acquiring cultural authority. There is a trade-off between autonomy and authority. Which of the two serve the artist and the reforming potential of art better? Can art have both?
The fact that we must “choose” among them makes the political framework explicit. If authority can be conferred only by authorities of a political, financial or conservative nature, autonomy becomes irrelevant. Authority derived from autonomy reflects a form of democratic recognition as opposed to autonomy derived from authority. In the first case, a large involvement of art on the most pressing levels of life to gain social recognition is needed. An autonomous collective of recognition unfolds. In the second case, autonomy reflects a simple formal attribute, a consented autonomy by existing authority. Recognition is horizontal and implies relations, authority consent is vertical and requires power of decision.
In our global village a new spirit of capitalism sees the dim light of dawn. It is not the first one, nor the last. Its first spirit was that of promised liberation from the chains of tradition. It brought with it the industrial discipline on the late nineteenth century and brought to light the age of revolutions. The second spirit of capitalism tried to build communities, mostly to counter the communist “collective”. It failed . The third one builds on the notion of network. It rejects the old forms of organization and obsolete hierarchies to benefit as much as possible from the freedom to connect, by sistematically exploring every potentially profitable connections. The Artworld is vulnerable and thoroughly exposed to the capitalist network that “liberates” by replacing old constraints with market ones. Autonomy is also granted by deregulating the existing social strings of aid, achieved with tremendous efforts and sacrifices in the last century. Networking becomes necessary for the “autonomous” individual, perversely confirming its economic functionality. A(uto)nomy.
The uncertainty that hovers over art’s autonomy and it’s cultural authority targets these transformations. The Limbo of a new spirit of capitalism engenders hard to discern contexts and transformations. Once old regulations and norms vanish, inducing the “impression” of a new kind o f liberation, new suppressions are made.
Time is limited, the space slim-Jim. Autonomy must be formed in these temporary gray areas, retaking and re-using the revolutionary old notions of liberation and authenticity.
First published in AllHollow