Autonomy Beyond Affirmation

Theodor W. Adorno believed in increased autonomy in art. The pendulum has swung back since Adorno wrote, Aesthetic Theory in 1970. Art making is in many ways more restrictive today, in part, because of the professionalization of the field. Its production and proliferation may appear more pluralistic, but art’s development is restrictive in the absolute abandonment of pleasure seeking discovery. Choices are tested to fit the larger “conversation.” MFA programs are rife and artists are taught to make work that looks professional. Truly great artists are talked out of radical ideas because professors won’t accommodate concepts that are too difficult, strange, or perverse. The reason isn’t because the ideas are incomprehensible, but because there is an intrinsic understanding that the market won’t accommodate the work. This result is seen as detrimental to the artists and not in keeping with the school’s marketing strategy. Therefore, choices are safe, watered down, focus group tested, peer–reviewed, filled with permission seeking artists scared their careers will be ruined if their work is ill received by the larger community of writers, critics, collectors, and dealers. The result is too often mendacious, mundane, mediocre work.

Adorno’s, Aesthetic Theory (University of Minnesota Press) was first published posthumously in 1970, and translated into English in 1997. The condition of art at the time Adorno wrote in the 60s was very different from what it is today. There were fewer mid–level galleries. MFA programs were scarce—from a handful then, to hundreds today, with undergraduate degrees doubling that number. “Art” and “career” weren’t muttered in the same breath; today, one utterance is inextricably tied to the other. While the landscape has changed, Adorno wasn’t focused on this problem in exactly the same way, precisely because it didn’t exist. Adorno wrote about the emancipation of art from the very system that binds and constricts it. A system of constriction is a similar concept for today’s artist, but with vastly different consequences. Adorno:

Blindness was ever an aspect of art; in the age of art’s emancipation, however, this blindness has begun to predominate in spite of, if not because of, art’s lost naïveté, which as Hegel already perceived, art cannot undo. This binds art to a naïveté of a second order: the uncertainty over what purpose it serves. It is uncertain whether art is still possible; whether, with its complete emancipation, it did not sever its own preconditions.

It is so interesting to think about art as self-referential, a condition all art is subject to. Not only is the artist self–reflexive of his or her own work in terms of an overarching dialogue—the belief that current input will build upon historical exemplars—the act of making is also weighed against the market. Radical art is increasingly difficult to produce, has no precedent, and likely no profitability. Therefore, these ideas are purged during the introduction and indoctrination phase of the artist’s development. Fitting work into the “conversation,” is code for the “market.” The idea of building on recent historical lineages is neither, 1) possible or, 2) truly the objective. Artists and institutions have very different objectives than just 30 or 40 years ago. Adorno rejects the logical, or as Fredric Jameson would say, “periodizing,” lineage of art for a heuristic understanding of art’s past as a coherent building upon its development and self–determination:

Artworks detach themselves from the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity. Thus, however tragic they appear, artworks tend [,] a priory [,] toward affirmation.

Art is not synonymous with a theology of salvation. Art is a secular development necessary toward its own autonomy. However, art, according to Adorno, severs itself from the empirical world, not merely to escape from the laws that bind it, but exalting and affirming its preeminence, thus locating its primacy. Helmut Kuhn, referenced by Adorno, asserts that art’s each and every work is a paean unto itself. Most telling, and the crux of Adorno’s thesis, “Art must turn against itself, in opposition to its own concept and thus become uncertain of itself right into its own fiber.” Therefore, a logical art lineage cannot be excavated to find empirical answers. This line of reasoning is not possible when assuming the act of reduplication as a form of renewal is affirming its passage. Works can be separated from their creators and exist as autonomous, evaluated on their own processes and suppositional merit, notwithstanding the artist’s intentions. Finally, the ontology of art starts with each ensuing generation building and fashioning its own method, validity, and scope rather than expanding on previous suppositions.

It seems impossible for artists to work outside a system of support. Yet, for art to turn against itself, unmooring its tenacious connectivity to superficial ambitions, it must reify its own practice outside the bounds of obvious dissemination processes. Artists silenced by the educational system will likely not continue making art because avenues of proliferation (the market) are through the institutions they attended. This has been the obvious route, but by no means the only one. The hand in glove relationship of artist production and the market are inseparable and in many ways indispensable. Unless supported by the state, or adamantly self-determined, artists will continue to redirect their creative impulses to make work that reflects the dictates of a larger emporium.

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