or aesthetic conservatives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the reign of the dissolution of form and the rise of the readymade (assemblage, photography, post-object aesthetics generally) have been seen as one long drawn-out diversion from classical values of proportion, harmony and hand-based craftsmanship. As such, the contemporary is never quite seen as securing the authority of the art of the past. As Friedrich Nietzsche, writing in the 1870s in a spirit of the proto-avant-garde, declares, this morbid historicism erects a monumentalism of the past in order to block off the aporias divisions and problems of the present. Because the ‘contemporary is not yet monumental, [modern art] seems to them unnecessary, unattractive and lacking in the authority conferred by history’.1
Indeed this historicism represents not so much a defence of quality against ‘relativism’, but an attack on art tout court: ‘They are connoisseurs of art because they would like to do away with art altogether.’2
Some modern conservatives thus hold out, in an echo of this historicism, that the tradition of negation is a mere historical rupture, linked to the divisive rise of cultural pluralism and technology under capitalism, and that its life under capitalism is, in fact, limited.3
Admittedly, this ‘neo-classicism’ is largely a minor position these days, even on the right, but nevertheless, there remains a widespread view that somehow the negations of art might, and can, stop. All that prevents these negations from ending is a change
in attitude among artists, critics, and particularly museums, which, in egregious opposition to their traditional role, openly support the most adventitious forms of contemporary art in defiance of what people actually want. Attached to this conservative classicism is a liberal sanguinity that the history of the modern will eventually play itself out, or will fall into line if other kinds of critical persuasion are brought to bear, as if the modern in art was susceptible to some kind of kindly cultural therapy. In Kuspit, for example, there is a sense that ‘conceptualization’ will eventually wither on the vine.
Art’s traditions of negation persist, though. They persist because negation persists, because negation in art is what of necessity mediates skill (or lack of skill), form and meaning. And what drives this negation is the very ‘asociality’ of art under capitalism, the fact that for art to remain art (rather than transform itself into design, fashion or social theory) it must experience itself as being ‘out of joint’ both with its place in the world and within its own traditions. In fact being ‘out of joint’ with one means being ‘out of joint’ with the other. For, without this drive to autonomy (being other to that which calls it into being), art would simply cease to exist as a tradition of aesthetic and intellectual achievement and, more importantly, as a means of resistance to the heteronomy of capitalist exchange. This is why this tradition of negation continues to produce work of value and quality, despite the demise of the original avant-garde and the dispersal and assimilation of modernism, and despite art’s constant submission to the demands of entertainment and commerce and institutional legitimation and approbation. Art is irreducible to its own histories and to the heteronomous forces of capitalist exchange because art is that which starts from a position of negation.
However, to see art as an irreducible force of negation is not thereby to deny that the practices and institutions of art under mature capitalism are in irrevocable social crisis. The dynamism of modern bourgeois culture and the class fraction that it represents – the new liberal middle class – persist, as ever, at the expense of working-class emancipation and democracy all the way down
. To defend the dynamic logic of negation is not thereby to cast art adrift from these social constraints. In fact art and its social constraints are, precisely, interdependent
as under commodity culture the alienation of culture and the critical renewal of art are interwoven. Thus within the history of modernism and the modern, this alienation, far from being that which damns art to absolute dissolution, cultural decline, or self-anaesthesia, is the very ground of modern art’s unfolding and reinvention. This means that the experience and mediation of crisis and decline is indivisible from the judgements of value and critical materials that art is able to bring to bear on its own traditions and representation of the world, what we so far have called realized reflexivity. Consequently, even in this present epoch of crisis, the cognitive demands and the openness to meaning of art are not in themselves
in a state of desuetude. For if this were so, it would imply that at some previous point the alienated conditions of art’s production and reception were somehow richer and more perspicacious than the alienated conditions of art’s production now or yesterday. On these grounds – in order to defend art against the critics of its dissolution – we should look for quality and value in periods of relative social stability, for it is there we would be likely to find works of high quality. This is plainly absurd. In fact, the negations of art are continually able to reanimate themselves because the negations of art are ‘inexhaustible’ so long as asociality remains the underlying dynamic of art’s production under capitalism, and human beings are capable of finding meaning in this dynamism. To assume otherwise is to believe that asociality is simply a discrete product of the art – the result of what artists claim
to feel and experience – and not the basis under which the conditions of art, irrespective of the particular ideologies professed by artists, are produced and enter social relations.
Thus, there is a general historical principle at stake here: the decadence or decline of a culture is certainly not irrelevant to how art’s conditions of production are able to reproduce themselves, but it has little bearing on the value and quality of the art produced.4
What truly affects the quality of art is the state’s direct repression or coercive intervention and censorship of art. When art is driven out of production
, then the motor of art’s social negation is also driven into reverse. But even without the public transmission of art’s value, the negations of art do not stop there. Even in the most culturally impoverished circumstances and clandestine conditions of production, art becomes a
focus for the contradictions and alienations of social experience. Art’s negations, therefore, are not something that touch lightly on art, that come and go like a dusting of snow; on the contrary, they secure art’s conditions of visibility and autonomy, and, as such, give shape to art’s unfolding.
What follows is a defence of this tradition of negation and of the negative. My central argument is that when art abandons the possibility of the ‘new’ in these terms, it falls back into heteronomy and the academic. In this way, there can be no renewal of art without art resisting, reworking, dissolving what has become tradition, and duly, therefore, what has become heteronomous. But this link between the ‘new’ and value should not be confused with conventional modernist notions of formal ‘advance’ or stylistic supersession in art or, nihilistically, with the destruction of tradition tout court. Rather, the ‘new’ here is the restless, ever vigilant positioning of art’s critical relationship to its own traditions of intellectual and cultural formation and administration. The mistake postmodernism and contemporary critics of the avant-garde make accordingly, is that they identify art’s claim to autonomy not with art’s necessary reflection on its own conditions of possibility, but with simplistic notions of elitism and historicism.
Autonomy as Social Relation
n this respect, as we have noted, Adorno’s thinking on autonomy still has exemplary dialectical value. This is because for Adorno autonomy in art is defined first and foremost as a social relation
: in order to delineate itself as modern, it is imperative that art define itself against those institutional arrangements, social circumstances and traditions in which it finds itself. Therefore, there can be no critical future for art without this experience of disjunction with the traditions and institutions which have brought it into being. That is, the dynamic content of art continues to be implicated in the mediation of the critique of art as a social and epistemological category. What is important about this model of autonomy, consequently, is that it allows for a defence of art against reductively heteronomous notions of art as social practice, but from within
the space of art as
social practice. And this is what I
mean by metastasis. In short, Adorno’s model of autonomy is a dialectical model of art’s political relationship to its conditions of production and reception, and not a code word for artistic quietude, elitism and formalism. In this, it enables a defence of the ‘politics of
art’ to avoid the problems of political substitutionalism which have beset the whole history of art’s politicization from the First World War and Berlin Dada, down to relational aesthetics and participatory practice today.5
For Adorno, the idea that particular kinds of social location and critical content in art might secure art’s effectivity always fails to address how such moves tend to produce an instrumentalization of art’s forms of address and use-values.6
Art’s sensuous manifestation in the world of things not like art, is always subject to external criteria of success, to the world of things not like art. Hence for Adorno, once art’s politicization is harnessed solely to audience requirements, its internal development is frozen into pre-digested themes and expectations in the hope of meeting those requirements. This can lead only to self-censorship and a sentimentalized understanding of art’s possible claims on truth. In other words, Adorno’s concept of autonomy and defence of modernism – as principles of self-development – are an attack on precisely that section of the cultural left that believed that after late modernism, all art needs in order to divest itself of the constraints of the market and the art institution is to insert itself directly
into ‘everyday life’ – a belief widely revived in current relational and post-relational theory. Adorno’s writings on autonomy offer a powerful means of countering the idealist tendencies of this model of art as social praxis.
Adorno sought to restore the necessary negative content of art under the commodity form. That is, if art’s relationship to freedom is not just a matter of the formal representation of emancipatory content, then art’s transformation of its inherited materials must emerge from the pressures inherent to the heteronomous conditions of art’s production itself. In other words, there is no possibility of art’s renewal without art testing and confronting these materials and the traditions through which they are produced and transmitted. Consequently, key to a defence of this tradition of negation is the continuing possibility of the avant-garde as the staging area and unfolding ‘research programme/s’ of this process. The failure to treat the category of the avant-garde as an
emergent category, then, has been a failure to recognize the intimacy of negation and autonomy. For if negation (withdrawal, non-reconcilability, disaffirmation, distantiation, dissension, subtraction, displacement, denial) secures autonomy (a place, a site for reflection; a gap for the non-identitary), the avant-garde is the space where this process of refusal is produced as a systematic historical project. It therefore means that the truths it labours to produce through a process of realized reflexivity do not diminish once they are exposed to cultural assimilation. As Marjorie Perloff has argued, there is no reason to believe ‘that [avant-garde] art practices will not continue to manifest themselves (often where least expected), even as their gradual assimilation into mainstream culture will not necessarily insure their commodification’.7
In other words, there is a world of difference between the artwork entering the culture and being assimilated into critical discourse, and the artwork coming to speak for
the interests of the dominant culture, that is, finding an identity with it. On this basis, much historical and recent avant-garde art is clearly not assimilable to the interests of bourgeois culture. We need to distinguish, then, between very different senses of assimilation here – between notions of acceptance, tolerance, incorporation and assent. Certain works and practices are obviously tolerated and accepted, but nevertheless the culture finds it hard, or even impossible, to give assent
to their content, as with a huge amount of contemporary post-art practice. Various avant-garde practices remain lodged in renunciative spaces, spaces that capitalism finds too difficult to penetrate and mediate. The complacent notion that high culture and popular culture now share an identical space (of pleasures and artistic ambition) is, therefore, wholly misguided. This is because the would-be erosion of the distinctions between high and low is invariably presented from the point of view of the assimilation of high-cultural form into
popular culture, rather than from the perspective of the life of avant-garde works themselves, which on closer inspection reveals real levels of discord and dissent from the expectations of the popular text and therefore resistance to assimilation. The avant-garde continues to exert its renunciative force even in conditions of (partial) assimilation and general marginalization. It is more fruitful to look at the avant-garde as a placeholder for art’s autonomy and, as such, it is better understood as
a spatial concept than as a supersessive procession of formalized groups or movements.8
The avant-garde after avant-gardism is that space of relations across practices and disciplines where artists, writers, intellectuals and technicians, and audiences test and probe the historical and self-normalizing conditions of the category of art, a space in which the conditions of art’s asociality are continuously brought to self-consciousness. In this sense the avant-garde is another name for the possibility of art’s continuing self-realization under the instrumentalizing forces of the commodity-form and the art institution, and, concomitantly, the site where critical thinking on art meets and coalesces. Accordingly, it will tend to be formed in those centres where the critique of prevailing practices, have a chance of critical legitimation based on prior critical (avant-garde) practice. It is a space, then, that continuously shifts cultural and national location and personnel. Moreover, the practices internal to this transnational and transcultural space, and which seek to prevail within it, will not necessarily share the same social and political perspectives. It is a space that not only shifts cultural and national location and personnel continuously, but is, in intra-artistic terms, unstable and conflictual.
Autopoiesis, Newness and the Avant-Garde
rucial to the bringing into self-consciousness of the asociality of art is how these various claims on art’s negation and self-negation produce the ‘new’. If the new is not simply that which coheres to produce a distinct, founding, collective style
(after the demise of the great modernist stylistic transformations), then how is ‘newness’ produced and mediated? How is novelty to be facilitated and recognized? If it is impossible to talk about the new in quite the same way as under modernism, then, indeed, is it possible to talk about ‘newness’ at all? Postmodernism has tended to answer these questions by assuming that ‘newness’ is now merely a (faded) effect of pastness, the mixing and reworking of previous styles, and as such should be seen as a liberation from the would-be repressive teleology of modernist self-reflection. The arguments for this are very familiar and represent a fundamental retreat to a neo-classicized model of artistic production: what can be
made from art is only that which can be made from the institutionally ascribed conventions of art. These arguments represent a retreat from modern art’s diremptive, expressive content, the thing that early modernism shaped, channelled and made its own in its interlocking progress with the development of subjectivity under industrial capitalism. What makes modernism and the avant-garde so protean is the harnessing of form as a process of subjective resistance and struggle
. Hence what postmodernism’s academicization of ‘newness’ produces, essentially, is a suppression or delimitation of this struggle and expressive function of art – the fact that under conditions of art’s alienation, the materials, forms and means of expression of art will of themselves be necessarily alienated. Art’s reflection on its own conditions of production and reception is mediated by reflection not just on its own traditions, but on the extra-artistic
conditions of possibility of those traditions. The idea, therefore, that autonomy is another name for art as an essentially autopoietic process is a formalistic reduction of art’s reflective and expressive content.
Nicholas Luhmann is, perhaps, the most theoretically astute defender after postmodernism of the autopoietic position. For Luhmann the renewal of art is possible only in art’s terms:
Of course, artistic communication could never come about without society, without consciousness, without life or material. But in order to determine how the autopoiesis of art is possible, one must observe the art system and treat everything else as environment.9
Indeed, the evolution of art is ‘its own accomplishment. It cannot be caused by external intervention.’10
For Luhmann that does not mean that under the conditions of autopoiesis the content of art is predictable from the past content of art, but that the internal schemas of art will themselves of necessity provide the differential moves art is able to make. However, despite the emphasis on art’s recursive renewal and expansion, Luhmann’s system has a marginal place for the agency of the artist and for the incursions of the non-artistic real into art, and as such, has little interest in autonomy in art as the mediated site of class conflict and social and cultural division.11
Autonomy is simply that which
pulls art’s recursiveness along, that which gives internal shape to art’s unfold...