September 10, 2009

Critical Fragments: Autonomy

“Instead of assuming responsibility for culture in concert with the producers of culture, the state and its political functionaries, citing a strained culture budget, have delegated that responsibility to an antiquated patronage system (which, to make things worse, is often confused with sponsoring). Offensive or aggressive art-sponsoring campaigns, which bring tax benefits, offer a cost-effective means of exploiting artistic production to which many institutions and artists now find themselves compelled to resort. […] My concern relates rather to the fact that we need to identify the circumstances that surround this situation and to make the complex relationships involved transparent to students engaged in art studies, in order to encourage reflection about the circumstances in which we operate under the influence of such developments.”(1)


Artistic autonomy, hard-won since the nineteenth century, has undergone continual erosion in recent years. With the advent of these art-sponsorships, museums have partnered, at times covertly, with international conglomerates to mount large-scale exhibitions. The idealism of the Modernist era - artists free to succumb to their “inward gaze,” to take “ownership” of their work, to make art for themselves, not Church or State – has disintegrated rapidly as artists of the postmodern era have formed uneasy alliances with the capitalist enterprise.

This enterprise itself is an ironic confluence of disparate power structures, all operating under the vague mission of cultural “production” and “education.” Bourdieu’s take on this is well-documented as evidence that culture is “not a democratizing force, and individual artistic expression is condemned to play a part in the field of artistic production in terms of buyers, sellers and critics.”(2)

Thus, autonomy becomes another critical element for practicing artists to re-consider. In essence, we do have permission and freedom to explore whatever we want, to engage in a wide and ever-expanding range of practices made even more accessible with our “pluralistic” fascination.

The nature of autonomy in the arts suggests that artists have such freedoms. Yet as art is wholly enmeshed within the “art world” and art-making involves “product,” it is easy to see that we can never be free of the art world’s context, i.e., buying, selling, sponsoring artworks.(3)

Perhaps a pedestrian alternative, one that smacks of that dreaded project called Socialism, can be one possibility for re-gaining true autonomy within the realm of art practice. As artists generally and almost universally make objects, why not create a league or union of art-workers that trade objects for services? Many within the art community hold second jobs; often highly-skilled and professional jobs that provide specific services in dentistry, construction or software design. These artist-service providers could trade their skills for artworks. Art collectors could also be invited to join this league as collector-barterers, offering their skills and services in exchange for works of art. As this network of artist-barterers is paired with equivalent collector-barterers then artworks might be traded for services needed.

This admittedly would not free us entirely from the “commodity” world of the art market, but it may prove to be a fruitful way for artists to “make a living” without having to “match” their work to a commercial gallery. Freeing one’s production from the necessity for establishing its “exchange value” may be the only way to regain true autonomy.

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1. Bauer, Ute Meta. “Education, Information, Entertainment,” Current Approaches on Higher Artistic Education, Vienna, 2001, 34-35.

2. Grenfell, Michael; and Hardy, Cheryl. Art Rules: Pierre Bourdieu and the Visual Arts, Oxford, 2007, 177.

3. Ibid.

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