Arlyne Moi

Towards a Justifiable Conception of ‘the Autonomous Artwork’ in Today’s Artworld

Thesis for a "Hovedfag" in Philosophy at the University of Bergen - Spring 2005.

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Auto, self, and nomos, law: Autonomos occurs in ancient Greek prose and poetry, meaning living under one’s own laws.[25] From this it is easy to understand why ‘autonomy’ in every-day English is synonymous with independent, self-governing, free or not being controlled by external forces. These notions are preserved in Kantian moral philosophy, which contrasts ‘autonomous’ with ‘heteronymous’ as follows: Heteronymous actions are determined by conditions, goals and values, while autonomous actions follow the inner law (the categorical imperative), which determines our status as rational beings, and therefore is the foundation for human freedom (the hallmark of humanity). I, by contrast, imagine the word “autonomous” as a homunculus with bulbous protrusions stretching out in numerous directions; never reposed, restlessly it moves about, stretching one arm towards one concept, another arm towards another, and a third limb out towards something else. Perhaps it has no essential aspects and is just a malleable shell, but near to its heart remains some fairly stable cognates, pinned by constant use.


The Perseus website[26] presents nomos as that which is in habitual practice. Its first interpretation leans towards usage, custom, what is the custom in a certain city-state. Custom implies that things are according to it; the nomos is something already established and other things either follow or are contrary to it. Things may be done for no other apparent reason than to follow the custom. In that case, the act is done for sake of tradition and to fulfil a formal requirement. For tradition, there is a focus upon fulfilling an entrenched schema, as reflected in: “But we have to go to mass because we always go to mass.” As formal requirement, we bend the knee, even without a contrite heart. From the homunculus analogy, at the centre of nomos is custom, and close at hand is law, ordinance, statute, and decrees. Authority. But the malleable nomos bears negation in its luggage: a-nomos, anomaly, no law, no habitual practice. For the artiszan, ignorance of the rules of art, failure to conform to them, unsystematic, inaccurate, unskilful: as such, the artisan would be without art, uncreative and has no trade or profession. The Greeks found this term particularly useful when judging artisans; it would have been impossible to imagine artists creating without rules. But more than this, without nomos, the art or artisan could not even be recognized.

In ancient Greek literature, nomos personified is Orpheus. This stretches the arms of nomos out to enfold melody or strain, for nomos was used to refer to early melodies created for the lyre, as an accompaniment to epic texts. The terms harmonikos, harmozô are close by: tuning instruments, a thing in harmony with itself or other objects. Adapting instruments—or, for that matter, adapting anything to anything else entails harmony; the shoe must harmonize with the user. So adaptation rubs against nomos: Things have to be able to fit on or to or be according to, to be adaptable. The thing suits another figure. Suiting or accommodation now are formally joined with betrothal, making a troth between, setting in order one’s marital situation; a regulated relation. It seems to indicate that the Greek term archô (rule, ruled) is near to the heart of nomos. The husband rules, the wife accommodates, and the person with the soul of a slave is naturally suited for taking orders. Moreover, the tool used by carpenters—the ruler—is an embodiment of nomos. So also is the despot, for as soon as nomos is set in place, the self has only two choices: It is either in violation of, or is in subjection to nomos, for it is, in this traditional understanding, the other of the self.

Auto: The self

The self is a question never resolved, and I will not attempt to resolve it here, but it seems useful to think of the self is a subject constituted through choices and actions that have become the object of reflective activity. Traditionally construed as a consciousness of being in the world, of being differentiated from the rest of nature and God, while yet in a relationship with them, a self was thought important to ground experience and action in, inasmuch as it functions as the witness of experience, or the witness of reflection grounded in or constituting consciousness. As such, the self’s ability to reflect over itself shows it is already involved in a dialectic of normativity, hence it would be a relation of actions grounded in material processes. Plato made the self/soul out to be the seer or knower of Truth, Beauty and Goodness (Phaedrus 246; 248d), and he readily admitted that it is impossible to say what the self/soul is, so all we can do is to say what it is like.[27] Like Plato, Kant noted that the self cannot be experienced empirically, but it can be thought or assumed and justified through the indirect evidence of the empirical self.

‘Autonomous’ combined with the artwork-self

When the adjective under scrutiny joins with ‘artwork’, auto or self refers to the artwork. This is trivial, but significant because, when autonomy is predicated of the artwork, it immediately acquires honorary personhood. Yet in the same manoeuvre, ‘autonomous artwork’ is revealed as mysterious because what applies to the self of a person would also have to apply to an artwork. But how can a thing we intuitively assume is not endowed with life or spirit, lacking consciousness or self-volition, become more than a material object? It would have to have a soul or at least something non-tangible about it. The artwork thus becomes a fetish-object in the sense of ‘an object possessed by a spirit’. When the notion of self refers to the artwork, the empirical artwork becomes indirect evidence for the work’s transcendental self.[28] The mysterious, non-tangible self of the artwork—its honorary personhood and self-consciousness—can perhaps be more understandable (even if still objectionable) if we recall that, when ‘autonomous’ and ‘artwork’ were first lumped together in the nineteenth-century, this was the Romantic era, which generally rejected neo-classical ideals of rationality; the goal was to cultivate non-rational aspects of human thought. It is also worth noting that by attributing personhood to artworks, this may actually be a device for denoting something in the receiver’s mental activity, which when verbalized, is transposed onto objects and reified.

Meanwhile, the consequences of predicating autonomy for the artwork is that what was formerly understood as other than the artwork—general rules found in symbols systems or in other selves—now becomes internalized. The artwork-self sets up its own nomos, its own other, to which it internally subjects itself. So autonomy does not imply no law, anarchy or ‘anything-goes’; rather, the laws simply are not given from outside.

Since the artwork is a historical, timely event, its “self” has opportunities for change and re-creation contingent upon what it experiences, and upon the synthesis of its thoughts and actions, as it were. It would be a situation in which various activities occur, and where a will can be expressed or suppressed. The work that is autonomous is both sovereign and subject; bound by laws, but only those it has itself made, derived through habitual, integral practices.

The antithesis of the autonomous artwork would be the heteronymous artwork: Something produced through adherence to external laws, and accomplishing external purposes. It would not be independent from other institutions of society—e.g., traditional folk art, applied artworks like advertising jingles, or contemporary popular art.

From this initial “dip” into ‘autonomous artwork’, let us look backwards, to Kant, who is an important philosophical starting point for establishing the various concepts of the work’s autonomy used in today’s artworld. It is to Kant’s judgment of taste we now turn, to understand the “building blocks” of these conceptions.



[25] Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon for Internet.


[27] Even materialistic theories might agree, for although the self is a mix of biological material processes, when we examine the materials of our bodies, do they reveal all the workings of the self? Although the self might not exist without material activity, it is perhaps still not the same as material processes.

[28] See chapter 4, “Aesthetic Realism”, pp. 37-41.