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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From the “building blocks” chapter, it is clear that Kant set up numerous features that make up the autonomous domain of art. This synthetic position has functioned as a palimpsest from which other thinkers have written, twisting and interpreting the various aspects consolidated in Kant’s paragraphs, some quite radically so. Hence, when people refer to ‘the autonomy of art’, a whole range of things automatically receive the autonomous label: artists, materials, receivers, curators, and the artworld as a whole, even down to the gallery owner.[41] Yet for the purpose of this paper, it is the artwork’s autonomy that is in focus, and if the work cannot be addressed as the centre of attention, it is in relation to the artist and receiver.

Ever since ‘autonomous’ was joined with ‘artwork’, the expression has been a series of tropes. I think of Wittgenstein’s metaphor of the “enclosure with holes”;[42] like a room where the door is locked but the window is open, the expression has been continuously replenished with additional meaning, even as content is slipping out. In order to venture a conception of the expression that could be relevant for today’s artworld, the goal now is to get an overview of the most common ways the phrase is already being used, and what the main benefits and disadvantages of these are. The following account will therefore alternate with an ongoing discussion between an autonomist and a dissenter (tempter). These two abstractions are used as a means to dialogically react to various positions; they are not intended as two unified positions but as means by which to pit views against each other in a more direct and forceful way.

The reader may wonder why I do not call the dissenter a “heteronomist”, assuming that this term expresses the antithesis of an autonomist. I have refrained from this usage because “heteronomist” would easily be interpreted in the sense of “the type of person who holds that the laws pertaining to the artwork—either with regard to its creation or reception, formal or especially its final purpose—are external to the artwork proper”. The problem with this is that it is too narrow an explication of what non-autonomy means today. The dissenter is legion, but most often a moral-instrumentalist, either directly (as was Plato), or indirectly as some late-modernists are. Meanwhile, the reader might also object at the usage “autonomist”, since there are so many sorts. I choose to use “autonomist” because it is a useful abstraction for instantiating the current problems in the quarrel between autonomist and instrumentalist positions. The “autonomist” and “dissenter” present claims and arguments oft heard in the contemporary artworld.

Although I do not hold that positions are “owned” by any particular author, since we all gather and repeat thoughts from others, nevertheless, fragments of ideology and reasoning sometimes have exemplary advocates and the lineage of ideas can often be traced. Therefore, where appropriate, names will be mentioned. The following survey and discussion of conceptions is not meant to be exhaustive. I want to present the most prevalent views and to discuss them to the point where I feel they are irreparably weakened or strengthened, so as to be able to be included or rejected in a synthesis of moments for ‘the contemporary autonomous artwork’. I realize that messiness will, at times, rear up in the course of the discussion; what is classified under one description may also be tangled into others—what one thinker holds to be a core feature of the work’s autonomy, another thinker will deem is a core feature of why it is not autonomous! Perhaps this messiness arises from the Kantian-style practice of “not putting all the eggs in one basket”; it is seldom just one feature that describes the artwork’s autonomy. This notwithstanding, what is common for all conceptions is that they are rich descriptions of the core features, either of the artwork’s context or of the artwork itself.



The following discussion between the autonomist and the dissenter examines understandings of ‘the autonomous artwork’, which share in common that they do not focus on a real being or nature of the artwork. They focus on external aspects that render the work independent or free, either the artist, the receiver or something about the work’s institutional setting.

A. The work’s autonomous status as being related to the artist

Autonomist: An artwork is autonomous in the sense that it is made by an artist-genius who creates without following external rules, or without consciously deliberating about what to do to make the work, or without having conceptualized intentions for it. By contrast, the non-artist-genius would be someone like George Bernard Shaw, who admitted that he always consciously used a formula to produce his dramas.[43] As far as conscious deliberation or conceptualized intentions are concerned, both Plato and Kantians conjectured that artworks are created by someone who does not cognitively deliberate during the act of creation. For Plato this was not considered autonomous art however, because the work was intended by a daimon, a being distinct from the artisan or poet. Hence the artisan or poet is a mere conduit. For Kantians however, ‘genius’ takes on a different meaning since as the artist herself is the genius. The Kantian genius is a person naturally favoured or endowed in a certain way to create as if she were nature creating—without concepts. There is a close connection between non-deliberation/spontaneous creation and the absence of concepts. The artist Jackson Pollock is a good example of someone claimed to be a Kantian-style genius: He made art by automatic gestures [Illustration 3] he tried to abandon conscious control—in order to allow unconscious areas of his mind to guide his hand. The primary result of such genius is originality of expression. The following was said of him, which is indicative of this view:

Autonomy and self-reliance were Pollock's Holy Grail, in his head and in his career. Since he experienced such misery trying to submit to disciplines of learning for which he had no aptitude, the godsend, liberating idea for him was the one he got simultaneously from looking at modern art and listening to his therapists: The principle that art could ultimately depend not on acquired talents but on inner resources, no matter how disturbed that inner life was.[44]

‘The autonomous artwork’ is thus the result of the free employment of the mind’s power’s to produce an original creation.

Dissenter: ‘Pure psychic automatism’ was rife in 1940’s New York City—it derived from the creativity espoused by André Breton and his Surrealist followers beginning in the 1920’s. I agree with Plato that the artwork made by an artist possessed by a daimon would not be autonomous, since the muse could be following a rule. But surely artists follow rules they are not aware of; e.g., rules embedded in the culture that are so ubiquitous to the point where one is not consciously aware of them. Therefore the Kantian’s close connection between spontaneous creation and non-conceptuality could be re-described as inattentiveness to or ignorance of the rules one actually is following. Moreover, the Pollock example sounds quite contradictory: Pollock tried to create unconsciously? If he was trying then he must have deliberated. Getting into a drunken stupor was his conscious choice. Furthermore, in Pollock’s interviews, he shows clearly that he thought a lot about what he is doing, and that he practiced, much as a calligrapher does before drawing the dexterous line. Admittedly, he did not make preliminary drawings, but he said, “I do have a general notion of what I’m about and what the results will be.”[45] When Pollock was asked if it was difficult to control his work, he answered, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t—with experience—it seems to be possible to control the flow of the paint...”[46] All this makes me doubt the Kantian artist-genius because—how can an artist create without conceptual thought of some sort? How can a person have their reason disengaged without being mentally ill? Furthermore, the claim of genius could be a ploy to hoodwink us all into thinking that some artist’s work is better than it actually is, a means to invest artworks with more value than they rightfully deserve. But, lest I be criticized for bad faith, I repeat, how can an artist create without conceptual thought?

Autonomist: O.K., what if we say the autonomous artwork is when the artist exercises the freedom to address any issue, etc, use any means, break any taboo or transgress any rule regardless of the consequences. This could be an extension of Kant’s notion of the artwork being ‘a law unto itself’. ‘The autonomous artwork’, under this description, exchanges the non-purposiveness or indirect purposiveness of artworks with that of serving a direct purpose: Artworks should transgress established norms in order to, e.g., promote social change. The pre-condition for being able to transgress is the existing norm the work can negate, and the artwork’s freedom is achieved the moment the work transgresses some norm: The nineteenth and twentieth-centuries are rife with examples of transgressing law—material selection, taboo themes, etc.: A ruckus is created and a new limitation of what is acceptable is established in the culture. Then, in order for subsequent artists to create autonomous works, they must push beyond the newly established limit and the cycle repeats. Hence the limit of what is considered autonomous is constantly stretched, until there comes the point where anything goes. This seems to be where we are at today, or perhaps actual child molestation might be the limit.[47]

Dissenter: This makes for an artwork at odds with itself: The artwork is supposed to be free and self-legislating, but there are really only two choices available, neither of which present it as free. First, if the only way an artwork can be free is by breaking a rule, then to do so is to follow a rule. There is no freedom to choose whether or not to transgress: If it follows the rule and transgresses then it is not free, and if it does not transgress then it is still following rules found in the culture. Secondly, the notion of transgressive artworks fulfilling some heroic duty of expanding the boundaries of art and crushing bourgeois morality is highly problematic. Times have changed. It is difficult to claim that contemporary artworks represent a counter-culture. As Sarah Arrhenius puts it, “the art market is the perfect little sister of the Market, and digests most things quite elegantly”.[48] The artist wants to be noticed, gain recognition from peers, the art-institution and the public at large. In order to be recognized, she has to perform acts that will be noticed and perceived as relevant for the contemporary artworld. Therefore the artist picks up on trends within the institution, themes or concerns in the public arena. She binds herself to creating artworks that will engage with the mindset of a specific public. If she aims at communicating anything at all, her works necessarily must adapt to some communicative mode with conventions. And these conventions lie within the culture, are copied from it; they are not exuded exclusively out from the artist. It may be that the image of artworks and the artist as transgressors and scandalmongers fulfils a purely nostalgic function. As such, Arrhenius suggests that the artist is transgressing in a room that is “no longer there”.

Autonomist: Well, there are other ways of thinking the work’s autonomy in relation to the artist. A view enjoying great popularity with romantics is that the autonomous work is the private expression of the artist, some thing or style one person alone expresses. Exemplarily, the Norwegian translators of Heidegger’s “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes” write in their afterword: “At one point in European cultural history when art almost exclusively was understood as the artist’s “private” expression (autonomy)…”[49] This view exemplarily reverberates in the following claims about Jackson Pollock:

Late in 1943 or early in 1944, Pollock painted his first wall-size work, called “Mural”. This painting is his breakthrough into a totally personal style.[50]

The ‘private expression’ view is also echoed by the prominent contemporary art critic Robert C. Morgen, who discriminates what is “significant in art” as being “…an expression of individual thought and feeling within a new global, and potentially intercultural situation…”[51] Hence, on the one hand, there is the private, personal expression of the artist; on the other hand there is the artwork as an original expression. For the latter, it would be a sign of inauthenticity for one artist to create in a style previously adopted by another. For example, it is said that in the years when Pollock experimented widely, he contemplated using a cartoon style, but since Roy Lichtenstein had already appropriated it, it was off limits. According to the private expression view, the style must originate with the artist.

Dissenter: I can agree that an artist may feel that what they create is 100% heart-felt private expression. After all, I can say something and really mean it in spite of it being a general conceptualization. But these are inherited means of expression I have found in the culture and then made my own. The Surrealist Max Ernst drip-painted, maybe Pollock saw them, but the drips give no impression of being copied or second-hand. Even so, can that ensure his expression is unique? Visual expressions found in one place have also been found elsewhere, independent of mutual influence. Therefore, to claim an expression is unique to an individual seems unsustainable. Of course, I do not deny that artists can develop a signatory style, but this is a synthesis, oft achieved through marketing strategy rather than individually developed expression. Moreover, striving after a personal artistic expression has became a convention, a rule. It seems like everyone is forced to go out and try to be unique. And that is quite ironic: If artists are compelled to be original then this is external rule following.

Perhaps the best way to understand the work’s law-likeness without following a law is that the work’s abstract laws are secreted through the process of creation, like the oyster shell. Virginia Woolf envisioned it as follows:

Dissatisfied [with the form of fiction] the writer may have been; but her dissatisfaction was primarily with nature for giving an idea, without providing a house for it to live in…The novel was the obvious lodging, but the novel it seemed was built on the wrong plan. Thus rebuked the idea started as the oyster starts or the snail to secrete a house for itself. And this it did without any conscious direction. The little note-book in which an attempt was made to forecast a plan was soon abandoned, and the book grew day by day, week by week, without any plan at all, except that which was dictated each morning in the act of writing. The other way, to make a house and then inhabit it, to develop a theory and then apply it, as Wordsworth did and Coleridge, is, it need not be said, equally good and much more philosophic. But in the present case [Mrs. Dalloway] it was necessary to write the book and to invent a theory afterwards.[52]

The very act of writing or creating is shown to dictate its own laws. Even so, Woolf’s experience does not preclude there being external laws at work, and these laws can be as mundane as the habitual style for holding a pencil.

Finally, there is, as I see it, only one way the artist can really ensure that the work is autonomous; that is that she never exhibits it.

B. ‘The autonomous artwork’ understood in terms of its reception

Reception-oriented approaches to the work’s autonomy entail a psychological approach to art, and rely heavily on Kantian aesthetics. In the interest of brevity, I discuss only three approaches: aesthetic attitude, reception as non-conceptual feeling and the artwork as underdetermined by the language we use in our dealing with artworks.

i. Attitude theories: The aesthetic attitude, the judgment of taste.

Autonomist: The attitudinal approach to the artwork’s autonomy is that the work is autonomous because the judge is devoid of private interest with regard to it. According to this position, there is thought to be a faculty or ‘inner sense’ termed taste, and although Kant’s version is paramount, he was in no way the first to theorize it. (The earl of Shaftsbury in the early eighteenth-century seems to be the first.) The attitude of another of Kant’s precursors, Karl Philippe Moritz, is a good example of an ‘aesthetic attitude’, which produces a judgment of taste:

In contemplating a beautiful object [...] I roll the purpose back into the object itself: I regard it as something that finds completion not in me but in itself and thus constitutes a whole in itself and gives me pleasure for its own sake [...] Thus the beautiful object yields a higher and more disinterested pleasure than the merely useful object. [53]

Thus the aesthetic attitude has a negative meaning in the sense of not being motivated by self-concern or personal advantage. Meanwhile, this does not mean that the aesthetic attitude is un-interested. Disinterest only excludes private interest; by being disinterested, the agent assumes that she is judging just as any other person would.

For the Earl of Shaftsbury, a Neoplatonist,[54] taste is a moral judgment because it compares the object with an a priori concept of harmony. For Kant however, taste is not a moral judgment because it is not a concept but a feeling, and it serves no determinate purpose but is for itself. Nevertheless, whether the judgment of taste is moral or a-moral, this sort of position generally holds the insight that although the artwork’s autonomy has to do with its self-contained nature, if that nature is to be countenanced, or even if we are forever barred from countenancing it, the result—let us call it the aesthetic object—is conditioned by the subjective processes of the receiver’s attitude. Why? Because our subjective interest molds the way we perceive things and our judgment of them. The ensuing relativity or relationality is therefore seen as a roadblock, either for experiencing the artwork itself, or, as Kant thought, for experiencing a pure aesthetic judgment of taste. Schopenhauer, one of Kant’s prime interpreters on this point, held that through disinterested judgment, the work—in an absolute sense—could become available to the receiver. (This is not to say that Schopenhauer actually meant that the work would be countenanced absolutely, rather that disinterest opens up the possibility.) It is important to note that the Schopenhaurian understanding of disinterest is not Kant’s.

Meanwhile, Disinterested Attitude theory has persisted throughout the twentieth-century in various forms, and today, it broadly implies simply that there is no purpose governing the experience other than the purpose of having the experience. In so doing, an indifferent, non-egoistic and non-moral attitude is adopted so that will and desire are held at bay. As such, we become totally aware and attentive to an entity's whole being, nature and character for its own sake alone. Accordingly, ‘disinterested’ aesthetic perception is characterized by a ‘pointed mindfulness’, alert and vigorous rather than distant and detached. It is the opposite of looking at things from the outside, but a way of seeing things as they are. ‘Disinterest’ provides the basis for recognizing the intrinsic value of all living beings; lived experience as a way of knowing and of being in the world, and; the right of existence of all entities for their own sake alone.[55]

Dissenter: There seem to be two general conceptions of the ‘disinterested attitude’ at work in this broad interpretation: First, the notion that there must be no interests operative in the activity of contemplation of artworks. Secondly, the conflicting view that the first notion is too restrictive and only allows for examining the formal properties, divorced from original purposes, functions and contexts. In that case, while certain sorts of interests are still disallowed, some interests are necessary. A pertinent example of this second view would be Jerome Stolnitz, who proposes that in order to appreciate an artwork, it must be accepted “sympathetically”, attentively, and on its own terms. The active receiver must willingly attend to the phenomenal characteristics in a serious, consistent way. Stolnitz defines aesthetic perception as “the disinterested and sympathetic attention to and contemplation of any object of awareness whatever, for its own sake alone”.[56]

There is, of course, a certain sense in which disinterest and art meet, and it is in the artist’s attitude to life: For example, the artist sublimates her lust for life in the artwork; rather than actually commit murder, she can play-act a murder. I also agree with attitude theorists who preserve insights about what the receiver brings to the artwork, she bears responsibility for reception and interpretation. However, the problem with attitude theories generally, is that they assume access to the work itself is possible, that the receiver can know what it entails to receive a work “on its own terms”, unadulterated by the receiver’s attitude.

As far as the judgment of taste is concerned—and here I criticize the Kantian aesthetic attitude presented in chapter 2 as well—just for starters, there are problems with the following claims: of disinterest, the immediacy of the judgment, that it is non-conceptual but only a feeling, that it is an attitude one must don from the outset, that there is such a thing as in-itself-ness, and the notion of pleasure for its own sake. For brevity sake, I will address one issue, disinterest, and these other problems will be addressed indirectly, by way of addressing disinterest. I will address it with two claims: First, that it is highly doubtful whether disinterest is anything worth having; secondly, even if we wanted to achieve a disinterested attitude, we could not.[57]

As to the first claim—that it is highly doubtful whether a disinterested attitude is anything worth having—this is because disinterest expresses a lack of solidarity; it disenfranchises a wide range of people. It may well be that when aesthetics was cordoned off as a separate domain or discipline in the eighteenth-century, the quality of disinterest became a central tenant because of economic and social conditions; the public’s desire for entertainment threatened the status of neoclassical art, which focused on “fine”, idealized imitations of nature. Of course theorists thought the pleasures of the masses were vulgar and undesirable. They therefore promoted a notion of high culture where the artwork is seen as self-contained and independent, only able to be appreciated by the more refined audiences for which the necessities of life are already fulfilled. Only the upper class would be capable of putting aside particular feelings and interests in order to contemplate objects in a purely disinterested fashion. Under the banner of refined taste, the upper class may have just been legitimating and entrenching its power and authority over the masses. As Elizabeth A. Bohls claims: “An aesthetic paradigm of perception thus becomes a cultural means toward the ultimately political end of homogeneity and solidarity among England’s governing classes”.[58] In practice therefore, a disinterested attitude for aesthetic experience means that the receiver relates the artwork to their effort to create a distinction between themselves and others. The artwork is used for the external goal of legitimating one’s social and political control. Thus it is revealed as political, social and economic in nature. Pierre Bourdieu puts it forcefully: “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier”.[59] He goes on to state:

Kant’s analysis of the judgment of taste finds its real basis in a set of aesthetic principles which are the universalization of the dispositions associated with a particular social and economic position.[60]

Interest enters into the composition of the most disinterested pleasures of pure taste, because the principle of the pleasure derived from these refined games for refined players lies, in the last analysis, in the denied experience of a social relationship of membership and exclusion.[61]

But there is more: Through disinterest, the receiver ignores the instrumental value of artworks and consequently elevates non-functional artworks over functional works typically belonging to the domain of women, applied artists and “mere” craftsmen. Consequently, those who create useful objects are not deemed artists. In the final analysis, the notion of disinterest disenfranchises a wide range of people.

Autonomist: The dissenter makes it seem as though the aesthetic attitude, which includes aspects of disinterest or distancing oneself from the aesthetic object, serves no good purpose, that it is a means for exploitation or distinguishing oneself. Granted, today some highly placed actors in the artworld treat artworks primarily as social tools and elitist investments. But it is needful to distinguish between dubious elitist activities of some members of the artworld,[62] and other members, who try seriously to come to terms with artworks. If that sets up a distinction that happens sometimes to follow class distinction, then so be it. Bourdieu makes the mistake of assuming that the ‘popular’ approach to artworks, with a view towards either sensual pleasure or moral content, is the “natural” attitude towards art.[63] In fact, members of the privileged social class in his own country have also championed these attitudes.[64]

There is a sort of purposeful disinterestedness that can dislocate the cliché’s of ordinary perception, free the receiver from every-day concerns long enough to countenance things in an un-ordinary, fresh way. As Robert C. Morgan says, “Artists with the ability to produce significant work require an educated audience—an audience with the patience to come to terms with the art through intelligence and feeling”:[65]

Serious art requires a certain preparation of the mind, a relaxed synthesis whereby the mind comes into contact with the body, where there is a rejuvenation of seeing, and where thought is required to pull the act of seeing into the sensorium of feeling—to formulate ideas that are powerfully felt. It is time to understand the difference between what is symptomatic in such a mediated culture as ours, and what is truly significant. The distinction is crucial in coming to terms with a new criterion in dealing with art.”[66]

Dissenter: But what Morgan calls “purposeful disinterestedness” is interest! It sounds like what the disinterest-advocate is doing is just replacing one set of interests with another. Actually, Morgan does not seem to be all that off the mark; his problem is that he cannot admit his interest. Interest is all there is, and if the receiver admits it, she can focus on the artwork in ways that seriously come to terms with it. For example, if the various functions of portraits are taken into consideration, they can be appreciated differently than, say, just according to the inner harmony of forms, or for the insight such contemplation gives about one’s own powers of reason. If the receiver is aware of her already-interested agency, her attention can be constructively focused.

Finally, it is instructive to examine why Neitzsche insisted upon interest. His view of disinterest—what he called Kant’s “fat worm of error”[67]—stems perhaps from his misunderstanding of it as ascetic, nihilistic, will-less and a total depreciation of life: The artwork, far from serving “the ascetic ideal”, is its fundamental opponent because art is essentially life-affirming, willed and interested.[68] Nietzsche was mostly attacking Schopenhauer’s attitude and did not fully understand Kant, for, although Kant’s attitude indeed focuses on the appearance rather than the existence of its object (CJ§2), it does this in such a way that the powers of imagination and understanding are “enlivened” without the use of any particular concept (CJ§9). Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s criticism does address Kant’s aesthetic attitude insofar as it entails things like ‘dry liking’, ‘pleasure for its own sake’, indeterminate purposiveness, and attending only to the form of the work, ignoring the harmony of colour or sound. (CJ§14) In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche depicts the disinterested judge ruminating aloud:

For me, the highest thing would be to gaze at life without desire and not, as a dog does, with tongue hanging out’…To be happy in gazing, with benumbed will, without the grasping and greed of egotism…For me, the dearest thing would be to love the earth as the moon loves it, and to touch its beauty with the eyes alone…And let this be called by me immaculate perception of all things: that I desire nothing of things, except that I may lie down before them like a mirror with a hundred eyes.[69]

To this Zarathustra responds: “Oh, you sentimental hypocrites, you lustful men! You lack innocence in desire: and therefore you now slander desiring!”[70] Disinterest “lacks innocence” because even if we wanted to achieve a disinterested attitude, we could not. The notion of disinterest can be traced back to Plato’s views about the state of mind necessary for contemplating the Forms.[71] This was completely non-aesthetically directed. But what was first reserved for contemplating the Ideal Forms—and in the Middle Ages, for contemplating God—was turned on the physical world when Aristotle proposed that humans have an ability—an inner sense—to discriminate the objects revealed to the five outward senses. This is a capacity for making basic perceptual judgments and it makes coherent sense-experience possible. But there was never any proof that this inner sense existed, and there have been numerous ways of explaining how sense experience is possible.

The criteria for disinterest would be that the humans’ interest and intending is negated. As Heidegger has pointed out in “Being and Time”[72], interest is always engaged. By virtue of merely being alive, we think of things in terms of equipment and cannot avoid doing this interpretive act. Being-in-the-world, Da-sein (Heidegger uses Da-sein to displace the Cartesian ‘self’ or ‘subject’; we humans are geworfenor Entwurf, “thrown projection” and essentially temporal) does not understand herself as an object present in the world at a single isolated moment; rather, she interprets herself in terms of her relation to her own future possibilities in light of her given historical context. For this reason, Da-sein projects her interest and intentions on things; she cannot countenance a thing isolated from contexts of use, not even when there is a breakdown of use. As Heidegger says: “Handiness is the ontological categorical definition of beings as they are ‘in themselves’…Handiness proves to be the kind of being of beings first discovered within the world.”[73] Moreover, “Modes of taking care belong to the everydayness of being-in-the-world, modes which let the beings taken care of be encountered in such a way that the worldly quality of innerworldly beings appears.”[74] Perhaps if an instance of pure disinterest occurred in a human, it would really be agnosia.[75] Heidegger’s view of the necessity of interest follows Nietzsche, albeit the later uses an entirely different way of explaining the necessity: Artworks come about through a psychological condition that is a heightened Dionysian state.[76] And in the same way as artworks are created, so also are they received; rather than needing a disinterested attitude for the artwork to appear, the receiver needs interest, because they could not even identify the artwork from a state of detached, isolated attention.

Autonomist: I can concede that some interest is present; Morgan’s patience to come to terms with artworks presupposes it, as you show. However, in light of the phenomenological experiences of Pater, Whistler, and countless others, it cannot be denied that a sort of disinterest can obtain. Even Bourdieu says he is “completely and fully ready to admit that Kant’s aesthetics is true, but only as a phenomenology for the aesthetic experience of persons who are a product of schooling.”[77]

ii. The artwork is free of moral liability because all moral obligation lies with the judge

Autonomist: What about explaining the artwork’s autonomy in the sense of the complete obligation lying with the judge? An example of this could be to claim that the receiver is solely responsible—when we judge an artwork, all we do is look in the mirror at our own values; we never broach the artwork itself. Richard Posner holds such a view,[78] and James Kincaid, in his defence of Sally Mann’s Immediate Family [Illustration 4], agrees: The work is autonomous in the sense of not being morally obligated because the “agent” is seen as endowing objects with psychological content; those objects are experienced as bringing out ones’ inner psychic life:

If the photographs are upsetting, one should look for the cause of the disturbance on the inside. Works of art—even works of non-art—do not and cannot dictate the way they are read or viewed. They are subject to interpretive codes and practices current in the culture, codes and practices works of art neither control nor contain. These photographs are, in themselves, neither pernicious nor positive, innocuous nor poisonous, beautiful nor repellent. The way we respond to them, what we say they mean and do, says everything about us and the way we have been taught to look; it says nothing about the works. This is true always, but it is most obviously true when we are most anxious to take our response and put it “into” (i.e. blame it on) the work: if we feel queasy, the work is sick; if we feel exalted, the work is fine; if we feel aroused, the work is pornographic (or purchased, depending on our politics); if we can't make heads or tails of it, the work is muddled. [79]

Dissenter: The problem with this view is that it avoids making a decision about the artwork, and thereby, in a protracted way, it dismantles the project of critical judgment and opens up for a totally uncritical acceptance of all aesthetic expression. Moreover, this is a radically sceptical position, untenable because it entertains a relativism that can only be theorized; no one can practically conduct his or her aesthetic judgments according to it.

iii. Reception of artworks as non-conceptual, as feeling only

Autonomist: It could be that the ‘autonomous artwork’ primarily should be understood as meaning that it appeals directly to feelings and/or the unconscious, bypassing cognitions. This, we recall, was important for Kant. Here ‘autonomy’ would refer to independence from concepts and consequently also from true/false judgments about the work, inasmuch as true/false applies to propositions awarded the status of bona fide knowledge. Such a non-conceptual approach to ‘autonomous artwork’ could be supported by our awareness that infants react to aesthetic stimuli before they have developed language. If so, then it seems possible that this sort of reaction to artworks is also possible. Take for example colour: It affects our mood without us being consciously aware of it. The aesthetic appeal of materials—steel, burlap, plastic, syrup—also wakes immediate responses. And we react to sounds, the origin of which we do not recognize.

Dissenter: I agree that reception of artworks may partly be non-conceptual, that they appeal to feelings and the unconscious, perhaps most of all music, but not entirely. After all, for babies there is no such thing as an artwork; as soon as we call something art, it is on account of us having a number of other conceptual categories in place. We use general concepts all the time in broaching artworks and it seems foolhardy to claim that reception of art is non-conceptually determined because we experience that we do conceptually coordinate our art-related activities. Surely this would indicate that at least some of our concepts reach their mark, or that the use of general concepts in relation to artworks reaches them enough, albeit not exhaustively so. Nelson Goodman argued that it is impossible to make a distinction between cognition and emotion[80] because our feelings are used cognitively to help us determine and understand the artwork, and to integrate it in with the rest of our experiences of the world. According to Goodman, we cannot distinguish between aesthetic and scientific experience by saying that the one concerns feelings or pleasure for its own sake, and that everyday cognitive or scientific experience is of another sort. Aesthetics and science both consist of trafficking in symbols: in creation, use, interpretation, and re-forming and manipulating the symbols.

iv. ‘Autonomous artwork’ understood in terms of reception being underdetermined by the symbolic form of language

Autonomist: Referring to artworks as autonomous may imply that the artwork is a sensuous symbolic form under-determined by other symbolic forms such as speech and language, and the consequently endless deferral of determinate meaning. According to this view, the artwork is autonomous in the sense that there is a difference between presentational and discursive symbolism (the artwork as a medium of sensuous forms differs from the symbolic forms of verbal and conceptual representation necessary for creating meaning), this reveals the artwork as always underdetermined, and thus independent, of discursive symbolism—language. Susan Langer and some semiotic theories point out that forming the world in terms of sensuous symbols (artworks), frees humans from the bonds of the immediacy of pure sense-experience.

For Cassirer,[81] the artwork is seen as a formal and expressive dimension of aesthetic consciousness—a symbolic representation of sensory experience affording rich possibilities for meaning. It may either modify an existing form or create a new form of artistic expression. Perhaps a good example of this is, again, Jackson Pollock: When asked what the meaning of modern art was, Pollock replied, “Modern art to me is nothing more than the expression of contemporary aims of the age that we’re living in.”[82] Thus Pollock understood himself as having created new symbolic forms for his age. But the meaning of the sensuous symbolic form must also somehow be constituted symbolically, through the various systems of symbols that make up conventional language. The receiver must convert aesthetic elements into symbols and this entails negating or removing the singular materiality of the object and subsuming it under general abstract categories. Since the abstract categories are not in isometric relation to the singular material, the material remains unaccounted for and meaning is endlessly deferred.

Semiotic theory[83] echoes this aspect of symbolic forms: First, there is a something—whatever—which is displaced by a perceptible sign; secondly, there is the mental image formed by the receiver, and thirdly, the thing for which the sign stands. Both Cassirer and the Semiotic theorists such as Peirce rely upon the Kantian insight that the object for which the artwork stands is an object formed in the mind, but that the artwork is also always something mediated and fundamentally reception-determined. Yet in contrast to Kant’s view that reception is universal (sensus communis), the artwork’s subjective basis entails that it can be different for each receiver. For example, one person might experience an expressive object having contrasts of light and dark and suggesting a certain mood, another experiences scintillating colour-harmony, someone with cubist commitments might comprehend it as representing a geometrical law, another will experience a still life, philistines will experience a good investment, a Christian might experience a meditation on death, etc. And the same person could even experience all these comprehensions jumbled together. Hence, according to this approach, ‘autonomous artwork’ is interpreted as independence from fixed or final meaning. This could be somehow similar to Kant’s aesthetic ideas, which produce more thought than determinate concepts can hold.

Dissenter: It is not necessarily the case that the object formed in the mind is different for each receiver; because people are socialized into language groups, they share cultural symbols. Most people will see several shared aspects, probably not exactly alike, but there is nothing to bar sufficient overlapping of aesthetic experience for adequate communication about aesthetic objects. Shared experience of artworks helps unite people in mutual understanding and respect. As far as Kant’s aesthetic ideas are concerned, it seems more likely that these are just very general concepts. We cannot make one aesthetic representation that will exhaust such a concept, so we make due with partial representations.

Autonomist: I at least agree with your last point and, as we shall see, this is an important aspect of the institutional approach to artworks. Nevertheless, the cleft persists between sensuous symbolic forms and the language we use in relation to them. What the dissenter calls “adequately overlapping aesthetic experience” is based upon convention, it is nominal, local and it has no real power to point to the sensuous material. (This is a key problem Theodore Adorno called non-identity, and it will also recur in chapter 5.)

C. The artwork’s autonomy understood in relation to the artworld’s separation from the rest of society, or the work’s separation from the artworld[84]

Institutional autonomist: When a speaker asserts that artworks are autonomous, she sometimes means that the work is situated in a relatively independent social situation, a situation marginal enough that it eschews political, religious or other interference. The phenomenon of the art museum would be a good example of such an institution. The independent situation arose through a general diversification of society (a supposed hallmark that distinguishes the Modern era from earlier eras),[85] so it is a social-historical phenomenon and it is a function of the bourgeois consciousness of freedom.[86] On this view, Fine Art (autonomous) arose as the antithesis to a decadent, mass popular culture. An additional way of describing the art institution’s relative independence, which goes a long way in accounting for the artwork’s autonomy in relation to it, is expressed by Stein Haugom Olsen.[87] He uses the economic system as an analogy for the social institution literature is:

[Literature is] a social practice or institution defined by a normative structure of concepts and conventions. The conventions which make up this normative structure not only regulate social behaviour but also create the possibility for identifying, and thus for engaging in, the behaviour which they regulate. These constitutive conventions specify the characteristics of and label certain types of behaviour, objects, and events, and assign a function to these facts in relation to some purpose which the practice defines, thus constituting them [as] institutional facts. The logical status of the constitutive conventions can be highlighted by comparing them with summary or regulative rules. These regulate behaviour, which can be recognized and described without reference to these conventions.[88]

The artworld’s institutions are relatively independent from the rest of culture on the basis of agreements between actors concerning how to cooperate, and these agreements undergo modification. Without this background agreement, ‘the autonomous artwork’ would not exist. It is a convention that is part of a normative structure regulating behaviour. Extrapolating from Olsen’s view of literature, to try to give an account of the artwork’s autonomy just with reference to individual artworks, would be like trying to give an account of money “with reference only to individual transactions, without mentioning the framework of concepts and conventions which makes the transaction possible”.[89] [90] The moments of autonomy for the artwork, in light of its institutional setting, which I choose to address, are as follows: 1) The work’s autonomy would be established by convention, which in turn, relies on political choice, relational to certain practical concerns. 2) What the artwork refers to is kept within the confines of the art-institution. Or, the artwork may criticize the society but not directly. Because of its marginal situation, it remains free from social obligations. 4) The artwork communicates according to, or is situated in the context of, a peculiar artworld logic. The reason I choose to address these and not many other issues, is that these seem to still focus primarily on the artwork.

First, the conditions for institutional autonomy cause the artwork’s independence to be relative to political decision by governments. It is understood not as a priori; but as an idea of freedom formed by an elite.[91] If an art-institution is taxpayer-funded, this is reason to doubt much institutional autonomy for the artwork.[92] Nevertheless, such autonomy could increase if professionals are hired, and if politicians adopt a deliberate hands-off policy.[93] Premises such as museum buildings and galleries, rather than churches or government palaces, might also indicate greater independence from other spheres of interest, but not necessarily.

Secondly, the work has been seen as needing to be self-referential, or reference must be confined to the art institution. For example, the work can be a comment upon other works[94] or take part in a critique of institutional practices,[95] e.g., the funding of exhibitions;[96] the theme of the work is artworld-internal (an interpretation of ‘autonomous’). Conversely, if an artwork refers specifically or primarily to, say, a political conflict,[97] institutional protagonists could argue that, since these are not art-internal issues, the work can claim no protection from the art institution if it comes under political attack. But if a non-artworld figure has somehow embroiled himself in artworld-issues, such as the artist’s freedom of expression or censorship, as did NYC Mayor Giuliani, then his portrait could be an internal artworld issue.[98]

A third important way of describing autonomy in relation to its institutional position is the claim that there is a type of logic—call it a play-logic—that makes the institution distinct from other domains of life, where objective standards of evaluation should obtain: It is claimed that the artworld follows a unique thought pattern not shared by science, law, morality etc. It has an independent value system, hybrid forms of knowing, and ways of communicating inter-subjective agreement without laws.[99] The notion of peculiar artworld logic can be bolstered in light of the Kantian notion of inter-subjective agreement without laws, Kant’s senses communis.[100] Recall from chapter 2 that each receiver is autonomous inasmuch as she makes the aesthetic judgment for herself. But she assumes her judgment is universally valid because, since everyone supposedly has the same cognitive faculties, if everyone judges disinterestedly, everyone should agree. But since the aesthetic judgment is not subject to the usual way of generating assent (i.e., the judgment is non-conceptual, a subjective feeling), she seeks confirmation for her putatively universally valid judgment through agreement from other judges. But this agreement cannot be legislated. The individual’s autonomous judgment is always in search of a warrant from the community, which develops through the assent of its members. In this way, claims about the artwork are inter-subjective and communal in structure even while they are autonomous (the subject makes the judgment independently and for herself alone). By this means, confirmation of the validity of one’s own judgment is achieved. Confirmation from the larger community warrants the subject’s aesthetic experience.

Dissenter: I agree with the institutional autonomist’s first point that political choice governs the degree of freedom from the dominant culture. I also accept, to a certain degree, that self-referentiality and internal subject matter is good grounds for denying external interference, that the artworld is marginal, which goes a long way in explaining why acts deemed unlawful in other spheres of society, are justified insofar as they are deemed artworks. But, as the autonomist herself shows in footnote 98, determining what is internal subject matter is highly problematic and may be a matter of the judge’s good will. Also problematic is the autonomist’s claim that there are forms of communication specific for the fields of art, not shared by other domains of culture. This would indeed be a premise for institutional autonomy, but what are these independent ways? Aesthetic material? Non-intentionality? Non-purposiveness? Such are also present in other fields. Are there any concepts only applicable to the art institution? The autonomist is unable to point to one single instance of something unique for the art institution. With all respect to Adorno, artworks that exercise resistance are some of the ones most embraced by the art market. The artworld primarily functions along the lines of the corporate world, with a few people producing and a majority dealing in marketing, selling, publicity, publication and conservation. Moreover, since artists need to provide themselves with food and shelter, they cannot be “pure”. Claiming emphatic resistance or negativity fails as soon as the artist tries to show or sell their work.

Finally, what we nowadays agree to call an artwork cannot be definitively separated from aesthetic experience at large. Since the art institution accepted ready-mades, it is recognized that the rules delimiting art’s legitimate domain are bereft of criteria other than the individual judges’ will to enunciate a limitation, and then to garner agreement for it from other judges. This is what sensus communis boils down to: Some agents, such as curators, wield the greatest privileged, and the best that can be hoped for of sensus communis is that some pocket of the artworld will agree with the curator’s choice.

Institutional autonomist: Indeed, the status of the artwork hinges on one’s own judgment and whether one will find agreement from others for it. The artworld operates on the Humpty Dumpty principle:[101]

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory” [art]’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’
But “glory” [art] doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words [the word ‘artwork’ or ‘autonomous artwork’ for that matter] mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that is all.’[102]

Dissenter: Intuitively, it seems like if ‘the autonomous artwork’ is to remain a viable expression in the contemporary artworld, it should be something more than Humpty Dumpty private stipulation, followed by a power struggle for public agreement. From the discussion thus far, trying to explain the work’s autonomy in terms of something external—the artist, the receiver or the institution—is not very satisfactory, not least because these approaches pretty much ignore the artwork itself. If there is such a thing. Perhaps ‘autonomy’ can apply to the nature or the being of the artwork itself?

Autonomist: It is possible to wrest another understanding of the work’s autonomy out of the institutional approach, which does just what you suggest. Theodore Adorno asserted that the artwork is independent from art institutions/the artworld. Thus it would be a social fact, embedded in society, but in a marginal position to the total-exchange” or “totally administered” society (Adorno’s phrasing). In its separated domain, the artwork resists external interest. It is at odds with the institution that tries to mediate between it and receivers. Adorno makes a sharp two-fold distinction: first between the work and the “total-exchange” society from which it has arisen and is embedded, and secondly, from the “culture industry”, of which the artworld is a part.[103] The distinction arises from the work’s monadic, functionless state within the dominant culture; it criticizes, opposes and resists becoming a commodity. It also resists the artworld-infrastructure put in place to “take care of” (i.e. use) it. Because of its self-imposed marginal position, it thwarts social obligations: “Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness”.[104] The artwork is the “determinate negation of the determinate society”. On this view, the work is non-reducible to the requirements of society, which needs its products to be consumable. Interest and power cannot meddle with the work; criticism from external sources (politics, formal philosophy or religion) is illegitimate. This is why, within the art-institution, one can do things that otherwise would be grounds for being fined.[105]

Dissenter: But how does the artwork resist? Why is it a monad?

Autonomist: Because of its aesthetic qualities. Because of aspects about the work itself, not just its relation to the artist, receiver and the institution. We will return to Adorno on page 55. For now, let us examine what has been claimed about the work itself and why, on account of its own nature, it may be autonomous.



What kind of existence does the artwork itself have that might render it autonomous? Any view that focuses on the being of the artwork can fall under the rubric ontological approaches to the work’s autonomy.[106]

A. Aesthetic Realism

‘Aesthetic realism’ generally pertains to what the real being of a thing is thought to be. For some thinkers, the real nature of the artwork is metaphysical, for others, what is real can be sensed empirically. First mentioned are three approaches that treat the ‘true autonomous being’ of the artwork in metaphysical terms: the aesthetic object, significant form, and pure intentionality.

i. The Aesthetic Object

Autonomist: As we have already discovered, two of the most prominent ways of using the phrase ‘autonomous artwork’ are in the senses of the work being independent and distinct from other things. Independence and distinctness can be established either by being constituted independently of contexts, or through the receiver’s attitude. For Monroe Beardsley, what he calls “the aesthetic object” is an independent and distinct unity with perceivable properties[107] and it entails both aspects. Once created, the work stubbornly possesses whatever descriptive, interpretative and evaluative properties it has, across all contexts, cultural and otherwise. It is a nameable entity that can be talked about, that characteristics can be positively attributed to. Secondly, it is independent from the intentions of both creators and receivers. But how does Beardsley’s aesthetic object end up being metaphysical? The independent and distinct nature is what must be identified in order to have an objective, justifiable investigation about aesthetic objects; word usage must address the work itself and nothing more. Thus the goal is to discover the properties and report the truth about the independent and distinct artwork. For this task, the judge must don an aesthetic attitude (a sort of disinterested attention), use precise language, what Beardsley calls “critical statements”, to identify and address the artwork. In practice then, the judge must distinguish between words that point to the aesthetic object, and those pointing to other things like the artist’s or the judge’s own intentions or feelings, because such are irrelevant and get in the way of comprehending the work itself.[108] A problem arises however, if the words must also avoid reference to the physical object (e.g., canvas, paint, stone, sound waves), for that is not part of the distinct aesthetic object.[109] For example, if one were talking about a Pollock picture, ‘dripped paint’ would not address the aesthetic object, since such a term has to do with the method and material. Nevertheless, even though the critic is barred from pointing to the physical object in deference for the aesthetic object, the latter is a real extensional phenomenon, claims Beardsley, and is present regardless of the receiver’s capabilities of identifying it. Meanwhile, even though he agrees that there is a causal relation between them, insofar as nothing about the physical object is included in the aesthetic object,[110] this is metaphysical aesthetic realism.

Dissenter: There is much of value in Beardsley’s approach, and I laude his effort to identify the artwork (aesthetic object). Yet in spite of tremendous care in selecting words that will just pick out the aesthetic object, Beardsley’s standard is arbitrary; it remains unclear if the work has been addressed. For example, Beardsley has decided that statements about the cause or effect of the aesthetic object are “external”, i.e., irrelevant to the artwork itself. Case in point: Rembrandt’s Girl Sleeping [Illustration 7]. Beardsley claims that the following sentence is external and thus does not point to the work:

In Rembrandt’s drawing Girl Sleeping, the end has been attained by very economical means.[111]

Conversely, statements about the work’s blueness, meaning and beauty are internal, and point to the object directly.[112] The following is claimed internal:

The brush strokes outlining the girl’s body and the folds of her garment are few and have a casual air, yet the body stands out with an amazing soft solidarity, and there is a great deal of tenderness...[113]


Problem is, how can Beardsley be sure that the “amazing softness”, “casual air” or “tenderness” are not read into the object? They could have more to do with the receiver’s feelings. Beardsley baffles us further by stating that external statements can be taken into account if they verify internal statements. So how external are external statements? Beardlsey sets up the two domains but then needs to demolish the distinction. And he himself admits there is a problem: “Some of the distinctions will be more difficult than others, and all of them will, of course, be somewhat vague, since general usage draws no sharp lines.”[114] “[…] what I have called two objects are really two aspects of the same object.”[115] It seems like Beardsley’s ontologically independent and distinct aesthetic object is ontologically unstable, undecideable. (See ch. 5 and 6)

ii. Significant Form

Autonomist: Clive Bell is also a metaphysical realist. His theory of Significant Form radicalizes the work’s ontological autonomy in the sense that the real artwork is spirit. For Bell, significant form arises from relations between formal elements and supervenes upon them. It elicits aesthetic experience, something distinct from ordinary experience.[116] The relationships holding between the various elements of significant form are the only locus of aesthetic value because they are the ultimate reality lying behind appearances. Ahistorical, they give to the artwork another sort of autonomy—its individual significance distinct from the significance of other things. The emphasis is on imperceptible elements lying behind the perceptible. Independent from both receivers’ and artists’ intentions, only the disinterested attitude reveals them.

Dissenter: Bell’s conception of the artwork’s autonomy is heavily fraught,[117] but I will limit myself to its metaphysical problem: Plato’s Forms readily come to mind here,[118] but also the fairytale “The Emperor’s New Cloths”: Because no one has seen the cloths (the significant form), we seriously doubt their existence. Since the artwork supervenes upon material, it is not completely free but neither is it tied down. We cannot know this but must accept Bell’s words with a religious-like faith. The autonomous artwork is unaccounted for, un-pin-down-able. This could have been a good understanding of the expression ‘autonomous artwork’ but, because it leads to doubt concerning the very existence of the work, it seems untenable.

iii. Pure Intentionality

Autonomist: Well, if you don’t like Bell’s version, what about the aesthetic realism expressed by Jan MukaYovský’s radicalised notion of aesthetic realism:

The work of art is nothing but a particular set of extra-aesthetic values…mere conductors of energy. Where does aesthetic value lie? It has dissolved into extra-aesthetic values and is nothing but a general term for the dynamic totality of their interrelations.[119]

While MukaYovský, Bell and Beardsley would agree on the work’s autonomy as ‘pure intentionality’ (i.e., the work has its own intentions, independent and distinct from those of the artist and receiver), MukaYovský differs from Bell and Beardsley concerning the possibility of discovering truth about the work: Because the artwork does not have a theme and the sign is thoroughly self-centred (it focuses inwardly upon itself), the work transcends the receiver’s life-world and refers to existence as a whole; there are no bonds to anything specific or external limiting what the work could mean. Only as a whole can it establish a relation to any number of the receiver’s experiences. Hence the artwork paradoxically means the receiver’s life experience or their spiritual world, and it is impossible to determine the truth about the meaning of the work itself. From MukaYovský’s description, it is possible to see how Kant’s sense of ‘autonomy’ as cut of from truth is re-interpreted.

Dissenter: For MukaYovský, the work is totally cut loose, unsullied by material and human intentionality; independence and distinctness are at their most radical. But once again, such an account is circular. On the one hand, MukaYovský describes how non-intentionality plays itself out in the work and its reception; on the other hand, the receiver must rise to a pure vista in order to countenance the pure work. This is a task only God could achieve. Perhaps MukaYovský would seek refuge in a Kantian-style transcendental argument—that we must just postulate the pure artwork arising from pure intentionality, but that it is something for which we can have no criteria.

Inasmuch as the aesthetic objects, significant form and pure intentionality are not perceptible, but require a purified receiver, these instances of metaphysical realism seem to be a cross between the Hegelianistic view of art, where the work has gone over to being spirit,[120] and a Kantian view, where the work is only accessible via the disinterested aesthetic attitude. When the materiality of the artwork is jettisoned, it gains freedom and independence, but then its very existence also comes into question and the artwork becomes a mere postulate. Why don’t we look at some views of the ‘autonomous artwork’ that attempt to solve these problems by focusing on aesthetically perceptible features?

B. Views focusing on the aesthetically perceptible artwork

iv. Formalism and Aestheticism: The independent value of the formal properties and the relations holding between them; value is independent of meaning, reference and utility.

Autonomist: For Formalism and Aestheticism (of which l’art pour l’art is a prime example), the perceptually given aesthetic aspects of artworks and the relations holding between them are understood as real (i.e., the real being of the artwork is at least partly material) and thought to be the locus of aesthetic value: rhythm, weight, mass, shape, the trail of pigment, the harmony of sound or colour, etc; emphasis is on physical formal properties and the artwork is valued for its formal properties. As Clive Bell stated, “It matters not a straw whether this statue [Epstein’s Christ, (1919)], considered as a work of art, represents Jesus Christ or John Smith.”[121] As Adorno would say, it is as if the aesthetic picture is under ‘an iconoclast regime’.[122] Such a view extrapolates from one particular Kant passage:

In painting, in sculpture, indeed in all the visual arts, including architecture and horticulture insofar as they are fine arts, design is what is essential; in design the basis for any involvement of taste is not what gratifies in sensation, but merely what we like because of its form […] All form of objects of the senses (the outer senses or, indirectly, the inner sense as well) is wither shape or play; if the latter, it is either play of shapes (in space, namely, mimetic art and dance), or mere play of sensations (in time). The charm of colours or of the agreeable tone of an instrument may be added, but it is the design in the first case and the composition in the second that constitute the proper object of a pure judgment of taste […][123]

The well-known proponent of Aestheticism/l’art pour l’art, Oscar Wilde, laid out a concise exposition of his understanding of the work’s independent value:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all. […] The moral life of man forms part of the subject matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything...No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. […] Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. […] All art is quite useless.[124]

Aestheticism and Formalist understandings of autonomy do not deny that artworks may have moral side effects, but it would never be proper to take these into account when evaluating the work. Independence from other domains of value such as religion, politics, cognitive inquiry and morality, entails that there are canons of evaluation that preclude external assessment. Such independent value was championed by Walter Pater, one of Wilde’s mentors at Oxford. He accounted for why this could be so, when he gave a phenomenological description of what happens to human perception when close attention is paid to aesthetic phenomena:

At first sight experience seems to bury us under a flood of external objects, pressing upon us with a sharp and importunate reality, calling us out of ourselves in a thousand forms of action. But when reflection begins to play upon those objects, they are dissipated under its influence; the cohesive force seems suspended like some trick of magic; each object is loosed into a group of impressions-colour, odour, texture—in the mind of the observer…[125]

Pater’s phenomenological experience rings true for anyone paying close attention to aesthetic phenomena through, e.g., life-drawing; they can experience that the nude model does not remain intact, but becomes a series of overlapping cylinders, abstract voluminous shapes inscribed in space and described in light and shadow. Many artists will corroborate this. Pater famously concluded: “art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake”.[126] Jonathan Loesberg, a Pater scholar, interprets Pater’s ‘experience of art for its own sake’ as embodying “a primary value” to which philosophy, either religious or political, can only refer back to, in a secondary way. It simply describes what all art does, what all aesthetic experience is. It does not refer to the content of art but to the way it is experienced. In other words, the artwork is a primary form of perception among all forms of perception.[127]

Dissenter: Some of the problems already addressed with disinterest, also affect Formalism’s and Aestheticism’s conception of autonomy, namely, the problem of ignoring utility. Maybe the aesthetic (sensible) features of artworks do come first, such that the aesthetic object is neither right nor wrong, hence not morally liable. As Einar Økland says: “Artworks are expansive, testing, searching and often begin without any moral preconceptions on a low, amoral, non-ethical, perceptive level, or on an elevated abstract level without social control.”[128] But Økland adds: “Nevertheless, the moral aspect comes into the picture when the work is made public; in the finishing stages, in the orchestration and administration of the art product or act”.[129] Beardsley would agree, adding that “the act of producing, performing, acting, presenting, exhibiting, publishing, or selling that object is an act that must, like all acts, be judged by its social ends, for its is an act with consequences.[130]

Autonomist: Notwithstanding, if the aesthetic features of an artwork exist first, before moral relations, then the artwork is intrinsically independent of moral considerations.

Dissenter: I agree that Pater’s phenomenological experience can be valid for the artist during creation, and some receivers—mostly other artists—can have such experiences too, but Pater describes a mode of experience that suppresses the artwork. The level of mere materials is not an artwork. To maintain moral neutrality, the autonomist must give up ‘artwork’, which requires a public, social situation, and make due with some expression like ‘material synthesis’. But then, the autonomist cannot secretly trust in ‘art’ to prop up ‘material synthesis’ or whatever they choose to call it.[131] As an artwork, how can the phenomenon’s value refrain from being externally relational if receivers are even to get their eye on the work as art? Maybe if the receiver first views the aesthetic phenomena as an artwork, then brackets out bits of knowledge, enters a level of aesthetic experience beyond other domains of value—but how can the receiver remain on this level, or while there, still call it an artwork? One of the conditions for calling something an artwork is that it stands in relation to not-artworks. What conceivable satisfaction could there be, or why should anyone want to care about experiencing an artwork that was not interdependent with other things in this way? I guess the stickler is that Pater’s experience is not on an artwork level; when he wrote his conclusion to The Renaissance, he did not limit his objects to artworks, but spoke about physical phenomena generally. On the level of ‘material synthesis’, there is no distinction between artworks and other aesthetic phenomena. If we choose to understand ‘the autonomous artwork’ as an aesthetic phenomena technically irreducible to general concepts, then we must also accept that all other aesthetic phenomena must also be autonomous in this sense too. As such, there would be nothing to distinguish autonomous artworks from other things.

Autonomist: I think you misunderstand Pater. He did not mean that all aesthetic phenomena is, in the final analysis, irreducible to general concepts, but he was trying to make the same point James McNeal Whistler so eloquently made, namely, that instrumentality is not intrinsic to the artwork’s nature. The artwork is “selfishly occupied with her own perfection only” and seeks no other audience than “the artist alone”.[132] People have acquired the habit of looking, not at the artwork, but through it, for some social point of view that will better their mental or moral state. This makes for sterile art, foolishly confounded with education.[133]

Dissenter: Since artists are social beings, they are engaged and integrated into the society. Hence they are laden with responsibility just like everyone else. Whistler’s lecture may have been an important corrective for John Ruskin’s over-moralization, but if Whistler is claiming his position in an absolute sense, then he lives in denial. I am not saying that artworks should be directly instrumental, but that artworks always already are instrumental and take part in the continued formation of society. Whistler’s Nocturnes, [Illustration 8] supposedly “for the artist alone”, he nevertheless publicly exhibited, sold, and they have been influential in the way people have learned to experience and valued atmospheric conditions in nature and art. Whistler contradicts himself: If the works were only for himself, why did he exhibit them?

Nowadays, artists are usually aware of the work’s efficacy. For example, with Placebo,[134][Illustration 9] a seemingly minimalist expression, Felix Gonzales-Torres makes a claim about AIDS research: If it develops in relation to swings in the stock market instead of in relation to the needs of AIDS sufferers, then we all bear responsibility for the deaths of AIDS sufferers. Gonzales-Torres installation is such that, when we take a piece of candy, we get a guilty feeling (we steal part of the artwork!). In the same move, we immediately implicate ourselves with keeping the junk-food industry afloat. In an analogous way, when we use medicines, buy shares, or even refrain from such, we implicate our responsibility for the pharmaceutical industry’s development. We can discuss the artist’s claims about his work and evaluate whether or not they are justified: Do we all share responsibility for the death of Gonzales-Torres’ lover to AIDS because there was no cure? (Gonzales-Torres also died of AIDS about a year after creating Placebo.) Nevertheless, justifying the artist’s stated intentions is not the goal; rather, that a discussion be created which raises people’s awareness and understanding for the humanity of AIDS sufferers. We reflect over the possibility that also we are our neighbour’s keeper. In this and a multitude of other ways, even the most minimalist-looking artwork is instrumental.

Autonomist: With all respect to the memory of Gonzales-Torres, the artwork’s value lies not in its effectuality. If Adorno were here, he would complain that Gonzales-Torres’ work might fall into the clutches of the total-exchange society:[135] It could encourage receivers to buy stocks in pharmaceuticals. This would line the pockets of market speculators more than help the sick.[136]

Meanwhile, it is highly doubtful that artworks have moral impact on society. Just think of the Nazi officers who cultivated all manner of art forms; if artworks had the ability to be morally effectual, then surely the officers would have behaved humanely to Jews and Gypsies. As Adorno suggests, if the artwork does “intervene”, it is peripheral and detrimental to the quality of the work. The autonomous work’s influence is due to an “extremely indirect participation in spirit, that by way of subterranean processes [reflection, remembrance] contributes to social transformation”.[137] Hence there is no immediate correspondence between the artworks Nazis experienced and the way they behaved.

Dissenter: I agree that the influence can happen through “subterranean processes”, but these are hardly “extremely indirect”; as Martha Nussbaum relates, Jews were invariably portrayed in Nazi-era works as either non-humans—insects or vermin, evil, threatening parasites—praying on the German society. Many novels of this era are considered so dangerous in today’s Germany that they can be accessed in research collections only by special arrangement, and may never be copied.[138] Obviously such works were not inert in political affairs. If Nazis (and Muslims) were brought up on compassionate portrayals of Jews, then claiming art makes nothing happen would at least have a running chance, but this is not the case.

Autonomist: As Richard Posner argues, there is no logically necessary connection between artworks and attitudes. No one’s character or behaviour logically has to be affected by an artwork; any change in a person’s attitude after experiencing an artwork probably already was latently present in the person before they experienced the artwork.[139] And the latent attitude would have been derived from, e.g., advertisements, or friends. Just because I experience a work that seems to advocate some evil—to infect someone with HIV, as does Bjarne Melgaard’s painting Infect Your Friends[140]—this does not mean I must do so. Visitors to Melgaard’s exhibition SKAM were invited to create their own T-shirt as part of their gallery experience. Many children copied onto their shirts texts from Melgaard’s works, including “Infect Your Friends”. But even though school children write a text on their shirt, which first appears in this context, in other contexts, ‘to infect someone’ could be a good thing: e.g., to have a positive, infectious attitude. As such, it is up to the receiver to determine what the text means according to the context they choose to view it in. Melgaard can be interpreted as trying to make the same point as Posner, that there is no logical necessity between artworks and behaviour.

Dissenter: I agree with Posner that there is no logically necessary connection between artworks and moral acts, but there is great evidence that artworks are instrumental in attitude-formation. As Richard Rorty himself says about the relation of the literary culture to politics: “The quarrel between those who see the rise of the literary culture as a good thing and those who see it as a bad thing is largely a quarrel about what sort of high culture will do most to create and sustain the climate of tolerance that flourishes best in democratic societies.”[141] If it is the case that literary culture promotes tolerance in democracies, then surely it would be immoral, not amoral, to ignore the pragmatic role of artworks and make a distinction between aesthetic and instrumental/moral evaluation, or to think that the undesirable side effects of art do not really matter in valuing a work. In spite of the horror of 9/11, and the inappropriateness of viewing it solely as an artwork, it was a really successful artwork on many levels.[142] Of course, the autonomist will object: 9/11 was not an artwork; it was an act intended to kill; it if had been an artwork the killing would have been simulated. But the problem with this is that making a distinction between art and non-art according to the maker’s intentions of efficacy would disallow quite a number of generally accepted works by Dada, Fluxus, Surrealism, De Stijl and Russian Formalists. Hence ignoring the moral efficacy of artworks is to ignore the obvious, and it stands in the way of social progress. Artworks can and do renew life’s practices; indeed life is revolutionized by them.

Autonomist: This instrumentalist perspective reduces all aesthetic evaluation to moral evaluation. It is dangerous to determine the value of works in terms of their instrumental, moral impact, since that would severely curtail the prospect of human freedom. Does the instrumentalist want to regress to a pre-modern, external-rule-encumbered artistic practice? Think of the problems Mollier has with Tartuffe, or Rodchenko, whose photographs did not serve state interests—he lost the wherewithal for practicing his art. So also Andrei Tarkovsky, after he made his masterful film Andrei Rubalev. Countless examples: the Nazi burning of Kirtchner’s “degenerate” art, and Savonarolla’s bonfires. Stanley Kubrick had to withdraw Clockwork Orange, due to death threats. Artists may not be imprisoned or thrown out of the polis,[143] but their ability to work is severely curtailed. Thus it is dangerous to leap from there is no logically necessary connection between artworks and moral concerns, to artworks are always already instrumental, to artworks should have a certain sort of moral efficacy. The consequences of these leaps will, in the end, collapse the freedom of expression we who live in democracies enjoy.

Dissenter: I am NOT claiming that great efficacy is the criteria for value. Nor am I reducing all evaluation to moral evaluation. As Adorno would say, it is foolishly one-sided to either evaluate a work strictly in terms of it’s artistic merit, or in terms of its political tenets.[144] I readily acknowledge that artists have been vanguard fighters for greater freedom of expression for us all, but their doing so is premised upon the artwork’s intrinsic moral efficacy, not its lack of such. Moral concerns always already are present. Like other experiences in life, experiencing art is an ongoing process of judgment, which exercises our moral understanding. To the degree the artwork is intelligible, it involves the receiver’s powers of understanding and this is a moral domain.

I will try to show, by example, how this is the case: Receivers have always tried to interpret Pollock’s drip paintings. Over the years there have been many attempts, none conclusive. Nevertheless, if we accept Hans-Georg Gadamer’s thesis that being that can be understood is language,[145] Pollock’s works can be approached as language, which is always morally enmeshed, not least because it always involves choices. One such attempt at interpreting the drip-painting is that it is a true mimesis of nature[146]: it parallels nature’s fractals, entail nature’s gravity, the painting-process parallels nature’s chaotic behaviour, as scientifically demonstrated by the chaotic drip of kicked pendulums. This interpretation is entirely in accord with Gadamer’s argument that modern works are “mimesis in its most original sense as the presentation of order”.[147] Therefore, Pollock’s work can be understood as: “[a testimony] to that spiritual ordering energy that makes our life what it is. The artwork provides a perfect example of that universal characteristic of human existence—the never-ending process of building a world. In the midst of a world in which everything familiar is dissolving, the work of art stands as a pledge of order.”[148] Pollock’s drip-work, rather than being independent from other domains of value, ends up engaging the receiver’s will to understand it inter-dependently with that universal characteristic of human existence—our moral will. For this reason, there can be no independent value of the formal properties of an artwork. Value is inter-dependent with meaning, reference and utility, albeit these are not fixed.

v. A delimited world of forms and symbols, self-sufficient for its correct interpretation

Autonomist: Maybe the following New Critical position can be a better explication: Some thinkers would not go so far as Aestheticism in deeming the artwork totally divorced from moral or epistemological value, since just such may be internal to the artwork’s being. For example, if the artwork directly addresses a moral issue as its theme. Hence content would join with sensuous form as what is rightfully internal to the artwork. Its autonomy would be described as a delimited world of forms and symbols, self-sufficient for its correct interpretation; it creates its own reality, based on the unique means by which it is made.[149] This “world” may include things we do not generally understand as internal. Therefore a careful inspection of the artwork is necessary, using a specific method called “close reading,” to identify what is internal to the work itself. The work’s proper evaluation is first and foremost focused on its sensible, aesthetic-form; receivers have a responsibility to do an analysis of this first, before doing any other sort of inquiry into the object. Then the analysis can proceed to other internal forms, overlooking nothing, in order to understand it on its own terms. The great benefit of having a self-sufficient world of symbols is that it provides the “friction” needed to evaluate an interpretation. ‘Autonomy’ in this sense, is the condition of possibility for correct understanding, upon which justifiable interpretations are constructed. Without paying close attention to the internal form, interpretations will be hearsay. But after this formal analysis, it can be interpreted in other external and instrumental ways.

Dissenter: Just as was the case for Aestheticsim and Formalism, this position relies on the container metaphor; if something is judged internal, it has priority over all other contexts from which the work can be viewed. The internal characteristics are essential, while the otherwise-contextualized work is accidental. From this, the autonomist concludes that some interpretations are irrelevant to ‘the work itself’. Meanwhile, the notion of the ‘priority of internal features’ is fraught, and for at least three reasons.

First, as was the problem for Beardsley, (and therefore it will not be dwelt upon again here), there is the intractable ambiguity concerning what the internal form is. Secondly, there is a problem of it being an ethical duty to prioritize the formalistic theory tradition over the hermeneutic tradition: How can one avoid already being in the hermeneutic tradition when doing the formal analysis?[150] How can the receiver be sure she is not reading aspects into the artwork? If we have ethical responsibility to do aesthetic-formal analysis first, this necessarily presupposes that our intentions are active in interpretation. This contradicts the claim of self-sufficiency for correct interpretation. Secondly, as to the claim that formal aspects are internal and thus have favoured status (also discussed in chapter 5): Artworks have to be spawned from somewhere—at least the life-world of the artist—so surely some external context is prior to artworks, and could therefore also demand priority of consideration in constructing correct understanding. Often artists have special intentions in mind before creating; these can obtain after the work is publicly launched. In that case, there are considerable contexts of thought prior and simultaneous to the works’ internal form.

Thirdly, it is worth reflecting that ‘the artwork alone’ echoes Martin Luther’s ‘Sola scriptura’ (by the Bible alone)—the slogan that the Bible is self-sufficient for its own interpretation. As such, historical and scientific data, the early church fathers, church tradition, is irrelevant. With regard to both Biblical interpretation and artworks, this seems naïve; even the most ardent of Modernism’s protagonists are unable to examine artworks without being biased by their education and theories of how to interpret artworks. The story is told of the senior curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and his method for deciding whether to purchase a Greek amphora dated ca. 800 B.C. Conservators mounted the amphora on a pedestal, set the lighting but then turned it off; the curator was brought in blindfolded. When he was ready he removed his blindfold. “Hit me!” he exclaimed. The light went on, and in the twinkling of an eye he decided to purchase the amphora. Speed notwithstanding; the seemingly immediate judgment is conditioned upon his breadth of art-historical and aesthetic education and experience. Admittedly, however, the judge may not bring all this to bear in each act of reception. But to conclude, if the artwork is self sufficient for its own interpretation, then why is New Criticism practiced? Isn’t this an external?

Extending beyond interpretation to justification of artworks, Jan Brockmann, former director of Samtids Museet, Oslo, claims the artwork is self-sufficient inasmuch as it provides its own evidence for justification.[151] From this we must assume that no explanation a theorist, critic or catalogue essay presents can justify an artwork—it defends itself by providing it’s own evidence. But if this is the case, then why did Brockmann, as museum director, employ a critical apparatus of theorists, historians and curators? Brockmann appears inconsistent.

vi. Essentialism’s autonomy: The artwork’s witness to its own necessary and sufficient conditions for its distinct identity

Autonomist: Maybe Clement Greenberg’s essentialism would be a satisfactory explication of what is rightfully internal to artworks. Essentialism claims that the artwork interrogates its own[152] essential nature—the thing that makes it distinct and independent from other things. By doing this, it explicitly demonstrates that the sort of experience it provides is valuable in its own right and not obtained from any other kind of activity. Each art form is rendered pure, and in its purity, it finds the guarantee of its own standard of quality, as well as of its independence. The artworks’ task of self-criticism is to eliminate any effect borrowed from any other art form. For example, by reducing what painting essentially is to “the ineluctable flatness of the support”, painting’s area of competence is drastically narrowed but more secure, so that painting cannot be confused with entertainment or co-modification, etc., but will reveal its distinct and independent value. Since the work uses its own means to interrogate itself, this is a “criticism from within”,[153] thus essentialism also understands the work’s autonomy as not needing to turn to anything external in order to perform its self-critical interrogation;[154] the work is self-referential, pointing to its formal nature; when the receiver examines the work, it is as if we look at the mirror rather than what it reflects.

Dissenter: The essentialist perspective denies that crucial criteria of one art form can overlap with that of other art forms or cultural products. But then “ineluctable flatness of the support”—wouldn’t that be the essential nature of the wall the work hangs on, even more than the essential nature of painting? Moving further, essentialism denies autonomous status to many of the works we want to call autonomous—we want to claim that even ready-mades can claim some sort of autonomy—and it ignores too many of the tasks we want artworks to accomplish nowadays.

Autonomist: A ready-made is not art. It lacks some necessary and sufficient feature to set it apart from other things. It has to have an independent value, which will be there regardless of the receiver’s capability, and no matter how they choose to let the work effect them politically.

Dissenter: Of course ready-mades are art; anything can be art[155] because all artworks are inter-dependent upon the relation of being received as art. Perhaps what makes a thing an artwork is something non-essential, not constant and historical? Perhaps it lies outside of the artwork, in a theory, or in the idea-base of society. The glaring problem with essentialism is that it depends on art having an essence, but no one has as yet been able to satisfyingly say what that is. So the essentialist never answers the question about the nature of art, and of particular sub-sets of art.[156]

But even if we broach the readymade from the perspective of essentialism, Thierry de Duve shows it is possible to argue for the ready-made (and therefore anything) as bona fide Modern art according to the essentialist paradigm:[157] A true Modernist artwork ala Greenberg takes its own conditions of possibility for its subject matter, testing the conventions of the practice it belongs to. In so doing, it renders them explicit. Duchamp’s Fountain does just this: It invites a self-critical, self-referential reading that tests its conditions of possibility. Hence the Greenbergian doctrine is at the root of a new category—art in general—that originated with Duchamp. But the ready-made pushes Modernism beyond the limits of Greenberg’s doctrine because it points to an artistic practice not dependent on a specific medium-based category; it isolates the nature of art in general, namely—that ‘art’ is like a proper name.[158] Fountain challenges the technical-aesthetic conventions deemed necessary and sufficient to identify a given thing as an artwork by revealing that the history of Modern Art is the history of an ongoing test of willingness. It radicalizes this willingness to the point where “x is art” is the foremost aesthetic judgment. de Duve claims it reveals that artworks are shown primarily in order to be judged as art. Fountain explicates the distinction between art and non-art by showing that each time a convention is broken, the pact concerning a technical-aesthetic rule of the discipline is broken and another one needs to be negotiated to legitimate breaking the first.[159] Fountain can be said to reduce art in general to its one necessary and sufficient condition: The willingness to say, “This is art”.

Nevertheless, essentialism after Duchamp is disappointing because it, once again, reduces the sole criteria for x being an artwork to the individual judges’ will, followed by a power struggle and subsequent institutionalized agreement. This leaves us in scepticism. Surely there must be something more substantial to distinguish artworks from other things?

vii. No universal definition

Autonomist: What about when the ‘autonomous artwork’ is interpreted as meaning that it is impossible to universally define what art is, thus no universal theory is possible. If no theory is possible, all artworks float free of final determination. Moritz Weitz[160] has done a good job of explaining how no universal theory applies to all artworks, by using Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘games’: Just as there are no rules all games share in common, neither are there any conditions which all artworks fulfil.

Dissenter: This is a weak explication of ‘autonomous artwork’ because the artwork can still be defined and theorized quite well through non-universal theories. No theory need encompass all artworks. In practice, artistic disciplines are distinguished by their conventions and conditions, so the autonomist, in her idealistic demand for a universal essential definition, fails to examine any of the practices of the various art forms, and leaps to the assumption that a work “floats free” just because it lacks final definition. This is not the case: Rosalind Kraus[161] demonstrates that the various fields of art can have their own rules, which can be applied to a variety of situations without needing to be constantly modified. As the artworld changes, new fields for art open up and new definitions are established through friction with the already-established fields of art. A good example of this is the definition of Land Art: It was established in the 1970’s through a process of negativity; Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1969-70) was neither sculpture, landscape or architecture, but it seemed to share aspects of all three. What was it? People tried out new terms—marked site art, site-specific art, site construction, land art— one term proved eventually to be more used. And through the course of time, conventions developed that became the conditions for using the term.

Autonomist: That sounds like Humpty Dumpty.

Dissenter: No: ‘Land Art’ was not established by enunciation, (“christening”), but through creating a hybrid of already established art forms. Re-describing ‘the autonomous artwork’ in terms of its lack of universal definition invites us to ask an important question: What is the value of a universal definition? If there were a category that could accommodate everything we call art, then it would be too broad to provide any useful knowledge. A lot of not-art would also fall into it. Then we could just as well say that the artwork floats free, given that it remains indistinct. This is ironic, since the goal of having a universal definition was to find the similarities between things that were Other, foreign and strange. So would it not be better to have definitions that are historically limited rather than universal? My point is simply that the ‘autonomous artwork’ understood in terms of the lack of universal definition is a lost cause because a universal definition is not anything worth having.

viii. No definition at all

Autonomist: But what if we radicalize non-definability, the work’s autonomy can mean unclassifiabiltiy, even to the point of an ardent denial of ‘art’ status. Tony Smith said: “There is no way to frame the experience…no way to make art of it…you just have to experience it—as it happens, as it merely is.”[162] The Minimalists are exemplary for this—artists like Donald Judd, Carl André and Robert Morris. For Morris, since all relationships between elements in a work are rejected (a clear rejection of Formalism), ‘autonomous artwork’ means the unitary, non-subdivided unclassifiable entity—one solitary unit.[163]

Dissenter: Such an interpretation of ‘autonomous art’ fails because what the Minimalists ended up calling their works “2-D”, “3-D”, “specific objects”, and their exhibition practices, are conditioned on there already having been established a practical understanding of what artworks are, and an art-institution to accommodate and preserve these objects. The minimalist understanding depends upon a highly educated receiver, well versed in art theory. (Minimalist works tend to be so boring that they need to be surrounded with lots of theory to prop them up, make them interesting.) So the minimalist secretly trusts in the concept of art while claiming to reject it, secretly trusts in the contextualization and theorization of the work while claiming un-classifiability. In Michael Fried’s article, he called the bluff by calling minimalism’s ‘autonomy’ “the theatricality of objecthood”; he exposed its institutionally staged conditions.

ix. Intuitive expression

Autonomist: In stark contrast to New Critical and Essentialist conceptions is the following understanding of ‘autonomous artwork’: There is no body of rules for how to make, identify, exhibit, interpret, or evaluate the artwork.[164] Furthermore, there is no law steering the way the field of art develops. Matisse or Bennedetto Croce could exemplify this view:[165] An artwork is simply identified as the activity of unique intuitive expression, sui generis: a class unto itself, the grasping of it is also unique, particular and outside conceptualization. This notion of the work’s autonomy also understands it as independent of moral constraints because morality presupposes that the artist could have chosen between already-existing alternatives for how to make the work, something the work as intuitive expression would disallow.

Dissenter: There may be no logically necessary or sufficient conditions dictating the way artworks are, but this is not to say that there are no patterns of habitual behaviour we can examine and extract abstract rules from. Of course these are not universal; they are historical and changing. The conditions that generally apply for the way art develops are the art market, corporate investment, politically legislated and administered stipend-arrangements, political situations, religion, health, war, the weather, technical restraint or innovation, the artist’s self-understanding, tradition, and then, of course, artists purposefully trying to steer clear of what they perceive of as taboo at whatever point in time. Literary theory: Intellectuals and their publishers manipulate the way theory is written and what gets published in prestige-bearing journals and catalogues, curators control what is given exhibition space. Then there are personal connections between artists and theorists, e.g., theorists have their favoured artists, who function as paradigmatic examples of their theories. One contemporary instance of this is the artist Mike Bidlo and the art- philosopher Arthur Danto.[166] The two have appeared together at Bidlo’s exhibition openings. Just because there are no necessary or sufficient conditions to dictate how art changes, this does not mean that there is no body of contingent rules for how to make, identify, exhibit, interpret, or evaluate the artwork, or that there are no laws steering the way the field of art develops. As was the problem with the essentialist view, this view is too idealistic, either demanding that there be universal rules or none at all.

x. Purposiveness without determinate purpose

Autonomist: This surely is the best meaning of the expression ‘the autonomous artwork’: That the work is purposive but with no final purpose. Many thinkers have followed Kant’s second moment,[167] describing it in new ways: Victor Sjklovskij[168] said the purpose of art was to de-familiarize us from those things we know all to well, the banal or so automatically recognized we no longer take note of them. Artworks stimulate us to engender a fresh perspective and renewed appreciation of the world. We reawaken impoverished and worn-out language. Similarly, New Criticism’s Cleanth Brooks says that, because autonomous artworks resist homogeneous interpretation, it is through them we recognize what it is to be human, and to exist in a world of contradiction and conflict. This sort of purpose denies the value of the work in relation to whether it actually has instrumental impact measured in empirical terms. Such would be to value art in relation to receivers’ abilities, and this would end in scepticism. Furthermore, evaluations of the instrumental telos that obtains at any given time is never logically sufficient for passing a valid judgment over the value of the work as a whole.

Dissenter: Kant’s purposiveness without purpose (a formal finality that produces no knowledge or moral telos), while leading to many useful insights, is highly problematic. Despite all his claims to the contrary, Kant never managed to separate aesthetic judgments from moral judgments. This is because in the concluding sections of the dialectic of aesthetic judgment (CJ§59), Kant argues that the judgment of the beautiful serves as a symbol of the morally good, because there is an analogy between the freedom of the imagination inherent in the experience of beauty, and the freedom of the will that is the essence of morality, but which can never be directly experienced. Since it is impossible to directly experience the will’s freedom, in order to become aware of it, the aesthetic judgment is a necessary, not an optional symbol. If this were the only way the self could become aware of its freedom, then the necessary connection would seem to bind aesthetic judgments and morality tightly together. If an artist or receiver is free to exercise their will at all, then the will is morally enmeshed.

Indeed, humans vary in competence, and it is true we can never have full grasp of the artwork’s effects. Nevertheless, it is possible to argue that a mediocre judge can, in most cases, still have sufficient information to judge a work’s purposiveness. For example, Bjarne Melgaard’s video All Gym Queens Deserve to Die (2000): In the video, we see a man sucking a little girl’s arm, after which we see him sucking a dog. It forces the receiver to imaginatively complete a structure that the work partially supplies. It is like with a melody: Even though you hear one you have never heard before, you still have a pretty good idea which note the musical phrase will end on. Therefore such works do not remain at the level of indeterminacy. Moreover, to claim the artwork is autonomous because it lacks a final telos is a knock down argument that wins under every circumstance because of human finitude. Yet in winning, the no final telos position ignores the sufficiency of telos, which finite humans actually operate with, and upon which we make our daily judgments. But more than this, it is hard to understand how Sjklovskij’s “renewed appreciation of the world”, or Brook’s “recognizing what it is to be human, and to exist in a world of contradiction and conflict” are not determinate ends, since they entail “external” general cognitions about the world. And Kant’s “strengthening of the mental faculties”;[169] we do this for a multitude of purposes. Therefore ‘without purpose’ would be more accurately described as indirectly multi-purposive—an embarrassment of the riches of final purposes. Hence calling it “purpose without purpose” sounds like purpose laundering.

Autonomist: The dissenter would have it that the judge controls the telos of the artwork, yet a simple Freudian lesson instructs us that no single instance is fully in control of it. The contingencies of reception cause the work’s telos to remain indeterminate. Take André Serrano’s Dark Supper (1990): The impression of this work is that it is sacrilegious—a kitsch copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper submerged in the artist’s sperm. Shouldn’t the verdict be easily to make? The perfect Renaissance geometry of space is displaced with a dark, empty room; rising air-bubbles in the sperm fluid can be reminiscent of sinking snowflakes in kitschy tourist-shop snow-bubbles. But through Serrano’s unorthodox means, religious kitsch becomes beautiful shadow-theatre. Linking a religious picture with bodily fluids is provocative, yet it also revitalizes the banal motif: In the dark stillness we recognize Christ’s loneliness in the foreknowledge of his betrayal. Hence, if it is possible to interpret the use of the male’s life-giving substance as a metaphor for one of the central tenets of Christianity—That God, in Christ, became man[170]—, if what seems, on the face of it, to be sacrilege, can equally well be interpreted as a metaphor for the central tenet of Christianity, then who can give the final verdict?

xi. The artwork’s double character

Autonomist: What if we say that the artwork has a double character, one side of which is autonomous? This would not be an attempt to reconcile the instrumental and autonomist positions, but, with the ‘two sides of the same coin’ metaphor, it tries to understand the artwork as having an intrinsically paradoxical character.

According to Adorno, who thought of artworks in terms of a double character, the artwork is at its most useful when it is useless, because it resists being an object for the total-exchange society. On the one hand, the work is (autonomous) powerless to be effective in society. The necessary condition of the work’s autonomy is thus that it be non-communicative, useless, non-identical, a negative mimesis: This is what distinguishes it from the rest of the world. On the other hand, it is a social fact, a product of the social labour of spirit.[171] “Artworks communicate by taking up a determinate attitude to what they seal themselves off from—empirical reality and its constraining spell.[172] Adorno describes the artwork as “a windowless monad”,[173] from its internal dynamism it seems as though it should be effectual, but nothing can go out or come into it. ‘Windowless’ can be thought of as the antithesis of Alberti’s ‘window on the world’. Adorno’s work is a social product that has discarded the illusion of being-for-society, which other commodities have retained.[174] Why is it an illusion to be for society? Because, says Adorno, the artwork merely becomes a tool of the total-exchange society, which “ingests all that comes its way”. When the artwork tries to be the antithesis of society in a directly purposive, agitative, consciousness-raising way (e.g., Haacke’s Shapolski et all or Gonzales-Torres’ Placebo), nevertheless, it is ineffective, perhaps mostly because of the artworld’s marginal position within the dominant society—a field of activity most people could care less about. Adorno rightly admits a dilemma: On the one hand, the work risks becoming “committed”, i.e., selling out and becoming fully instrumental. On the other hand, it risks lapsing into l’art pour l’art. Neither is acceptable, he says. But he does not provide a solution: For Adorno, the artwork has a double character, an unresolved dialectical tension that responds to socio-historical conditions.[175]

Dissenter: I will just address two issues: the problem of radical polarity, and the problem of making works tightly connected to a specific project out to be autonomous. First, Adorno’s explication of the double character undermines itself through its radical polarity: The work is both independent and dependent on society; it is internally consistent as well as inconsistent; it both has and lacks its own identity; it follows its own laws but the laws are found in the surrounding society; the work is a windowless monad but it expresses the social totality; the social function is to have no function, but autonomous artworks function as market commodities, fetishes, etc.[176] When Adorno claims something, he generally contradicts it a bit later.

Secondly, Adorno’s autonomous artwork is tightly connected with the ethical and political project of freeing humanity from oppression. If the artwork is specifically connected with such a project, how can it be said to be self-legislating? More likely is it that the goal of the project—emancipation—dictates how the work should be. Moreover, since Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory comes across as being excessively prescriptive for how artworks should be, this casts doubt over the avant-garde artwork (a work in the service of greater human freedom) being independent, even in the one half of a double character meaning. Meanwhile, it seams non-contradictory to say that when the autonomous artwork fulfil goals, it can do so by refusing to operate according to the dictates of other institutions.



Now that we have muddled through, teased out and discussed numerous conceptions of ‘the autonomous artwork’, which of Kant’s “building blocks” and of these other thinkers’ conceptions remains viable for contemporary artworks? Starting from the beginning of the chapter and progressing systematically, the following summarizes what the discussion indicates might be able to be thrown out and what can be salvaged.

In relation to the artist, the work’s autonomy understood in terms of the Kantian genius seems impossible to maintain because of the artist’s inability to avoid conceptual thought; Pollock himself collapsed the notion of spontaneous creation. Also, transgressing established norms is exposed as deeply embedded in external rule following. The private expression of individual thought or feeling seems better, but since the quest for originality follows an external rule, uniqueness of expression cannot be demanded; rather, focus remains on authenticity of expression, that the artist has “made it her own”. The mild problem with this is that it is a far cry from what ‘autonomy’ usually means (independent, self-legislating). If it is so distant from the more traditional meaning of autonomy, would that be grounds for relinquishing the claim of autonomy in this respect? I think not, since making it one’s own pulls it closer again, and I see no problem, in principle, with letting the meaning wander a bit. Kant’s ‘law-likeness without law’ can be maintained if understood in terms of the work’s laws being secreted through the process of creation, like the oyster shell, yet this does not preclude the work also following external laws.

As far as understanding the work’s autonomy in terms of its reception, pure disinterest is jettisoned, first for its subterfuge, but also for the mere impossibility of it, as Heidegger and Nietzsche were employed to show. Meanwhile, even though commodification and fetishization may be unavoidable, such need not be the primary focus of the judge’s attention; access to the artwork (albeit partial) through proactive sympathy and attentiveness, willingly attending to the phenomenal characteristics in a serious, consistent way, seems achievable, but the judgment is clearly not a disinterested judgment. It points to the receiver’s (moral) obligation to care about the work, but to be critical of how her interest is deployed. Meanwhile, Morgan’s purposive disinterest seems self-contradictory, only “disinterested” in name, it is a cloak for interest. The sceptical position of Posner and Kincaid—that when we judge a work, all we do is look into the mirror of our own values—seems irresponsible because it never even tries to come to terms with the artwork, but treats it as a foregone conclusion that whatever the judge decides is a self-reflection. This position therefore allows an uncritical acceptance of all aesthetic expression. In light of Goodman’s arguments for feelings being used cognitively, it seems invalid to explain the work’s autonomy in terms of a reception through feelings, devoid of conceptual thought. A more hopeful explication is the fundamental incommensurability between the aesthetic symbolic form and the symbolic forms of speech and language or under-determination by language: These are promising because they explain how the receiver converts aesthetic elements into symbols that negate singular phenomena, subsuming it under general abstract categories. This somehow is harmonizable with Kant’s aesthetic ideas, possibly better understood as very general concepts, which house more thought than specialized concepts can accommodate.

When contriving ‘the autonomous artwork’ as the artworld’s separation from the rest of society, it was recognized that this adopts a Kantian-inspired practice of drawing up a ‘proper’ domain for artworks (dividing the judgment of taste from other judgments). The problem however, is to keep the constructed distinctions from dissolving. The work’s autonomy understood as related to political decision holds, but otherwise the distinctions fade; artworld-internal reference becomes, in the final analysis, a matter of the judge’s goodwill (the Haake discussion). Distinction through peculiar artworld logic is a claim unproved, not least because the art market is the perfect “little sister” of The Market. Kant’s universal quantity and mode of sensus communis are discarded, since the best we can hope for is agreement within pockets of the artworld, which may, at times, follow Humpty Dumpty: An idiosyncratic stipulation of the identity, meaning and value (import) of artworks. The artworld is involved in an ongoing power struggle where various judge’s opinions vie for collegial support. If we argue that Humpty Dumptying is the peculiar artworld logic, this fails to create a distinction, since Humpty Dumptying is a well-proven rout of semantic change, hardly unique to the artworld.

Metaphysical realist descriptions of ‘the autonomous artwork’ faired poorly; the intractable problem arose of not being able to distinguish what is rightfully internal or external to the work. And severe doubts arise over the very existence of a metaphysical work, which is only accessible to a purified receiver.

‘The autonomous work’ described as having a value based on formal properties and the relations holding between them, and the work’s value being independent from meaning, reference and utility, are highly problematic because they reject referentiality, meaning and utility—things the contemporary artworld values highly. The notion of the work’s independence from the moral domain is impossible, since the artwork is public, social, and thus always already morally enmeshed. Nevertheless, the autonomist’s rejoinder concerning the ontological priority of pre-moral aesthetic features seems hopeful for, as Pater shows, artworks are aesthetic experience, and such may be a primary value, to which, as he put it, “philosophy, either religious or political, can only refer back to, in a secondary way”.[177] Yet at the level of mere ‘aesthetic experience’ (e.g., experiencing the human figure as a cylindrical form inscribed in space, delineated by light/shadow contrast), the artwork as a public, social phenomenon is suppressed. The suggestion to accept the ontological priority thesis, as far as the artist is concerned, but exclude receivers from it, is rejected because receivers are also able to experience the aesthetic phenomena similarly to the way Pater and Whistler describe. Are we to deny them the right to their own experience? Surely not. Still, to insist on a continuous bracketing out of moral and epistemological interest and intention would be immoral, not amoral, especially in cases where content is so blatantly available, where we experience that artworks have political effects, where, as Gadamerians have shown, even Pollock’s drips are mimetic. A solution could be to think of ‘the autonomous artwork’ along Whistler-Pater lines, but as a temporal, flickering mode. Regardless of whether or not there is a logically necessary connection obtaining between artworks and attitudes, the thesis of the independent value of ontologically prior aesthetic features is fraught. For the present, I will let it stand, and in chapter 5, the theme will be readdressed.

A series of failed conceptions followed: The delimited world of forms and symbols that is self-sufficient for its correct interpretation is disappointing because the distinction between what is internal and external is, just as it was for Beardsley, undecideable. Moreover, favouring what one thinks is internal could be, at least in some instances, detrimental to the rigorous interpretation New Criticism seeks. The self-sufficiency for correct interpretation thesis also is inconsistent, because it uses a theory not found in the artwork in order to help interpret it. Inconsistency is also a problem for the view that the work is self-sufficiency for its own justification, because the one who claims this acts as an external “court of appeals” assisting in justifying the work.

Essentialism’s interpretation of ‘autonomous artwork’ as distinct, independent value based upon the artwork’s witness to its own necessary and sufficient conditions for its distinct identity collapses profoundly vis a vis contemporary artworks if we hold to Greenberg’s medium-based version. De Duve however, shows that the ready-made (‘art in general’) fulfils essentialism’s demands. But this victory is short lived since Humpty Dumpty returns and ‘autonomous artwork’ is reduced to a proper name: individual will, followed by a power struggle, which is again followed by a pocket of institutional agreement. This leaves us in scepticism concerning the work’s value and distinction.

No universal definition is rejected, first, because of faulty induction, secondly, because even if it were possible, it would still leave the artwork indistinct, since so many non-artworks would fall into the category. No definition at all is a no-go because it secretly depends on all manner of definitions and theories. Intuitive expression’s explication—there is no body of rules for how to make, identify, exhibit, interpret, or evaluate the artwork, and no law steering the way the field of art develops—fares poorly too; just because there may not be necessary or sufficient rules, this does not entail that there is no body of contingent, local rules that can be extracted for how to make, identify, exhibit, interpret, or evaluate the artwork, or for the way the field of art develops. As with essentialism, this view is too idealistic, either demanding that there be universal fixed rules or none at all.

The explication focusing on the work being purposive without having determinate purpose fails because, despite all Kant’s claims to the contrary, he never managed to separate aesthetic judgments from moral judgments, and no one else has either. More apt would be to view the work as indirectly multi-purposive. With regard to other construals of this notion, most of them cloak indirect multi-purpose (this will also be experienced in the next chapter.) The work’s autonomy described in terms of its indeterminate telos falters when the work provides a partial structure even a mediocre receiver is forced to complete.

Finally, Adorno’s double character, which describes the artwork’s unresolved dialectical tension between its autonomy (negativity) and its being a fait social looks promising: It acknowledges that the artwork is embedded in society, that its material is not only formed matter but that it is also societal—this could be a way of resolving the problem we had with Pater’s phenomenological experience on a sub-artwork level. However, Adorno’s explication is so radically paradoxical that it undermines itself.

Perhaps the most successful interpretation of ‘autonomous artwork’ with regard to purposiveness, is the insight that nothing is able to fully control the telos/effect of the artwork, not even the receiver, for, as a simple Freudian lesson instructs us, the receiver may not be in full control of her attitude and reception. Moreover, the contingencies of reception in the ongoing historical continuum show that the work’s telos remains indeterminate. Yet does this uncontrollability mean that the artist and receiver have no obligations with regard to the work and each other? (This problem will be addressed in chapter 6.)

A synthesis of provisional moments of autonomy

Would it be possible to take the bits that have held up best in this chapter (even if, in some cases, they seem a far cry from ‘autonomy’ understood as independent or self-legislating) and create a provisional synthesis of moments of autonomy for the contemporary artwork? They would be 6 in number: 1) the artists’ authenticity of expression; law-likeness without a law; 2) the work’s separation from truth-as-correspondence (the fundamental incommensurability between the aesthetic symbolic form and the symbolic forms of speech and language; under-determination by language; the work’s dealing in aesthetic ideas, possibly better understood as very general concepts, which generate more thought than highly specialized, determinate concepts can accommodate); 3) the work’s autonomy understood as related to political decision. Then follow three moments which are problematic: 4) the work’s independent value due to the priority of aesthetic features (this could be called ‘ontological priority’, meaning that if the aesthetic material of the artwork is there first, before meaning, it could be argued that a non-moral reception is primary, before valuing the work instrumentally); 5) some sort of double character, one side of which is autonomous in a variety of senses; 6) the indeterminate telos. The first moment in this list is related to the artist, whereas the rest focus more attention on the artwork and the receiver’s interaction with it. Let us call all these moments provisional aspects of the contemporary artwork’s autonomy, and with this chapter as ballast, let us now launch into Heidegger, Blanchot and Derrida: Perhaps they can further illuminate these moments, and in particular, the last problematic three. Maybe also, through examining their thoughts on artworks, it would be possible to resuscitate some moment of autonomy in relation to the receiver’s attitude?


[41] For materials, Sigmar Polk’s works problematized this issue (see p. 91). As far as gallery owners are concerned, “Charles [Saatchi] hates being governed by committee and answering to other people, what you get with him is a collection built on free spirit,” says Mr Miller, “The Saatchi Gallery says it wants the freedom to be autonomous, something not possible at the Tate, which has a remit to fulfil.”

[42] Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell, 1958, §99.

[43] Shaw said his formula was to always write what would cause the greatest consternation and outrage amongst conservatives. For pictorial art, formulas are exceedingly diverse. They encumbered history painting: the scene in a narrative that should be depicted is “the point of no return”; figures should be painted first in grisaille, afterwards add only unmixed colours, etc. Formulas are also prevalent in Modern painting, e.g., for outdoor scenes with lots of greenery, Impressionists grounded the support with red, the complimentary colour against which green vibrates most.


[45] Pollock, 1992, p. 577.

[46] Op cit., p. 576.

[47] Of particular note for the Norwegian artworld is Bjarne Melgaard, who has created what many would deem are speculative works dealing with, among other things, issues of child abuse, suicide, HIV-AIDS and the use of steroids.

[48] Arrhenius, Sarah, “The art of making a scene in a room which is no longer there”.

[49] Øverenget, Einar and Mathisen, Steinar, 2000, p. 135.

[50] My italics.

[51] Morgan, 1998, p. 3. My italics.

[52] Woolf, 1994, pp. 549-550. My italics.

[53] Moritz, Karl Philippe, Anton Reiser: A Psychological Novel, Translated by John R. Russell, Columbia, S. D., 1996.

[54] By ‘neo-Platonist’, what I mean is that Shaftsbury held that there are extra-mental, extra-natural absolutes and the epistemological access to these is through adopting an attitude of disinterest.

[55] This last sentence is a view expressed by a writer “Susan” on this aesthetics blogg.

[56] Stolnitz quoted in Kneller, 1998, p. 62-63.

[57] Reams of literature have been written on this topic, and my objective here is not to be exhaustive, but to present, as I see it, the most pertinent problems with the notion of disinterest, as it has come to be understood.

[58] Bohls, Elizabeth A. “Disinterestedness and the Denial of the Particular: Locke, Adam Smith and the Subject of Aesthetics”. In Eighteenth Century Aesthetics and the Reconstruction of Art, Paul Mattick, Jr. (editor), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 16-51.

[59] Bourdieu, 1984, p. 6.

[60] Op cit., p. 493.

[61] Op cit., p. 499.

[62] The prime example of a dubious player, according to many art-professionals, is Charles Saatchi. He “revitalized” the market value of his art-holdings by changing the location of the gallery, staging it in an art-palace within walking distance from the Tate Modern. Saatchi donates artworks to the Tate; is this just a tactical bid for social distinction?

[63] Christensen, 1995, pp. 129-130; 139. Christiansen exposes Bourdieu’s equivocality: On the one hand, he claims that the judge’s habitus (class-specific attitudes and the schema that generate attitudes engendered in each actor’s psyche) determines her attitude toward artworks, but on the other hand, he valorizes popular taste as “natural”.

[64] Op cit., pp. 139-140. Christensen singles out Abbé Dubos, who defended mankind’s sensual and “animal” aspects, against Lord Shaftsbury’s disinterested attitude. Also Voltaire and Montesquieu held a sensualist position. Christensen’s main goal is to show that the distinction between a disinterested judgments on the one hand, and agreeable, sensual and moral judgments on the other, cannot be reduced or tied to social class distinction.

[65] Morgan, Robert C., 1998, p. XXII.

[66] Op cit., p. XXI.

[67] Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morals (GM), Essay III “What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?” §6.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Neitzsche, 1969, p. 145.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Plato, Letter VII 344 says “…but if his nature is defective, as is that of most men, for the acquisition of knowledge and the so-called virtues, and if the qualities he has have been corrupted, then not even Lynceus could make such a man see. In short, neither quickness of learning nor a good memory can make a man see when his nature is not akin to the object, for this knowledge never takes root in an alien nature; so that no man who is not naturally inclined and akin to justice and all other forms of excellence, even though he be quick at learning…will ever attain the truth that is attainable about virtue.”

[72] Heidegger, 1996, §14-17.

[73] Op cit., p. 67.

[74] Op cit., p. 68.

[75] See also discussion on page 75. Agnosia (a-gnosis, “non-knowledge”) is a loss of ability to recognize objects, persons, sounds, shapes or smells while the specific sense is not defective nor is there any significant memory loss. It is usually due to temporal lobe injury in the brain. For an easily accessible discussion on this, see Oliver Sacks: “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” (book with same title, New York: Touchstone, 1985.)

[76] Many artists agree: In a personal e-mail interview with California artist Christer Swartz, 2005, the artist relates that his task of creating is “usually a very primal activity”, best done in spurts of passion. Little is planned ahead of time.

[77] Gebauer, Günther and Wulf, Christoph, “Über die ‘scholastische Ansicht’”, in Praxis und Ästhetik, Frankfurt am Main, 1993. Quoted from Østerberg, 1995, p. 157.

[78] Posner, 1997.

[79]Politicizing Puberty: The zoning of child sexuality in Art, advertising and the American household” debate with Michael Medved Stephen Schiff, Naomi Wolf, Judith Levine, James Kincaid.

Overview of articles on Sally Mann’s art: In 2004 Mann’s Immediate Family series was on the Internet but not any more. Some of what remains is linked with subscription “adult” sites.

[80] Goodman, 1984, pp.107-129.

[81] See for example, Cassirer, Ernst, Symbol, Myth and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer, 1935-45, Verene (ed.), New Haven, 1979. Cassirer’s point is also addressed in chapter 5 and 6,

[82] Pollock, 1992, p. 575.

[83] An example of such a view is derived from Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotics.

[84] The reader will recall from the introduction, that the relation between the artwork and its institutional setting is treated in a more cursory manner. This is, first of all, because I feel it is an issue that puts the focus primarily upon the institution’s autonomy. Secondly, I limit my presentation and discussion of it in order to limit my paper.

[85] A biological-evolutionary metaphor under-girds the notion of reason having diversified and various domains within culture being established.

[86] Adorno, 1997, section on “Society”, starting from p. 225. See also Sveen, 1995, p. 41; Østerberg, 1995, pp. 143.

[87] Olsen, 1984, pp. 1-19.

[88] Olsen, 1984, pp. 10-11.

[89] Ibid.

[90] Art-institutional autonomy and its relation to the artwork is a huge topic. As I stipulated in my introduction, I choose not to address it in depth. For discussions about the origin of a distinct art institution, see Sveen, 1995 and Østerberg, 1995; Habermas, in his Theory of Communicative Action (vol. 1, Boston, MIT, 1984, not listed in the bibliography) defends relative autonomous status. Adorno and Horkheimer, 1998 present important criticisms concerning the relation between the artwork and the art institution; Bourdieu, 1884 is critical of the distinction between popular and bourgeois class distinction, which he claims the art institution enforces; Crimp, 1993 can be said to be exemplary for the Postmodern attempt to deconstruct the institution.

[91] Adorno, 2004, p. 40.

[92] For example, the Bergen Art Museum is municipally owned and its director, although an art professional, is politically appointed. At present the museum is geared towards tourism and education. Since the municipality owns many choice works by, e.g., Edward Munch, then by all means, the municipality does not allow these paintings merely to have their being as autonomous artworks, but makes them do some work: Municipally owned holdings are treated as a lending-library, sent around the globe and function as Norwegian ambassadors. They are “swapped” with other museums and used as bargaining chips so that Bergen can mount temporary international exhibitions.

[93] Sveen, op.cit. p. 40, footnote 74.

[94] For abject artworld-internal referentiality, Rita Marhaug’s “menstruation video”, officially titled 13 + 35, has been interpreted as a comment upon Knut Åsdam’s video Pissing (Veronica Diesen, “Det performative i relasjon til kjønn, identitet og makt”, in Rita Marhaug: Fortrolighetens geografi, (artist catalogue for Haugesund Billedgalleri), 2001). In other reviews Pissing, in its turn, is interpreted as a comment on Andy Warhol’s video Blow Job.

[95] Louise Lawler’s art [Illustration 5] consists, to a large degree, of photographs of other artist’s works in art-institutional contexts such as museum magazines, Sotherby’s auction show room, etc. As such, they are intended to take part in a discourse about the artwork as a commodity and to problematize aspects of the art-institution, such as its care-taker function, its treating artworks as commodities, its marketing strategies, etc.

[96] Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. Haacke combines materials, words and images in order to critique advertising, industry and political life in their relation to the art world. [Illustration 6] Shapolsky attempts to expose the business operations of a slum landlord with ties to the Guggenheim Museum. Because of this artworld-internal connection, the work is judged internal.

[97] An excellent recent example of non-autonomous art is the exhibition Time Suspended, Bergen Kunsthall, January 2005, which deals with the theme refugees and human rights: the challenge of longstanding conflicts. This exhibition is a collaborative effort on behalf of video-artists and human rights organizations such as the Raftos Foundation. As well as viewing videos dealing with the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Kunsthall has “curated” a seminar series by non-art professionals (politicians, journalists, judges, human rights activists and researchers) to present their views to gallery-goers.

[98] Hans Haacke’s Sanitation (2000), Sanitation intends to draw an analogy with the Sensation exhibitions, first mounted in 1997 in London. It portrays former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in the company of Nazis, with quotations by him written in the Fraktur script favoured by the Third Reich, and the sound of jackboots marching in the background. It seems to depend entirely on the good will of the interpreter: Can a link be found to the artworld that would render the work internal to it? The museum's director, Maxwell L Anderson, admitted the artwork is deliberately intended by the artist to provoke the mayor and the public. But because of the history surrounding Sensation exhibitions, it is an internal provocation, since the Whitney museum receives funding from the municipality. 

A work that is more undecidable, if not impossible to claim art-internal status for, is Haacke’s portrait of Ronald Reagan in Oelgemaelde, Hommage à Marcel Broodthaers (1982). Despite its title, it seems mostly to be a claim about the fascism of conservative politics more than anything internal to the art institution. (I am open to the possibility of my own ineptitude in not seeing the connection here with art-internal themes. It may be argued that one of Broodthaer’s axioms was that installation art has no autonomous existence, since the work is assembled on sight, and its essence is spectator participation. In such case, the art-internal theme would be the lack of an internal theme.) Anyway, the portrait, a symbol of power, seems to exude passive arrogance. From behind stanchions and a velvet rope, Reagan faces a photograph of anti-war protesters. Haacke’s portrait of Margaret Thatcher in Taking Stock (1982) could however be more easily understood as artworld-internal, since there is a strong link between Thatcher and the art-patron Saatchi Brothers. Although both the Reagan and Thatcher portraits extend from local and world events, Taking Stock presents Thatcher in the costume and artifice of regal décor. Yet her library setting exposes the source of her power: The book spines name her collaborators, all clients of the Saatchi and Saatchi advertising conglomerate – British Airways, the Arts Council of Great Britain, the British Museum, Conservative-British Elections, and the South Africa Nationalist Party, etc. Porcelain plates in the bookcase contain the faces of brothers Maurice and Charles Saatchi, alluding to their spirited collecting of plate-breaking painter Julian Schnabel. The Saatchi’s collecting contemporary art coincides with their advertising company's theory of global marketing, which was responsible for Thatcher's election campaigns. According to Haacke's statements about the work, as patrons of the arts, the Saatchis donate contemporary art to the Tate Gallery in order to gain power and prestige. In this sort of convoluted way, Thatcher’s portrait could be deemed artworld-internal through means of association with such powerful artworld players as the Saatchi brothers.

[99] Sveen, op. cit., p.45.

[100] CJ§19-22.

[101] “Humpty-Dumptying” means to stipulate a meaning of a word when there is no apparent metaphorical or analogous connection. Successful Humpty-Dumptying is when your stipulation eventually wins acceptance from a larger community. The software terminology vampire tap comes to mind. It means: “A cable connection used to connect transceivers to a Thicknet coaxial cable in an Ethernet network in a bus topology. Instead of cutting the cable and attaching connectors to both ends of the severed coaxial cable, a vampire tap pierces through (hence the name vampire) the insulating layer of the cable and makes direct contact with the cable’s conducting core.” As I see it, this is akin to the Humpty-Dumptying of some ready-mades. You have to have good will to find Gonzales-Torres Placebo has any analogy with AIDS research. For a discussion of Humpty Dumpty in relation to other thinkers such as Vico, Wolf and Grimm, see

[102] Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking Glass, New York: Puffin Books, 1976, p. 274.

[103] Adorno, 1997, p. 225-226.

[104] Ibid., p. 227.

[105] The recent Dual Art Performance at Bergen Kunsthallen, 1 February, 2005, featuring the artists Robert Alda, Kurt Johanessen, Rita Marhaug, Joan Casellas, Erika and Angel Pastor, was in instance of breaking common social taboos.

[106] For my purposes, ontology refers to positions focusing upon extensional aspects of works, as well as those positions focusing on aspects that transcend physical phenomena.

[107] Beardsley, 1981, p. 17.

[108] Op cit., pp. 18-21.

[109] Op cit., pp. 29-34.

[110] Op cit., p. 31. Interestingly, Beardsley makes a distinction between music and visual arts: We do not need sound waves to experience music, we can sing silently in our minds, but we do need the physical base for experiencing pictures.

[111] Op cit., p. 78.

[112] Op cit., p. 64.

[113] Op cit., p. 79.

[114] Op cit., p. 64.

[115] Op cit., p. 33.

[116] See e.g., Gould, 1998, p. 252.

[117] For a more lengthy discussion of problems with Bell’s theory, see, e.g., Carroll, 1999, pp. 115-125, p. 118.

[118] Timaeus 51c-d: “…Do all these things of which we always say that each of them is something “by itself” really exist? Or are the things we see, and whatever else we perceive through the body, the only things that possess this kind of actuality, so that there is absolutely nothing else besides them at all? Is our perpetual claim that there exists an intelligible Form for each thing a vacuous gesture, in the end nothing but mere talk? […] these “by themselves” things definitely exist—these Forms, the objects not of our sense perception, but of our understanding only.”

[119] MukaYovský, 1970; MukaYovský, 1991.

[120] What is meant by ‘Hegelianistic’ is that the real work of art is a non-sensuous expression. Hegel maintained that art is the sensuous appearance of Geist (Spirit) to itself. For him, Classical Greek art afforded the most perfectly balanced self-expression possible. In contrast, Romantic (Christian) art holds so much truth that the sensuous expression cannot contain it anymore. So, for Hegel, art in its highest determination is a thing of the past, and as far as Hegelianism is concerned, art has gone over to being spirit. See, for example, Hegel’s introduction to his Aesthetics.

[121] Bell, Clive, Since Cézanne, London: Chatto and Windus, 1922, p.94.

[122] ”De estetiske bildene er underlagt bildeforbud.” Adorno, 1998, p. 187.

[123] CJ§14, 225-6.

[124] Wilde, Oscar, 1998, pp. 861-862.

[125] Pater, Walter, 1998, pp.829-830.

[126] Ibid.

[127] Loesberg, 1991, p. 12-14.

[128] Økland, Einar, quoted in Frigstad, 2003, p. 57.

[129] Ibid.

[130] Beardsley, op. cit. p. 577.

[131] See the discussion below concerning Minimalism.

[132] Whistler, 1998, pp. 838-847.

[133] Ibid.


[135] The ‘total-exchange society’: Briefly, what is alluded to is Adorno’s thesis that contemporary society is dominated by instrumental reason thought processes that cohere with commodity-exchange and administration through quantification. If an artwork “falls into the clutches of” the “total-exchange society”, this means they will not be valued for their distinctive and subjective qualities.

[136] Adorno, 1997, p. 225-227. Artworks must resist society and are “kept alive” through their social force of resistance. This theme will return at the end of this chapter.

[137] Adorno, 1997, p. 242.

[138] Nussbaum, 1998.

[139] Posner, 1997.

[140] Bergen Festspill exhibition SKAM, 2003.

[141] is a transcript of Rorty’s essay: The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of a Literary Culture.

[142] This is my perspective, but there are other who agree that as well as a great evil, 9/11 was a highly successful artwork, e.g. Damian Hurst, and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, who called it “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” “Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn't even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for 10 years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying, just imagine what happened there. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn't do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing. Artists, too, sometimes try to go beyond the limits of what is feasible and conceivable, so that we wake up, so that we open ourselves to another world.” (Tape transcript from public broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk.) (Thanks to Lars Svendsen for informing me of Stockhausen, who I have never heard of before.)

[143] I refer to Plato’s exiling the poet from the ideal republic, Republic X.

[144] “Whoever would attempt an assessment of Brecht exclusively on the basis of the artistic merit of his works would fail him no less than one who judges his meaning according to his theses.” Adorno, Theodore, op cit. p. 232.

[145] Gadamer, 1989, p. 474.

[146] Thanks to artist Christer Swartz for the following link:

[147] Gadamer, 1966, pp. 103-4.

[148] Ibid.

[149] Kittang, 2004, p. 139-149; Kittang, 2001, pp. 35-53; Burgin, 1995, p. 913.

[150] Kittang, 2001, p. 47: ”[Det er] viktig å hålde ved like interesse for det som er eigenarta og særprega ved den type gjenstandar ein studerer. I dag […] er dette viktigare enn nokosinne. Dette er bade ei etisk og ei teoretisk forplikting, og den formalistiske teoritradisjonen er viktigere enn den hermeneutiske når ein skal finne måtar å innfri denne forpliktinga på.” (My translation: It is important to maintain interest for what is unique/the hallmarks of the sort of object one is studying. Today […] it is more important than ever before. It is both an ethical and a theoretical obligation, and the Formalist theory-tradition is more important than the hermeneutic, if one is to find ways of fulfilling this obligation.)

[151] Sandberg, 2003, p. 31.

[152] Greenberg, 1992, pp. 754-760. The romantic habit of attributing personhood to the artwork is readily apparent in Greenberg’s essay, in modes of expression such as “the painting divests itself of”, “the work interrogates itself”. Browsing the internet, this way of talking about the artwork as a person persists: “In this sense, the paintings appear to stand before us as if inscribed by the narrative of their own coming into being, their own physical and conceptual process, their own manner, as it were, of working through. And their "mood" is perhaps less one of self-justification, assertion and conviction than the now inevitable ways in which the work assumes for itself-recognizes, displays and demonstrates-the measure of its own contingency.”

[153] Greenberg, 1992, p. 755.

[154] Greenberg, 1992, pp. 754-760.

[155] Quote from Gunnar Kvaran, director of Astrup Fearnley Museum, in a personal e-mail interview, January 2004.

[156] Rosalind Kraus’ essay “Sculpture in the Expanding Field” is a possible exception, but the problem with Kraus’ definition of sculpture is that it entails that there be a multitude of new categories created for artworks. This is a very messy solution. See Kraus, 1998, pp. 281-298.

[157] de Duve, 1998, pp. 374-385.

[158] Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance (Wittgenstein, 1958, §67) and Putnam’s natural kind semantics captures this point without assimilating general terms with personal names. I thank Kjetil Skjerven for pointing out that the expression ‘art’ shares few other semantic features with proper names.

[159] Ibid., p. 380.

[160] Weitz, 1956, pp. 27-35.

[161] Kraus, 1998, pp. 281-298.

[162] Michael Fried is quoting Tony Smith: Fried, 1992, pp. 822-834.

[163] Ibid., see also: Judd, 1992, pp. 809-813; Morris, 1992, pp. 813-822.

[164] Sveen, 1995, p. 37.

[165] Matisse, 1973, pp. 32-40; Lyas, 1998, p. 474-476.


[167] The relation of purposiveness without determinate purpose.

[168] Sjklovskij, 1970.

[169] See p. 14.

[170] Daatland, 2005.

[171] Adorno, 1997, p. 225.

[172] Op cit., p. 5.

[173] Op cit., p. 178. Adorno borrowed this from Benjamin, who borrowed it from Leibnitz. Whether or not Adorno himself thought of the ‘windowless monad as the antithesis of Alberti, is unclear.

[174] Op cit., pp. 236-238.

[175] Harding, 1992, p. 183.

[176] Adorno, 1997, pp. 236-241. (The Mediation of Art and Society.)

[177] Loesberg, 1991, p. 12-14.