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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What was a pressing issue in the prologue—my ignorance about critical issues related to the artwork’s status—might have just been a symptom of going to art school in a backwater of Europe, a school drenched in unreflected Modernism. But if art really were in a distinct domain from cognitions and morally obligated judgments, if artistic practice was a matter of primarily tacit knowledge, this would support the view that artists need not reflect over their works, except with regard to formal and technical concerns. In practice however, we students reflected haphazardly over notions we absorbed from theories projected through the wider culture.[375]

Yet ‘the autonomous artwork’ is not just a pressing problem for ignorant artists. The introduction presented today’s predicament: Contemporary artworks do not behave like traditional Modern works. They are for purposes, which generally fall in under the purposes of avant-garde works: to make strange, to engender reflection, to challenge. And like works from earlier ages, contemporary artworks are imaginative ways of examining issues and asking questions about how we want to live, what kind of society we want to create. As such, they are tightly connected with cognitions and moral concerns—the two judgments Kant tried to separate the aesthetic field from. So how can we call such works autonomous? The introduction presented the problem of the multitude of disparate conceptions of ‘autonomous artwork’ used to defend or justify artworks from onslaught. Hence the problemstilling: Was it possible to lay out, discuss and reflect over the various conceptions of ‘autonomous artwork’, and construct a revitalized synthesis, which would be justifiable for contemporary artworks? Moreover, could the touted double character of artworks (the paradoxical autonomy and instrumentality) be coherent? In this errand, chapter 2 looked at nomos, auto, ‘autonomous’ and its closely related cognates. We saw what happens inadvertently when ‘autonomous’ is conjoined with ‘artwork’ came to light: the ideologically Romantic commitments, particularly the work’s honorary personhood, its metaphysical subject status. Chapter 3 accounted for Kant’s judgment of taste; it set out, as succinctly as possible, the numerous “building blocks” with which manifold construals of autonomy have been wrought. At least fifteen “building blocks” were identified.

Chapter 4 was sort of like a muddle through a swamp of alternatives. The goal was not to discover the one correct interpretation of ‘autonomy’ for contemporary artworks, but to survey the field, discuss the various positions, and then construct a list of those moments of Kant’s “building blocks” and of other thinkers’ conceptions that remain viable for contemporary artworks. Like Goldylocks tasting different bowls of porridge, fault was found with most all ways ‘autonomous artwork’ was concocted. The resulting hybrid of provisional moments of autonomy was, first of all, related to the artists’ authenticity of expression. From thence on, only partial autonomy obtained (see summary p. 57-61). Although the dissenter found fault with almost all the understandings of the work’s autonomy, from a pragmatic perspective, most of these can still be useful ways of appreciating artworks.

Chapter 5 accounted for and discussed the thoughts of Heidegger, Blanchot and Derrida on the question of the work’s autonomy. Heidegger’s artwork, heavily informed by the conceptual pair of earth and world, and their unity—the workly character— was understood as both instrumental and autonomous. The workly character is described in relation to the work’s self-subsistence, the artist is like a conduit for the work’s seeming self-creation, the earth’s hiding simultaneously as it reveals (an innovation in the history of describing the artwork’s autonomy), renders the work’s unknowability. The workly character of the artwork was available to the preserver in the act of preserving, in the act of taking part in the event of truth, but as soon as the preserver tried to treat it as an object of study, it skirted away. These descriptions of he artwork’s autonomy did not seem to undermine themselves, but they were highly ambiguous.

Moving the focus to Blanchot’s dead and autonomous slope of the artwork, the striking contrasts of the two slopes was useful to reflect over and resolve indecision about the claimed ontological priority of aesthetic features as grounds for autonomy. Blanchot’s construal suffered a number of inconsistencies, intractable problems in imagining how it could be the case (e.g., the zombified receiver and the constant vacillation between the two slopes). The thought struck that ontological priority is just not a relevant issue for contemporary artworks; if a work is valued for everything but its material and formal features, then why should these suddenly become important when trying to defend it? Meanwhile, it was reflected that both Heidegger and Blanchot were “on the road” to undecidability, given that their conceptions of the artwork were highly ambiguous in every respect, yet they linger in ‘double character’ terminology.

Derrida’s artwork was autonomous in three ways: first, the expression meant that the work was undecideable in form, secondly, it referred to the artwork’s non-restitution to any referent other than itself, and thirdly, non-restitution to a purpose/undecidability of purpose. But there was a debilitating problem with these so-called successful failures: They could not be conclusively demonstrated. Still, the scepticism engendered was hopeful, even religious, and required the judge to do a “close reading” and to judge regardless inconclusiveness. Derrida’s scepticism is radical because it does not return the artwork to anything other than itself. The void ergon preserves the artwork being put in a domain between scientific knowledge on the one hand, and ethics, magic and religion on the other, and these domain has no clear borders. It is a threshold where humans allow their creative work to be meaningful. Meanwhile, it offers a golden road between diverse pitfalls such as positivism, the self-undermining double character and radical anything-goes relativism.

In Chapter 6, a third hybrid was conceived, with partial autonomy for the work in each instance: 1) The undecidable character (which favours neither its metaphysical nor physical aspects). 2) It is always related to truth in Heidegger’s sense, since it must necessarily have aspects of earth and world about it, however, it may or may not be related to truth-as-correspondence, or to truth in a pragmatic sense—3) The work’s autonomy is related to political (stipulated) decision. 4) In relation to the artist, the work’s undecidability throws the artist back on herself: she is responsible for the authenticity and sincerity of her expression and intentions, even though they may fail, both in creation and reception. 5) Artistic practice which results in the work is, at least in part, akin to law-likeness without a law. 6) The undecidable artwork “throws the receiver back” on herself; it is the receiver’s choice to meet the work with anything from enthusiasm to indifference, disgust or silence. She may find the work useless, it belongs to her freedom to reject it, but regardless, she will always be responsible for her attitude towards it, bad faith is dis-allowed. The receiver judges what the work will be returned to, but never conclusively.

This hybrid list of autonomy for the artwork is partial, but it still is significant.

The meaning of the expression ‘autonomous artwork’ has been stretched in order to be shrunk. This deepens, renews and articulates our understanding of artworks. It is a bit of language that contains a culture and changes with the changes of that culture. By searching out the expression ‘autonomous artwork’, the artworld is coaxed away from unreflected assumptions and from grandiose and utopian visions of absolute freedom for art. Artworld professionals are coaxed away from the irresponsibility of foregone conclusions about truth and morals. The history and theory behind this expression, the philosophical reflection around it, are so immense that it seems to tells us something about the way we are, namely, that we have a hankering—perhaps a predisposition—for freedom of expression, moral independence, intellectual independence and independent agency.




[375] In 1998, just prior to Kunsthåndverkskolen merging with the Art Academy, a newly hired art-history teacher started addressing art-theoretical issues in her lectures. My experience is that artists do not read much. We tend to create according to intuition rather than with consciously cultivated aesthetic-philosophical reflections, theory and a sense of history. I do not see this as a problem when artworks are confined to an institutional setting. It becomes a problem when artworks are directly effective outside the institution, as was exemplified in the introduction.