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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CHAPTER 7. CONCLUSION
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.
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
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
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.
 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.