autonomy in conservative times

‘Autonomy’ has crept into the lexicon of contemporary art. As contemporary art is a field vaguely founded upon the theoretical rejection of aesthetic autonomy, its recent theorization is fraught with particular manifestations of abuse. On one hand, autonomy has become a dirty insult, used pejoratively. On the other, it is construed as the restoration of art in an era of its impossibility. In the former scenario, art-activists and political artists, ideological critics, and philosophers see the ‘pure form’ which is now conflated with autonomy as extraneous and perhaps even decadent when understood in a social context of profound social injustice. It is ‘merely’ aesthetic. In the latter, art is expressly valued for its myopic focus on ‘aesthetics’ alone, which in turn is valued for its projected apolitical nature, as something that does not take part in the torpor of contemporary politics. In other words, left politics is considered so miserable today that it drives otherwise political thinkers into depoliticized art. Neither of these sentiments are explicit, however. The ‘pure art’ vs. ‘political art’ debate is itself antiquated—it was understood as passé even a century ago—and today it does not debate autonomy, but the terms of debate indicate something else entirely: aesthetic autonomy’s absence as a meaningful category. It indicates not a discussion of aesthetic autonomy, or even politics, but rather the reconstitution, in a curiously distorted form, of a classical debate from the nineteenth century that by the early 1920s was mooted by advanced social conditions. This critical framework of necessary misinterpretation is one of the defining categorical features of contemporary art. Before our time, we sense, there were notions of the autonomy of art in modernity that dabbled in no such simple bifurcation of ‘political or apolitical’, which are antidotes to conservative times, imparted by conservative times. The very separation of ‘political’ or ‘apolitical’ into ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ indicates regression—or at least a mild transfiguration without consciousness of that transfiguration—in terms of how we now determine the social situation of art, which isn’t to say the quality of the art itself. I.e. the meaning of how and why it is misunderstood today demands newfound clarity as a possibly critical misinterpretation. The mode of the era is misinterpretation. Autonomy is necessarily misunderstood, but it may ultimately be for the sake of clarifying what autonomous art was trying to convey, but could not in its own moment.


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