The concept of the autonomy of art lays claim to the appreciation of art as art. Devoid of any practical function, works of art are evaluated aesthetically and independently of any instrumental imperatives (social, moral, economic, pedagogic etc.). Autonomy characterises the work of art as an aesthetic experience, it therefore also characterises works of art and the criteria for the judgement of art. Ultimately, the status of autonomy extends to the artist and the institutions of art as well. The concept of the autonomy of art is historically constructed and serves to establish and legitimise what we call the “institution of art” in western culture.

Autonomy is an empowering concept for artists but it is also constitutive of the false idealism of art and serves to conceal the connection between culture and hegemony. Autonomy privileges artworks as self-contained objects of aesthetic contemplation—with timeless and universal appeal—not as cultural artefacts implicated in complex social and historically inscribed relationships.

Since the early twentieth century, artists have articulated a self-conscious ambivalence regarding the autonomy of art. Whilst many artists continued to question and challenge popular and essentialist notions of the artist in their practice, artists like Josef Beuys sustained these contradictory notions. Beuys often delivered his famous slogan “every human being is an artist” (Beuys, 1974, p. 48), to suggest that creativity is not the privilege of artists. He nevertheless cultivated a myth around his persona as an artist through the messianic symbolism in his work, in references to his miraculous survival in World War II, in his characteristic attire and rhetorical posture.

The autonomy of art is historically defined through five distinct phases and their associated meanings:

(1) The concept of autonomy is initially an ideological category originating in the late eighteenth-century aesthetic philosophy of Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Judgment, originally published in 1790. Here the concept of autonomy refers primarily to the faculties of aesthetic judgement (or taste) as disinterested pleasure or purposiveness without purpose. In his essay Kant and the Autonomy of Art (1989), Casey Haskins argues that Kant “never speaks of art—as opposed to the faculties of judgement and taste—as autonomous (Haskins, 1989, p. 43). Kant’s autonomy thesis applies to aesthetics in general and not to art in particular.[1] Once he has defined the judgement of taste, Kant then superimposes these characteristics onto the work of art.

(2) The concept of autonomy was updated in the nineteenth century with the struggle for the independence of art from social institutions and from claims of morality and social utility.[2] The original concept of autonomy opened up a domain of freedom for art, limited only by the “principle of the unity of the work” (Bürger, 1998, p. 177). Walter Benjamin defines the artist’s autonomy as the “freedom to write whatever he pleases” and the decision “in whose service he is to place his activity” (Benjamin, 1969/1934, p. 220).

(3) The artists’ historical emancipation from patronage culminated in Aestheticism and the concept of art-for-art’s-sake. Thus in the modern era, the value of purposelessness or disinterest is extended to include the critique of society. The concept of autonomy henceforth takes on the meaning of self-jurisdiction because art is not accountable to external rules or values. Peter Bürger defines autonomy primarily on the basis of the separation of the aesthetic sphere from life praxis:

Under the impression of the irreconcilability of art and modern society, this position is now radicalized in such a way that the work of art may only express its own impossibility. (Bürger, 1998, p. 177)

(4) In the mid-twentieth century—and in tandem with the increasing professionalisation of art—the concept of autonomy is reasserted and taken to its ultimate conclusion in the formalist programmes of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. The concept of autonomy is thus associated with an anachronistic concept of “high art” as a unique object with timeless and universal appeal, the work of a genius.

It is important at this point to consider Casey Haskins’ reading of Kant in order to establish the meaning of the term “aesthetics” in this thesis. Casey Haskins distinguishes between two forms of autonomy: a non-instrumental “strict autonomism” associated with Greenberg, which maintains that the evaluation of works of art is limited to their artistic or aesthetic properties. The other view, which Haskins calls “instrumental autonomism”, is associated with the pragmatist and Marxist traditions (Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, John Dewey and Monroe Beardsley). This viewpoint emphasises the unique capacity of the artwork to do what other kinds of objects cannot do in the same way and introduces alternative criteria into this judgment. For example, it ascribes criteria of value to works of art that are instrumental to knowledge or education and thus provides a more inclusive framework for ascribing value to works of art. Haskins points out that Kant affirms an instrumental notion of autonomy (Haskins, 1989, p. 43). Kant defines the work of fine art as:

…a mode of representation which is intrinsically purposive, and which, although devoid of an end, has the effect of advancing the culture of the mental powers in the interests of social communication. (Kant, 2007/1790, §44, p. 135)

Thus for Kant, the contemplation of artworks does not necessarily appeal only to the aesthetic properties of a work of art. The purpose of art is social cohesion through a nondiscursive form of communication. The ultimate goal of this social function is to refine the senses in order to bring about the ethical reign of reason.

…taste is, in the ultimate analysis, a faculty that judges of the rendering of moral ideas in terms of the senses (through the intervention of a certain analogy in our reflection on both); and it is this rendering also, and in the increased receptivity, founded upon it, for the feeling which these ideas evoke (termed moral sense), that are the origin of that pleasure which taste declares valid for mankind in general and not merely for the private feeling of each individual. This makes it clear that the true propaedeutic for laying the foundations of taste is the development of moral ideas and the culture of the moral feeling. (Kant, 2007/1790, §60, p. 183)

According to Haskins, aesthetic ideas for Kant correspond in their function to produce “systematic discursive thought even though they range […] over a larger universe of discourse”. For Haskins this contains the implication that “aesthetic ideas provide us with a proto-knowledge, and to this extent [Kant] regards fine art as instrumental toward a cognitive end” (Haskins, 1989, p. 48).

(5) The fifth aspect of autonomy is the autonomy of the art institution. It consists of the internal rules of art and the interdependence of the players in the field; art is produced in response to other art and to discourses within the field. They come from other artists, curators, critics, the public, administrators, dealers, collectors etc. This is what Peter Bürger refers to when he says that “it is not in and of themselves that works of art have their effect but rather that this effect is decisively determined by the institution within which the works function” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 31). In the twentieth century, this claim will have critical consequences for artists’ practice and the control of meaning in their work. By the end of the twentieth century, forms of institutional critique revealed the pervasiveness of the art institution and the illusory character of autonomy. Autonomy remains a valuable though problematic, controversial and contested concept. The problem of autonomy confronts artists who set out to produce a “political” critique of capitalist ideology from a position of plausible neutrality, one that is circumscribed by the privileged and fortified autonomous institution of art itself.

A self-conscious institution

…artists, the emblems of freedom, are present in the museum experience in a ghostly fashion, as traces of creative work, as wish-images of non-alienated labour, playing an imaginary role (Buck-Morss, 2003, p. 69)

The role of art in western society has undergone major shifts since the eighteenth century, when art was consolidated as an institution. This transition occurred within the conditions established by the concept of autonomy and at roughly the same time as the French Revolution, when the bourgeoisie was in the process of asserting its power (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 26).

The insights formulated in Kant’s and Schiller’s[3] aesthetic writings presuppose the completed evolution of art as a sphere that is detached from the praxis of life. We can therefore take it as our point of departure that at the end of the eighteenth century at the latest, art as an institution is already fully developed.[4] (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 26)

For Bürger, autonomy “defines the functional mode of the social subsystem ‘art’: its (relative) independence in the face of demands that it be socially useful” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 24). Once art was released from the requirement to fulfil a social function, it turned inward to engage with its own conditions of possibility, culminating in the l’art pour l’art movement at the end of the nineteenth century. With the historical avant-garde movements in the early twentieth century, “the social subsystem that is art enters the stage of self-criticism”, and it is only when art enters the stage of self-criticism that “the ‘objective understanding’ of past periods of the development of art become possible”. The self-consciousness of art is here the precondition of the historical avant-garde and its programmatic efforts to transcend the institution of autonomous art and to integrate art into everyday life with the aim of bringing about utopian social change. Hence, “Dadaism […] no longer criticizes schools that precede it, but criticizes art as an institution, and the course its development took in bourgeois society” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 22). According to Benjamin Buchloh, “one of the essential features of Modernism [was] its impulse to criticize itself from within, to question its institutionalization, its reception, and its audience” (Buchloh, 1982, p. 50).

Thus, in the modern era, art by definition questions its existence: the work of art asks “what am I?” (Hinkle, 1979, p. 28). This radical uncertainty is the only guidance for artists. The promiscuity of art, its unpredictable forms and appearances testifies to this principle, yet at the same time art is proscribed, defined, limited and circumscribed by the institution of art itself. The moment of self-consciousness of art is also the moment of the coming into being of the institution of art. At this moment, it also becomes possible to differentiate between the work of art and its institutional function and designation. A distinction emerges between the singular practices of artists and art as a social institution with a legitimising cultural discourse that enables us to recognise and talk about works of art:

Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is (Hegel, 1835/1975, p. 11)

In her essay A Global Counter-Culture? (2003), Susan Buck-Morss states that in the legitimating discursive field of art history the “very definition of what art is involved making critical judgements about the material world” (Buck-Morss, 2003, p. 66). The question “what is art?” is central to art practice which—rooted in the epistemological criterion of aesthetic judgement—contains the “possibility of aesthetic experience as critique” (Buck-Morss, 2003, p. 67).

The critical function of autonomous art

Art perceived strictly aesthetically is art aesthetically misperceived. […] Art is autonomous and it is not; without what is heterogeneous to it, its autonomy eludes it. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 6)

In Aesthetic Theory (2002/1970), Theodor Adorno describes the emergence of the autonomous work of art as part of a historical process: western art before the Enlightenment served various social functions. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, artists could no longer rely on religious and aristocratic patronage so they began to address the market. They were now free to decide what the work would be about. Adorno identifies the autonomy of art with its emancipation from patronage and its subsequent “appropriation of the commodity character, through which art gained the semblance of its being-in-itself” (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 239). The dialectical development of autonomy and commodification involved various processes including the development of an art market and the founding of museums and art galleries. “Bourgeois” art emerged when artists established themselves in Europe’s burgeoning capitalist market of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. After the revolutions of 1848, the bourgeoisie was no longer the revolutionary class, reacting to the ills of modern industrial society, l’art pour l’art withdrew from social engagement:

…commodification became a prison rather than a liberation for the artist. With “art for art’s sake”, art withdrew from political action; in the modernist era that followed, progressive art lost its self-confidence and turned against the bourgeois culture which produced it. (Hamilton, 2008, p. 289)

Bürger concurs that the failure of the 1848 revolution in France created a political climate wherein “social engagement became as good as impossible”, and this “crucially encouraged the radicalization of the autonomy of art”. However, he adds that at the same time, there were other interpretations of the autonomy of art, including the formal experiments of Gustav Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarme, and the idea of the “work” which breaks off the semantic relations between the work of art and social reality (Bürger, 1998, p. 177).

In his essay, Adorno and the autonomy of art (2008), Andy Hamilton argues that Adorno develops and qualifies Kant’s concept of the autonomy of the aesthetic in conjunction with his concept of purposiveness without purpose, and his account of genius, through the Hegelian concepts of truth-content, intellectual import and the historical conditioning of artworks (Hamilton, 2008, p. 289-290). Whereas for Hegel, the relationship between art and society is affirmative, Adorno stresses its critical role (Hamilton, 2008, p. 295):

Progressive art embodies and exists within late bourgeois culture whilst denying by its truth-content that very culture; it deconstructs late capitalism as a false totality. (Hamilton, 2008, p. 290)

Adorno argues that while autonomous art is a commodity, it is not simply a function of bourgeois ideology because it also serves a critical function (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 194). The central dichotomy and paradoxical ambivalence of Adorno’s aesthetic theory lies in the opposition between Kant’s concurrent emphasis on the autonomy of form and the commodity status of art. This problem was also addressed by Marx, who emphasised art’s social determination (Hamilton, 2008, p. 290).

The autonomy of art, “its growing independence from society”, according to Adorno, “was a function of the bourgeois consciousness of freedom that was itself bound up with the social structure”, because at the time, “the idea of a fundamentally oppositional art was inconceivable” (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 225). Adorno provides an account of the artwork’s necessary and illusory autonomy as “the social antithesis of society”, which is the key to modern art’s social dimension (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 8). Adorno’s main claim is that art’s autonomy and its commodity status are in dialectical opposition:

The double character of art—something that severs itself from empirical reality and thereby from society’s functional context and yet is at the same time part of empirical reality and society’s functional context—is directly apparent in the aesthetic phenomena, which are both aesthetic and faits sociaux. They require a double observation that is no more to be posited as an unalloyed whole than aesthetic autonomy and art can be conflated as something strictly social. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 252)

For Adorno the social function of autonomous art in the era of modernism is social critique (Hamilton, 2008, p. 293). Autonomous art is critical in two ways; in the first instance, autonomous art is a critique of heteronomy. Art resists heteronomy by insisting obstinately on its own values and rules. Art sublimates reality’s governing principle of self-preservation. By subsuming its subjects into its “self-identity”, art releases things from the homogeneity that is foisted on them:

Aesthetic identity seeks to aid the nonidentical, which in reality is repressed by reality’s compulsion to identity. […] Artworks are afterimages of empirical life insofar as they help the latter to what is denied them outside their own sphere and thereby free it from that to which they are condemned by reified external experience. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 4)

Adorno’s argument is that since art no longer fulfils a social function, it can create its own logic, unconstrained by external imperatives. It is through its refusal of any social function that, according to Adorno, autonomous art acquires a critical function. In a society where everything has been instrumentalised and subjected to the principle of exchange, autonomous art performs a social critique. In this way, autonomous art is more critical than political art.

What would Adorno say if he witnessed the current instrumentalisation of this very function? How would Adorno negotiate the potentially priceless value of art as an object without purpose and the cultural capital this status accrues for the institutions and corporations that invest in its value? The defence of the autonomy of art glosses over the social and political dimensions of the production of art and the relationship of art to social institutions. Adorno’s concept of autonomy proposes to solve this problem by conceiving the autonomy of art as a critical practice on its own terms.

The second critical function of art for Adorno is its functionlessness, whereby it resists the logic of capitalism. Expressing his reservations concerning the critical value of political art, Adorno reconfigures Kant’s articulation of the aesthetic as purposiveness without purpose (Hamilton, 2008, p. 289) to functionalise its lack of social function. Although works of art are socially situated, they have no social function. To put it more precisely, the function of art, as a critique and resistance of the instrumental logic of capitalism, inheres in its functionlessness:

What is social in art is its immanent movement against society, not its manifest opinions. Its historical gesture repels empirical reality, of which artworks are nevertheless part in that they are things. Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 227)

For Adorno, the relationship between art and society is not limited to the “insertion of objective elements”, which works of art “borrow” from the empirical world. Art’s relationship to society is defined by the “unsolved antagonisms of reality [which] return in artworks as immanent problems of form”. Thus, works of art represent society without imitating it (Adorno, 2002, pp. 6, 5). Hence, the purpose of autonomous art is to serve no obvious purpose as the apparent negation and critique of functionalism.

Autonomy and heteronomy

Theodor Adorno considers commodification to be the founding moment of art in capitalist society (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 239), therefore commodification in and of itself does not necessarily compromise the critical function of the work of art. In his Critique of Relational Aesthetics (2007/2006), Stewart Martin points out that for Adorno the autonomous work of art is “inherently entwined with its commodity form” (Martin, 2007/2006, p. 374).

…the trademark of consumer goods appropriated by art by means of which artworks distinguish themselves from the ever-same inventory in obedience to the need for the exploitation of capital, which, if it does not expand, if it does not—in its own language—offer something new, is eclipsed. The new is the aesthetic seal of expanded reproduction, with its promise of undiminished plentitude. […] The absolute artwork converges with the absolute commodity. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 21)

Adorno conceives autonomous art as a concentrated form of commodity fetishism which exposes the inherent contradiction of the commodity because, ultimately, it is uses that are exchanged. For Martin this formulation defines the autonomous work of art in terms of its “resistance to being subjected to capital”. For Adorno art is thus an “immanent critique of commodification” (Martin, 2007/2006, pp. 374-375). It follows therefore that the critical potential of art does not hinge on challenging its commodity status (Martin, 2007/2006, p. 378), if anything the focus on commodification is merely a distraction.

Stewart Martin argues that for Adorno the critical dimension of autonomous art lies in its critique of the illusion that nothing is valuable in itself, independently of its exchange value, an illusion intensified within a universally commodified culture (Martin, 2007/2006, p. 374). This however suggests that all art is critical of commodity fetishism, regardless of the intentions of the artist or their effectiveness. Martin argues that this is precisely the reason that “autonomous art must incorporate criticism of itself into itself if it is not to function ideologically”. Despite Adorno’s claim for the essentially critical dimension of autonomy, he does not claim that art is actually autonomous from society, as this would be a fetishisation or illusion (Martin, 2007/2006, p. 375):

Hence the necessity of autonomous art’s anti-artistic or heteronomous dimension, whereby art must criticise its presupposition of received conceptions of autonomous art if it is to avoid suggesting that this autonomy is literally independent of its social constitution. (Martin, 2007/2006, p. 375)

Over and above the internal uncertainty or self-criticism of art (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 2), Adorno indicates that if the autonomous work of art is to function critically in society, this self-criticism must be achieved through mediation with a heteronomous dimension (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 248). Hence, by exposing its internal contradictions, art highlights social contradictions, thus art remains critical despite its complicity. For Adorno, the unavoidable tensions within works of modern art express the conflicts within the larger social and historical processes from which they arise and to which they belong. These tensions enter the artwork through the artist’s struggle with social and historically laden materials, and they elicit conflicting interpretations, many of which misread either the internal tensions of the work of art or their connection to conflicts in society as a whole:

In artworks, the criterion of success is twofold: whether they succeed in integrating thematic strata and details into their immanent law of form and in this integration at the same time maintain what resists it and the fissures that occur in the process of integration. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 7)

Bürger describes Adorno’s concept of the self-criticism of art in the most precise way, he sees art as a “vacant arcanum” and the autonomy of art as a “game”, a convention, which was radicalised in response to the failure of the 1848 revolutions when “social engagement became as good as impossible” (Bürger, 1998, p. 177). Bürger’s critique points out that art and autonomy are provisional ideas:

…the postulate of autonomy in the last third of the eighteenth century responds to central problems of incipient bourgeois capitalist society, and for this reason retains its validity in the two centuries to come, however disputed that validity will come to be. The problems to which this new definition of art reacts are called forth by the transition from a traditional to a modern society and by the changes in attitudes and patterns of life that this conditions. (Bürger, 1998, p. 176)

Bürger characterises these problems as a loss of meaning coupled with alienation amongst individuals who are directed towards increasingly selfish goals. To individuals thus divided in themselves and from their environment “autonomous art opens a world that lets [them] experience perfection as reality, although only at the cost of the strict separation of this from any life praxis” (Bürger, 1998, p. 176).

The historical avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century were “unanimous in their fundamental questioning of the autonomy of art” (Bürger, 1998, p. 177), for them, art was no longer merely a question of material production, but of revolutionising life. However, the historical avant-garde failed both in their attempt to sublate art and in their ambition to revolutionise everyday life. Instead, their anti-art has been recuperated as art. This, according to Bürger, affected “less the relation of art and life than the self-understanding of art”. Duchamp’s Fountain initiated the question of what a work of art is, as a necessary moment of art production. For Bürger, artists cannot uphold the autonomy of art without betraying the avant-garde project, neither can they reactivate the avant-garde project because it has failed (Bürger, 1998, p. 178). This is the dilemma in which artists of the twentieth century have been caught, the dilemma theorised but not overcome, Adorno defines this dilemma thus:

If art cedes its autonomy, it delivers itself over to the machinations of the status quo; if art remains strictly for-itself, it nonetheless submits to integration as one harmless domain among others. The social totality appears in this aporia, swallowing whole whatever occurs. That works renounce communication is a necessary yet by no means sufficient condition of their unideological essence. The central criterion is the force of expression, through the tension of which artworks become eloquent with wordless gesture. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 237)

Bürger, who rejects Adorno’s Theory of the Avant Garde in favour of Marcuse’s critique of aesthetics,[5] suggests that in order to overcome the aporia, artists must attempt to

…bind the mutually contradictory, that is, to create works, but in such a way that these latter be absorbed in an intention that goes beyond them [they] must invent a new place for art, which is neither within nor outside of art, but on the edge that separates artistic action from other forms of social action. (Bürger, 1998, p. 178)

Strictly speaking, this controversial[6] place is already accommodated in the space of autonomy, described by Adorno as the “double character of art”:

…something that severs itself from empirical reality and thereby from society’s functional context and yet is at the same time part of empirical reality and society’s functional context (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 252)

For Adorno this paradoxical character of art:

…is directly apparent in the aesthetic phenomena, which are both aesthetic and faits sociaux. They require a double observation that is no more to be posited as an unalloyed whole than aesthetic autonomy and art can be conflated as something strictly social. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 252)

Adorno thus identifies Bürger’s concept of “a new place for art, which is neither within nor outside of art, but on the edge that separates artistic action from other forms of social action” (Bürger, 1998, p. 178) and presents the notion of autonomy as a necessary illusion:

Art perceived strictly aesthetically is art aesthetically misperceived. […] Art is autonomous and it is not; without what is heterogeneous to it, its autonomy eludes it. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 6)

For Bürger this is an “impossible place, which exists nowhere, but rather must in each case be created in the moment” (Bürger, 1998, p. 178). Adorno’s thesis of the dialectic between autonomy and heteronomy assigns to the status of autonomy a duplicitous role, whereby art can preserve but also conceal its commodity character. Autonomy is a fetish, a socially constructed ruse. It is a position of complicity but the pay off is substantial: works of art are critical because they protest against the instrumentalisation of everything in capitalist society (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 227). Adorno is critical of the homogenising effect of the culture industry, not of popular culture as such. Adorno fears the potential devolution of the art institution into the cultural industry, a potential outcome that inheres within its autonomy (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 5):

If art cedes its autonomy, it delivers itself over to the machinations of the status quo; if art remains strictly for-itself, it nonetheless submits to integration as one harmless domain among others. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 237)

In both cases, art can potentially revert to entertainment through reification. Adorno is sceptical towards the avant-garde ambition to reintegrate art and life, not because of the manifest failure of the historical avant-gardes to achieve this goal, but because of their inadvertent success.[7] Adorno’s contempt for Jugendstil stems from his belief that it opened the floodgates to the commodification and reification of art in capitalist culture through its attempts to reintegrate art and life and served as a prelude to the culture industry (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 239). Today this process takes place with the intervention of the legitimising institutions of art, which administer art on behalf of the public.

Adorno’s defence of the subversive potential of autonomous art endures today in the conventional narratives about art and the figure of the artist. Art appears as a space of freedom and inclusivity. Art appears to be apolitical in a way that allows it to be political in its own terms, beyond the dogmatism of political organisations:

The work that desires nothing, the work without any point of view, which conveys no message and has no care either for democracy or for anti-democracy, this work is ‘egalitarian’ by dint of its very indifference, by which it suspends all preference, all hierarchy. It is subversive, as subsequent generations would discover, by dint of its radical separation of the sensorium of art from that of everyday aestheticized life. A contrast is thereby formed between a type of art that makes politics by eliminating itself as art and a type of art that is political on the proviso that it retains its purity, avoiding all forms of political intervention. (Ranciere, 2009, p. 40)

Artists thus implicitly assume a political position through negation. By inhabiting an alternative lifestyle, they demonstrate that other realities are possible. Representations of artists in the media reproduce this bohemian figure of the artist.[8] But in fact, professional relationships in the art world are ritualised, antagonistic and alienating, and artists are essentially producing unique and expensive commodities. The art world effectively functions just like any other competitive and commercial sector of society.

What is the value of artistic autonomy?

This is not a time for political art, but politics has migrated into autonomous art, and nowhere more so than where it seems to be politically dead. (Adorno, 2007/1962, p. 194)

Although autonomy is essentially a normative concept, it nevertheless describes the current condition of art accurately: we experience art in dedicated spaces, we regard artworks attentively, we value them more than commodities and we expect artists to prioritise aesthetic values over those of the market. However, since the turn of the century, we increasingly see more social and political content in works of art, artists increasingly expand our notions of the work of art, institutions branch out into the community and into public spaces with a social agenda and governments increasingly encourage and provide funding for community art projects. If the autonomy of art is still a valid concept, then how do we explain the current popularity of political art and the dematerialisation of art into social practice? How does the “ethical turn” affect the autonomous regime of art?

Art practice is no longer outside, no longer high, no longer avant-garde. Art is a culture industry. Autonomy is identified with an outdated formalist idea and rejected. But the problem may lie precisely in the fact that we can no longer lay claim to this autonomy. The notion of autonomy persists, but only as a fetish. Autonomy has passed from the artist and from the spectator to the institution. What becomes of art in an instrumental, global neoliberal economy?[9] Can art in this context escape the instrumentalisation that converts it into an indifferent commodity? Does the notion of artistic autonomy provide a space of freedom, a way of operating within the conditions that have impoverished both work and life?

Can the notion of autonomy—which the avant-garde rejected in a radical critique—become useful as a critical tool? The avant garde wanted to destroy art. Conceptual artists did not really want to destroy art; they wanted to be artists. The Situationist International wanted to destroy art, to annul it by reintegrating it with life and to bring it to a conclusion as the end point of this reintegration. Artists no longer wish to destroy art; on the contrary, artists wholeheartedly wish to be recognised and included within the canon of art.

Terry Eagleton argues that the aesthetic is a “bourgeois concept” but it aught not to be automatically condemned as “bourgeois ideology” in favour of “alternative forms of cultural politics”. The enlightenment, he argues, has after all provided the conditions that enable us to critique it: the “contradictoriness of the aesthetic”—an “amphibious concept” with “real historical complexity”—can only be encompassed by a dialectical kind of thought (Eagleton, 1990, p. 8). Eagleton points out that on the one hand, from a radical political viewpoint, the notion of autonomy within aesthetic discourse is disabling:

…art is thereby conveniently sequestered from all other social practices, to become an isolated enclave within which the dominant social order can find an idealized refuge from its own actual values of competitiveness, exploitation and material possessiveness. It is also, rather more subtly, that the idea of autonomy—of a mode of being which is entirely self-regulating and self-determining—provides the middle class with just the ideological model of subjectivity it requires for its material operations. (Eagleton, 1990, p. 9)

By emphasising the subjective character of aesthetic autonomy, the museum does not have to justify its operations, curators do not have to justify their selection, and museums do not have to justify their exclusions. Strictly speaking, however the autonomy of art characterises the artist’s judgement and the autonomy of the aesthetic characterises the judgement of the public or the critic, not the judgement of the bureaucrat or administrator. On the other hand however, and because the concept of autonomy “is radically double-edged”, it also emphasises “the self-determining nature of human powers and capacities which becomes […] the anthropological foundation of a revolutionary opposition to bourgeois utility” (Eagleton, 1990, p. 9):

The aesthetic is at once […] the very secret prototype of human subjectivity in early capitalist society, and a vision of human energies as radical ends in themselves which is the implacable enemy of all dominative or instrumentalist thought. It signifies a creative turn to the sensuous body, as well as an inscribing of that body with a subtly oppressive law; it represents on the one hand a liberatory concern with concrete particularity, and on the other hand a specious form of universalism. If it offers a generous utopian image of reconciliation between men and women at present divided from one another, it also blocks and mystifies the real political movement towards such historical community. (Eagleton, 1990, p. 9)

The theoretical category of the aesthetic concerns the “most gross and palpable dimension of the human”, it thus constitutes “the first stirrings of a primitive materialism” (Eagleton, 1990, p. 13). Eagleton supports aesthetics (a “science of sensibility”) as “a response to the problem of political absolutism” in the face of which the bourgeoisie was ineffectual (Eagleton, 1990, p. 14).

The flaw in the argument that Adorno and Eagleton put forth, namely that art is not necessarily bourgeois ideology, is that the incentives for artists are narrowly bourgeois incentives, motivations that appeal to a bourgeois mentality. If the ambition that motivates the production of art is bourgeois, then how can art be a liberating force? This blind spot in Adorno and Eagleton is probably due to their hesitation to cast off all art as bourgeois, and in fear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Jacques Ranciere’s timely reconceptualisation of the dialectical relationship between heteronomy and autonomy expands on Adorno’s theory of autonomy. Ranciere does this primarily through his conception of the dialectics between aesthetics and politics, thereby providing an empowering counterpoint to Adorno’s pessimism. He however does not go far enough to stress the value of autonomy. Ranciere’s redefinition of the autonomy of art intervenes in the debate over the category of modernity and of the place of art and aesthetics within that category.

In The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes (2002), Ranciere reads the fifteenth of Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind (2001/1794), as the promise of a new regime in art and in life. Following Schiller, Ranciere maintains that the aesthetic is a historical regime for the identification of art. The aesthetic regime inaugurates the autonomy of art by suppressing the boundaries between art and life and positing free aesthetic play as the promise of the “aesthetic revolution”. The aesthetic is therefore also something else; it is a way of life. Play in the form of the aesthetic as a “specific sensory experience […] holds the promise of both a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and the community” (Ranciere, 2002, p. 133). Ranciere’s aim is to recover modernism and aesthetics from their detractors. For the most part, he believes they have been misconstrued. He challenges Bourdieu’s thesis that the “aesthetic illusion” only serves to mask the reality of class domination, he also challenges Benjamin’s notion of the aesthetisation of politics under totalitarian regimes and Adorno’s critique of the aestheticisation of every day life by the culture industry as a mechanism of capitalism. So we are left with the question:

How can the notion of ‘aesthetics’ as a specific experience lead at once to the idea of a pure world of art and of the self-suppression of art in life, to the tradition of avant-garde radicalism and to aestheticization of common existence? (Ranciere, 2002, p. 134)

According to Ranciere, “aesthetic experience” will both ground the autonomy of art and make way for a new life. Significantly, the “autonomy staged by the aesthetic regime of art” is not that of art, but of the aesthetic as the experience of heterogeneity (Ranciere, 2002, p. 135).

Understanding the ‘politics’ proper to the aesthetic regime of art means understanding the way autonomy and heteronomy are originally linked in Schiller’s formula. This may be summed up in three points. Firstly, the autonomy staged by the aesthetic regime of art is not that of the work of art, but of a mode of experience. Secondly, the ‘aesthetic experience’ is one of heterogeneity, such that for the subject of that experience it is also the dismissal of a certain autonomy. Thirdly, the object of that experience is ‘aesthetic’, in so far as it is not—or at least not only—art. (Ranciere, 2002, p. 135)

Ranciere thus arrives at the relationship between autonomy and heterogeneity via aesthetic experience. For Adorno, although the autonomy of aesthetic experience was established by Kant, this was a progressive step for the autonomy of art which he traces to the mid-nineteenth century and to the rise of the bourgeoisie.

In A Singular Modernity (2002), Fredric Jameson addresses the distinction between art and the aesthetic to account for the “operations whereby the notion of autonomy is constructed in the first place, the enabling act that is its precondition”. Unlike Ranciere, Jameson rejects the proposition that the autonomy of art comes about through the separation of art from non-art. Rather, autonomy is achieved by a “radical dissociation within the aesthetic itself: by the radical disjunction and separation of literature and art from culture” (Jameson, 2002, p. 176):

For what is called culture in all its forms is rather an identification of the aesthetic with this or that type of daily life. (Jameson, 2002, p. 177)

Jameson thus also concludes that the aesthetic category is a mode of sensory experience, and the object of that experience need not be limited to autonomous art. For Adorno, art is as different to nature as nature is different to society, he argues that the domination of nature in early modern society brought about a state of affairs whereby nature ceased to be an “object of action” and became an object of the disinterested gaze:

Like the experience of art, the aesthetic experience of nature is that of images. Nature, as appearing beauty, is not perceived as an object of action. The sloughing off of the aims of self-preservation—which is emphatic in art—is carried out to the same degree in aesthetic experience of nature. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 65)

The autonomy of the aesthetic that characterises the sensory condition of modernity is not the autonomy of art but the “autonomy of the experience” (Ranciere, 2002, p. 136). Jameson argues that “culture,[10] from Schiller and Hegel on (and as late as Eliot), is pre-eminently the space of mediation between society or everyday life and art as such” (Jameson, 2002, p. 177):

Culture thus stands as the blurring of the boundaries and the passages and movements back and forth from one level or dimension to the other (Jameson, 2002, pp. 177-178)

For Ranciere the consequence of the aesthetic revolution is that:

…everything becomes artistic […] the process of exchange, of crossing the border reaches a point where the border becomes completely blurred, where nothing, however prosaic, escapes the domain of art. (Ranciere, 2002, p. 146)

Institutional autonomy

Autonomy is a necessary requirement for art’s claim to the privileged realm of the aesthetic (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 23), thus the institution of art too is defined by the concept of the autonomy of art. This goes a long way to explain that the concept of autonomy survives because the institution of art would be powerless without it. In practice therefore, it appears that artists sanction the institution, rather than the other way around. The art institution clings to the status of autonomy, which guarantees art’s symbolic value. It is this symbolic value which the institution trades for economic and political forms of value. According to Arthur Danto, once art becomes a commodity and is directed towards ideological and financial interests, it is more vital than ever for the museum to maintain its status as the autonomous realm of the aesthetic, “requiring the ideology of disinterestedness” in order to disguise the fact that the museum “has been transformed into a showroom for classy investments” (Danto, 1998, p. 133):

The museum’s spiritual authority is essential if the corporation is to enjoy any of the economic benefits of its investment in culture. Small wonder that museum directors and curators must insist on the purity of their institutions! Small wonder the museum must represent itself as the shrine of “objects of pure creativity”! It could not serve the end of crassness if it were perceived as crass in its own right. (Danto, 1998, pp. 134-135)

The aesthetic is mobilised by museums and corporations for the production and dissemination of commodities, it thus becomes one more commodity in the exchange process of global capital. When the symbolic value of art is thus compromised, it becomes vital for the museum to adhere to its status as the autonomous realm of the aesthetic. However, as the work of Hans Haacke reveals, the role of autonomy in the institutional monopoly on the definition of art has consequences beyond the barter of cultural capital.

Hans Haacke has provoked the defensive reaction of institutions on numerous occasions. For the exhibition PROJEKT ‘74: Kunst bleibt Kunst at the Wallraf-Richardz-Museum in Cologne, Haacke made Manet-PROJEKT ‘74. He documented the chronological history of collectors who had owned Manet’s paining Bunch of Asparagus (1880), which was in the museum collection since 1967. Ten panels detailed personal information on each owner, including Max Liebermann, who was barred from working in 1933 due to his Jewish background. Another owner was Hermann J. Abs, Chairman of the purchasing committee of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum and log-term chairman of Deutsche Bank who had held an influential position in the economic politics of the Third Reich. The work exposed the widespread practice of concealment of the National Socialist past in the Federal Republic of Germany (Buchmann, 2007). Predictably, Haacke’s piece was banned. The museum director forced the exhibition curators to exclude Haacke’s work from the show[11] (Grasskamp, 2004, pp. 53-54).

According to Travis English, Hans Haacke’s work denies the autonomy of aesthetic experience and the cultural autonomy of the museum as a neutral space by denying the privilege of aesthetic experience through his appropriation of the “typically non-aesthetic” (fact sheets, advertising banners and corporate plaques). Once the museum is denied its “institutional differentiation” the museum “becomes yet another relational space of everyday life” (English, 2007). English draws a distinction between Haacke’s appropriation of non-aesthetic objects and the articulation of the readymade tradition initiated by Marcel Duchamp and developed by pop and neo-avant-garde artists. Duchamp’s Fountain “actually serves to legitimize the aesthetic context of art” because once it is allocated a place in the museum, the readymade becomes transformed:

…it no longer exists in the world of use value, but is now elevated to the realm of the aesthetic, where it is imbued with all of the symbolic value of any traditional work of art. Art, as Duchamp brought to our attention, is not about precious materials, artistic genius, originality, etc., but about the context into which it is placed, that of the aesthetic. (English, 2007)

Departing from the assumed separation between cultural and social fields, Duchamp demonstrated that it was not the specific quality of an object but only the place and form of its presentation that decided its status. Haacke insisted on the continuity between cultural and social fields, thereby unmasking the interests of the seemingly neutral museum space, and the political use of culture: “While Duchamp used the concept of the autonomy of art, Haacke attacked it” (Germer, 1988, p. 65). Thus although Duchamp’s readymade emphasised the difference between the rule and the move and initiated a new language-game in art practice, the readymade ultimately became subsumed into aesthetic discourse as one more artistic medium, losing its potential for rupture.[12] This is precisely the rupture that Haacke’s work performs, and thereby “shows us that the legitimacy of the autonomous aesthetic realm only exists if we cling to the illusion that the museum is a space in itself, set aside and apart from the spaces of everyday exchange” (English, 2007). These periodic ruptures are absorbed within the tradition of art through institutional discourse.

Haacke was making systems art and social critique up until his solo exhibition Systems (1971, Guggenheim Museum, New York). The exhibition was cancelled after Haacke refused to withdraw his work Shapolsky et al Manhattan Real estate Holdings. A Real-Time Social System. As of May 1, 1971 (1971), which shed an unfavourable light on one of the museum trustees. In a notorious incident, the museum cancelled the show when Haacke refused to exclude two documentations of Manhattan real estate holdings and a poll of the museum’s visitors.[13] In a letter to the artist, Thomas Messer, the museum’s director, justified the cancellation:

We have held consistently that under our Charter we are pursuing esthetic and educational objectives that are self-sufficient and without ulterior motive. On those grounds the trustees have established policies that exclude the active engagement toward social and political ends. It is well understood, in this connection, that art may have social and political consequences, but these, we believe, are furthered by indirection and by the generalized, exemplary force that works of art may exert upon the environment, not as you propose, by using political means to achieve political ends, no matter how desirable these may appear to be in themselves. We maintain, in other words, that while art cannot be arbitrarily confined, our institutional role is limited. Consequently, we function within such limits, leaving to others that which we consider outside our professional competence. (Messer, 1971, pp. 248-249)

According to this logic, Haacke is using “political means” with “ulterior motive”, and his work is therefore judged inappropriate for inclusion within the museum, which is characterised as institutionally limited to pursuing neutral “esthetic and educational objectives that are self-sufficient”.[14] According to Arthur Danto, Thomas Messer found himself in the:

…desperate and unaccustomed position of formulating a philosophical theory to keep out of museum precincts a work that might be taken to call into question a corporate presence that, as Haacke was to recognize, constitutes the atmosphere of the museum today. (Danto, 1998, p. 132)

The claim of the non-instrumental value of autonomy is misleadingly used to disguise the political and ideological function of the institution. According to Stefan Germer, “the museum is defined as a neutral, nonsocial, apolitical institution” and the work of art “is expected to confirm this fiction” (Germer, 1988, p. 64). The work is thereby also expected to confirm that art is ontologically different to other forms of social production. According to Stefan Germer, this conceals another, much more subtle function of the institution:

Far better than any restriction of content, this institutional insistence on the specificity of artistic practice neutralizes all political implications of an artwork, since it forces the artist to depoliticize his work in his choice of means. Only in a generalized and unspecific way is “outside reality” accepted into the museum space; the boundary between art and society is thus kept intact, while the social determination of the artwork remains unreflected and the political character of museum decisions unacknowledged. (Germer, 1988, p. 65)

The museum’s threat of exclusion thus brings about a regime of self-censorship. Messer may have sincerely tried to preserve a privileged space for art, because—as we are constantly reminded—if art does not occupy a space outside the normal functions of society then art is just another node in the process of production and consumption. If the ambiguous designation “art” is consigned to a profession within the general economy then its products cannot command a special status. However, according to English, Haacke’s provocation demonstrates that “the aura of the aesthetic is not only illusory, but that it is used strategically by institutions—both the museum and the corporation—to maintain their power and to sublimate the reality of their relations” (English, 2007). The alliance of art with totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century rendered art with overtly political objectives vulnerable to the criticism of externally determined purposes and charges of propaganda, which negate the value of art. The posture of neutrality that institutions maintain raises them above any such suspicion.

Autonomy and philosophy

Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent society’s structures, or social groups, their conflicts or identities. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time and peoples this space. (Ranciere, 2009, p. 23)

Theodor Adorno and Jacques Ranciere suggest that essentially, it does not really matter what artists do, their work is critical by the very fact of its existence. But in an administered world, where everything is commodified, subsumed into spectacle and valued heteronomously, how does art manage to perform this critical role merely by existing? How does Adorno’s thesis of art’s opposition to society fare today when art functions just like every other professional field?

By interacting with the global economy art subjects itself to external value measurements via monetary value, celebrity capital, redefinition through criticism, the specifics of purchase, sale, government grants and any other manner by which it perpetuates itself. (Zimmerman, 2012)

For Ranciere, the work is critical due to the autonomy of aesthetic experience: it is “as an autonomous form of experience that art concerns and infringes on the political division of the sensible” (Ranciere, 2009, p. 32). Following Adorno, Ranciere maintains that art is political not because of its manifest content but because of its aesthetic constitution and the distance it takes from society’s functions (Ranciere, 2009, p. 23).[15]

…the specificity of art consists in bringing about a reframing of material and symbolic space. And it is in this way that art bears upon politics. (Ranciere, 2009, p. 24)

This description however would seem to guarantee that all art is political. Additionally, although artworks assume a “distance” from social functions, the art world itself does not. The problem of the affirmative character of art and its relationship of complicity with what Ranciere calls “consensus” still persists. For Adorno if art is critical it is because of the autonomy of the artist’s activity:

By crystallizing in itself as something unique to itself, rather than complying with existing social norms and qualifying as “socially useful,” it criticizes society by merely existing, for which puritans of all stripes condemn it. There is nothing pure, nothing structured strictly according to its own immanent law, that does not implicitly criticize the debasement of a situation evolving in the direction of a total exchange society in which everything is heteronomously defined. Art’s asociality is the determinate negation of a determinate society. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 226)

Contemporary art however is entirely integrated within the political and financial power structures of “a total exchange society in which everything is heteronomously defined” (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 226). This includes the entire spectrum of art production, whether it is relational art, socially-engaged art, biennial art, museum installations, commercial art or critical art, which Ranciere defines as “a type of art that sets out to build awareness of the mechanisms of domination to turn the spectator into a conscious agent of world transformation” (Ranciere, 2009, p. 45). Other functions of art range from the production of wealth and tourism (the market, regeneration), the production of cultural capital (institutions, corporations), fulfilling state social policies (socially-engaged art, community projects) and political agendas (activist art, abstract art[16]).

Art that is institutionalised—whether in the gallery and museum circuit, the market or by public funding bodies—is instrumentalised, functionalised in one way or another and therefore heteronomously defined, not autonomous. The values of neo-liberalism are the values of the institution of art. In order to acquire visibility in the art world an artist must make the right career choices, like any other aspiring professional:

Fewer and fewer professional artists are “outsiders” who acquire their artistic education through romantic involvement in “life” and then go on to invest that productive power. Generally speaking, the curricula vitae of artists increasingly resemble those of highly qualified specialized workers. Hence, it is becoming almost impossible to reinforce the exceptional status of the art object—which has often been transfigured but also irrationalized by reference to the exceptional lives of the artists as bohemians, freaks, and other hominess sacri—in this way. (Diederichsen, 2008, p. 34)

These developments suggest that we need to take seriously Danto’s notion of the end of art, or more precisely, of the end of a way of thinking about art. Art has not so much become neutralised by being cut off from the social conditions that made it possible, art is a cultural industry, and even art that seems to serve no practical end, does serve to promote the illusion that art is still an autonomous practice. It is the institutions of art—which legitimise art—that have taken over this autonomous function, both by promoting autonomy as a legitimating concept and by undertaking the role of legislator in place of the artist.

Adorno and Ranciere both fail to mention the role of the institution of art as the legitimating apparatus of the art field. For Ranciere, “art” designates “the framing of a space of presentation by which the things of art are identified as such” (Ranciere, 2009, p. 23). We might assume that this space is an abstract space of discourse, although equally it may designate the institution of art. Ranciere continues:

…what links the practice of art to the question of the common [and here we anticipate that the institution must play at least a partial role] is the constitution, at once material and symbolic, of a specific space-time, of a suspension with respect to the ordinary forms of sensory experience. (Ranciere, 2009, p. 23)

This meditative condition of suspension is not accommodated in the real world, but in the contemplative space of the museum. Kant understands the aesthetic as “the domain of disinterested, distanced contemplation, involving a special attitude, the preserve of experts or ‘aesthetes’” (Hamilton, 2008, p. 290). Although it is true that one requires at least time and a receptive disposition to enjoy works of art, this does not necessarily mean that the experience of a work of art should take place under specific conditions, or that the viewer must be in a particular frame of mind to enjoy a work of art. As Hamilton argues, “the aesthetic does not involve a special attitude, the preserve of experts or “aesthetes”, but is a ubiquitous and democratic phenomenon” (Hamilton, 2008, p. 290). Adorno acknowledges the egalitarian character of art and then proceeds to prescribe the limits, the function, the aim and the strategies of art. Ranciere too says that art is defined by what it is not, but also proceeds to pronounce judgements on art in terms of the theoretical categories in which he has placed it. Unlike George Dickie’s and Arthur Danto’s pragmatic, institutional theories of art and Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of art, aesthetic theory is always declaring prescriptive statements on art. Bourdieu and the pragmatists, on the other hand provide descriptive statements about the status of art in society. A truly critical approach would have the task of investigating whether art is in fact subordinate to practical ends, such as the pursuit of knowledge or social status, the exchange of capital, the fulfilment of social policies, corporate publicity, cultural tourism and profit.


[1] Haskins states that Kant “stops considerably short of holding that art follows laws of its own, a doctrine which would come into fashion only with the teachings of Hegelian-influenced art historians such as Riegl and Wolfflin” (Haskins, 1989, p. 43, note 3).

[2] In The Rules of Art (1996), Pierre Bourdieu argues that the struggles of Manet, Flaubert and Baudelaire against Salon refusals and obscenity trials was an effort to achieve their autonomy from institutions such as the Salon, the Academy, the church and the courts. These artists thus contributed to the emergence of the autonomous field of artistic production (Bourdieu, 1996).

[3] Kant, 2007/1790; Schiller, 2001/1794.

[4] The British Museum in London was founded in 1753 and opened to the public in 1759. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which had been open to visitors upon request since the sixteenth century, was officially opened to the public in 1765. The Belvedere Palace of the Habsburg monarchs in Vienna opened in 1781. The Louvre Museum in Paris was the first public museum, it opened in 1793 during the French Revolution when the National Assembly decreed that the Louvre should be used to display the nation’s treasures.

[5] Bürger’s critique underlines the incompatibility of Adorno’s theory with central Marxist postulates, illustrated by Adorno’s disagreement with Benjamin on the subject of political art.

[6] The incessant question posed by philosophers, art historians and critics as “what distinguishes art from non-art?” Following Adorno closely, Ranciere argues that in avant garde art until the 1960s “the play of exchanges between art and non-art served to generate clashes between heterogeneous elements and dialectical oppositions between form and content […] In this way, art’s self-critique became involved in the critique of mechanisms of state and market domination” (Ranciere, 2009, p. 51).

[7] Peter Bürger argues that the sublation of art was achieved but not in the way intended by the avant-garde, Huyssen similarly points out that “In a sense never intended by the avantgarde, life had indeed become art—in the fascist aestheticization of politics as mass spectacle as well as in the fictionalizations of reality dictated by the socialist realism of Zhdanov and by the dream world of capitalist realism promoted by Hollywood” (Huyssen, 1983, p. 28).

[8] Basquiat (1996) directed by Julian Schnabel, reinforces the romantic clichés associated with artists: success, publicity, parties, hangers-on, egotism, isolation and paranoia. Great Expectations (1998) directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is an adaptation of the novel by Charles Dickens and relocates the story in 1990s New York, where Finn (Pip) makes it in the art world. The film rehashes all the clichés associated with the heroic artist of post-war America, the enormous expressionist quasi-abstract canvasses accommodated in the studio-loft, the solo exhibition sold out on the opening night, fawning dealers and collectors. Spaced (Channel 4, 1999 and 2001) is a British situation comedy written by and featuring Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes, and directed by Edgar Wright. The character of Brian Topp (Mark Heap) is a caricature combining many popular and often contradictory characteristics associated with artists; he is a conceptual artist but also paints in an abstract style, he is unsuccessful and ambivalent about art, he is eccentric, angst-ridden and obsessive, but also shy and romantic.

[9] Relational aesthetics in this context is both complicit with neo-liberalism and a means of revealing the contradictions of neo-liberalism.

[10] Jameson’s use of the term “culture” is inclusive of the “aesthetic”.

[11] In protest of the censorship, Daniel Buren hung photocopies of Haacke’s Manet Project in his section of the exhibition, these were subsequently removed by the museum. Marcel Broodthaers and the gallerist Paul Maenz also expressed their solidarity. This experience reinforced Haacke’s “mistrust regarding the alleged independence of cultural institutions and contingent guarantees of artistic freedom” (Grasskamp, 2004, pp. 54, 56).

[12] Helen Molesworth concurs that “Far from destroying art, Duchamp’s profound challenge ultimately served to create an enormous field of aesthetic possibility. It helped liberate artists from conventional modes of working, contributing to a climate that permitted and rewarded an increasingly porous idea of art’s possibilities” (Molesworth, 2003, p. 28).

[13] Thomas Messer, director of the Guggenheim Museum 1961-1987, “also discharged the curator, Edward Fry, for persisting in championing an art indexed as unsuitable” (Danto, 1998, p. 129). In the same year, Buren’s installation at the Guggenheim International Exhibition was removed. In 1974, the museum removed Haacke’s installation Solomon R. Guggenheim Board of Trustees, 1974.

[14] For an analysis of the ideological foundations of Messer’s argument see Alberro, 1997.

[15] This definition would normally exclude relational aesthetics, which Nicholas Bourriaud defines as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space” (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 113).

[16] Diederichsen argues that “it was precisely when [artists of the New York school] became more individualistic that their work became especially useful to the state” (Diederichsen, 2008, p. 35). This demonstrates that abstraction is subject to any accretion of value, e.g. decoration (Adorno, 2002, p. 29). It must be asked why the most vocal and influential voice in the defence of the autonomy and purity of art subjected it to the most insidious instrumentalisation, and whether Greenberg’s thesis was really a misreading of Kant after all. On the promotion of abstract expressionism by Greenberg with CIA funds see Saunders, 2000.