The economic crisis of 2008 initiated a shift in the political climate on a global scale: government policies have drifted towards the right and we have grown accustomed to a permanent state of war and the tightening of surveillance and bureaucracy. Professional and social competitiveness, materialism and “connectedness” are the appropriate manners, while a massive accumulation of wealth accompanies an increase in corporate power and a corresponding weakening of democratic processes. Together, these conditions result in an exponential rise of individualisation and the breakdown of social cohesion. Since 2009, an oppositional tide of grassroots resistance movements—coordinated via social media—express global dissatisfaction with conditions that amount to erosions of the control that individuals can assert over their own lives. Has the growing economic austerity and the blatant privileging of material values over social ones politicised a whole generation of young people? Or are these demonstrations largely performative re-enactments of cultural stereotypes, inadvertently functioning to legitimise neo-liberal values, as long as their opposition appears to be illegitimate and coming from a demonised minority?

The neo-liberal promise of freedom through the free market is deceptive because it relies on firm-lipped complicity. We experience unprecedented levels of personal freedom at the expense of unprecedented levels of social constraint. This constraint is invisible, it comes from the disembodied voice of authority in public announcements, from myriad CCTV cameras, from spaces of exclusion and spaces of conformity where every available surface screams slogans and brands at us, from the multiple choice between unsatisfactory answers, from the incapacity to speak to power and to receive any answers.

In summary, in CHAPTER ONE: “INSTITUTIONALISED CRITIQUE” I describe the emergence of institutional critique in the aftermath of May 1968 when social and political upheavals reactivated the modernist controversy between political engagement and artistic autonomy. In the intervening period, art practices that attempted to critique and subvert the art institution from within failed and were absorbed, effectively reinforcing and expanding the institution’s scope. The “institution of art” refers to the art world as a social configuration of institutions but we also speak of the art institution in terms of the legitimating discourses that enable us to recognise and discuss art. Within this broader definition of the art institution as an ideological system, works of art are regarded not as singular entities but as elements of an institutional determination. It is nevertheless problematic to equate art practice with institutional practice. A more precise definition of the institution is necessary in order to analyse the conditions of art practice, mediation and reception. The institution functions to legitimise art by conferring credit in the form of “recognition”. The art institution can thus be defined narrowly to include only those institutions or individuals that have the authority to legitimise art as such. The institution of art is socially determined, it is thus also internalised and entwined with our ambitions, identities, values and investments. Discourse determines the production of art, where practice is translated into discourse and discourse leads to more practice. The problem is that this serves to preserve the status quo. If institutional critique is a critique of the internalisation of ideology, then instead of problematising institutional sites while subscribing to their value-systems, it would be more appropriate to problematise institutions that are formative in our shared discourses on art and to redefine these discourses affirmatively. Institutional critique raises critical questions about the concept of the institution of art and the role of the artist within it. For Andrea Fraser, unlike movements of the historical and neo avant-garde which challenged art institutions and the autonomy of art, institutional critique on the contrary is a defence of art and art institutions against exploitation. Although artists practicing institutional critique seek to challenge the legitimating structures of the institution, they also seek recognition and rewards from the institution. These practices raise a pertinent question regarding the ultimate aspirations of institutional critique and the ambitions of critical art in general. Artists are profoundly invested in the values and meaning of art. Avant-garde artists did not take issue with museums or particular practices of interpretation, circulation, selection or exclusion within the art world; they took issue with the entire concept of art and its role in bourgeois society. Their aim to sublate art was a contradictory endeavour. Critical or political art is not a functionalisation of art, but it reveals and resists the institutionalisation of art as an exclusive field, which severs art’s connections to the world and conceals the instrumentalisation of art in the service of political and economic interests. The argument that artists can infiltrate the institution and subvert it from within is naïve and misleading. Institutionalisation does not happen from one moment to the next, it is a process of internalisation. Institutional critique takes place within the value system it claims to challenge, working with and upholding the very same values and means that it means to abolish.

This chapter draws from the work of writers and theorists associated with institutional critique, including Benjamin Buchloh, Daniel Buren, Andrea Fraser, Rosalind Krauss, Isabelle Graw, Philipp Kaiser, Gerald Raunig and Simon Sheikh. I refer to Peter Bürger’s analysis of the art institution and to Pierre Bourdieu, Thierry De Duve and Jacques Derrida regarding the legitimating discourses of the art institution.

In CHAPTER TWO: I discuss the VICISSITUDES OF AUTONOMY. This chapter traces the concept of autonomy to Immanuel Kant with reference to Peter Bürger and Casey Haskins. It reviews Theodor Adorno’s thesis on autonomy with reference to Stewart Martin, Andy Hamilton, Jacques Ranciere, Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton. It discusses the role of the concept of autonomy within the art institution with reference to Arthur Danto and to Walter Grasskamp, Travis English, Stefan Germer on the work of Hans Haacke.

In the modern era, art by definition questions its existence. Since the early twentieth century, artists have articulated a self-conscious ambivalence regarding the autonomy of art. Aesthetic autonomy is an empowering concept but it is also constitutive of the false idealism of art and serves to conceal the connection between culture and hegemony. The moment of self-consciousness of art also marks the inception of the art institution. It is thus 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. For Adorno the social function of autonomous art in the era of modernism is social critique. Art resists heteronomy by insisting obstinately on its own values or rules. Through its functionlessness, art resists the logic of capitalism as the apparent negation and critique of functionalism. The defence of the autonomy of art however, obscures the social and political dimensions of the production of art and the relationship of art to social institutions. Commodification in and of itself does not necessarily compromise the critical function of the work of art. Autonomy is a fetish and 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. By the end of the twentieth century, institutional critique revealed the pervasiveness of the art institution and the illusory character of autonomy. Autonomy remains a crucial though problematic concept because it 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 institution of art. The art institution clings to the status of autonomy, because it guarantees art’s symbolic value. But the institution also trades this symbolic value for economic and political forms of value. The posture of neutrality that institutions maintain raises them above the suspicion of externally determined purposes. Adorno’s faith in the critical value of autonomy lies in its potential to shield art from functional imperatives. The institutionalisation of art conceals the ideological and financial instrumentalisation of art. Institutionalised art is instrumentalised and functionalised in one way or another and therefore heteronomously defined, not autonomous. Art appears to be apolitical in a way that allows it to be political in its own terms. The institutions of art—which legitimise art—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. A truly critical approach would have the task of investigating whether art is in fact subordinate to practical ends.

In CHAPTER THREE: GREAT EXPECTATIONS I address the political status of the artist. What are the politics of art? What informs artists’ ideological choices and ambitions? In order to address these questions I consider the work of Dave Beech, JJ Charlesworth, Anton Vidokle, Jakob Jakobsen and Henriette Heise on self-institutionalisation. This chapter considers John Searle’s analysis of institutions and refers to Pierre Bourdieu, Peter Bürger, Benjamin Buchloh, Boris Groys, Daniel Buren and Gerald Raunig on the institution of art in particular. I also consider the work of Edward Said and Jacques Derrida on the relationship between meaning and context.

Art institutions present two major problems for artists, in the first case, although art institutions are “supporting structures”, the opportunities they provide for the production of art are defining contexts. Secondly, art institutions recuperate works of art by re-defining them in art-historical contexts. In the process of institutionalisation, art is separated from its particular context and subsequently re-contextualised as art and neutralised. Artists thematise and resist this defining context in their work, only to be subsumed once again within the institution. Once inside the institution, artists internalise its values and cannot sustain an independent critical position without endangering their own precarious position within the institution. The solution must necessarily lie in creating new contexts and to conceive of new ways to think of art in social space. For artists this means establishing sustainable practices and independent networks. John Searle demonstrates that the purpose of institutions is to create power relationships. Searle defines institutions in terms of their specific properties, distinguishing art-making practices from institutional practices. Art is not an institution because it is not defined by a set of constitutive rules. If the long-term aspiration behind artists’ self-institutionalisation is to claim a stake in the contested territory of the art world then this will always be vulnerable to cooptation. The politics of autonomy and the politics of art are thus two entirely different things. Inevitably, every artwork is infinitely interpretable, and it can even be argued that it will always be misunderstood. The work of art is always open to contingent and supplemental interpretations, its meaning is dependent on a particular encounter. Meaning is relational and is deduced within a binding context. The work of art fulfils an objective role within society; this is the significance of the work, not its manifest content. The vague and inconsistent distinction between contemporary art and popular culture is evident in the impossibility of articulating any well-defined description of art that radically excludes popular culture. Art is not defined, art is legitimised. The question is how art is legitimised as art, because this is no longer a function of art itself. Artworks, art practices, actions or events do not have an essential ontological status; they acquire their status only in the context of an encounter. But if art cannot be defined, then how do we recognise it? The work of art is a fetish which is constituted by—amongst other things—discourses which contain not only the affirmation of the work, but also an affirmation of their own legitimacy. What is camouflaged here is the regulation of production and dissemination of cultural production. The mechanism of ‘qualitative’ judgement sustains this apparently natural system of the selection and promotion of artists. The production of a work of art involves material and symbolic production: the production of the value of the work and production of belief in the value of the work. This is the task for experts with institutionally conferred legitimacy. If anything can be art, then it is important that we can rely on an authority to separate art from non-art. The institution of art provides the conditions for the production of art as well as the discourses by which we recognize art. It produces discourses on the “meaning” of art as well as discourses on the concept of “meaning”. Power appeals to artists and intellectuals for legitimation, in exchange granting relative autonomy to institutions that provide this service. But equally, the arts can also use their legitimating power to subvert power. The field of art is thus a potential site for symbolic revolution. This is why the progressive expansion and differentiation of the field is accompanied by institutionalisation as a means of control. The institution of art is constituted and functions as a buffer zone between art, power and society. The institutionalisation of art in a circumscribed field of its own conceals the instrumentalisation of art within the institution of art. If the work of art is dependent on its context and if that context is invariably the gallery, the museum or the collection, then the work of art is tautological. The idealism of autonomous art renders art apolitical and divests it of critical content by sequestering it to an extra-social realm. At the same time, this is precisely the process by which art is functionalised. The context of art determines the production of art and the meaning and value of art, a circular system which reinforces itself. The museum is a lacuna, it is a gap, nothing in itself, it acquires its meaning from the work that it hosts and exhibits. Having shed the gilt frame, the work of art is now framed by the museum. Funding, sponsorship, selection, academic and institutional validation are understood as external factors to the work of art, however they encroach on and influence the production and display of art, they consequently have a bearing on the meaning of the work. The concept of the parergon thus challenges the convention that the work of art is a vessel of meaning. There is no meaning within the work itself, meaning is supplemented by what is exterior to it. There are thus no privileged interpretations of the work of art. Institutions effectively constitute contemporary art practice. The art institution acquires its status from the concept of the autonomy of the aesthetic. It is therefore capable of absorbing any criticism in the form of anti-art and re-presenting it as art. The notion of the autonomy of art perseveres, veiling instrumental decisions in a cloak of ambiguous aesthetic judgements that serve to legitimise institutional decisions. The institutional context of art breaks down the relationships of the particular elements of a work of art, effectively disassociating it from its social and political context. The apparent disconnection of the work from its context and its attachment to art history abstracts the work and presents it as an object free from ideology. In the lateral expansion of the art field there are no discernible movements, influences come from all directions and the production of art follows localised flourishes. Personal and subjective agendas are privileged over social and collective concerns. The field is one of professional competition rather than common aspiration. The institution of art aestheticises the work of art, allowing extraneous values to be attached to it. Although conceptual artists highlighted the politics of the museum, they also limited the scope of art practice in hermetic and self-conscious investigations. Institutional critique became dependent on the museum and foregrounded the institution as the disavowed centre of art. Institutional critique provided the means whereby the institution reinvents itself, but this reinvention is informed by a neo-liberal agenda. Artists affirm and sanction the museum merely by exhibiting within it. Their positive affirmation of the institution speaks louder than their negative critique. The institution of art determines what is produced and exhibited through forms of direct censorship and indirect methods of positive and negative reinforcement, which enforce artists’ self-censorship. The institution of art dictates but it also suggests, coaxes and propositions artists. Culture is both an industry and a battleground. The institution of art has entirely ceded to material objectives and political agendas and can no longer claim a critical position in relation to capitalism. The autonomy of art is founded on the promise of “aesthetic revolution”, but it is currently subject to corporate instrumentalisation and control. Artists need to reassert art as a free and potentially revolutionary space within society. Bourdieu describes the field of art as a struggle between two principles, the heteronomous principle and the autonomous principle. This power struggle takes place within the institution of art even before it takes place within the work of art. The field of power asserts the heteronomous principle as a value in the field of art. The buffer zone that in bourgeois society traditionally encircles and protects art, now converts it into a field of mass-production. The insistence on applying the heteronomous principle of value in the art world creates a large-scale cultural industry, a powerful mainstream. Being thus at odds with the disinterested values of the field, this institution promotes a climate of estrangement amongst the producers. The relationship between autonomy and heteronomy is dialectical. Given that artists occupy a dominated position in the institution of art, there is always the pressure of external economic or political interests. To consider the principles at play within the work of art we must also consider the principles at play at the level of power, because the power structure of the field determines the production and representation of the field, rendering its own role invisible. Currently, the field of art is characterised by a very low degree of autonomy. Art is one more weapon in political struggles. The field of cultural production is the site of struggles: at stake is the power to impose the definitions of the artist as well as the definition of those who are entitled to define the artist. Artists are not socialists, democrats or liberals. When we say “autonomy”, we mean “art is its own politics”. But artists do not institutionalise their politics. Art is an autonomous sphere because artists create their own rules and they defend their right to create their own rules. Artists self-consciously negotiate their autonomy, hand it over as a commodity in exchange for recognition.

In CHAPTER FOUR: NO STARS NO FUNDING NO TASTE I discuss The Exploding Cinema Collective as a productive counterpoint to art institutions. Its constitution was motivated by its predecessors and informed by the potential disasters of official recognition and support. Exploding Cinema is unique in that this vision was never abandoned or compromised, the question is how did it manage to survive? This chapter addresses this question with reference to the research of Duncan Reekie, Peter Thomas, Stefan Szczelkun and Michael Mazière on the underground film scene in London.

Artists have responded to exclusion by creating their own spaces, events and networks, thus practicing a negative critique of the predominant and naturalised bourgeois ideology of the art world. These distributed practices often fail to grow to produce an enduring alternative culture for the production and distribution of art. These failures can be traced to the artist’s desire for recognition. Art and popular culture recycle common strategies, techniques and ideas against a backdrop of social and political shifts. The Exploding Cinema Collective is a resistant subculture, its roots are not in art but in the underground. Exploding Cinema does not aspire to distinctions and recognition within the art world. The assumption that the state should fund artistic production and the associated assumption that funding should be provided with no strings attached may be embedded in the liberal tradition, but it is naïve. Throughout Europe and the US in the 1960s and 1970s, against the backdrop of feminist, civil-rights and anti-war movements, artists’ groups coordinated their efforts against the ossified traditions of art institutions and art schools, and tried to bridge the gap between art and life. Why did these efforts fail to meet their objectives? What are the factors that have contributed to the current state of affairs, where art is ubiquitous but institutionalised, exclusive, safe and expensive? A number of factors came into play, amongst them were the lack of solidarity amongst artists and their incapacity to self-organise; the recuperation of anti-art as an aesthetic object by the art institution; and a naivety concerning the artists’ ambitions and their articulation. Critique was transformed into stylised activism within the museum, and functioned as an institutional self-vaccination. The reason for the failure of artists’ ambitions throughout the twentieth century is the confusion amongst artists about what is actually at stake in the affirmation of artistic autonomy. Exploding Cinema is an ideal context: a plural and inclusive space of social interaction without divisions, a space of proximity between artists and audience, a community that is engaged and egalitarian. The resistance that is built into Exploding Cinema against all forms of institutionalisation can be found in the collective’s constitution which emphasises: open access screenings for a diverse popular audience; open, inclusive and voluntary membership; non-profit-making and non-funded financial base; collective governance, rotation of roles and duties and skill-sharing rather than specialisation and hierarchy. The most influential precedent for Exploding Cinema was the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative (1966-1995-2002). The early days of the LFMC served as an inspiration and set the precedent for Exploding Cinema’s emphasis on distribution, activism and democratic governance. The subsequent dependence of the LFMC on funding, its capture by the funding agencies and its dissolution functioned as a warning that was incorporated into the Exploding Cinema collective agreement. From its beginnings as an independent field of experimental film and video, the LFMC became the productive subsidiary of public cultural institutions. This process revealed how the supporting role of cultural institutions eventually exercise ideological and bureaucratic control over the productive field. This process is so naturalised within the institution of art that it is indisputable and unchallenged. The instrumentalisation of art by museums, corporations and government institutions is a well-documented fact within the art world; art is recast in public relations and marketing jargon and government policy. The question is why do artists continue to participate in and supply these promotional mechanisms? Artists will use any opportunity to produce new work, and they are not always aware of what they hand over in return. Public funding comes with no fewer strings attached than private sponsorship or the market. Publicly funded art often amounts to the functionalisation of art in the name of institutional policies, whatever the particular terms of the agenda. If artists accept financial support, they are in effect legitimising the values affirmed in the terms of funding bodies and the functionalisation of their work. The logic behind the founding of Exploding Cinema was along the lines “what can we do to make sure this does not happen again”. Artists complain about their grievances in private but not in public. This fosters the mystification and normalisation of the art world, prolonging its function to individualise artists and re-direct their efforts to externally determined purposes. Participatory art projects strive to collapse distinctions between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception. They emphasise collaboration and collectivity. However, participation is not intrinsically political or oppositional and the public is not inherently passive. Factors that have contributed to Exploding Cinema’s continued existence over the last twenty years is the open-access principle and the tolerance of its open membership structure. Participation as an unspoken priority is a crucial principle governing the structure of Exploding Cinema. It provides film-makers with access to audience without censorship and a space for exchange. Curatorial selection is at best a subjective judgment and at worst it is censorship, cultural exclusion and political enculturation. It stands for and carries out the function of institutional legitimation, patronising and disempowering both the audience and the artist. Art is the product of a collective effort. Works of art emerge through a process which includes the exchange of feedback; a collaborative aspect of art practice that is never acknowledged. At Exploding Cinema, this process is public and part of the reception of the work, it includes and empowers the audience. Consensus plays a crucial role and in the public reception of art, without this consensual judgement, art becomes subject to the criteria of authority and the monopoly of the definition of art. The availability of film-making technologies to a wider public has increased the need for spaces like Exploding Cinema, with its inherently popular structure. Artists are engaged in a relentless struggle for recognition. Artists are resigned to this state of affairs as though it were a form of natural selection. If artists refused to enter into unequal relationships that they felt compromising, the art world would become transformed. Artists are trapped within their guarded autonomy and their dependence on the institution. The commodity form does not limit the critical potential of art. The stubborn pursuit to detach art from its commercial aspect has only succeeded in making the process of ascribing value to art more mysterious. The commodity character of the work of art does not limit its critical potential, and the eradication of the materiality of the commodity does not eradicate capitalist exchange because symbolic capital is also a form of currency. Commodification is the prerequisite for autonomy, just as heteronomy is the consequence of patronage. Art is valuable because of its use value, not its exchange value. To privilege the use-value of art is to affirm that art is what we use it for, the use-value of art is its meaning. Consensus plays a crucial role in the public reception of art because without consensual judgement, art becomes subject to the criteria of authority. The concept of autonomy is the product of a culture which defines within itself a territory where its rules do not count. Critical art plays a strategic role in the legitimisation of the critical profile of the art institution. If art is the critical alternative to society then it cannot function within its own internal politics like the rest of society. The notion of autonomy in art might offer a measure of freedom, empowering artists to create subjective and insular systems of signification, nevertheless, this is where “affirmative culture” is at its most successful, it objectifies and commodifies the artist’s subjectivity, so the intended critique fails. As long as artists and their institutions continue to aspire to the recognition of the museum by subscribing to its values they will always be caught within heteronomously defined or alienated conditions. Artists must detach themselves from reliance on the legitimising structure of the art world. They must also readdress the discourse of art and the values that it implicitly promotes and reclaim the complex and contradictory histories of art and of artists from their recuperation, they must devise means of independent production, to contact their own audiences and to collaborate with other artists in these goals. Exploding Cinema is a space for consensus and disagreement, it is both a critique and a way of life. It is a model of the kind of society we want. By building models of the type of society we want, in artist-run spaces, collective projects and local communities we can make improvements in the present and these will function more effectively to undermine the status quo than any negative critique. It is possible at any time to have plural, multiple definitions of art and to regard them as simultaneously valid. One form of art does not invalidate another and the pluralism of art does not presuppose a distinct audience for each form of art. Real autonomy can be accomplished by pursuing pragmatic short-term goals with self-sufficient means. For artists this means establishing sustainable practices and independent networks. This should not be confused with a desire to supplant the mainstream, but to bypass it entirely with a terrain of diverse approaches, small organisations and institutions.

This thesis addresses artistic ambition in the context of contemporary art. The ambition for institutionally-bestowed recognition is the single factor behind the failure and recuperation of collectives and artist-run spaces. We participate in and simultaneously produce and reproduce the ideologies of the institution, it is thus important to demystify the function of the art institution. The significance of the failure if LFMC in relation to the field of contemporary art is that it reveals how in a short time the forces that play a supporting role, eventually control the productive field. This process is now so naturalised within the field of art that it is indisputable and unchallenged. The reason for the failure of artists’ ambitions throughout the twentieth century is the confusion amongst artists about what is actually at stake in the affirmation of artistic autonomy. The autonomy of art is not aesthetic, it is political because it defines a sphere for the critique of power and it defines artists as free agents.