Artistic freedom

The question of art’s use takes us back, naturally, to art’s freedom. That the very concerns of art – creativity, enlightenment, criticality, self-criticism – are as instrumentally grounded as what they serve to conceal – business, state triage, and war – is the consideration that must be concealed. And it can be, because the local liberation offered in the production of art, and its enjoyment, are genuine. Bourdieu cites a letter by Flaubert on art’s freedom: That is why I love Art. There, at least, everything is freedom, in this world of fictions. There one is satisfied, does everything, is both a king and his subjects, active and passive, victim and priest. No limits; humanity is for you a puppet with bells you make ring at the end of his sentence like a buffoon with a kick.

Flaubert more than implies that the free mastery of the artist (and reader or viewer) is a cruel power. In Bourdieu’s analysis, Flaubert’s freedom, and that of the avant-garde in general, was purchased at the price of actual disconnection from the world of the economy. Other bohemian writers were the main and grossly inadequate market for such work, and books were written in deliberate defiance of bourgeois understanding. The autonomy of art was carved out of a reaction against both elevated bourgeois writing and engaged, realist literature; acclaim was only – if ever – achieved after the long passage of time, as new avant-garde forms displaced and familiarized the old. It is easy to see that the conditions for that freedom no longer exist in the art world: artists are snug in the market’s lap; works are made to court the public; sufficient autonomy is maintained to identify art as art, but otherwise most styles and subject-matter are indulged in; success generally comes swiftly, or not at all.

In these circumstances, the plausibility and power of art’s freedom are on the wane. Among the opening remarks of Aesthetic Theory, Adorno has this to say about artistic freedom: ‘absolute freedom in art, always limited to a particular, comes into contradiction with the perennial unfreedom of the whole’. Until that wider unfreedom is effaced, the particular freedoms of art run through the fingers like sand. While they may open a utopian window on a less instrumental world, they also serve as effective pretexts for oppression. By contrast, works of evident use press on the contradictions inherent in the system of art, and seek to liberate themselves from capital’s servitude. To break with the autonomy of free art is to remove one of the masks of free trade. Or to put it the other way around, if free trade is to be abandoned as a model for global development, so must its ally, free art.

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