Art’s authonomy

The autonomy of art has been powerfully described by the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who compares it to other functional systems in modern society (such as science, politics, and law). It has the same tendency to ‘operative closure’, a drive to discover its own function and to focus on it alone. For Luhmann, art’s exclusive feature is that it uses perceptions, not language, and is thus separated from mundane forms of communication. Its role may be to integrate the incommunicable into the communications networks of society. (We shall see later that as a description of recent art, at least, this account has to deal with the problem that the gap between the two seems to be lessening.)

For Luhmann, the more art tries to immerse itself in the general run of products and discourse in society, the more it ends up reinforcing its autonomy: No ordinary object insists on being taken for an ordinary thing, but a work that does so betrays itself by this very effort. The function of art in such a case is to reproduce the difference of art. But the mere fact that art seeks to cancel this difference and fails in the effort to do so perhaps says more about art than could any excuse or critique.

Yet the art system does have distinctive features: participation in it is optional (which can certainly not be said of economics or law), and it inspires only a low level of participation (a large proportion of the British population, for example, are not gallery-goers). Its means of inclusion and exclusion are independent of those of other systems, and it is a comparatively isolated field of activity (again, for example, the connection between politics and law is very close).

Luhmann’s account is a systematic but ideal description that discounts the effects of class and distinction, and of market and state pressures on art. We can be more specific, for example, about who participates: Bourdieu and his collaborators’ extensive sociological study The Love of Art examined the museum- and gallery-going habits of Europeans, bringing out forcefully how much such activity was determined by education. Simply, more educated people are more likely to go to galleries, feel more comfortable there, stay longer, and are more able to talk about what they have seen.

Nevertheless, Luhmann’s book also fixes upon the actual autonomy of art, which paradoxically accounts for its connection with and use to other systems. That autonomy, far from being illusory, is central to art’s ideological function, and is maintained by art’s various institutions, including academia (art schools, art history and visual culture departments), museums, and professional bodies. The art promulgated there is sometimes at odds with that which achieves success in the market.