Quotes about Contemporary Art

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.

(Julian Stallabrass, The story of contemporary art)

Art as University Discipline

Howard Singerman’s fine account of the development of art as a university discipline analyses the effects of this institutionalization on art’s products. Universities work to separate professional artists from Sunday painters, and do not expect of art students that they be manually skilled, take recreational pleasure in their work, or wrench it from their tortured souls. Rather, they must produce a distinct and certifiable knowledge, in a theoretical and esoteric language, guaranteeing the exclusivity and status of the art profession. Artists are not only trained in universities but sometimes come to inhabit them – as part-time teachers, or as touring performers accompanying their work. The art of the academy which Singerman compellingly describes – comprising video, film, and performance – usually requires the presence of the artist at least for exposition, appeals to academic audiences, and is built on grants, fellowships, and residencies. This escorted art may sell, but it achieves an independence from the commercial market, since the artist’s time is purchased rather than the work. It, too, achieves autonomy from the general run of mass culture, at the price of adapting to another set of institutional concerns, those of the increasingly audited and professionally administered university. Its main purpose is to generate dialogue among professionals, but the effects are far broader than that, influencing much of the discourse around art.

The first effect is that for there to be an art department there must be a unified and bounded thing, called ‘art’. The second is that it can be researched, and that much of what artists do can be described as research. The third, that the field requires description in a specialized language, the acquisition of which defines art professionals. All these effects tend to produce an art that talks most effectively to art insiders, and seals out the wider public.

This autonomy is not static, unitary, or unchallenged. The specialist world that serves the markets is quite different from that connected to academia. To get a rough-and-ready understanding of this, contrast two prominent models – the magazine Flash Art (look at the quality of its paper and colour reproduction, the number and character of the adverts it carries, the accessible style of writing) to the journal October, with its restrained visual style, monochrome illustrations, complex, elevated prose and arcane theoretical canon.

Furthermore, as we shall see, the professionalization to which academia aspires is directed against a populism encouraged by the state and – to a limited degree – by business. Highly trained museum professionals, who have spent years arduously acquiring specialist art-world discourse, are enjoined to lose it when communicating with the public. Displays in public spaces must be understood by the uninformed.

(Julian Stallabrass, The story of contemporary art)

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.

(Julian Stallabrass, The story of contemporary art)