Another issue of Afterall, and another opportunity to consider what role art does or could play in the world. This issue continues with some basic reasons (perhaps beliefs) that underpin each issue of our journal. We consider that art’s significance lies in the influence it exercises on how our societies choose to think and behave. Yet such influence can only be traced and expressed indirectly, and most effectively through the study of singular experiences with works of art. Art also has certain responsibilities to its audiences and contexts yet that act of making art should be free of direct political requirements. For these reasons, we have always sought to privilege the individual artist in our journal, allowing the work to speak about the issues that it reveals rather than insert the work into an existing discourse. This becomes crucial if we are to see the art field as being an autonomous zone where propositions can arise independent of social or economic function.
The value of art’s autonomy was only fully established under the terms of western European and then American modernisms, as a way to defend categorically the ‘free’ space of personal expression that art could then occupy. Its legacy into our period has been mixed, permitting art to be justified solely in terms of its own criteria (and thereby able, constantly, to remake itself) while isolating it from specific historical contexts in which it sought to play a role. Art in social democratic capitalism was tolerated so long as it largely concerned itself with its own condition – a situation that continued into the 1980s to be finally countered by the full expansion of the free market into the consumption of creativity. Cynically, we could now say that art’s autonomy is no longer based on the idea of ‘free space’ but on its clear economic value in the market, except that this is no autonomy at all.
In the recent shift to a single economic and political model the degree to which art should be responsible for itself alone, or for its context and society, was left unresolved. As in many older disputes, the simplicity of the free market solution leaves more complex issues hanging. Nevertheless, the inherited idea of autonomy is still attached to the aura around contemporary art, used to justify its public support and to privilege it over more directly commodified forms of creativity such as craft, design or pop music.
This issue of Afterall circles the boundaries of this question of autonomy in terms that are qualified by social, political and media engagement. Effectively we have two filmmakers, a theatre group and two object makers whose conditions of production all rely on a strong input from the social and political context in which they produce work. As a subject and object of study, Berlin features strongly. The city itself has been the key witness to times when art lost its autonomy at the most fundamental levels and entered directly into the political arena to devastating effect. Perhaps this history is part of the reason that consistent works made in and with the city succeed in offering a paradoxical way out of art’s two dead ends – autonomous irrelevance or engaged complicity. In the films of Harun Farocki or David Lamelas, there is a constant struggle for meaning to both be given and to remain ambiguous for the viewer’s own creative remaking. Equally, Manfred Pernice’s installations flirt at the edges of clarity without ever being resolved as definite object statements. Even the Wooster Group and Rachel Harrison, though not directly concerned with Berlin as such, reflect the value of ambiguity as a way of allowing histories and contexts to be continuously made and unmade. Think about the way the Wooster Group watch themselves rehearsing a play that is itself a representation of a previous production in Central Europe. The idea of autonomy in such a production is immediately under threat while never being defined as absent.
It is this paradoxical movement of ‘engaged autonomy’ that is a key to understanding the tenuous thread that links our selection of artists. Engaged autonomy should also be read as an antidote to the dangers of the current political move in art with its notion of artistic contributions to a wider discourse. Such curatorial or critical frameworks can be valid only if artists themselves retain an agonistic relationship to them, struggling to assert their own autonomous position while actively responding to the issues at hand. At the same time, the problem of the autonomous object and the play of its presentation in an apparently white cube is now such a clearly ideological form that it cannot be sustained except as a nostalgic avant-garde reference.
What this issue suggests, I think, through the texts and essays about these artists, is a way to think about the quality of autonomy as a state of being or action, rather than something vested in the objects of production. To act autonomously, while committing the results of those acts to specific contexts and conditions, is the move that might preserve the idea of the autonomy of art from its total commodification. It can offer resistance through movement, through hiding, and crucially through ambiguity that does not resist a commercial outcome but surpasses it by being effective at the moment of public reception. That is at least the hope that the artists presented here allow us to cherish.
– Charles Esche