In the beginning there was autonomy: a refusal to consider art as merely expressing ideas and operating within the dominant ideologies of Religion, States, Kingdoms and so on. Now that the dominant ideology is capitalism and there is no space whatsoever outside it, not in art as anywhere else, what do we mean by autonomy? What is it to be autonomous in art except to fully embrace the individualism of the global market (while feeling better about oneself)?
Everything smells like fascism: right-wing governments are on the rise everywhere, the European economic policy is destroying any trace of social organization and support – Europe is becoming a fortress, an unlivable place both for the ones that want to get in and the ones inside that have been ordered to ‘tighten their belts’. Why again claim the autonomy of art now?
The current attack on art is part of an attack to society at large. It comes at the same time as austerity measures are imposed on ‘poor’ european countries and reforms are killing the university systems all over Europe. What is happening to art can’t be looked at as an isolated problem or fight, that’s why autonomy may not be the most useful concept right now.
Autonomy has gone bad. After managing to create a little more free space for art to exist otherwise, autonomy became a pretext to reduce art to high-level entertainment for the bourgeoisie and anyone in need of a short break from the desert of working life. It made of art a ‘world on its own’, with its players, territories, systems of valorization, set of practices and so on: in other words, an autonomous market. It basically became the opposite of autonomy. It made artists depend on funding like pandas depend of WWF. It made artists accept that they are ‘exceptions’ and should be protected and supported, unlike the other workers of other sectors who need to strive for profit just to survive. And it’s nice to work for pleasure, to reflect on your practice and ethics, to be able to fail and make attempts. But why the access to these privileges should be reduced to artists alone? Is art more needed or more beautiful than anything else that people can do? Why can’t a shop keeper apply for funding so that he can work less or not be slave of wild competition? why does an artist have to continue producing work all the time just to keep her status and access to funding?
Coming back to the pandas, why to make a campaign to save a species when the whole ecosystem is about to collapse?
The same goes for art, why do we want to save art as we know it instead of proliferating art ? can it be a social reactivation of art? a politicization of art? an ‘artification’ of society? Whatever, anything that would allow art to become something else than what we already know and that is anyway dissatisfying. It’s a chance to re-think artistic practices as capacities active in the social composition, why do we really want to safeguard the liminal armless position that art has been assigned and we have happily fulfilled until now?
Why don’t we co-opt the cuts and turn them against the governments and the economical policy that guides them?
Not even the government thinks that by cutting the funding artists will stop, on the contrary, they will continue working and creating value but now economically taking care of themselves. It’s just a management strategy, a way to reduce useless labor costs. And sadly this is what will really happen if we try to defend our little privileges instead of taking this occasion to re-think what we can do, what we are able to do and do it.
It’s silly to keep dividing ourselves into categories of belonging (like ‘artist’, ’employee’, ‘shop keeper’), the only aim of these categories is to delimit a market, separate fields of exploitation. Why don’t we instead start to think of ourselves just as people that have different and ever-changing set of capacities, that depend on one other, that can group and regroup ad infinitum, capable of self-organization?
What if to cut art, social and education funding could actually reveal to be the neoliberal regime’s biggest mistake? What if people would start to disregard institutions and start making art, education and society themselves? That would actually be closer to autonomy, but an autonomy that is busy with generating life and therefore cannot be autonomous from itself. Of course there is always the risk of just volunteer-working, of continuing to create value for free and being co-opted, but there is also the chance to create other systems of valorization, since the crisis is so profound that it involves all aspects of life.
There’s a lot to make and to invent, a whole society, innumerable forms of life. Do we want to defend the autonomy of art or shall we put our highly skilled and pretty hands right in the middle of the dirt, not afraid of making a mess? Not afraid of failing or of not having a plan, capable of acting from the present in which we find ourselves, giving up categories and opening up to futures we’re not yet able to imagine – cause they don’t depend on us alone or on a plan on which we have previously agreed.
Valentina Desideri, ArtLeaks co-founder
This text was originally published in the October 2011 issue of the web-zine Bezna, on the autonomy of contemporary art and artists.