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Autonomy, Negation, and


Space: The Leap of the Avant-
Garde
By Geoffrey Wildanger

214
213 0 1

a b v g f d Revolutionary
Time and the
Avant-Garde
By John Roberts
AUGUST 5, 2016
Published 08.18.2015
WERE I TO BEGIN this review by announcing Verso
that my name was not in fact Geoffrey 336 Pages

Wildanger, and that I was not writing a book


review — that rather this ostensible review is in
fact a work of performance art — then you
would read the following review in an entirely
different vein. You would read my sentences as
not referring to John Roberts’s book, but rather
as aesthetic productions whose meanings are far
from reducible to their denotative and logical
content. This hypothesis of performance
(borrowed from Eric Hayot) presents the central
conceptual problem of Roberts’s book: What, it
asks, makes the aesthetic different from other
things? Is the aesthetic actually autonomous
from other aspects of the world? If the aesthetic
does achieve some sort of separateness, then
what are the consequences for art, society,
conceptual thinking, and political practice?
Finally, how do all these questions relate to the
avant-garde?

“Art […] is […] for us a thing of the past,” Hegel


proclaimed around 1821 in one of his numerous
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formulations of the “death of art,” and one might
be excused for assuming the same of the avant-
PHILOSOPHY & CRITICAL
garde. Why worry about the avant-garde now, as
THEORY
we are approaching 100 years since the historical
avant-gardes and 50 years since the neo-avant-
garde in the 1950s and ’60s? Roberts has an RECOMMENDED
answer to these questions, and he elucidates his
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clever position across this very interesting book.
Towards a Future History
While developing a theory of the avant-garde of Digital Humanities
that attempts to remain vital to 21st-century By Juliana Spahr
concerns, Roberts touches on numerous other
Free Speech, Minstrelsy,
debates wracking the fields of art history, critical and the Avant-Garde
theory, and aesthetics. By Chris Chen

The Denunciation of
Roberts is a professor of art and aesthetics at Vanessa Place
Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom. He is By Kim Calder

most known, however, for an edited volume, A Master Class in the


prepared with Dave Beech, The Philistine Avant-Garde: Alvin
Controversy, which argued that the traditional Lucier’s “Music 109”
By Dave Mandl
concept of the philistine was the perfect figure
to crystallize debate in cultural studies and art
history about exclusive discourses and social
worlds. In that book and here, Roberts reveals a
knack for counterintuitive arguments. Here the
argument is that “the avant-garde is the
recurring name we give to the conflict between
free artistic labour and capital, and, therefore,
the recurring name we give to art’s long and
embattled intimacy with the revolutionary
tradition itself.” Leading to this conclusion are
four theoretical categories: autonomy, negation,
temporality, and praxis.

The long introduction and first chapter elucidate


the fundamental theoretical topics of the book
through a lengthy engagement with Adorno’s
writing on negativity and aesthetic autonomy.
Roberts defines negation as an autonomizing
gesture:

when art abandons the possibility of the


“new” in […] terms [of negation and the
negative], it falls back into heteronomy and
the academic. In this way, there can be no
renewal of art without art resisting,
reworking, dissolving what has become
tradition, and duly, therefore, what has
become heteronomous. [His italics.]

Heteronomy is tradition and it is academic. In


fact, all three, heteronomy, tradition, and the
academic, are forms of repetition, because all
three produce that which already is for those
who await additional helpings of that which they
already know. One can find oneself wondering
how closely negation and novelty track each
other. Do Richard Serra’s heavy black oilstick
drawings represent a negation of late modernist
color-field painting, or a repetition of late
modernist negativity?

Roberts fleshes out his argument with a turn to


Hegel, deploying Hegel’s “negation of the
negation.” The first negation is art confronting
itself in “its commodity-specific conditions of
production and reproduction”; this is followed
by “the leap to freedom through the negation of
the negation that Hegel understood as the force
of liberation immanent to human subjectivity […]
and that is identifiable here with revolutionary
cultural praxis (absolute negation).” Given the
Marxian vocabulary, one might expect a
lengthier engagement with contemporary
Marxist writing about the commodity status of
artworks. Dave Beech and Daniel Spaulding, inter
alia, have recently argued that unlike
commodities, artworks are not anonymously
produced for an anonymous market, and, most
importantly, that there is no correlation between
the amount of time necessary to produce an art
object and its market price. Roberts implies that
the first negation would be of the art market —
meaning things like social practice and
performance art that do not end up in collectors’
storage units. He does not directly argue this,
however, nor does he engage with those critics
who have pointed to the healthy relation
between “noncommodity” artworks and the
transformation of museums into event spaces.
His second negation is revolutionary cultural
praxis — unfortunately “revolutionary” remains
undertheorized in this text. As his argument
progresses, Roberts defines the second negation
to post–Studio art much like that generated in
the late 1960s and afterward — in particular, the
deskilling of art production. He valorizes
“failure” and “amateurism” as positive aesthetic
qualities in contemporary art, but these are also
aesthetic categories close to the mainstream of
the contemporary art world — think of Thomas
Hirschhorn’s use of cardboard, or of Christie’s
most recent auction.

Roberts’s most insightful argument is his


particular entangling of negation and autonomy,
which he defines as a conceptual and aesthetic
gesture that grasps autonomy precisely in
presenting its lack. Autonomy seems to be
among the hottest concepts in contemporary art
theory and aesthetic discourse. The idea of
aesthetic autonomy largely develops in the
German poet, dramatist, and philosopher
Friedrich Schiller, who, in his Letters on the
Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), elucidated a
theory of aesthetics that sought to define it as
independent of other social forms. In Klaus L.
Berghahn’s terms, “[through] [t]he negation of
the political and social reality […] [t]he autonomy
of art establishes freedom from external
restraints and art projects onto the future what
is not yet.” [1] Schiller opposes this to the French
Revolution, whose political attempts to create
freedom he saw as leading to the Terror.

Since Schiller, aesthetic autonomy has become a


shibboleth for numerous, contradictory aesthetic
theories, each differing not only as to whether it
exists, but also as to what it means. For some,
autonomy is simply a means to account for why
artworks can be appreciated in two radically
different societies — that is, meaning that
aesthetic pleasure is not entirely determined by
social mores. For others, it means that the types
of choices artists can make are not set by
historical conditions but by their own freedom.
In some cases, autonomy has meant that artists
are free to do what they want because they live
in a democratic society, whereas artists who
lived in an authoritarian one would be subject to
state control (i.e., heteronomy). Or it means that
artists produce things they like and are
interested in without thinking of the thing’s use
— a sculpture of a table is not a table.

Roberts draws from one of the most notable


20th-century theorists of aesthetics, Theodor
Adorno, who in his unfinished book Aesthetic
Theory as well as a large number of essays on
literature, and half a dozen monographs on
music, argued that the aesthetic is “autonomous”
primarily in that it is opposed to the
heteronomous character of daily life. Roberts
applies Adorno’s writings to post-conceptual and
social practice art, but he parts with Adorno
with his emphasis on praxis. For Adorno,
autonomous art could not directly engage with
non-art discourses, and he saw artworks that
were about specific political issues as an ill-
judged aestheticization of the political.

Roberts attempts to resolve the tension between


autonomy and engagement by valorizing what he
terms “adisciplinary research”:

a recognition that art’s social disinvestment


from the disciplines that it employs, or
borrows from, functions from a place of
ideological denaturalization […] [is] one of the
crucial manifestations of art’s autonomy
under post-conceptualism. Adisciplinarity is
the logic of non-identity applied to the
disciplinary instrumentality of knowledge
within the “knowledge economy,” which art
in its commodified passage into the cultural
service economy as “cognitive labour” is only
too willing to facilitate or prop up. So, in
these terms, adisciplinarity is the form that
the couplet negation/autonomy takes within
the intellectual division of labour of art
under post-conceptualization and the
collective intellect.

Autonomy manifests as a conceptual space


established through negating existing
disciplinary boundaries — including those
between artist and activist. Engagement would
be autonomous insofar as it does not become
either entirely activistic or entirely artistic, that
is settled, in specific discourses, spaces, or
milieus.

Along these lines, Roberts emphasizes the role of


“non-art institutional settings, extra-gallery
location, [and] virtual habitats,” though casual
survey of institutional art spaces like the recent
Venice Biennale or any number of museums and
art fairs would recognize similar types of
adisciplinary research as art, post-conceptual
performance, installation, participatory art, and
other forms of work. Roberts engages only
briefly those theorists most associated with art
historical discourse on these art practices —
Claire Bishop, Nicolas Bourriaud, Juliane
Rebentisch, Shannon Jackson, and Grant Kester.
These theorists, in widely divergent ways, have
put pressure on the extent to which, or manner
in which, autonomy and engagement can come
together in art spaces. A more extensive
engagement with their work would clarify
Roberts’s thinking about the many artists
attempting to create work within those
institutions upon which many artists depend for
their livelihood.

The final two categories that Roberts brings in


his account are belatedness and praxis.
Belatedness attempts to accomplish the goal
announced in the first half of his title:
“revolutionary time.” Part of what makes the
avant-garde what it is is that the avant-garde
always appears to happen at the wrong time. He
thinks about belatedness through an extended
analysis of Art & Language and Chto Delat. “[T]he
production of […] new art from 1966 to 1974,” he
writes, “is for many artists defined not simply by
what it claims or offers to leave behind, but also
by its rehistoricization of the future pasts of modernism
as a constitutive force of this imagined futurity.” Contra
Peter Bürger’s argument in his Theory of the Avant-
Garde that the so-called neo-avant-garde of the
post–World War II era continued the formally
innovative radicalism of the historic avant-garde
but without their radical politics, Roberts argues
that the postwar period in fact witnessed a
reimagination of previous political positions, one
which entailed not a depoliticization but rather a
recoordination of the political map. What may
have been so radical in 1918 is not necessarily so
in 1968. This is the first meaning of belatedness:
artists reimagine the past in order to think the
possibilities of the present.

Chto Delat takes their name from the title of


Lenin’s text What Is to Be Done? They have earned
a reputation for the production of both
performance pieces and theoretical texts. Their
international reputation has risen along with an
increasing interest in American and Western
European institutions for political performance
art and late Soviet conceptual art. Much of their
work consists of appropriating the aesthetics of
the Russian Revolution and early 20th-century
European communism and reframing it in
variously earnest and ironic gestures. Roberts’s
description of a 2005 piece is apt:

Another pertinent example of this fictive


staging of politics-as-poiesis is the group’s […]
performance in St Petersburg
commemorating the one hundredth
anniversary of the 1905 Revolution, Angry
Sandwich People or: In Praise of Dialectics. Jointly
organized with Workers’ Democracy and the
Pyotor Alexeev Resistance Movement, Chto
Delat invited a number of actual sandwich-
board workers […] to participate in a mobile
performance in Narvskaya Zastava, the
proletarian district where the revolution
began. Each of the participants carried a
board on which was written a section from
Brecht’s poem “In Praise of Dialectics” in
Russian; together they formed a silent
moving whole as the performers drifted
around the city space. When the
performance finished, each of the
participants then read out their particular
section. As David Riff and [Dmitry] Vilensky
say in their commentary on the action, in the
process of moving around, new semantic
configurations are created, producing new
singularities from a common endeavour.

This is a compelling work of art. The poem and


the site specificity, with all their historical
resonance, are broken up and reorganized into a
form that resembles modern forms of protest —
although the artwork is not itself a protest.
Affects and history are both mobilized, and
while the individual words of the poems are
jumbled, with the sandwich-board workers not
observing a strict order to their walk, new lines
of poetry come into being and allow for new
types of legibility. This all takes on even greater
resonance in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, where
the government persecutes art groups like Pussy
Riot and Voina. One may go so far as to say that
this work returns us to Schiller’s question about
autonomy: whether eschewing direct political
engagement is the means by which one can
produce art under an authoritarian regime.

Roberts moves in his final chapter to the


question of praxis, yet it is hard to maintain that
art is autonomous when artists claim that
political and social practices are also artworks.
Two important writers on this question, Juliane
Rebentisch and Claire Bishop, argue in different
ways that participatory artworks, even when
they are determined in both form and content
by a desire to intervene in politics, nonetheless
persistently open up a space of relative
autonomy due to the forms of aesthetic
experience that they make possible. In other
words, because those participating in the work
are aware it is art, they think about their
experiences differently despite the fact that what
they are actually doing may look more like
politics than like a painting.
Roberts proposes a different solution to this
problem. He redefines autonomy as “autonomy-
as-critique-of-autonomy,” which:

is a condition of political struggle, just as


political struggle in art is articulated as a
problem of artistic process and form. But this
is not simply a matter of co-relations. The
struggle by art to define itself as art is itself a
political imperative: namely, the resistance
on the part of art to identitarian,
instrumental, or aesthetic closure. In these
terms, art-political praxis and political praxis
more properly operate in the space between,
on the one hand, the finality and
instrumentality of political struggle and its
real-world constraints, and, on the other, the
liminal space of art’s struggle for self-
definition and adisciplinary conditions of
research. Hence art-as-politics is socially
determined all the way down, insofar as the
struggle for self-definition — for autonomy
— is a condition of the commodified
relations that art finds itself in and is
emergent from.

In other words: art is not autonomous. Rather,


art performs its own heteronomy — the fact that
it is “socially determined all the way down” —
and by so performing it, art becomes a marker of
autonomy as an as-yet-unrealized goal. Art
points to autonomy but does not realize it. This
is contrary to politics, which would be the
struggle to realize autonomy.

Roberts develops this definition of autonomy,


writing:

[T]he political promise […] lies in art’s formal


non-equivalence with political praxis […]
[A]rt’s “politics” provides a quality of
“dismeasure,” or excess […] It is precisely the
connection between aesthetic disorganization
and dispersed creativity […] that constitutes
art’s new generalized field of political
engagement.

This last definition approaches that of


Rebentisch and Bishop, although Roberts cites
the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno for support.
Here art, even that which engages in seemingly
political forms of practice, is “autonomizing”
because the form it takes is not equivalent to the
form political practices take. Think of Roberts’s
example with Chto Delat. While the
performance may resemble a protest, it isn’t. The
sandwich boards carry a Brecht poem, not
political slogans making demands about the
exigencies of life in 21st-century Russia. While
the action mimics the aesthetics of a protest, it
does not present demands the meeting of which
would affirm its success. And yet this definition
stands in tension with Roberts’s emphasis on
praxis. If artists must engage politics directly,
then how are they to remain autonomous other
than by leaching off of art’s institutional politics?
Earlier he writes, “[A]rt is perhaps one place
where speculative thinking can be tested
without fear of institutional retribution.”
Perhaps this is the case. Artists and art
institutions do not always face the same direct
censorship or repression as activists, but one
wonders whether implicit censorship — like the
fear of losing donors or collectors — does not
also exist in the art world.

Why has autonomy become such a vital question


at this point in the 21st century? One possible
answer is that provided by theorists as diverse as
the French political groups Théorie Communiste
and Tiqqun, the German groups based around
the journals Exit! and Krisis, academic theorists
like “Bifo,” Antonio Negri, and North American
academics including Michael Hardt and Brian
Massumi, who have all emphasized a shift,
usually dated to the early 1970s, that they refer
to with the Marxist designation “real
subsumption.” The claim is made analogously to
the earlier history of capitalism in which guilds
and manufacturers began to produce for the
market (formal subsumption, because production
for the market is the form of capitalism), and
only later did the market transform the
structures of production, such that guilds and
manufacturers were reorganized into the factory.
This moment of reorganization is “real
subsumption,” because capitalism is no longer
merely formal — the market — but determines
production processes. Based on this distinction,
these theorists (in diverse ways) claim that
capitalism can be divided into two historical
epochs: the moment of formal subsumption of
everyday life, in which time outside the factory
is unproductive, allowing workers to restore
their spirits prior to returning to work, and a
period beginning in the 1970s in which one’s
daily life is subsumed into capitalist processes.
For some, this simply means that one’s daily life
increasingly is paid for in debt (which means it
is paid for with the expectation and obligation of
future wages). For others, this means that one’s
simplest interactions of daily life are also
generative of capitalist value — for instance, the
use of Facebook creates ad revenue, the use of
Snapchat improves facial recognition algorithms.
While many have quibbled with this
periodization (see, for instance, the work of Maya
Andrea Gonzalez and Italian Marxist Feminists,
who reveal that domestic and factory life were
never so separate), [2] the sense of increasing
integration into the market, testified to by these
theorists as well as by older post–World War II
discourses about the dissolution of the private
sphere, implies a generalized feeling of
increasing exposure to the market, to the public,
and thus an increasing sense of heteronomy.

Concurrently, magazines like Nonsite and


academics like Sarah Brouillette, Tim Kreiner,
Jasper Bernes, Daniel Spaulding, and Chris Chen
have reinvigorated the debate about aesthetic
autonomy, in recent debates about Dave Beech’s
book on the political economy of art and the
poetry of Vanessa Place (some of which were
published in the Los Angeles Review of Books).
Nicholas Brown has defended a relatively modest
version of autonomy, writing:

[T]he claim to autonomy does have a politics,


and that politics is, in the current
configuration, an anti-capitalist politics. (In
the modernist period, roughly, it was not: the
same claim to autonomy was as much
directed against the state as against the
market, and its politics could vary wildly).
But even in this context I am no Schiller:
while the claim to aesthetic autonomy has a
politics, it is not itself a politics. Artworks
make the claim that they are their own ends;
that they therefore call for judgments that
are extra-economic. Through the institution
of art they make that claim count socially. [3]

In other words: art is autonomous only insofar


as it (a) claims to be such, and (b) is neither
produced nor circulated in the same means as a
commodity. Therefore, artworks are not exactly
commodities, and engaging with them offers the
possibility of a different form of experience. This
possibility does not challenge capitalism as such,
and it will not transform the world, but it is
nice. On the other hand, Kreiner and Chen,
discussing Place’s work, have attacked one of the
traditional standards of autonomy — the
distinction between form and content — as
being inherently grounded on violence: “The
contested meanings of these racial objects are
not simply given, but are instead the end result
of violent histories of formal abstraction.” [4]
Finally, Bernes and Spaulding, in a review of
Dave Beech’s Art and Value, write: “Beech’s
accomplishment is to have irrefutably
demonstrated artistic production’s difference
from capitalist production,” [5] while Sarah
Brouillette, in a review of the same book, differs:

So while aspects of art may indeed be “non-


economic,” it is just as true that the
emergence of the category of art, and the
privileged place held for aesthetic autonomy
within that category, cannot be separated
from the emergence of capitalism, in that it
only becomes possible to conceive of art as
an autonomous and “self-consistent” set of
practices vis-à-vis what [Daniel] Spaulding
describes as “a different logic,” namely, the
logic of capitalist value production. Far from
representing a pure non-capitalist other, the
production of art exists in an uneasy and
conflicted relationship with the capitalist
value form, and that unease will remain in
force so long as capitalism itself does. I
suggest then, building on Spaulding’s take,
that whereas Beech emphasizes fine art as
non-economic, we might broaden that
inquiry to conceive aesthetic activity of
various kinds as trapped in a definitively
problematic relation to the production of
capitalist value. [6]

Summarily one sees here an assertion of a


seemingly absolute autonomy in Bernes and
Spaulding, an ascription of apparent autonomy
— which is revealed to ultimately be
heteronomous — in Brouillette, and an
argument that certain autonomizing claims are
based on historical violence in Chen and Kreiner.

To this mix, Roberts adds a theory of a politics of


autonomy-as-critique-of-autonomy. Taking his
argument that autonomy is not a given, but
rather a claim for autonomy, both performative
and descriptive, it appears that his position is not
too far from Brown’s. The basic problem with
autonomy persists: whether it exists or not
largely depends on how one defines it, but
neither its defenders nor its detractors can agree
on a definition. Roberts’s linking of autonomy
with negation reveals one way to rethink, and
repoliticize, these categories in the 21st century.

Geoffrey Wildanger received a master’s at the University


of California, Davis, and was a Helena Rubinstein
Fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program in
New York.
¤

[1] Klaus L. Berghahn, “1792, August 26,” in A


New History of German Literature, ed. David
Wellbery, p. 458

[2] cf.
https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/3/en/endnotes-the-
logic-of-gender

[3] http://nonsite.org/editorial/what-we-worry-
about-when-we-worry-about-commodification

[4] http://lareviewo'ooks.org/article/free-
speech-minstrelsy-and-the-avant-garde

[5]
https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/reviews/individual-
reviews/truly-extraordinary

[6] http://www.mediationsjournal.org/articles/on-
art-and-real-subsumption