The Autonomy of Artwork, a Commentary

After booth-hopping at Art Basel Hong Kong, and interacting with the art patrons, I contemplated the pieces we all were observing, and wondered if they are truly independent of their context and methods of production. Theodore Adorno, a well-known German philosopher and influential promoter of authoritarianism, asked theoretical questions about the autonomous character of artworks. In other words, we might ask: Does artwork embrace history?

To further this query, I quote from Adorno in his Minima Moralia:

“Art, apart from the empirically existing, takes up a position to it in accord with Hegel’s argument against Kane: The moment a limit is posited, it is overstepped and that against which the limit was established is absorbed. Only this, not moralizing, is the critique of the principle of l’art pour l’art, which by abstract negation posts the _____ of art as absolute. The freedom of artworks, in which their self-conscious glories and without which these works would not exist, is the ruse of art’s own reason. Each and every one of their elements binds them to that over which, for their happiness, they must soar and back into which at every moment they threaten once again to tumble.” (p.31)

A Changing Spell

Any artwork takes up a determinate attitude to empirical reality by stepping outside of the constraining spell it casts, not once and for all, but rather again and again, concretely, unconsciously polemical toward the spell at each historical moment. Since the context in which the viewer observes the work changes over time, dependent (in some way) upon the moment in time, a new invocation is cast with each unique experience.

Basis of Understanding Art Works

Artworks can only be understood except in their own dynamic; their imminent historical status is a dialect of nature and its dominion. They can be removed from a specific place and time and fully understood, no matter the circumstances or setting. Placing historical conditions and requirements negates the full consideration of a work of art.

Production Reflection of Societal Forces

The aesthetic strength of production—everything in which the productive force is embedded and in with it is active—are the impressions of the social relations of production. One cannot remove societal influences within the production of a work of art itself, either in the subject, the method, the genre, or even the artist’s attitude.

The double character of art as self-employed and social fait, which can be defined as: “any way of doing, fixed or not, likely to exert on the individual an external constraint.” Therefore, not only does the artwork represent the artist’s imagination, feelings about specific issues or events, a representation of a memory, or whatever declaration the artist chooses to make, but the work also influences and, in some cases, alters, the culture and experience of individuals and communities who have encountered it.

Artworks and Societal Experiences Intertwined

It is by virtue of this relation to the empirical that artworks recuperate, neutralize, what once was literally and directly experienced in life, and what was expulsed by spirit. In other words, perhaps art not only separates what was literally experienced from the spiritual experience, but also combines them together to provide another context in which to understand the works.