The below text is a draft of some thoughts that I presented as part of the debate Autonomous Practices, Autonomous Objects, Autonomous Institutions, which took place recently at NCAD in the context of Sarah Pierce’s Towards a Newer Laocoon, which finished at NCAD gallery last week. The debate was interesting, but as pointed out by Isabel Nolan, it appeared that the interpretations of the question of autonomy differed wildly. For me the premise of artistic autonomy – artists and institutions specifically – is not a question: it is impossible, and naive to even debate it. But one can and must assert the fundamental autonomous character of the art object.
I think this is a question close to my heart, or at least close to why I continue to engage with art. All of my research has in fact danced around the question of autonomy, but I have never perceived actually a question therein.
But I don’t think one can be either for or against artistic autonomy: for me it is a simple fact.
Whether we choose to adopt an art that serves some greater aim, political, social or otherwise, art as a field – as a series of incidences of artistic creation – remains defiantly autonomous. Good art is always autonomous: it sets its own standards and resists consumption – otherwise it is simply entertainment, or some breed of ineffective benevolence. By autonomous I mean adhering to some form of self-governing principle, by and on its own terms. Art can and does contain a mechanism – distinct to it, but not untainted by other factors – that allows it to set its own operational rationale. To argue for or against autonomy appears to me as simply missing the whole crux of art, for though it is something that I often feel uncomfortable about, it is for me something to be embraced, rather than fought against.
I recently came across a term that I found helpful in negotiating this challenge. Cited by Rosalind Krauss in her Voyage on the North Sea, the term is philosopher Stanley Cavell’s, and it is what he calls ‘automatism.’ This, I find, is a helpful way of thinking art’s autonomy – not in terms of its estrangement from society – but rather by virtue of its material basis, be that painting or video or performance.
For example, taking the form of the exhibition here, much of it adheres to the constraints of filmic representation. What Cavell terms automatism is the actual physical mechanism of the medium, its automatic, unflinching mode of functioning, that remains unchanging throughout every manifestation of that medium. With regard to Pierce’s work, this is the basic mechanics of filming, and its subsequent playback on the monitor or projection screen. Though the what of film is constantly in flux (i.e. the subject matter, or what it represents), the how remains static in the service of actual effective functioning. Thus the basic mechanism of the camera cannot be wholly controlled by the wishes of the artist – it escapes his or her grasp, thus inhibiting the artist’s full mastery over his or her creation. And importantly, I think this differs from an engagement with medium-specificity, for it is not a question of stripping things back, of reduction to a medium’s essence, but rather of a hard kernel that remains unquantifiably distinct from medium, and yet strangely bound to it.
This for me is useful in thinking art’s autonomy. For even an art that has a social or political function, or serves to implicate itself forcefully in the world at large, has some material basis that supercedes the wishes of the artist, a kind of automatic non sequiter that safeguards its position of autonomy. This does not, however, necessarily make it good art.
Nothing comes out of nothing: an artwork is always some thing else before it is an artwork, and perhaps some of this thing remains.
But I speak as someone who writes about art, and for me this thwarted desire for comprehensive mastery speaks not only to artistic authorship, but also to critical comprehension. On every occasion, irrespective of the kind of art I am writing about, the challenge is the same: something blocks me out, remaining irreducible to language. And it is here where I site the autonomy of art. This place is where I struggle and almost give up on the whole thing, where I struggle against its defiant resistance to mastery, where I am driven to write something such as this, before ever having come across Cavell’s term:
For the work of art defends not only against full comprehension of the viewer or critic, but also vis-à-vis the artist whose hands have produced it. It refuses, enclosing itself away not only from the world at large, but also from the artist’s desire for complete authority (…) The work of art, which he has indeed created, remains strangely self-sufficient; continuously keeping him at bay, it disrupts a progression towards atonement that he knows to be futile.
This was written as a response to the work of Fergus Feehily, but it seems that every time I write something new, about a work or body of work I admire, I invariably reach this place. It is a mixture of complete despair and a kind of fascinated rage, and it has held me so far, circumnavigating its boundaries, yet never quite piercing through.
At times I grow despondent, perceiving in art’s autonomy the excuse for a kind of intellectual or critical laziness – on my behalf – but always renege on this position. Art’s autonomy is crucial and steadfast, and should not – but cannot – be compromised.