Sven Lütticken’s Contribution to the Autonomy Session

(because he got ill and wasn’t able to attend the event, here is Sven Lütticken ‘s contribution to the autonomy session during MyCreativity Sweatshop, Trouw Amsterdam, November 20,  2014)

Autonomy MyCreativity Sweatshop

By Sven Lütticken

The introductory statement for this panel opposed l’art pour l’ art, which was equated with autonomy, with the creative industries, equated with an attack on autonomy.

Instinctively, many would no doubt agree. And you could say something similar about academia – from thee free research of ‘la recherché pour la recherche’ to ‘embedded research’ that has to benefit the creative industries.

Yet things are much more complicated. “Artistic autonomy” was never an unproblematic given; it was always contradictory and contested.

Andrea Fraser has argued that “artistic autonomy” has four dimensions: aesthetic  (the artwork as following its own intrinsic logic, free from instrumentalization), economic (the bourgeois, modern art market), social (the art world as a relatively autonomous field with its own protocols and criteria) and political (which Fraser identifies with freedom of speech and conscience).[i] In fact, the “aesthetic autonomy” of the modern artwork is itself a very partial articulation of the aesthetic. Many avant-garde movements sought to liberate the esthetic from tehartistic, institutioanlized framework, thereby also setting free its transformative social and political potential.

If institutional critique was highly critical of the artwork as object, it did not necessarily side with the object’s familiar neo-avant-garde others: the event, the happening, the action, performance. Works by artists such as Buren, Haacke, Rosler, or Fraser are often context-specific interventions in institutional frameworks. Artistic practice became project-based. The preference for contextual and often temporary projects among practitioners of institutional critique is of course related to the critique of the object-driven art market, but in keeping with their general rejection of the neo-avant-garde’s escapism, the artists of institutional critique did not grandly proclaim that their work was free from commodification and immune against recuperation. Rather, their work can be seen as an ongoing experiment with mechanisms of commodification and recuperation.

In general, the rise of project-based work itself reflects a fundamental transformation in capitalism—from Fordism to post-Fordism, from commodity-objects to “services” and “immaterial” labour.[ii]  By the time Andrea Fraser and Helmut Draxler organized the project Services in 1994, in which they analysed the service industries as a possible model for artistic project work, there was more room for nuance and differentiation. One could claim that it is precisely because “immaterial” labour in its various forms is at the forefront of both commodification and precarization that it has become something of a privileged site for contemporary art.

The nature of institutions has changed along with that of the artwork and of artistic labour. Even in the 1970s, corporate sponsorship and the influence of trustees became the focus of Hans Haacke’s work; the seemingly autonomous logic of capital transformed the art  field from the inside. By now, the logic of capital has in turn largely merged with that of technoscience: if we pay up, we can get real-time algorithmic advice on which artists to buy and which to dump.[iii] What fresh art hell is this? Andrea Fraser’s sometime collaborator Helmut Draxler has eloquently critiqued the avant-garde logic of transgression, of abandoning one’s field, of becoming another, a better, a more political subject.[iv] But what if institutions themselves become transgressive; what if subjects are being reformed? After all, as Fraser suggests, what has happened in the last decades is precisely the progressive subjugation of art and all other field to an economistic logic that allows for no alterity, no other criteria.  In the same process, the institution becomes networked and diffused, spreading out even as it intensifies its grasp on subjectivation and introduces ever greater numbers of cultural workers into precarity (see chapter 2).[v]

As Gerald Raunig has put it, this calls for “practices that are self-critical and yet do not cling to their own involvement, their complicity, their imprisoned existence in the art field, their fixation on institution and the institution, their own being-institution.”[vi] The aim cannot be to leave art in order to “become more political,” but to engage in forms aesthetic practice that acknowledge the impurity of the aesthetic, including its political entanglements and potential. Critique that is perfectly content with its immanence becomes a kind of higher Biedermeier. Moments of externality, of externalization, are part of the process. It is no longer a matter of choosing between anti-institutional aesthetic practice (1960s neo-avant-garde tendencies) and embedded critical practice within institutions (1970s institutional critique). By now, the complementary nature of both approaches is clear, as aesthetic practice and theoretical practice navigate institutional as well as extra-institutional contexts and interstices. Existing institutions such as museums or universities should be engaged with and used to the extent that this is possible and productive, but they should not constitute the horizon.

Social fields are in a process of decomposition—not just art and science, but also, for instance, law—with law being bent forever more under politico-economical imperatives. Everywhere, the “relative” part of “relative autonomy” is on the increase. While think tanks are never short of academic hacks willing to extoll “liberal democracy” and its freedoms, citizens are happily signing way any right to privacy to the NSA and GCHQ for the sake of “security” and their share of unequally distributed global wealth. When artists, designers and theorists today engage with the surveillance-industrial complex, or with the world of “illegal aliens” condemned by the state to live hidden lives, this does not mean that these practitioners dabble in something that is of no concern to them, or try to impose political issues on art. On the contrary: these are aesthetic as well as political and social problems, and it is reductive and ideological notions of art that try to keep them neatly separate.

Meanwhile, both academics and students find it rather more difficult to organize and undertake collective action—if they see the need for it at all. Many have been depoliticized by the perpetual need to perform, and to compete. Both in art and academia, economic imperatives are imposed on students and young professionals ever more bluntly and nakedly. “Market laws” are presented as a completely autonomous logic in their own right, in spite of the fact that these laws are shaped by social and political frameworks. In the UK, rising tuition fees have sparked student protests, and the closure of the philosophy department of Middlesex University occasioned an occupation—with rather wonderful banners, including one reading “Adorno as an Institution Is Alive.” [That a university would close such a well-respected philosophy department, with its focus on critical theory and radical “continental” philosophy, is a sign of the times that has all the subtlety of a blinking neon sign. Sarah Amsler sees this development as a symptom of a “deep neoliberalism” that “moves beyond daily erosions of autonomy to become a hollowing out of the relationships, ideas, and subjectivities that help maintain critical spaces from neoliberal rationality and a temporal contracting of the distance between these spaces. If we can identify how and why these processes become possible, we might also get a better grip on how critical spaces can be reclaimed or created.”[vii]

Everything is done to turn academics into obedient drones. Get with the programme! In the Netherlands, the state actively pushes research on (and in the service of) “the creative industries” (which comprises fashion, video games, design, and yes, also art). Both art and science are made more immediately productive now that they are no longer seen as relatively autonomous supplements of the ‘real” economy; they are in fact ideologized as the new knowledge-based and creative economy for this de-industrialized country. Not fitting such an agenda, this reader is a hobby project. Pascal Gielen put his finger on it when he asserted that in today’s university, research has been relegated to the status of a private pastime.[viii] Rather than spending years on trying to get EU funding for a mega project, we have decided to enjoy the perverse advantages of hobbyism. We may be under- or un-funded, which has dire consequences especially for (former) students who get very little for their labour; but on the other hand, while academic research is increasingly and relentlessly subjugated to a regime of buzzwords (creative industries, e-humanities, sustainability) and an ideological and reductive notion of social relevance that would make Stalin blush, hobbyism can pursue tangents that don’t quite follow the decreed agenda. In particular, it has allowed us to collaborate, also with students, on problematizing today’s working conditions and the pressure to (self)perform.[ix]

Now, part of the hopelessness of the situation is precisely that in the post-War Dutch welfare state, a certain form of relative autonomy has in fact been turned into a given: you could study ‘autonome kunst’ at academies. But this was a very specific autonomy: not that of individuals or of collective action, but of differentiated social fields enabled by the welfare state. Now in these terms we are seeing a shift to heteronomy; we are moving from integration to differentiation. But this does not mean that autonomy is now a rarer commodity that it was before. It does mean that its problematic nature, its fugitive nature, is much more visible and tangible than before, when we could delude ourselves into feeling autonomous because we happened to work within structures where economic imperatives were felt much less directly.

We can plough on under steadily worsening conditions or take a chance on “the possibility of making ‘cautious experimental modifications of our specific forms of subjectivity’—including (or especially) those we undertake as we ‘go on’ in conditions of crisis, and in which we ground our everyday practices of freedom.”[x] The Situationist-dominated “Council for Maintaining the Occupations,” which was founded at the Sorbonne in May ’68, put out a poster decreeing the “End of the University.”[xi] In the meantime, museums and universities alike have been occupied by rather different forces. In dealing with such institutions, it may be wise to consider them already gone, already plundered and ruined. Academia is part of the problem; the art world is part of the problem. Here we are. Now what?

[i] See Andrea Fraser, “Autonomy and Its Contradictions,” in this volume.

[ii] Andrea Fraser and Helmut Draxler’s 1994 project Services at the Kunstraum der Universität Lüneburg

[iii] See Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s text “Dear Artfukts,” excerpted in chapter 3, pp…

[iv] Helmut Draxler, lecture at “Art and Its Frames: Continuty and Change,” symposium at the Kunstraum of Leuphana University Lüneburg, June 14, 2014.

[v] André Rottmann has focused on the transformation of the institution from site into network; “Networks, Techniques, Institutions: Art History in Open Circuits,” in Texte zur Kunst no. 81 (2011), pp. 142-144; Hito Steyerl writes about the “integration into precarity” in “The Institution of Critique” in Art and Contemporary Critical Practice:  Reinventing Institutional Critique, eds. Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray (London: MayFly, 2009), pp. 13-19.

[vi] Gerald Raunig, “Instituent Practices” in Raunig and Ray (eds.), p. 11.

[vii] Sarah Amsler: “Beyond All Reason: Spaces of Hope in the Struggle for England’s Universities,” in representations no. 116 (Fall 2011), p. 68.

[viii] Pascal Gielen, “Repressief liberalisme. Over kunst, markt en cultuurbeleid in Nederland,” in Kunstlicht 34 (2013), no. 1-2, p. 14.

[ix] This is particularly the case of the Autonomy Summer Schools in 2010 and 2011, and the Autonomy Symposium in 2011. These activities are of course part of the problem(s) they both enact and examine. Participating in a summer school is being part of today’s economy of intensified learning and self-improvement, but the Autonomy Summer Schools sought to stimulate reflexive engagement with such conditions.

[x] Amsler p. 80. Amsler quotes James Tully.

[xi] On the Council for Maintaining the Occupation, see René Viénet’s text from Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement (1968) at