A. Keller: Autonomy and art

Text by Art Keller (Idler), August 2013

The ever-returning debate in the art world: Can art ever be autonomous? No! Only when art has merged with the life of an artist – after his or hers death.

I think many things can be said about the term autonomy. In order to talk about it, I consider it is important to suggest a definition; the way I would use the word in relation to my art.

What I understand of the word is self-rule (or own laws), and when one has own or internal laws, one can choose to ignore the external laws. Laws can very simply be defined as dos and don’ts or restrictions. These dos and don’ts take place within different sets of laws:

Legal laws (upheld by an authority/force – e.g. stealing)

Social laws (upheld by a social group – e.g. cultural norms, validated by a majority of a population)

Combinations of the two are of course possible (e.g. bigamy is illegal some places and in other places it might be allowed, but maybe not be socially accepted).

Besides these – shall we call them, Laws of society – there is an extra set of laws that predominates both of them:

Natural laws (upheld by nature; man needs to eat, drink and rest + have certain environmental conditions to live)

And in extension of this last set of laws, you can ask yourself how you make a living today; stay alive? In capitalist society the shortest answer is money. This is however if you decide to follow the laws of society. Autonomy is often used to describe someone who is in opposition to the laws of society; this doesn’t have to be the case though:

As stated above I see autonomy as self-rule. By the use of “self” I immediately associate it to identity. What is the self? What makes an identity? Smarter people than me have written an uncountable amount of books on the subject, but I think it is safe to say that environment and people around a self plays a role in shaping it – external factors; external laws.

My claim is that at some point everyone has followed a set of laws and I think most people at some point also have questioned these laws or at least reflected a bit on them. People have then accepted and adapted them as their own laws or decided to go against them. Thus can a citizen who follows the laws of society in theory be called autonomous, because he adapts external laws and make them his laws. He is now autonomous: a man who follows his own laws, which happens to be the same as others.

In this sense I find the term very wide and I therefore rarely use it – I see it as a paradox to call anything autonomous and I would never use it about my art practice – so I will propose a more fitting term…

After “self” was “rule” – combined I would associate the two words with independence or being independent; a word which per definition is very close to autonomy (both refers to own government), but an autonomous person is someone who is not controlled by external factors, whereas an independent person is someone who is not connected to external factors (in-: “not, opposite of” de-: “from, down” pendere: “hang, be suspended”). As an image of this you can imagine Buddha detached from the wheel of life, but returning to the human world to provide spiritual guidance. Note that the Buddha functions independently within the laws of the human world; he is part of the tree of life, but not hanging from it as a fruit. I see art as having this quality of being independent: Art can infiltrate and influence all parts of society without necessarily becoming attached to the parts it affects. To me it can provide “spiritual guidance” which in my practice means a new point of view or out-of-the-box thinking.

What about the money? Hasn’t art become attached to the capitalist system? This is always the main topic when talking about art and autonomy of art – and therefore also when using “independent”.

Sure, to some extend art has become subject to speculative capitalists, but when you hear about an artist’s product being sold for more than 100 million dollars, do you then think of the artist as subject to capitalism, or do you see the capitalism infiltrated by art? Does this kind of art actually expose the true face of capitalist perversion or fetishism, as Marx would call it? I think the “art market” tells a lot about our time and I do not see this as a problem.

So is art a commodity? Of course it is – I will make no effort to argue against that. This does not making art dependent of money though – it just means you can get money in exchange for art. I am pretty tired of this notion of art-autonomy as something which is in opposition to capitalism and laws of society. I think we can reach much further if we accept everything as being one organism – also the corporations it is expected of you to hate as an artist… Then not said that one should corporate, but as I said: infiltrate.

Even Buddha had to eat (though he might have trained himself to not eat much) – how did he get food? I think some people appreciated his spiritual guidance and provided him with food – or maybe he offered some kinds of non-spiritual service to get food? Did he do labor; labor that might have expanded his horizon and made his spiritual guidance even more valid for the common man. I am not a Buddhist expert, but for all I know there are many ways to acquire food and shelter and the thing I do know about Buddha is that his life constituted a message.

I see a possibility of the contemporary artist to be an independent agent in society; work within society between disciplines; influencing but not attaching. It is important for me to underline that work within is meant literally: I believe a statement should always be supported by the person making it; and mine is about universality.

As Erich Fromm has said “No great, radical thought can survive, unless it is embodied in a single individual whose life constitutes the message”.

If this is is right; that only a lived life can constitute a message, it makes sense why “great” artists are usually discovered after their deaths. It is first by then you see the full body of work… The autonomous work: It has been detached from the laws of its creator and death becomes the true state of autonomy – this is where none of the laws are in control.

A. Keller, the basement 2010