Arie Altena

Art and Autonomy

Interview with Sebastian Olma about his book 'Art and Autonomy: Past, Present, Future'

Arie Altena


This text was published on the website of V2_:, 2018.

Sebastian Olma's book 'Art and Autonomy: Past, Present, Future' (2018) asks what artistic autonomy might mean at a time when art is fully commercialized and aesthetics has become the guiding principle of economic production and policymaking. The book will be offically launched at V2_ on Friday 14 September. A week earlier V2_'s Arie Altena met up with Sebastian Olma in his temporary workspace in OT310, a so-called 'breeding place for the arts', to ask him a few questions on the book.

Arie Altena: Your new book is entitled Art & Autonomy, Past, Present, Future. The subject begs the question: why is it important to hold on to the notion of autonomy in the arts? 

Sebastian Olma: Yes, it’s the question that gets the argument in the book moving. The notion of autonomy is inextricably linked to our modern understanding of art. Art and autonomy become connected at the end of the 18Th century. In the aftermath of the Enlightenment art frees itself from the clutch of state and church. This was an important shift. By  emancipating itself from state and church, art attained an autonomous space. It began to occupy a strange dimension of social practice where it became possible for the first time to collectively manipulate the way in which we sense, feel and see the world. It is also the moment when aesthetics as a notion and discipline is invented. Art as aesthetics becomes a field of social praxis that stands on its own feet. This was important because it was a time of great social, political, even spiritual upheaval. Think of the death of God, wars, revolutions. Art as field of aesthetic autonomy offered a place where the shocks could at least symbolically be dealt with. It helped society to digest the momentous events and collectively look toward a desirable future. Which is not to say that art carries the responsibility for the future or anything like that. Absolutely not. What this new kind of art with its aesthetic autonomy did is create a collective sensorium that helps to develop ways of sensing towards a desirable future. Previously, this space or sensorium had been ruled by kings or God. Now it becomes a space of collective negotiation and imagination. 

Obviously, the notion of autonomy that emerged more than two hundred years ago has not been set in stone. It shifts and changes throughout history. Every generation of artists has to renegotiate what the space of autonomy is, and what it involves. And today, this includes the question if art still needs autonomy at all. 

AA: Usually it’s conservative art critics and art historians who are the champions of the idea of autonomous art, especially to preserve the idea of art as an autonomous expression of a gifted individual…

SO: Yes, isn’t it interesting how the idea of the artistic genius fits with the hyperindividuality of  our neoliberal zeitgeist?  You know, autonomy as an attitude or as a feeling: if you feel autonomous, then you are! As long as you’re aesthetically doing 'your thing' you’re autonomous. That’s, I think, what you call conservative and it’s also very close to Silicon Valley’s idea of the entrepreneurial superhero. It’s Elon Musk with a paintbrush. 

The problem today is that there is no field of autonomous aesthetics anymore into which artists could retreat. You cannot close yourself off from society, make art in your studio and say ‘I’m autonomous, I’m working aesthetically’. Outside the studio your aesthetics and your artistic practice – even the simple fact that you are working there in your studio or 'broedplaats' (breeding place) or whatever –  is used for city marketing, gentrification and so on, whether you want it or not. Aesthetics has become central to business and politics. Just think of the branding of products and services. How certain images of our cities – smart, creative, innovative – are sold to us by policymakers. So the field of aesthetics is by no means innocent, it cannot be taken for granted anymore; it has become a battlefield. Artists who aspire to a practice that is autonomous in a meaningful way have to be aware that they are getting into battle.

I think it’s extremely reductive to limit the role of artists today to economic or social innovation. We see this sometimes in the rhetoric of the creative industries. The innovation that artists are capable of is much more profound than that. The question wherein exactly this profundity lies, is always open to artistic experimentation. It involves an opening that I address in terms of ‘Weltbezug’ in the first part of the book. What is the relation of art to the world? This question has been part and parcel of autonomy from the beginning. Our students and young artists have to figure out what it is today. It is different now from what it was two hundred years ago.

AA: You spend quite a number of pages on an analysis of Boris Groys’ idea of the contemporary artist as a ‘comrade of time’. Could you explain why this notion is of such importance to your argument?

SO: I use Boris Groys’ notion as a way to deal with the question what art can or should do today. Groys loves the contemporary and he loves almost all contemporary art because he considers it as a celebration of the moment that we are in. The modernist movement looked towards a better future, and these ideas, so goes the somewhat reductive argument, ended in catastrophes. Contemporary art celebrates the present, is obsessed with the present, which according to Groys helps protect us against future catastrophes. He celebrates the contemporary artist as a 'comrade of time.' I take issue with that idea, because we live at a really problematic historical conjunction. You cannot ignore the rise of the extreme right, rampant inequality, open racism and the destruction of the planet. You cannot celebrate the present moment from an aesthetic point of view either. Look at the destruction of aesthetics in the field of marketing. The attention economy and marketing have impoverished our world aesthetically and have devalued art. Franco Berardi even talks about the disappearance of the future altogether. How can one celebrate a present that has lost its ability to imagine a desirable future? Isn’t that exactly what drives people into the arms of fascists because they have nowhere else to go? 

I’m really at a loss to understand how anyone can take such a position. That is why in the book I am  turning to my friend, the late theorist Mark Fisher. He wrote  about our historical moment in terms of capitalist realism. Capitalist realism is the idea that there is no alternative to the society we live in, a society in which all social activity is understood in terms of business. Art has become complicit in this ideology through the mechanism of the creative city, the creative industries and marketing. I’m not arguing for a return to modernism, but I am arguing that as a society we should react to this. Art, despite or thanks to its strange autonomy, can help break out of the prison of the present. So paradoxically, contemporary art needs to turn against the contemporary. For Groys, to be a comrade of time means to stay within the hamster-wheel of the contemporary, of capitalist realism. I say the opposite, if you do that, you will become an enemy of time, because you prevent time from flowing into the future. 

AA: To what extend could you connect this to the current trend to develop AI-technologies that would literally prevent events from happening?

SO: I think it is important to realise that artists and especially designers are often too happy to participate in these developments without necessarily thinking too much about the potentially catastrophic consequences. Think of the popularity of nudging, using AI to prevent crime from happening, all that. I think we need a much more critical, humanities-based education particularly for designers. 'Don’t be a solution monkey!' That was the motto of this year’s Dérive Spring School for designers we organised in April in Berlin. Creative makers need to be able to critically reflect on what they are making. And it’s not juts an ethical question; it also makes for a better designer. Plus if you cannot critically reflect on what you are doing, chances are that you’ll be replaced by an algorithm very soon.

AA: From Fisher you also borrow the idea of ‘acid communism’. Why was this term attractive for you?

SO: The notion of acid communism brings together the political vision of an egalitarian society with the radical imagination that is the essence of the aesthetic experience. I’m particularly fascinated with this notion because it goes to the root of our contemporary situation. Of course the notion of acid communism is a bit of a joke, combining communism (with its ideas of emancipation and an egalitarian society) and acid (the idea of mind altering drug giving access to new worlds). With acid communism Fisher goes back to the counterculture of the 1960sand 1970s; particularly to the idea of the world’s radical plasticity. This is the idea, pervasive at the time, that society could be collectively shaped in any way imaginable. It’s really the opposite of capitalist realism, i.e., the idea that the shaping of the world is taken out of our hands by the forces of the market and technology. I use acid communism as an analogy for the role of artists today who have to find ways to recreate or reconnect to the feeling of such a plasticity of the world. I wonder if artists can help us feel that ‘another world is possible’, can help make our future reappear.  The notion of acid communism perhaps helps to express this: it is a paradox and as Mark Fisher  has put it, paradoxes are emissaries from a different future. They might not make sense today but they help us to imagine a world in which they might make sense. 

AA: You invent the term ‘performative defiance’ as a way to understand the position of the autonomous artist in our time...

SO: This is a book for students and young artists. I was wondering how I could map the notion of autonomy for them. And I’m trying to open up the question what autonomy is in our times by inventing this clumsy neologism ‘performative defiance’. It is a way of saying that contemporary artist has to go along with the movement of time. The artist has to perform the movement of time, has to be up to speed with the world. That is the performative part. This is quite a challenge, you have to know what is going on, economically, politically, culturally, aesthetically.  The defiance part is giving it some kind of autonomous spin. It’s not just the spin that creative entrepreneurs give to things in order to make innovation happen. I think that the way this works today is as a confrontation with the contemporary, in confrontation with the impoverishment and functionalisation of aesthetics. Autonomy as performative defiance is something that needs to be achieved through a struggle against and with the contemporary. I really think you cannot be a good artist today if you do not struggle against the contemporary. The ability to be defiant is not something that is necessarily coming from the inside of the individual artist, as was the case with the idea of the genius. It can be learned.

AA: Could you give an example of performative defiance?

SO: This year the bachelor students of AKV St Joost in Breda decided they wanted to do something collectively for their exam show. Can you imagine: all the fragile artistic egos united in a collective project because they wanted to make a point against the hyperindividualist structure of the art world! They decided to put on a sort of musical, C-Section. This created all kinds of problems for the institution, of course, but also meant an incredible risk taken by each individual student. Works were neither named an only few permanently on show, so there was  a good chance that a gallerist who visits the show wouldn’t see your work. If they even got in since there was only a limited number of tickets available for each show. Yet they decided to collectively take that risk. They wanted to go against the gallery system. They did not want to present themselves as artists who are perfectly adaptable to the system in their exam show. There were a number of quite furious reactions from the outside, but they also received the award for the best exam work as a collective. Which isn’t the point, obviously. Being sensitive enough to identify what blocks creative activity and then go against it or at least do something which is ‘not done’, that is a strength – or a positive weakness. It is about opening yourself as an artist. It was a wonderful example of a defiance that came out of a collective deliberation.

Sebastian Olma is a professor of autonomy in art, design and technology at Avans University of Applied Sciences in Breda and Den Bosch, the Netherlands. Alongside his academic work, he has advised policymakers throughout Europe on the facts and fictions of the creative economy. He lives in Amsterdam, where he edits the subcultural magazine Amsterdam Alternative and tries to help keep the spirit of cultural activism alive. His book In Defence of Serendipity: For a Radical Politics of Innovation was published in 2016.

Arie Altena is a researcher and editor at V2_Lab for the Unstable Media.

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