Is free action possible? What are its boundaries? Such questions, which address the issue of autonomy, are fundamental to human existence. Yet the idea of autonomy as such only arises when an individual or a group finds itself in conflict with its surroundings. In this conflict, the self’s position needs to be reinformed; a means of action must be chosen. In this sense, the starting point for a discourse on the autonomy of action does not only ask the question of freedom but also addresses the issue of responsibility.
Today, as new forms of political resistance emerge, the question of the human being’s autonomy, be it civic or artistic, is the first and foremost question that one should ask. In discussing the possibilities for autonomous projects, contemporary leftwing consciousness develops concrete strategies and tactics of overcoming neoliberalism’s status-quo.
The question of autonomy first became acute in the concrete political situation of the1960s and can be associated with the worker’s autonomy movement in Italy (Autonomia Operaia) and with philosophical works by Toni Negri, Theodor Adorno, and Cornelius Castoriadis, among others. It is just at this time that the question was especially pressing: which new possibilities are open to the new left in opposing the emerging totality of a consumerized society? In the arts, this problematique was no less pressing. The disenchantment of the established model for art-consumption, regulated by the framework of bourgeois institutions, urgently demanded that artists search for an exit out of the “white cube”, that they attempt to develop new models for the overcoming or the continuance of art. Thus, a huge variety of creative “grass-roots” initiatives came into being, actively positioning their strategies of autonomy or independence, searching out new places for their art in society.
It is important to realize that any discourse on autonomy also concerns all anti-social practices of leaving or abandoning the social order. It is precisely the development of a consumer society that gave rise to mechanisms for the creation of alternative sub-cultures who did not aspire to any active social role. The failure of the student revolt of 1968 and negative views such as Adorno’s pessimism, which articulates itself most precisely in his formulation of the impossibility of real life in the context of a false, capitalist entirety, led to the many secessions. Most importantly, this concerned many young people with a moral sense of justice. Unlike most of their contemporaries, who had hit the “long road through the institutions”, they had no desire to search for a place in consumer society; instead, they opted to leave.
In Russia, where capitalist conditions are only in the process of being established, the question of autonomy is experienced far more intensively than in the overall global context. The question of autonomy is the question of creating a democratic, civil society, something that we are even further away from today than 15 years ago. Russia is still policed by a repressive model of government. Yet if the past confronted us with the bureaucratization of capitalism, the Russia of today is ruled by oligarchic capitalism, which is appropriating all common values for its own good. The destruction of the “social state” and the victory of the neoliberal model of social order, based on the apologetics of fair competition of the free-for-all, paralyses all social relationships, atomizing society completely. In this situation, any form of alternative project takes on a new, pressing meaning. Today, the reinstatement of “grass roots” (environmentalist or feminist groups, initiatives for free migration and the abolishing of visas, independent exhibition spaces or publishing houses, squats and communes etc.) is capable of playing an extremely positive role, which consists neither in augmenting the existing civil order, nor in leaving its domain, but of re-forming society from the ground up.
In these processes, art can play an important role, since it is still hardly under the control of direct censorship: in the field of the arts, there is a high level of freedom for experiment, criticism, and modelling utopian possibilities of society’s rebirth. But in order to do so, art must reposition itself as an autonomous phenomenon and not as a part of society’s ideological superstructure, totally bound by capitalism’s alienating means of production and exchange. It is only then that art can reach clarity as to its avantgarde possibilities, becoming consequential on the road to their realization.
In his time, Alexander Rodchenko demanded that art “work among everyone, for everyone, and with everyone”. His appeal is directed toward a reality transformed by revolution, a society in which alienation had been temporarily lifted. While this plea is still attractive today, it must be called into question. At present, there is a need to clarify the understanding of the possibilities of an engaged autonomy, which can clear a path through social and individual consciousness to understand the mechanisms of the social order, thereby interrogating all the capitalist society’s clich?s into question. Needless to say, these clich?s also include the art-system itself.
Today, it is necessary to consciously take a deeply critical position. It is only through this criticism that we can embark upon a common search for new forms of social organization without dissolving in the aesthetics of direct intervention. We need to be capable of making a negative judgement as to our capacity for compromise, the boundary of our autonomy, which we continually need to reinform and recapture.
So where is the artist’s location? One of the forms for a responsible, positive answer lies in the theoretization of the project of autonomy. This position leaves enough space to think or imagine oneself in the dynamics of art’s authentic development, to find that one has become an historical subject, continually surmounting its own physical boundaries as well as its social autonomy.