Art occupies the space that it inhabits because of its lack of function. In art, everything functional (or social) has been volted into chaos; means and ends, superiors and inferiors, owners and staff have been switched. The liberation from functionality is art’s last political task, a task that is refuted by society, political movements, as well as some segments of art itself. By taking its place – as the result of unspeakable efforts – art makes society aware of its own disorganization. In the sociology of art, this place is known as autonomy. The autonomy of art does not mean that art will always be cut off from society’s current problems. In one way or the other, these problems will become the object of artistic reflection, although the result of this reflection has nothing at all in common with ordinary empirical examinations or therapeutic perscriptions. Instead, these problems are understood as signs for universal issues, whose current content is of no importance to art.
Autonomy’s flipside is gradual neutralization. This neutralization gives rise to those structures of the art system that guarantee its autonomy. Vesting an interest in popularization and educational goals, the art system slowly depletes the art-work of its conflicts and its social bite. For this reason, it becomes possible that, upon visiting a museum, we encounter rooms in which radical abstractionism and orthodox Socialist Realism are “natural” neighbours. This neighborly relationship, impossible even 10 years ago, pays testimony to the process of neutralization. In the swampy quagmire of conflict-free coexistence, everything is equalized: Stalinism becomes equal to Nazism, Marxism to liberalism, abstractionism to realism.
If art limits its autonomy, then it submits completely to the control of the established social order; on the other hand, if art steadily defends its chosen positions, it will be just as successful in integrating itself into society as a wholy inoffensive, harmless sphere, equal to other fields of activity. This apora manifest the totality of society, which absorbs every occurance as it arises. For the art-work, the refusal to communicate is necessary, but this hardly guarantees its freedom from ideology. A central criterion can be found in the expressive power through which the wordless art work becomes articulate and eloquent. Through expression, the work of art breaks open like a wound inflicted upon society; expression is the social fermentation of the art-work’s formal autonomy.
Any autonomous work of art becomes its own hostage. But this problem cannot be solved through art.