All too often, the assertion of artistic autonomy of art seems like no more than a peaceful demonstration, controlled and held in place by a “living wall” of water-canons and billy clubs. Even if art, in its autonomy, claims the right to make a difference in all of society, it is kept back and fixed in place by the authorities by which it is surrounded. But what of the peaceful demonstration’s potential for violence? Or, to put it differently, can we expect art to break the conventions of contemporary society, finally regaining some of the relevance that it has lost?
Autonomy, one might argue with Foucault, is a natural result and goal of discipline. Like any other social sub-system, the discipline is an organized multitude, held in place by hierarchical structures and “rules of fair play” (conventions). Its organization guarantees that it will be a discrete social system with a strong contour. In other words, art only becomes an autonomous system when a multitude of art-professionals agrees to use a certain language of reference and power, to adhere to a discipline. The chaotic multitude, the crowd, has been fixed and rendered controllable. On the one hand, it has gained its right to existance. On the other hand, it is easier to keep it place. Thus, the discipline (autonomous to a degree but only to a degree) is a social necessity rather than a construct or an opressive measure (cf. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish).
However, no matter how rigid the discipline of art may seem, it is actually still capable of reverting. For when a discipline’s network of relationships develops a certain critical mass of entropy, the discipline can begin to fall apart. Often, this critical mass, this danger of disintegration will lead to an adverse reaction; the discipline falls back into its former state, boiling over, just like a peaceful demonstration can turn violent. (cf. Elias Cannetti, Masse und Macht) This potential for violence, strangely, is also the possibility of information. In temporarily giving in to the chaos of explosion, the discipline loses its authority, its autonomous organization, but is inevitably re-formed (that is, formed anew). When the discipline will inevitably comes back together, once its multitude’s excess energy has exploded or been defused, it is invariably changed (reformed) in the process, regaining some of the relevance that it has lost in the process of becoming rigidly autonomous and (ultimately) entropic. This reorganization (revolution) should be seen as a continual social process rather than as a unique historical event. Revolution, then, is something that will happen again and again, always reshuffling but never abolishing the disciplines and their power-relations. It is interesting that the revolution almost always comes from within a discipline itself, when some agents WITHIN have suffiently undermined the disciplinary order, the assumption of its autonomy. This, in effect, was always the inherently Trotzkyite dream of the deconstructivists, their utopia of subversion. Isn’t this one last utopia still relevant today?
At present, art’s autonomy is certainly visible as a weak, very limited disciplinary construct. All too similar to a clerical organization whose autonomy isolates it from the rest of the world, art runs in constant danger of being irrelevant, outdated, old. Why is the world ignoring us? Is it the “living wall” or the “man with the gun”? Is it really them? Maybe we should look at ourselves. Why are we, at this moment, so very irrelevant? Haven’t we agreed to some of the more restrictive conditions of institutionalization? Perhaps we constantly need to subvert our own discipline, to bring about a continuous artistic revolution within our own ranks. The process is inevitable: the discipline must always turn itself inside out, in order to reinform itself, to counteract the tendency toward entropy, to be relevant in all possible senses of the word. It is happening at present, as we speak and write, and who knows which order art will regain, once it reasserts its disciplinary autonomy?