Autonomy, Negation, and Space: The Leap of the Avant-Garde

By Geoffrey WildangerAugust 5, 2016

Autonomy, Negation, and Space: The Leap of the Avant-Garde

Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde by John Roberts

WERE I TO BEGIN this review by announcing that my name was not in fact Geoffrey Wildanger, and that I was not writing a book review — that rather this ostensible review is in fact a work of performance art — then you would read the following review in an entirely different vein. You would read my sentences as not referring to John Roberts’s book, but rather as aesthetic productions whose meanings are far from reducible to their denotative and logical content. This hypothesis of performance (borrowed from Eric Hayot) presents the central conceptual problem of Roberts’s book: What, it asks, makes the aesthetic different from other things? Is the aesthetic actually autonomous from other aspects of the world? If the aesthetic does achieve some sort of separateness, then what are the consequences for art, society, conceptual thinking, and political practice? Finally, how do all these questions relate to the avant-garde?

“Art […] is […] for us a thing of the past,” Hegel proclaimed around 1821 in one of his numerous formulations of the “death of art,” and one might be excused for assuming the same of the avant-garde. Why worry about the avant-garde now, as we are approaching 100 years since the historical avant-gardes and 50 years since the neo-avant-garde in the 1950s and ’60s? Roberts has an answer to these questions, and he elucidates his clever position across this very interesting book. While developing a theory of the avant-garde that attempts to remain vital to 21st-century concerns, Roberts touches on numerous other debates wracking the fields of art history, critical theory, and aesthetics.

Roberts is a professor of art and aesthetics at Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom. He is most known, however, for an edited volume, prepared with Dave Beech, The Philistine Controversy, which argued that the traditional concept of the philistine was the perfect figure to crystallize debate in cultural studies and art history about exclusive discourses and social worlds. In that book and here, Roberts reveals a knack for counterintuitive arguments. Here the argument is that “the avant-garde is the recurring name we give to the conflict between free artistic labour and capital, and, therefore, the recurring name we give to art’s long and embattled intimacy with the revolutionary tradition itself.” Leading to this conclusion are four theoretical categories: autonomy, negation, temporality, and praxis.

The long introduction and first chapter elucidate the fundamental theoretical topics of the book through a lengthy engagement with Adorno’s writing on negativity and aesthetic autonomy. Roberts defines negation as an autonomizing gesture:

when art abandons the possibility of the “new” in […] terms [of negation and the negative], it falls back into heteronomy and the academic. In this way, there can be no renewal of art without art resisting, reworking, dissolving what has become tradition, and duly, therefore, what has become heteronomous. [His italics.]

Heteronomy is tradition and it is academic. In fact, all three, heteronomy, tradition, and the academic, are forms of repetition, because all three produce that which already is for those who await additional helpings of that which they already know. One can find oneself wondering how closely negation and novelty track each other. Do Richard Serra’s heavy black oilstick drawings represent a negation of late modernist color-field painting, or a repetition of late modernist negativity?

Roberts fleshes out his argument with a turn to Hegel, deploying Hegel’s “negation of the negation.” The first negation is art confronting itself in “its commodity-specific conditions of production and reproduction”; this is followed by “the leap to freedom through the negation of the negation that Hegel understood as the force of liberation immanent to human subjectivity […] and that is identifiable here with revolutionary cultural praxis (absolute negation).” Given the Marxian vocabulary, one might expect a lengthier engagement with contemporary Marxist writing about the commodity status of artworks. Dave Beech and Daniel Spaulding, inter alia, have recently argued that unlike commodities, artworks are not anonymously produced for an anonymous market, and, most importantly, that there is no correlation between the amount of time necessary to produce an art object and its market price. Roberts implies that the first negation would be of the art market — meaning things like social practice and performance art that do not end up in collectors’ storage units. He does not directly argue this, however, nor does he engage with those critics who have pointed to the healthy relation between “noncommodity” artworks and the transformation of museums into event spaces. His second negation is revolutionary cultural praxis — unfortunately “revolutionary” remains undertheorized in this text. As his argument progresses, Roberts defines the second negation to post–Studio art much like that generated in the late 1960s and afterward — in particular, the deskilling of art production. He valorizes “failure” and “amateurism” as positive aesthetic qualities in contemporary art, but these are also aesthetic categories close to the mainstream of the contemporary art world — think of Thomas Hirschhorn’s use of cardboard, or of Christie’s most recent auction.

Roberts’s most insightful argument is his particular entangling of negation and autonomy, which he defines as a conceptual and aesthetic gesture that grasps autonomy precisely in presenting its lack. Autonomy seems to be among the hottest concepts in contemporary art theory and aesthetic discourse. The idea of aesthetic autonomy largely develops in the German poet, dramatist, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, who, in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), elucidated a theory of aesthetics that sought to define it as independent of other social forms. In Klaus L. Berghahn’s terms, “[through] [t]he negation of the political and social reality […] [t]he autonomy of art establishes freedom from external restraints and art projects onto the future what is not yet.” [1] Schiller opposes this to the French Revolution, whose political attempts to create freedom he saw as leading to the Terror.

Since Schiller, aesthetic autonomy has become a shibboleth for numerous, contradictory aesthetic theories, each differing not only as to whether it exists, but also as to what it means. For some, autonomy is simply a means to account for why artworks can be appreciated in two radically different societies — that is, meaning that aesthetic pleasure is not entirely determined by social mores. For others, it means that the types of choices artists can make are not set by historical conditions but by their own freedom. In some cases, autonomy has meant that artists are free to do what they want because they live in a democratic society, whereas artists who lived in an authoritarian one would be subject to state control (i.e., heteronomy). Or it means that artists produce things they like and are interested in without thinking of the thing’s use — a sculpture of a table is not a table.

Roberts draws from one of the most notable 20th-century theorists of aesthetics, Theodor Adorno, who in his unfinished book Aesthetic Theory as well as a large number of essays on literature, and half a dozen monographs on music, argued that the aesthetic is “autonomous” primarily in that it is opposed to the heteronomous character of daily life. Roberts applies Adorno’s writings to post-conceptual and social practice art, but he parts with Adorno with his emphasis on praxis. For Adorno, autonomous art could not directly engage with non-art discourses, and he saw artworks that were about specific political issues as an ill-judged aestheticization of the political.

Roberts attempts to resolve the tension between autonomy and engagement by valorizing what he terms “adisciplinary research”:

a recognition that art’s social disinvestment from the disciplines that it employs, or borrows from, functions from a place of ideological denaturalization […] [is] one of the crucial manifestations of art’s autonomy under post-conceptualism. Adisciplinarity is the logic of non-identity applied to the disciplinary instrumentality of knowledge within the “knowledge economy,” which art in its commodified passage into the cultural service economy as “cognitive labour” is only too willing to facilitate or prop up. So, in these terms, adisciplinarity is the form that the couplet negation/autonomy takes within the intellectual division of labour of art under post-conceptualization and the collective intellect.

Autonomy manifests as a conceptual space established through negating existing disciplinary boundaries — including those between artist and activist. Engagement would be autonomous insofar as it does not become either entirely activistic or entirely artistic, that is settled, in specific discourses, spaces, or milieus.

Along these lines, Roberts emphasizes the role of “non-art institutional settings, extra-gallery location, [and] virtual habitats,” though casual survey of institutional art spaces like the recent Venice Biennale or any number of museums and art fairs would recognize similar types of adisciplinary research as art, post-conceptual performance, installation, participatory art, and other forms of work. Roberts engages only briefly those theorists most associated with art historical discourse on these art practices — Claire Bishop, Nicolas Bourriaud, Juliane Rebentisch, Shannon Jackson, and Grant Kester. These theorists, in widely divergent ways, have put pressure on the extent to which, or manner in which, autonomy and engagement can come together in art spaces. A more extensive engagement with their work would clarify Roberts’s thinking about the many artists attempting to create work within those institutions upon which many artists depend for their livelihood.

The final two categories that Roberts brings in his account are belatedness and praxis. Belatedness attempts to accomplish the goal announced in the first half of his title: “revolutionary time.” Part of what makes the avant-garde what it is is that the avant-garde always appears to happen at the wrong time. He thinks about belatedness through an extended analysis of Art & Language and Chto Delat. “[T]he production of […] new art from 1966 to 1974,” he writes, “is for many artists defined not simply by what it claims or offers to leave behind, but also by its rehistoricization of the future pasts of modernism as a constitutive force of this imagined futurity.” Contra Peter Bürger’s argument in his Theory of the Avant-Garde that the so-called neo-avant-garde of the post–World War II era continued the formally innovative radicalism of the historic avant-garde but without their radical politics, Roberts argues that the postwar period in fact witnessed a reimagination of previous political positions, one which entailed not a depoliticization but rather a recoordination of the political map. What may have been so radical in 1918 is not necessarily so in 1968. This is the first meaning of belatedness: artists reimagine the past in order to think the possibilities of the present.

Chto Delat takes their name from the title of Lenin’s text What Is to Be Done? They have earned a reputation for the production of both performance pieces and theoretical texts. Their international reputation has risen along with an increasing interest in American and Western European institutions for political performance art and late Soviet conceptual art. Much of their work consists of appropriating the aesthetics of the Russian Revolution and early 20th-century European communism and reframing it in variously earnest and ironic gestures. Roberts’s description of a 2005 piece is apt:

Another pertinent example of this fictive staging of politics-as-poiesis is the group’s […] performance in St Petersburg commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the 1905 Revolution, Angry Sandwich People or: In Praise of Dialectics. Jointly organized with Workers’ Democracy and the Pyotor Alexeev Resistance Movement, Chto Delat invited a number of actual sandwich-board workers […] to participate in a mobile performance in Narvskaya Zastava, the proletarian district where the revolution began. Each of the participants carried a board on which was written a section from Brecht’s poem “In Praise of Dialectics” in Russian; together they formed a silent moving whole as the performers drifted around the city space. When the performance finished, each of the participants then read out their particular section. As David Riff and [Dmitry] Vilensky say in their commentary on the action, in the process of moving around, new semantic configurations are created, producing new singularities from a common endeavour.

This is a compelling work of art. The poem and the site specificity, with all their historical resonance, are broken up and reorganized into a form that resembles modern forms of protest — although the artwork is not itself a protest. Affects and history are both mobilized, and while the individual words of the poems are jumbled, with the sandwich-board workers not observing a strict order to their walk, new lines of poetry come into being and allow for new types of legibility. This all takes on even greater resonance in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, where the government persecutes art groups like Pussy Riot and Voina. One may go so far as to say that this work returns us to Schiller’s question about autonomy: whether eschewing direct political engagement is the means by which one can produce art under an authoritarian regime.

Roberts moves in his final chapter to the question of praxis, yet it is hard to maintain that art is autonomous when artists claim that political and social practices are also artworks. Two important writers on this question, Juliane Rebentisch and Claire Bishop, argue in different ways that participatory artworks, even when they are determined in both form and content by a desire to intervene in politics, nonetheless persistently open up a space of relative autonomy due to the forms of aesthetic experience that they make possible. In other words, because those participating in the work are aware it is art, they think about their experiences differently despite the fact that what they are actually doing may look more like politics than like a painting.

Roberts proposes a different solution to this problem. He redefines autonomy as “autonomy-as-critique-of-autonomy,” which:

is a condition of political struggle, just as political struggle in art is articulated as a problem of artistic process and form. But this is not simply a matter of co-relations. The struggle by art to define itself as art is itself a political imperative: namely, the resistance on the part of art to identitarian, instrumental, or aesthetic closure. In these terms, art-political praxis and political praxis more properly operate in the space between, on the one hand, the finality and instrumentality of political struggle and its real-world constraints, and, on the other, the liminal space of art’s struggle for self-definition and adisciplinary conditions of research. Hence art-as-politics is socially determined all the way down, insofar as the struggle for self-definition — for autonomy — is a condition of the commodified relations that art finds itself in and is emergent from.

In other words: art is not autonomous. Rather, art performs its own heteronomy — the fact that it is “socially determined all the way down” — and by so performing it, art becomes a marker of autonomy as an as-yet-unrealized goal. Art points to autonomy but does not realize it. This is contrary to politics, which would be the struggle to realize autonomy.

Roberts develops this definition of autonomy, writing:

[T]he political promise […] lies in art’s formal non-equivalence with political praxis […] [A]rt’s “politics” provides a quality of “dismeasure,” or excess […] It is precisely the connection between aesthetic disorganization and dispersed creativity […] that constitutes art’s new generalized field of political engagement.

This last definition approaches that of Rebentisch and Bishop, although Roberts cites the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno for support. Here art, even that which engages in seemingly political forms of practice, is “autonomizing” because the form it takes is not equivalent to the form political practices take. Think of Roberts’s example with Chto Delat. While the performance may resemble a protest, it isn’t. The sandwich boards carry a Brecht poem, not political slogans making demands about the exigencies of life in 21st-century Russia. While the action mimics the aesthetics of a protest, it does not present demands the meeting of which would affirm its success. And yet this definition stands in tension with Roberts’s emphasis on praxis. If artists must engage politics directly, then how are they to remain autonomous other than by leaching off of art’s institutional politics? Earlier he writes, “[A]rt is perhaps one place where speculative thinking can be tested without fear of institutional retribution.” Perhaps this is the case. Artists and art institutions do not always face the same direct censorship or repression as activists, but one wonders whether implicit censorship — like the fear of losing donors or collectors — does not also exist in the art world.


Why has autonomy become such a vital question at this point in the 21st century? One possible answer is that provided by theorists as diverse as the French political groups Théorie Communiste and Tiqqun, the German groups based around the journals Exit! and Krisis, academic theorists like “Bifo,” Antonio Negri, and North American academics including Michael Hardt and Brian Massumi, who have all emphasized a shift, usually dated to the early 1970s, that they refer to with the Marxist designation “real subsumption.” The claim is made analogously to the earlier history of capitalism in which guilds and manufacturers began to produce for the market (formal subsumption, because production for the market is the form of capitalism), and only later did the market transform the structures of production, such that guilds and manufacturers were reorganized into the factory. This moment of reorganization is “real subsumption,” because capitalism is no longer merely formal — the market — but determines production processes. Based on this distinction, these theorists (in diverse ways) claim that capitalism can be divided into two historical epochs: the moment of formal subsumption of everyday life, in which time outside the factory is unproductive, allowing workers to restore their spirits prior to returning to work, and a period beginning in the 1970s in which one’s daily life is subsumed into capitalist processes. For some, this simply means that one’s daily life increasingly is paid for in debt (which means it is paid for with the expectation and obligation of future wages). For others, this means that one’s simplest interactions of daily life are also generative of capitalist value — for instance, the use of Facebook creates ad revenue, the use of Snapchat improves facial recognition algorithms. While many have quibbled with this periodization (see, for instance, the work of Maya Andrea Gonzalez and Italian Marxist Feminists, who reveal that domestic and factory life were never so separate), [2] the sense of increasing integration into the market, testified to by these theorists as well as by older post–World War II discourses about the dissolution of the private sphere, implies a generalized feeling of increasing exposure to the market, to the public, and thus an increasing sense of heteronomy.

Concurrently, magazines like Nonsite and academics like Sarah Brouillette, Tim Kreiner, Jasper Bernes, Daniel Spaulding, and Chris Chen have reinvigorated the debate about aesthetic autonomy, in recent debates about Dave Beech’s book on the political economy of art and the poetry of Vanessa Place (some of which were published in the Los Angeles Review of Books). Nicholas Brown has defended a relatively modest version of autonomy, writing:

[T]he claim to autonomy does have a politics, and that politics is, in the current configuration, an anti-capitalist politics. (In the modernist period, roughly, it was not: the same claim to autonomy was as much directed against the state as against the market, and its politics could vary wildly). But even in this context I am no Schiller: while the claim to aesthetic autonomy has a politics, it is not itself a politics. Artworks make the claim that they are their own ends; that they therefore call for judgments that are extra-economic. Through the institution of art they make that claim count socially. [3]

In other words: art is autonomous only insofar as it (a) claims to be such, and (b) is neither produced nor circulated in the same means as a commodity. Therefore, artworks are not exactly commodities, and engaging with them offers the possibility of a different form of experience. This possibility does not challenge capitalism as such, and it will not transform the world, but it is nice. On the other hand, Kreiner and Chen, discussing Place’s work, have attacked one of the traditional standards of autonomy — the distinction between form and content — as being inherently grounded on violence: “The contested meanings of these racial objects are not simply given, but are instead the end result of violent histories of formal abstraction.” [4] Finally, Bernes and Spaulding, in a review of Dave Beech’s Art and Value, write: “Beech’s accomplishment is to have irrefutably demonstrated artistic production’s difference from capitalist production,” [5] while Sarah Brouillette, in a review of the same book, differs:

So while aspects of art may indeed be “non-economic,” it is just as true that the emergence of the category of art, and the privileged place held for aesthetic autonomy within that category, cannot be separated from the emergence of capitalism, in that it only becomes possible to conceive of art as an autonomous and “self-consistent” set of practices vis-à-vis what [Daniel] Spaulding describes as “a different logic,” namely, the logic of capitalist value production. Far from representing a pure non-capitalist other, the production of art exists in an uneasy and conflicted relationship with the capitalist value form, and that unease will remain in force so long as capitalism itself does. I suggest then, building on Spaulding’s take, that whereas Beech emphasizes fine art as non-economic, we might broaden that inquiry to conceive aesthetic activity of various kinds as trapped in a definitively problematic relation to the production of capitalist value. [6]

Summarily one sees here an assertion of a seemingly absolute autonomy in Bernes and Spaulding, an ascription of apparent autonomy — which is revealed to ultimately be heteronomous — in Brouillette, and an argument that certain autonomizing claims are based on historical violence in Chen and Kreiner.

To this mix, Roberts adds a theory of a politics of autonomy-as-critique-of-autonomy. Taking his argument that autonomy is not a given, but rather a claim for autonomy, both performative and descriptive, it appears that his position is not too far from Brown’s. The basic problem with autonomy persists: whether it exists or not largely depends on how one defines it, but neither its defenders nor its detractors can agree on a definition. Roberts’s linking of autonomy with negation reveals one way to rethink, and repoliticize, these categories in the 21st century.


Geoffrey Wildanger received a master’s at the University of California, Davis, and was a Helena Rubinstein Fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York.


[1] Klaus L. Berghahn, “1792, August 26,” in A New History of German Literature, ed. David Wellbery, p. 458

[2] cf.





LARB Contributor

Geoffrey Wildanger works at the confluence of art history, literary history, and critical theory. Prior to beginning his PhD at Brown, he received a master’s at the University of California, Davis, and was a Helena Rubinstein Fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York. He recently published the article “Catastrophic Affects” in the British journal Transmission Annual. Photo by Kevin Killian.


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