68: Stephen Wright

As this conversation develops how is traditional art affected?

It may not be so much “traditional” art as “modernist” (or what some people have come to call “contemporary”) art that’s liable to be impacted by this conversation. To see why that’s the case requires looking at some of the underpinnings of this conversation and clarifying what is at stake.

If this developing conversation is about how socially engaged practices seek to gain traction in the real, to embed themselves in lifeworlds beyond the artworld alone, in short, about how to produce use values, it profoundly challenges the very notion of autonomy, which is another name for the conceptual edifice within which modernist art takes place. Autonomy, as applied to modernist practice, refers to a sphere removed from the regulatory pressures of social life, where art can unfold its internal logic, or test its experimental hypotheses, relatively free from normative interference. The autonomous sphere of art, in other words, is the sphere that ensured artists space to depict or comment on moral, political, spiritual issues, without having to contend with undue pressure from political, moral and religious authorities.

Though in a way, this sounds too good to be true, the autonomy of art comes at an exorbitant cost: it removes art from the lifeworld, makes it a specific field, a reduced-scale practice that that deals with the social and the political as issues, rather than on the 1:1 scale. Art ends up as, well, just art. Which is why an ever increasing number of practitioners are quitting the hamstrung confines of autonomous art to grapple directly, on the 1:1 scale with food production, education, ways of being… Not performing food production, education or whatever, but engaging in it; playing for real.

Certainly, many practitioners remain attached to artistic autonomy, jealously defending the modernist paradigm and its regime of spectatorship. At any event, traditional art has never had any truck whatsoever with artistic autonomy; it neither believes in it, nor lays claim to it when it runs into trouble. Traditional art has never shared the worldly outlook of modernism: it sees itself as context dependent, as having a purpose — decorative, documentary, historical, recreational… Yet whereas its cherished aesthetic values may appear hokey from a blasé modernist perspective, traditional art has never been subject to the aesthetic function which has characterized modernist art production (and which social practitioners can now be seen deactivating). Traditional art sees itself very much inscribed in life; indeed, removing it from its social context would be to foreclose its meaning. For the most part, traditional art is context dependent in physical sense: frescos, ex votos, inscriptions lose all meaning when transposed to the white cubes of autonomy. So as the conversation develops about art regaining its place in life processes, it may be less the effect it has on so-called traditional art, than the affinities such a move has with art as an historical whole (rather than with “contemporary” art), that will become evident.

About the contributor: Stephen Wright is a Paris-based art writer and professor of the practice of theory at the European School of Visual Arts. Over the past decade, his research has examined the ongoing usological turn in art-related practice, focusing on the shift from modernist categories of autonomy to an art on the 1:1 scale, premised on usership rather than spectatorship. A selection of his writing in English may be found on the collective blog n.e.w.s. northeastwestsouth.net.