Social Intersections 08 (art is social)

Art is inevitably social. If traditional art revealed its social dimension through its integration within the social life of the community, modernist art reveals a more perverse social relation. In Adorno’s terms, the more that modernist art insists upon its notional aesthetic autonomy, the more clearly evident is the social fissure that underlies this demand. The socially inscribed character of aesthetic autonomy demonstrates the limits of art’s claims to freedom, but also, for Adorno, opens up the potential for art to model alternative (social) possibilities:

By emphatically separating themselves from the empirical world, their other, they bear witness that that world itself should be other than it is; they are the unconscious schemata of that world’s transformation.1

So if now contemporary art makes a more direct turn to the social (with, of course, many precedents within the history of avant-garde practice), how can this dialectic be maintained? Does ‘art as social practice’ project an illusory reconciliation between the aesthetic and the real, or discover new terrains of tension, ambiguity and exchange? The issue is perhaps how to retain an aspect of autonomy – of distanciation – within the texture of exploratory, non-autonomous practice. Or could it be to pursue a point of oblivion, in which both autonomy and its antagonistic social frame are equally put at risk?

On the issue of autonomy, Adorno is emphatic:

Yet art’s autonomy remains irrevocable. All efforts to restore art by giving it a social function – of which art itself is uncertain and by which it expresses its own uncertainty – are doomed.2

  1. Adorno, T. 1997 Aesthetic Theory (Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor), Continuum, London and New York, p.233
  2. Ibid. p.1
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