Peter Osborne: Imaginary Radicalisms

Notes on the Libertarianism of Contemporary Art

Aggtelek, Yes Sculptures!, sculpture, work-in-progress, 2013. Courtesy of the artists.

Aggtelek, Yes Sculptures!, sculpture, work-in-progress, 2013. Courtesy of the artists.

What is the place of ‘the political’ in contemporary art? And what relations to politics are – or could be – constructed in and by contemporary art? Such questions are inherently problematic yet they remain unavoidable. They are problematic, first, because of their extreme generality (as Walter Benjamin put it: ‘The Marxist theory of art: now swaggering, now scholastic!’).[i] The political dimensions of individual works often seem to reside, by contrast, in their particularities, their contingencies, their contexts. Second, the concept of politics has itself become problematic in Western capitalist societies. If, classically, politics has been an active conflict between parties competing to institute different forms of the social (paradigmatically, in the modern period, in the historical forms of revolution, conservation or reaction), it is overwhelming the developmental logic of capital – the social relations of the production of exchange-value – that constitutes social form in Western capitalist societies today. Politics takes places within or on the margins of this development, regulating, facilitating, impeding or inflecting a power that social organizations at all levels appear unable fundamentally to counter or even significantly to deflect. Political activity in these societies has thus largely come to focus on ‘issues’, migrated to lower-level social arena, or looks beyond nation-states in the West for new forms and new levers of change.[ii]

Nonetheless, for all the current obscurity of a politics of social constitution and fundamental change – the politics with which artistic avant-gardes were historically associated – general questions about the relationship of art to politics cannot be avoided, if critical discourse is maintain an adequate sense of art as a social and critical (at the same timeas a signifying and an aesthetic) form. Moreover, radicalism is the political correlate of modernity itself as a temporal form – that temporal logic of negation, the logic of the new, of which modernism in its most fundamental sense, as an operation or generative logic (rather than a period form or style), is but a collective affirmation and intensification.[iii] In this respect, the very abstractness of such questions is itself an historical phenomenon. One way to approach the question of ‘the political’ in contemporary art is thus via that of the historical extension of ‘the contemporary’ itself. What is (the politics of) the historical present of ‘contemporary art’? And, how does it animate the structure of artworks?

1. Situation: ‘contemporary art’

In current critical writing, one can detect three main competing periodizations of contemporary art, within the wider time-span of an ‘autonomous’ Western modern art. These represent three overlapping genealogies or historical strata – three differently extended senses of the present. Each is marked by the rupture of a particular historical event and each privileges a particular geo-political terrain.

First, there is what we might call ‘the academic art publishers’ definition’ of contemporary art as ‘art after 1945’ or art since the end of the Second World War. 1945 represents both the start of the international hegemony of US art institutions, and thereby of US art itself, and also the institutional advance of the so-called neo-avant-gardes. Chronologically, this is the broadest periodization of contemporary art in use. It is in certain respects too broad, at the same time as being, in other respects, too narrow. Do we really still inhabit the same present, art-critically, as Abstract Expressionism? But is the Duchamp of the years of the First World War really so distant from us as to fall outside the category of ‘contemporary art’ altogether? Such problems draw attention to the inadequacy of any merely chronological conception of the time of art history. Nonetheless, even within such crude periodizations, there is always a suppressed qualitative aspect: the moment of the break, in this case, the beginning of the period at issue, the beginning of the postwar. Reflecting on this moment from the standpoint of the present raises a question that is familiar from Japanese debates, but is rarely asked in Europe or the US: namely, when will the postwar end? Has it not, in fact, already ended? It is those offering an explicit affirmative answer to this latter question who have the sharpest, most critically delineated sense of the contemporary, represented by the third periodization (below). On the broad definition, however, we are still essentially, art-critically, living in an extended postwar.

The geo-political terrain of this periodization is formally worldwide – marked as it is by the end of a ‘world’ war. Yet it is effectively an art world seen (and selected) from the standpoint of the USA – that is, one side of the Cold War inaugurated by the postwar.  The ‘postwar contemporary’ effectively excludes the ‘actually existing socialist’ states (1945–1989/90) from historical time; recognizing only an externally intelligible artistic ‘dissidence’ based on the continuation of past modernist legacies or the importation of then-current Western forms. Art-historically, this was made possible by MOMA’s institutional appropriation of the work of the pre-war European avant-gardes during the 1930s, which allowed for the subsequent narration of post-war US abstract art as the authentic continuation of this project, and thereby of the ‘Western’ artistic tradition as a whole. In artistic terms, this periodization of contemporary art privileges the heritage of abstraction. [iv] It tends to read later work in these terms, to the detriment of the conceptual and political heritage of Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism. (Dadaism and Surrealism appears on Alfred H. Barr’s famous flowchart only insofar as they feed into ‘non-geometrical abstraction’, that is, as essentially painterly traditions.)

If the first periodization is geo-politically epochal in character – registering the weight within Western art history of the deepest political determinations – yet also parochial in both its backward-lookingness and restricted geographical scope, the second periodization focuses more tightly, in its framing terms, on developments immanent to artistic practices and their art-institutional recognition. This is a periodization that conceives contemporary art as beginning some time in the early 1960s, in that ontological break with prevailing object-based and medium-specific neo-avant-garde practices represented by a range of new types of work, of which performance, minimalism and conceptual art appear, retrospectively, as the most decisive.[v] From this point of view, contemporary art is post-conceptual art.[vi] The ‘event’ marking this rupture is not an empirical, chronologically datable one, but rather ‘the Sixties’ itself – that complex conjunction of social, political and cultural radicalisms that swept through not just North America and Western Europe,[vii] but whole swathes of the globe – from South America, to South East Asia. Politically, it is often conveniently epitomized in the figure of ‘1968’, but its artistically decisive manifestations were much earlier in the decade. This was also the decade of an initial internationalization of contemporary art within its largely North American and residually European hegemonic frame. Japanese and South American artists, in particular, were incorporated into the internationalizing US hegemony.

Despite a conceptual focus on the ontology of the work of art, which derives from a predominantly US narrative frame, this periodization is thus, ironically, more geo-politically expansive in its sense of the artistic terrain than the previous one – although it incorporates ‘Second World’ (state socialist) art of the 1960s and 1970s from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China only retrospectively (after 1989), as a supplement, rather than a constitutive feature of art’s contemporaneity. One reason for this expansiveness is that the opening of this period coincides with the intensification of anti-imperialist struggles for national liberation, which had decisive domestic political effects within Western states. Another, more simply, was the development of commercial air travel. Nonetheless, it is the radically dispersed, materially distributed, character of the art – associated with its incorporation of non-traditional, often mass media, means – that is the unifying principle of the periodization. Here, contemporary art deploys an open infinity of means, and operates with a institutionally- and philosophically-grounded generic conception of ‘art’ that exceeds the historically received conventions that had previously defined artistic mediums. A significant amount of the institutionally validated art currently produced still fails to attain contemporareity in this critical sense.

The third main periodization of contemporary art one finds in current art-critical discourse is more immediate: ‘art after 1989’ – symbolically, the breaching of the Berlin Wall. With respect to the Cold War, 1989 is the dialectical counterpart to 1945. After 1945, the Cold War is finally over. But with respect to world politics, 1989 is the dialectical counterpart to 1917 (the Russian Revolution). If 1917-1989 is a meaningful ‘period’ in world history, the argument goes, then surely ‘contemporary art should now be redefined as art after 1989?

Politically, ‘1989’ signifies the end of historical communism (or ‘actually existing socialism’), the dissolution of independent Left political cultures, and the decisive victory of a neo-liberal globalization of capital – incorporating the current engine of the world economy, state-capitalism in China.[viii] This corresponds artistically to three convergent features of institutionally validated art since the 1980s: the apparent closure of the horizon of the avant-garde; a qualitative deepening of the integration of autonomous art into the culture industry; and a globalization and transnationalization of the biennale as an exhibition form.[ix]  Of these, it is the first that is most problematic, since the question of the avant-garde is now as much that of the critical construction of historical meanings as it is of any empirically identifiable features of the works themselves. It is also further complicated by the existence of two distinct forms of the avant-garde.

Following the work of Peter Bürger,[x] it has become conventional to distinguish the conjointly artistic and political perspective of the classical or ‘historical’ avant-gardes of the early 20th century from the purely artistic ‘neo’-avant-gardes of the 1940s and 1950s, which attempted to sustain the avant-garde model of art history independently of its relations to socio-economic and political developments. It is this neo-avant-garde art-historical consciousness that is most directly challenged by the sheer diversity of forms of internationally exhibited work produced since 1989 – indeed, since the 1960s. On the other hand, the more socially and politically complex perspective of the historical avant-gardes was revived in the 1960s and 1970s by a range of work, which was either directly political in character, had strong anti-art elements, or embodied art-institutional and social critique. Such work continued to derive its historical intelligibility from its claim on the future, albeit, increasingly, an abstractly projected (imaginary) future, or mere horizon, rather than a politically actual one. These kinds of work – suspended between the perspectives of the historical- and neo-avant-gardes – continue into the immediate present. Nonetheless, international art-institutions now rarely present recent work in terms of the historical consciousness of the avant-garde.

One reason for this is that the increasing integration of autonomous art into the culture industry has imposed a more immediate and pragmatic sense of historical time onto the institutional framing of contemporary work – although this remains a profoundly contradictory process. For this integration is by no means an outright negation of autonomy by commodification and political rationality, so much as a new systemic functionalization of autonomy itself – a new kind of ‘affirmative culture’.[xi] This new systemic functionalization of autonomy (this new ‘use’ of art’s ‘uselessness’) corresponds to the global transnationalization of the biennale as an exhibition form, and its integration into the logics of international politics and regional development. From this point of view, art must reflectively incorporate this new context into its procedures if it is to remain ‘contemporary’. Yet such reflective incorporation will itself necessarily be historical in form.

From the standpoint of this last periodization, then, our three periodizations of contemporary art are not so much self-sufficient and competing alternative definitions of contemporaneity as different intensities of contemporaneity: historical strata that interpenetrate each other. Each may become closest to the surface on different occasions, but always as mediated by its relations to the other two. It is this differential historical temporality that renders dynamic, in any particular instance, a work’s articulation of the structural features that characterize contemporary art, ontologically.

2. Project: a structural model

A structural model of the place of the political within contemporary art must set out from the premises: (i) that art is a mediation of social form (that is, that social form appears within artistic form), (ii) that contemporary art displays certain characteristic mediations of social form as a result of its own institutional forms, and (iii) that there is political significance to these mediations, independently of political significances deriving from the content of any particular work. Such a model necessitates no particular artistic form – it makes no prescriptions to individual production. Rather, it attempts to establish a framework for the political interpretation of individual works. The production of works is experimental. Who knows what artists will produce? Yet if production is experimental – and at the limit, singular – criticism must nonetheless recover or construct its meanings in communicative, that is, social and historical terms. This is the significance of ‘isms’. Isms could be conceived in Adorno’s day as ‘programmatic, self-conscious, and often collective art movements’.[xii] Nowadays they are more likely to be critical (or Public Relations) constructions – critical carriers of imaginary collectivities – as organized groups. Critical ‘isms’ are one way in which individual works are mediated with ‘art’, as represented by the historical totality of works of art. There are also political isms, of course. Thinking about the relations between art-critical and political isms, within the framework of a structural model of the work of art, is one way in which to think about the political in contemporary art.

Such a model will be ‘structural’ to the extent to which is possible to identify aspects of relative invariance in the social relations and practices that constitute contemporary art. It is important to stress, however, the relativity of this invariance (invariance relative to other, varying aspects of the same relations and practices, over a specific period of time), since these aspects are nonetheless themselves historical. For all their invariance, the structural aspects of contemporary art are thus dynamically related and hence potentially developmental. Viewed historically, structural models summarize historical processes from the standpoint of a particular historical present – which is to say, from the standpoint of certain expectations about the future.[xiii] Still, to the extent to which the social relations and practices that such a model identifies are genuinely constitutive of contemporary art, within its extended historical present, the model will be of ontological significance. That is to say, a structural model of contemporary art attempts to identify those historical conditions that, because of their character and persistence, have acquired or are acquiring ontological significance for art – for ‘what art is’ today – for the time being at least. A structural model of contemporary art is a snapshot of a stage of art’s historical ontology.

If history is a total process (an open, ongoing only speculatively totalizable set of practices) that may be differentiated into ‘deeper’ (longer-term) and ‘shallower’ (shorter-term or ‘surface’) processes – structure and situation, or structure and event – it is in the ongoing conversion of the situational/evental into the structural, and vice versa that its intelligibility ultimately lies. In this respect, history is a process of becomings- and ceasings-to-be-ontological.[xiv]

An historical ontology of contemporary art will provide categories through which instances of contemporary art can be thought – not by being subsumed beneath these categories, but by entering into an experiential process of reflection with them, such that both what we understand the works in question to be, and the categories through which we comprehend them, are problematized, developed and transformed. Such reflexivity is a consequence of art’s historical character – the development of its concept through the production of new works. It makes the interpretation of contemporary art an inherently critical process, at a deep, structural level. A historical ontology of art is thus also that strangest of creatures, a critical ontology. The question of what contemporary art is, is at base that of determining (in the sense of deciding upon)the current set of relationships between structures and situations in art: a matter of deciding what is, and what is becoming, ontological in art today. [xv] Among other things, I shall claim, it is primarily the series that is ontological in art today. It is in the series that the libertarianism inherent within contemporary art, as the ambiguous art-political mediation of the liberalism of contemporary capitalism,  finds its foremost dialectical expression.

3. Problematic: autonomy and dependence, individuality and collectivity

I shall restrict my discussion to two main aspects of the work of art: 1) its constitution through an increasingly convoluted dialectic of autonomy and dependence, and 2) its expression of a dialectic of individuality and collectivity. The question of ‘the political’ is at issue here in: 1) the political meanings of autonomy and dependence; and 2) the way in which the political contradictions of capitalist individualism are mediated and expressed by the increasing nominalism of works of art – this is the structural libertarianism of contemporary art, which underlies the radicalism of its imaginary.[xvi]

(i) The dialectic of autonomy and dependence

The role of the dialectic of autonomy and dependence in the constitution of the work of art may be summarized, broadly, as follows.

i) Modern art is constituted by a dialectic of autonomous and dependent elements that is expressive of what Adorno called art’s ‘double character’ as ‘autonomy and social fact’.[xvii]

ii) Autonomous art is art in which autonomous determinations ‘dominate’ dependent ones; dependent art is art in which heteronomous determinations ‘dominate’ autonomous ones.

iii) Autonomy is an attribute of the work (albeit ‘transferred’ from the artist): the exhibition of a self-legislated ‘law of form’.

iv) Self-legislated form is an illusion: the illusion of autonomous meaning-production by the work. (Works of art are thus autonomous to the extent to which they produce the illusion of their autonomy. Art is self-conscious illusion.)

v) Self-legislating form positions the work in ‘resistance’ to social functionality.

vi) Commodification is that form of social dependence that is, at once, the condition of, and a threat to, autonomy. (Art is a special kind of commodity, the use-value of which resides in its uselessness or lack of social functionality.)

vii) Individual works of art must actively resist heteronomous determinations of their meanings if they are to achieve autonomy.

viii) The historical development of modern art is a development in the social forms and dynamics of autonomy and dependence.

Politics is inscribed within the structure of this dialectic in three main ways.

First, the political meaning of autonomy is freedom. The freedom of the work (its illusion of autonomy and the radicalism of its imaginary), in the present, may be viewed as a pre-figuration of a free praxis, praxis in a free society. As such, it is at the same time a criticism of the existing state of unfreedom: the work of art, any work of art, ‘criticizes society by merely existing’.[xviii] Here, the politics of art is a politics of form – an affirmation of freedom as self-legislating form.

Second, the political meaning of heteronomy or dependence as external determination, necessity or constraint (the reality principle). Politics is one form of dependence – either within autonomous art (as a subordinate aspect) or as a type of dependent art, political art, which itself still has a (subordinate) autonomous aspect. When a political art is taken out of its practical political context, by historical change or geographical displacement, and ceases to function politically, its autonomous (formal) aspects come to the fore, and the character of the work changes. This is what happens when, for example, works of Soviet Constructivism and Productivism are displayed within Western art institutions as part of the history of the artistic avant-garde. Here, politics appears as an external condition that is nonetheless incorporated into the work as one of its conditions, but remains heteronomous – i.e. external to the self-legislation of the law of form. One may speak here of politics as ‘content’, which is not form-determining at a structural level. Rather, it depends upon the use of established forms. Hence the convergence of an artistic ‘politics of content’ with academicism and historicism: the reproduction of established forms.

Third, the political meaning of the dialectical unity of autonomy and dependence within the work is as a model of reconciliation. The unity of the work functions as a ‘promise of happiness’ by offering a model of reconciliation, a non-coercive identity, via the ‘belonging together’ of the one and the many.

In both the first and the third cases, the political meaning inherent in art is pre-figurative, and hence ‘imaginary’. Yet it is also, thereby, in danger of being affirmative – affirmative of the society in which such pre-figuration is possible – and hence socially functional. This complicates the critical criteria for the achievement of autonomy. Subsequent to the recognition of the socially affirmative function of autonomous art[xix] and the failure of  both the historical avant-garde’s and institutional critique’s assault upon the institution of autonomy, there is an additional critical requirement for the achievement of autonomy. Under these conditions, critically autonomous art requires an element of anti-art – the contradictory incorporation of an un-integrated, dependent element, for which collage is the historical model – in order to mark (i.e. to render self-conscious) the illusory character of the autonomy of the artwork by re-connecting it, indexically, to the world.

As a paradigm of a dependent element, politics is one paradigmatic, if paradoxical, way of rendered art critically autonomous, that is, of maintaining its autonomy in a strong, ontological sense.[xx] Another paradigm is the readymade. In fact, in this critical context, the concept of the readymade expands to incorporate, in principle, all ‘readymade’ elements within a work, including, standard artistic materials such as industrially manufactured paint.[xxi] In this respect, insofar as it reproduces an externally determined political position, the political element of an artwork may itself be conceived within the terms of the anti-art paradigm of readymade elements. However, this critical function, internal to autonomous art, only operates so long as the anti-art (dependent) element in question resists incorporation into the art institution’s conception of art. Once it is incorporated, the originally anti-art element will itself become affirmative of ‘art’ – and hence art’s affirmative function – contradicting its initial critical function. Thus, for example, once a politically determined artistic element, such as institutional critique, becomes institutionally recognised as a genre of (autonomous) art, it loses its anti-art function, and becomes affirmative of the institution that it criticizes – it becomes affirmative via the (now compromised) character of its critical mode. In this regard, the relations between the autonomous and dependent elements of the work of art are genuinely dialectical: under particular conditions, each may turn into its opposite.

For example

Let us take some examples. On Kawara’s One Thing, 1965, (fig. 1) is an exemplary instance of political autonomous art, in which the political element functions formally as an anti-art element within the work in order to secure, rather than to negate, its autonomy. Formally decisive in its combination of the monochrome as ‘the transgeneric or postgeneric moment of painting’ with the form of the printed word as ‘the mimesis of avant-garde auto-critique’,[xxii] One Thing exploits the possibilities of the monochrome as a background for the slogans of the banner and the advertising hoarding – in triptych – in order to define its moment, 1965, in terms of a single event: the USA’s escalation of its war in Vietnam. Its declarative simplicity – ONE THING ­– 1965 – VIETNAM – doubles here as political statement and formal reduction. While the date itself, 1965, carries the anniversarial weight of its own political doubling: 6 August 1965 was the twentieth anniversary of Hiroshima. It is this doubling – the escalation of the American bombing of Vietnam as the symbolic repetition of Hiroshima – that singularizes the event, making it the just ‘one thing’ that defines the political meaning of ‘1965’. On the other hand, each panel can be read purely formally, as a word painting, immanently negating (through linguistic meaning), while nonetheless reproducing, the modernist ideal of the formal self-sufficiency of painting itself. (This is an exemplary instance of the reflective mediation, within a work, of the first two periodizations of the contemporary, noted above.)

In the development of On Karwara’s work, One Thing represents the transition from the formalist experimentation of Nothing, Something, Everything, 1964 – a pencil outline of the work ‘SOMETHING’– to the series of ‘date paintings’ known as the Today series that commenced on 4 January 1966 and continued for fourteen years, until December 1979. The date paintings reproduce the principle of One Thing – each date is symbolic of a particular event – on a daily, rather than an annual basis. But whereas in One Thing the event is represented within the painting (‘VIET-NAM’), in the Today paintings the date alone is painted, while the ‘one thing’ to which it corresponds is the events of that day, represented by a newspaper – indexical remnant of the day itself – usually included in the box containing the canvas. In the Today series of date paintings, the newspaper fractures the painterly unity of the work far more decisively than numerical and linguistic signs within the paintings themselves. The reduction of signification within the painting to the date alone emphasises the principle of repetition that was only at work subterraneously in One Thing. The ‘one thing’ of 1965 was the same thing as 1945: the bombing of civilian population in South-east Asia by the US military. In the serial temporality of the date paintings, however, this repetition both produces and negates historical meaning, by reducing it to the structure of repetition itself. Political meaning is dissipated throughout the series, since each particular painting derives its meaning as much from the temporal rhythm of which it is a part (it is the simple structure of ‘the daily’ that is repeated), as from the particularity of its day. The Today paintings are thus primarily a meditation on the historical temporality of modernity, and the inability of painting as a medium to do more than gesture, negatively, towards the representation of the mode of historical experience it involves – the reduction of historical experience to a journalistic everyday. One Thing has a more singular significance. It is a singular political work of autonomous art.

In contrast, another work about (and against) the war in Vietnam, the Art Workers’ Coalition’s poster, the colour lithograph Q. And Babies? A. And Babies, 1970 (fig. 2) appears as a work of dependent, political art. Its political function is the dominant moment within the logic of its production; yet it retains sufficient formal and intellectual qualities, related to the autonomous art of its day, to distinguish it, within the mass-media genre of the poster, as a mass-produced work of art. The most emphatic of these qualities is its didactic staging of its ‘message’, the killing of babies by the US military, which is extracted from the image as its essential meaning by the simple question-and-answer structure of the overlaid text. This structure mimics both the interrogation and the press conference, thereby including an implicit reference to its opposite, the management of information – that dissimulation that is an ideological condition of the pursuit of war by democratic states. At the same time, it also evokes the catechism, the dialogic form of religious ritual that was appropriated during the 19th century by revolutionary political sects.[xxiii] More generally, it refers back, formally, to the first political uses of photomontage in the 1920s and 1930s, in the Soviet Union and Germany. In sum, Q. And Babies? derives its formal qualities from the political process of which it was a part – the movement against the war in Vietnam – and from the history of political art.

Compare this to Odd Nerdrum’s The Murder of Andreas Baader, 1977-8 (fig. 3). This extraordinary painting offers an example of politics as content, working self-consciously against the historical grain of its artistic form. Once again, it is through historical repetition that political meaning is given to the work, but this time through the instrumental use of art-historical form: the precise formal evocation of 17th century depictions of the martyrdom of saints.  Caravaggio, in particular, appears to be evoked.[xxiv] It is through this art-historical aspect that the death of Andreas Baader, one of the leading members of the German Red Army Faction, while in Stammheim prison (officially classified as a suicide) is monumentalized and rendered heroic. However, by mimicking the baroque, the painting sails dangerous close to kitsch. Compared to Gerhard Richter’s later series depicting the same events, 18 Oktober 1977 (fig. 4), Nerdrum’s picture appears both politically and artistically naïve. Form and content are held together at the expense of all historical and political complexity, to the point of removing the event – the death of Andreas Baader – from the present, and turning it into the occasion for a crude propaganda. Yet it is precisely this crudeness that offers it an element of redemption, since it gives it an aspect of anti-art (art-historical repetition as lack of contemporareity) that, pardoxically, helps make it a ‘contemporary’ work.

Alternatively, something like Sigmar Polke’s Risk Game, 2002 (fig. 5) continues to mine the seam of the readymade, in the spirit of Richter’s photo-paintings, leaving the determination of the structure of the image to the participants themselves. The artistic act here is primarily that of selection (a market model of autonomy as choice), with the composition of the image itself internalized to the practice of representation/communication that is artistically re-presented. This relies upon a type of auto-representation of history that found its archetypical contemporary form in the images of abuse of Iraqi prisoners taken by US troops in Abu-Ghraid (figs 6 and 7).

            So far, I have located the question of the political within contemporary art only at the very general structural level of the dialectic of autonomy and dependence. However, as these examples show, the more concretely political meaning of these structural aspects (primarily, ‘freedom’) depends upon the dialectic of individuality and collectivity at play within ‘the law of form’.

(ii) The dialectic of individuality and collectivity (or, the crisis of mediations)

The dialectic of individuality and collectivity at play within the law of form in works of contemporary art may be summarized, briefly, as followed.

1. The individuality of the work of art is the ontological marker of its autonomy – its autonomous production of meaning (production of the self-conscious illusion of an autonomous production of meaning) – and the basis of its constitution as an enigma.  This enigma lies in the fact that in their autonomous meaning-production, works of art act like subjects. They are objects that act like subjects – human subjects, individual bourgeois subjects – the subjectivity of which consequently remains opaque.  As such, they draw attention to the objecthood, and hence opacity, of human subjects themselves, and thereby to the illusion constitutive of the philosophical concept of the subject itself. That dialectical transformation of the object into a subject that is the work of art is matched, epistemologically, by a dialectical reversal of the human subject into an object, which renders subjectivity, in itself, opaque.

2. However, meaning is collective.

3. The work of art must thus mediate its ontological individuality with the collectivity of its (potential) meanings. This is the function of its self-legislating ‘law of form’.  Form is the artistic mediation of the social, at a whole range of levels, from artistic materials (including technologies of production) to techniques and productive practices.

4. If politics is an active constitution or construction of the social, then the political aspect of art here will lie in the constructive aspect of form, in the construction of form as mediation. Questions thus arise as to what are the main forms of mediation of the individuality of works of contemporary art with the collectivity of their meanings; and what are their political significances?

These questions are complicated by the peculiarity of social form in capitalist societies. For in capitalist societies ‘collectivity’ is itself already formal: abstract and alienated via exchange relations and the commodity form. Famously, exchange relations break down historically received collective meanings. In this respect, ‘the social’ in its distinctively capitalistic sense (as opposed to the communal) is not a ‘collective’ form in any positive politically meaningful sense. Capitalistic sociality (the commodity/the value form) produces ‘individuals’ who are united only in the mutual alienation of their sociability, in a new kind of what Kant called ‘asocial sociability’. Yet such individuality has nonetheless, historically, provided the model of freedom; hence the political centrality of libertarianism – of all stripes – to capitalist societies. Yet absolute individuation destroys meaning. This is the contradiction at the heart of what Adorno calls the growing ‘nominalism’ of modern art, which is essentially a crisis of mediations.

In Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, nominalism is not an abstract philosophical position about the status of universals, but a socio-historical claim about the declining artistic significance of objective aesthetic norms. ‘The universal’, he writes, ‘is no longer granted art through types and older types are being drawn into the whirlpool.’ Individual works are forced to establish relations to universality – including the universality of ‘art’ itself – in new ways. This tendency towards a ‘prohibition on predefined forms’ is inherent in the modern conception of art as such, in the ‘progressive particularization’ out of which the aesthetic conception of the work as an expression of subjective freedom emerged, in opposition to subsumptive models of judgement. However, once the principle of individuation becomes a ‘directive’ – and hence a new form of abstract universality of its own – it threatens the structure of the work with a reduction to its materials: ‘Unchecked aesthetic nominalism … terminates in a literal facticity’. Adorno presents this situation as something of an impasse, an ‘historical aporia’.[xxv]

However, there is more dialectical movement in the situation than this formulation suggests. For if modern art is to be true to its rejection of received universals in the name of subjective freedom, it must also reject the absolutization of its own inherent nominalism, and enter into new kinds of relations with universals – both old and new. If contemporary art has social substance to the extent to which it ‘gives shape’ to the antinomy of aesthetic nominalism by ‘winning form from its negation’, this need not be a merely negative dialectic.Rather, it requires new forms of mediation. Indeed, this was the historical significance of isms for Adorno himself: those ‘programmatic, self-conscious, and often collective art movements’, which, in their day, ‘by no means shackle[d] the individual productive forces but rather heighten[ed] them … in part through mutual collaboration.’ However, despite this crucial mediating function, Adorno has a predominantly backward-looking conception of isms as ‘the secularization of schools’ in an age that destroyed schools as traditionalistic. For Adorno, an ism is ‘an island of a tradition that was destroyed by the principle of individuation’.[xxvi] By thinking of isms in terms of ‘programmatic, self-conscious, and often collective art movements’, Adorno neglects the increasing importance since the 1960s of retrospectively constructed critical isms. Such isms retain the structure of, on the one hand, registering the principle of individuation (by virtue of evolving out of the critical interpretation of individual works), while on the other, avoiding ‘the schema of absolute individuation’ (by virtue of the forms of universality they construct). Furthermore, in the critical structure of contemporary art, there is another, ontologically more decisive mediation: the series as the basic unit of intelligibility in contemporary art. In flight from the substantive universalities of genres and mediums, contemporary art distributes its universalities across critical isms and series.

Historically, one might schematize the predominant forms of critical mediation between individual works and the universality of ‘art’ as follows:




hierarchy of genres


primacy of the individual work (as fragment)

(Formalist) modernism



isms of movements

Contemporary art

critical isms and series

Each of the five stages represents a different logical form of mediation: subsumption, the part-whole relation of Romantic fragment, aesthetic identity, groups as speculative bearers of new socialities, and distributive unities.What Sartre says in his Critique of Dialectical Reason about the most ontologically basic collectivity of human individuals, the series – whilst mistaken about human individuals – appears true of works of art: the collapse of objective norms subjects works of art to the rule of series.… the structural relation of the individual to other individuals remains in itself completely indeterminate until the ensemble of material circumstances on the basis of which the relation is established has been defined, from the point of view of historical totalization. In this sense, the contrast between the ‘reciprocity as a relation of interiority’ and ‘the isolation of organisms as a relation of exteriority’, which, in the abstract, conditions an unspecified tension within multiplicities, is in fact transcended, and merged in a new type of ‘internal-external’ relation by the action of the practico-inert field, which transforms contradiction in the milieu of the Other into seriality. In order to understand the collective one must understand that this material object [i.e the practico-inert field] realizes the unity of interpenetration of individuals as beings-in-the-world-outside-themselves to the extent that it structures their relations [as practical organisms] in accordance with the new rule of series. [...] a series is a mode of being for individuals both in relation to one another and in relation to their common being and this mode of being transforms all their structures.[xxvii]In this context, the oeuvre of any particular artist takes on exemplary significance as a ‘series of series’, or a series of mediated individuations.Under conditions of tendentially increasing aesthetic nominalism, each work must create the conditions of its own intelligibility. In the absence of new, unalienated social forms of universality, the series is the formal mode of construction of such conditions. It is here that the structural libertarianism of contemporary art resides. As subjects of exchange in capitalist societies, we live ‘within and against’ the series as the social form of relations between individuals. The work of art reflects and re-presents this form, it in the form a wish.


An earlier version of this text appeared in Verksted no. 8, ISMS: Recuperating Political Radicality in Contemporary Art (I), Office of Contemporary Art, Oslo, 2006.

[i] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London, 1999, p. 465 [N 4a, 2,].

[ii] ‘The West’ is, of course, a historically constituted geo-political category, rather than simply geographical one. It spatializes a set of power-relations between the dominant Euro-American powers and ‘the rest’, and thus signifies different spatial unities according to its historical and political context. For example, it was until recently used to exclude ‘Eastern’ Europe – despite its being part of Europe – while including Japan. See, Stuart Hall, ‘The West-and-the-Rest: Discourse and Power’, in Stuart Hall et al, eds, Modernity, Blackwell, Oxford, 1996, pp. 184–227; and Naoki Sakai, ‘Dislocation of the West and the Status of the Humanities’, Traces 1: Specters of the West and the Politics of Translation, edited by Naoki Sakai and Yukiko Hanawa, Traces, Ithaca, 2000, pp. 71–94. Since 1989, there has been a tendency to try to draw the line within so-called ‘eastern’ Europe itself: instituting a competition of economic-ideological conformity to become part of ‘the West’. Meanwhile, Japan ponders the benefits of de-coupling, with the prospect of a new East Asian bloc raising the spectre of an inverted (Chinese-led) revival of the idea of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, once central to the spatial imaginary of Japanese fascism.

[iii] See, Peter Osborne, ‘Radicalism and Philosophy’, Radical Philosophy 103 (September/ October 2000), pp. 6–11; ‘Modernisms and Mediations’, in F. Halsall, J. Jansen, T. O’Connor (eds), Rediscovering Aesthetics: Transdisciplinary Voices from Art History, Philosophy and Art Practice, Stanford University Press, Stanford, pp. 163–177; and ‘Modernism and Philosophy’, in P. Brooker et al (eds), The Oxford Handbook on Modernism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, Ch. 20, forthcoming 2010.

[iv] The landmark exhibitions here were the 1936 ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ show, with Alfred H. Barr’s famous stylistic flowchart on the cover of the catalogue, terminating in just two streams (‘Geometrical’ and ‘Non-Geometrical’ Abstract Art) and the Bauhaus show of 1938. The subsequent claim for the US inheritance of the European tradition (explicit in Greenberg, for example) was, of course, not just a national claim, but a wider ideological claim about the USA’s leadership of the ‘free’ world during the Cold War. See Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983.

[v] See the critical history of the lineages of negation at work here outlined in the ‘Survey’ essay in Peter Osborne, Conceptual Art, Phaidon, London, 2002, pp. 12–51.

[vi] See Peter Osborne, ‘Art Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Criticism, Art History and Contemporary Art’, Art History, Vol. 27, no. 4 (September 2004), pp. 651–70 – reprinted in Deborah Cherry (ed.), Art: History: Visual: Culture, Blackwell, Oxford, 2005, pp. 171–190.

[vii] See Thomas Crow, The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent 1955–69, Everyman Art Library, London, 1996.

[viii] The origins of this victory date back to a different ‘9/11’, 11 September 1973: the assassination of Allende, the socialist President of Chile, and the delivery of the Chilean economy to the so-called ‘Chicago boys’ – the group of neo-liberal economists gathered around Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism, Oxford University Press, 2005.

[ix] For the effects in an expanded Europe, see Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic (eds), The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennals in Post-Wall Europe, Roomade/MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2005. For an early attempt at a documentation of post-89 eastern European art, see Irwin (ed.), East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, Afterall Books, London, 2006.

[x] Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw, University of Minnesota pres, Minneapolis, 1984.

[xi] See Peter Osborne, ‘The Power of Assembly: Art, World, Industry’, in Zones of Contact: Catalogue of the 2006 Biennale of Sydney, Sydney, 2006.

[xii] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970), trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1997 , p. 24.

[xiii] Cf. Alfred Schmidt, History and Structure: An Essay on Hegelian-Marxist and Structuralist Theories of History (1971), trans. Jefffrey Herf, MIT Press, Cambridge MA and London, 1981, which identifies the need for a ‘determinate negation of the structuralist negation of history’ (p. 108).

[xiv] This notion of ‘becomings- and ceasings-to-be-ontological’ is to be distinguished from the generic becomings of Deleuze and Guattari’s cyclical territorializations, de-teritorializations and re-territorializations, which take place on a single ontological plane, characterized by repetition, and thus acquire determinacy only empirically, and retrospectively. As such, their theorization lacks determinacy in its futural dimension, in principle.

[xv] The word ‘determination’ is liable to generate confusion in English-language theoretical discourse, because of the history of its use to refer to the process of causation. I use it here in the philosophical sense of its German equivalent (Bestimmung), in the idealist tradition, to refer to a process of giving conceptual or semantic determinacy to something (i.e. to particularization). Failure to distinguish between these two senses has created a long history of misunderstandings in the relations between these two traditions. It is in the sense in which I use it here that, for example, Hegel wrote in the Preface to the 2nd edition of his Encyclopedia (1827) not only that the reader would find many parts of the book ‘developed into more detailed determinations (Bestimmungen)’, but also that the new edition had ‘the same vocation (dieselbe Bestimmung)’ as the first one. G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, trans. T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting, and H.S. Harris, Hackett, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1991, p. 4. In a similar sense, Marx wrote in the Introduction to the Grundrisse (1857) of ‘the concrete’ as, methodologically, a result: ‘the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse’. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans. Martin Nicholas, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973, p.101.

[xvi] What follows is a conception of the work of art that derives, in broad outline, from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (1970), as read through the history of visual art since the 1960s – in much the same way that Aesthetic Theory itself mediates Walter Benjamin’s early theory of the artwork via the history of (primarily, musical and literary) modernism.

[xvii] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 225.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 226.

[xix] Herbert Marcuse, ‘The Affirmative Character of Culture’ (1937) in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, Beacon Press, Boston, 1968, pp. 88–133. For Adorno’s continuing, albeit critically modified, adoption of this position (‘its thesis requires the investigation of the individual artwork’), see Aesthetic Theory, p. 252.

[xx] See Stewart Martin, ‘Autonomy and Anti-Art: Adorno’s Concept of Avant-garde Art’, Constellations, Vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 197–207.

[xxi] Thierry de Duve, ‘The Readymade and the Tube of Paint’, in Kant After Duchamp, MIT Press, Cambridge MAand London, 1996, Ch. 3.

[xxii] Jeff Wall, ‘Monochrome and Photojournalism in On Kawara’s Today Paintings’, in Lynne Cooke and Karen Kelly, eds, Robert Lehman Lectures on Contemporary Art, Dia Center for the Arts, New York, 1996, pp. 135–157, p. 152 – Wall himself applies this description to the series of  Today paintings, rather than to the earlier One Thing.

[xxiii] This was one of the formal components of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. See Peter Osborne, ‘Remember the Future? The Communist Manifesto as Cultural-Historical Form’, in Philosophy in Cultural Theory, Routledge, London and New York, 2000, pp. 63–77.

[xxiv] Both Caravaggio’s Martydom of St Matthew (St. Luigi Francesci, Rome) and Crucifixion of St Peter (St. Maria del Popolo, Rome) appear to be evoked – among other, earlier sources.

[xxv] Aesthetic Theory, pp. 199–201, 219–220.

[xxvi] Ibid, pp. 222, 24–25.[xxvii] Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectic Reason, Volume 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles (1960), trans., Alan Sheridan-Smith, Verso, London and New York, 1976, pp. 255–6, 266.

Peter Osborne is Professor of Modern European Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University, London and an editor of the journal Radical Philosophy. His books include The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde (Verso, 1995), Philosophy in Cultural Theory (Routledge, 2000), Conceptual Art (Phaidon, 2002), Marx (Granta, 2005) and (ed.) Walter Benjamin: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory (3 Volumes, Routledge, 2005). His writing on contemporary art includes contributions to Afterall, Art History, October, Oxford Art Journal, and catalogues for Manifesta 5 (San Sebastian, 2004), Time Zones (Tate Modern, 2004), Zones of Contact (2006 Biennale of Sydney), The Quick and the Dead (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2009) and Matias Faldbakken: The Shock of Abstraction (National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo/Ikon, Birmingham 2009).