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After Adorno: Art, Autonomy, and Critique

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image of Historical Materialism

In conversation with two artist friends recently, both declared that Adorno was a far more serious and productive guide to their practices than any other philosopher or aesthetician. Given their work and histories as artists – one had lived through the period of conceptual art and had been won over briefly to its arguments, the other had emerged out of its ruins — this was a surprise. Like many artists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, both had fallen under the sway of Walter Benjamin, and were convinced, in their respective ways, that the dissolution of the category of Art into the forms of modern technology and everyday life was a good thing. Indeed, both artists were proselytisers for photography and its powers of social reference and communality. Discussions of art's autonomy were not on their checklist of priorities. In fact, if autonomy was discussed or thought of at all, it was denounced as a bourgeois category. Autonomy was what Clement Greenberg and modernist painters believed in, and the bane of all materialist art criticism. It was not what serious post-conceptualist artists, armed with the ‘critique of representation’ and theories of the social production of art, should be worrying about.


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