What impact does the ‘Art-World’ have on the Autonomy and the Politicisation of Biennial Art?
In order to address the question above effectively and in relation to biennial art, it would be wise first to explain the discourse behind autonomy. The word ‘autonomy’ is usually taken to mean that art itself is governed independently. Therefore, in order for art to be autonomous it is to be self-ruled and have no reference to external social or political values. Autonomy therefore, signifies a theme of resistance within artworks, allowing these works to be immune or avoidant to an economic, social and political conditioning. For Habermas, artistic modernism relies on a set of qualifications that are indebted to this idea of autonomy. Modernist art in Habermas’s view, should be self-reflexive and able to challenge its own rules and logic. From a Marxist perspective, Habermas’s definition of autonomous art becomes an impossibility as the work will never truly be self-governed or self-reflexive; the artworks, particularly those produced in the western expanse of capitalism, will always be bound to its social conditioning. Habermas’s characteristics of autonomous art is underpinned as a seemingly self-sufficient entity which can exist in the art world and within the westernised art canon, yet it still somehow manages to be self-reflexive and have autonomous agency. It is therefore not surprising that autonomy has come to be associated with apolitical isolationism in order for the artwork to be truly autonomous. For writers such as Adorno, autonomous artworks have a social situation and are not fully isolated, but their function is limited ‘Insofar as a social function may be predicated of works of art, it is the function of having no function.’ Another way of putting this claim is to say that autonomous art constitutes an autonomous practice that does not serve any other practice. Particularly, the notion of autonomous artworks referring to ‘a mode of being which is entirely self-regulating and self-determining’. This, in Terry Eagleton’s words is because the claim of autonomy is often ‘a central constituent of bourgeois ideology’. However, Eagleton does shine light on the artworks ability to display ‘the self-determining nature of human powers and capacities’ in order for the art-works to retain an emancipatory political potential. In this essay, I will attempt to explore the ways in which the implications of the ‘art-world’- of which is primarily governed by capitalist conditioning and bourgeois ideology- has on biennial art. I will analyse the effects that capitalist regimes have in reducing the self-reflexive ideology behind possible autonomous works, and how the art-works are recuperated into commodity culture, denying the works of art its radical potential. I will also attempt to investigate the ways in which biennials respond politically to the art-world, and how a dismissal of autonomy within art can instead lead to a reopening of successful political and radical potential.
Fig 1 Louis Vuitton is pleased to support artists at the Havana Biennale in Cuba, opening on May 22nd. Personal Photograph by the author Pierluigi da Pietro. 2015.
By declaring art as being autonomous or self-governed, it can be assumed that this would enable the artworks to be apolitical, or, as mentioned above, they are then isolated from the surrounding hive of capitalist culture that consumes them. The idea of artworks having meaning, being apolitical and autonomous is arguably a far-reaching concept when it is applied to biennial artworks. Biennials within the global South first began in 1951 as a response to the Venice Biennial and as a means to represent local artists. The aim of these biennials was to de-centre the western art-world by creating new centres in culturally, historically and economically ‘othered’ areas such as São Paulo, Havana, Dakar, and Istanbul. Although many implications surround Biennials, the biennialization process of such countries did allow for a new, exciting way to display local art. Perhaps more importantly, biennials are called by the art-world to represent the country in which it is placed, its politics and radical potential that these artworks are capable of. In being site specific, biennials have contributed to many heated debates surrounding the ideas of ‘corporate contamination’.  For example, the sponsorship of biennials by huge corporate entities such as Louis Vuitton sponsoring the 2015 Havana Biennial, indicate a clear meeting of hands between the art itself and commodity culture. In relation to the bonding of huge corporate companies and localised biennials, Gail Day argues that ‘…such events are now so contaminated by corporate sponsorship that participation is questionable: some argue for outright boycott, others for a struggle for hegemony inside the organisations of art.’  I will focus further on this text What Keeps Mankind Alive? as it displays key ways in which the organisations of the ‘art-world’ embeds itself on the apparent autonomy and politics of the artworks curated within site-specific biennials.
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Furthermore, we can begin to address the larger question at hand – is it possible to view these global biennials outside of the framework of intricate capitalist contamination? What impact does the art-world have on the autonomy of the artworks within Biennials and where do we place such corporate co-operation in regards to the political messages and radical potentials of these works? If art is presented and complies to the art-world, does it then reject all possibilities of hegemony and autonomy? As John Jordan declares:
We have to stop pretending that the popularity of politically engaged art within the museums, magazines and markets over the last few years has anything to do with really changing the world. We have to stop pretending that taking risks in the space of art, pushing boundaries of form, and disobeying the conventions of culture, making art about politics makes any difference. We have to stop pretending that art is a free space, autonomous from webs of capital and power.
Another key writer who responds to the importance of art as ‘antagonistic intervention’ is Chantal Mouffe. Mouffe’s discussion of public space is importantly linked to biennials as
she explores how much of a (political) public space they create for art and society, that is, if they do at all. Mouffe taps into the idea of politically engaged and radical art, dismissing the avant-garde ideals of the ‘self’ being the main focus. She opens up the possibility of biennials being a social-critical practice, and suggests that art and politics are linked intrinsically as art maintains or challenges the social order that we are so imbued in. The social order that we see as ‘every-day life’ which Mouffe is suggesting, derives from the infiltration of political ideologies that we become oblivious to. Mouffe declares that ‘there is an aesthetic dimension in the political and there is a political dimension in art’ thus, there is no way of separating them.
Fig 2 Antrepo No.3. Former warehouse at the Salipazari Harbor on the Bosporus. Main venue of the Istanbul Biennial 2009. Personal Photo by: Jaana Prüss
It is best to explore this argument further and in relation to particular art works exemplified in specific biennials. Starting from the 2009 Istanbul Biennial, as it is so heavily loaded with claims to a ‘political turn’, we can begin to view the ways in which Istanbul’s Brechtian theme displays a web of local and regional context: ‘The biennials purposeful use of ‘Brecht offers a clear display of what many argue is Istanbul’s attempt to be radical and politically charged.’ As an audience to the work, you cannot ignore the statement in which this Brechtian theme transmits and this is one that Day discusses further:
The 2009 Istanbul Biennial dramatised the problems. Crystallising issues – from the tensions between liberal expression and neoliberalism, between modernisation and gentrification, between art’s commodification and its emancipatory potential, between an individual art- practice and the institutions of art, or between the capacity of these institutions to ‘incorporate’ and to serve as progressive ideological platforms, through to questions of form and content (philosophical and aesthetic), or to those of ‘art’ and ‘life’. 
The Istanbul Biennial brought to the fore questions concerning the relationship between of aesthetic autonomy and the importance of the artworks political praxis. The Brechtian curatorial theme exposed an insight into capitalist and bourgeois ideologies, that feature so prominently within the art-sphere (see fig 2) and addressed this within an open letter:
Only those who blind themselves to the enormous power of the revolutionary process that drags everything in this world into the circuit of commodities, without exception and without delay, can assume that works of art in any genre could be excluded . . .
This open letter not only declared the curator’s dismissal of autonomous art, but reinstates the importance of arts radical political potential. Arguably, the Istanbul Biennial is a prime example of an attempt of defiance towards the privatised art-world institutions. It addressed the larger scale of socio-political contamination and, whilst doing so dismissed the age-old westernised view of autonomous art having the ability or the potential to be truly self-governed. The fiction of such autonomous artworks entails the penetration (and interpenetration) of all forms community, culture, nature and, society by global capital.
Global capital then becomes the dominant force that infuses itself with an ideological dislocation. As the Brechtian theme within the Istanbul Biennial suggests, this infusion of global capital is done in a myriad of ways that aren’t easily captured but ones which frames the totality of our experience in this globalised world, altering the ways in which we think and the ways in which we produce artworks. Framing a hostility to the art-world and a dismissal of autonomous artworks having any political potential, yet, paradoxically conforming to art-world Biennial regimes.
Fig 2 Erkan Özgen artist, eröristAN. 2009. Photo series, detail.
Biennials and the artworks within them, in general do not obviously submit to an economic imperative like that of a normal business or company, making the subsumption of art under capital more difficult to pin down. Day argues that ‘this is one reason that they are increasingly located outside of capital-cities and combine public and private finance with the aim of regeneration. Of course, the condition is that there has to be something worth seeing.’ With this being said, I would like to argue that artworks themselves included in Biennials although lacking a Habermas-like definition of autonomy, still infer a political or radical potential. To address the implications of the ‘art-world’ would of course be addressing a world where artworks are deceivingly displayed outside of a capitalist regime, however, the art-world is not an umbrella term for all artworks that are displayed and produced. To declare all such works of art as just a means to a Marxist exchange value reduces the political potential of said works. Is it not possible to create a work of art that does cause a political ripple or an important reflection on societies state? As mentioned in What Keeps Mankind Alive?: ‘There remains something quite distinctive about the nature of art’s insertion into the economic circuits of capital, which is yet to be understood comprehensively and theoretically.’
Due to the limits of a small word count, I have attempted to cover the main implications that the art-world has on the political potential and autonomy of artworks. I have claimed that artworks don’t need to have an inherent autonomy, in order to be true works of art. Using the 2009 Istanbul Biennial as a prime source in displaying a radical potential, I have attempted to promote the fact that the dismissal of artworks autonomy may actually increase the possibilities for a radical potential that causes ripples within the westernised art sphere. Though slightly paradoxical, the artworks within the art-world sphere are undeniably recuperated through the capitalist realm and leaves us with a more philosophical and obscured critique:
It is not that we wish for some ready consensualism, though the current political fragmentation certainly seems debilitating (this itself being addressed in some of the best artworks); rather, the point, we think, is that Marxist analysis in/of art has itself come to rely on some standard – even standardised – responses, which have become counterproductive.
- Andy Hamilton, “Adorno and the autonomy of art”. Online Journal. 5 Dec. 2018. https://philpapers.org/rec/HAMAAT-4. Web.
- Brecht, Bertolt. Short Description of a New Technique of Acting Which Produces an Alienation Effect in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited by John Willett, London: Methuen. 1978 [1940/51]. 169. Print.
- Day, Gail, Steve Edwards, and David Mabb. What Keeps Mankind Alive?: The Eleventh International Istanbul Biennial. Once More on Aesthetics and Politics. Historical Materialism. Vol. 18, no. 4. 2010. Article.
- Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of The Public Space – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 1991. Print.
- McMahon, Jennifer A. Aesthetic Autonomy and Praxis: Art and Language in Adorno and Habermas. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, vol. 19, no. 2. 2011. Print.
- Mouffe, Chantal. Art and democracy: Art as an agonistic intervention in public space, Open!. http://onlineopen.org/art-and-democracy. 2007. Article.
- Mouffe, Chantal. Every form of art has a political dimension. Grey Room. 2001. Print.
- Sharpe, Matthew. The Aesthetics of Ideology, Or ‘the Critique of Ideological Judgment’ in Eagleton and Žižek. Political Theory, vol. 34, no. 1, 2006. Print.
- Wu, Chin-Tao. Biennials and art fairs. Grove Art Online. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao- 9781884446054-e-7002086262. 2010. Web.
 Jennifer A McMahon, Aesthetic Autonomy and Praxis: Art and Language in Adorno and Habermas. International (Journal of Philosophical Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 2011) 155-175.
 Andy Hamilton, “Adorno and the autonomy of art”. Online Journal. 5 Dec. 2018.
 Matthew, Sharpe. The Aesthetics of Ideology, Or ‘the Critique of Ideological Judgment’ in Eagleton and Žižek. (Political Theory, vol. 34, no. 1, 2006) 95-120.
 Sharpe, The Aesthetics of Ideology, Or ‘the Critique of Ideological Judgment’ in Eagleton and Žižek, 99.
 Sharpe, The Aesthetics of Ideology, Or ‘the Critique of Ideological Judgment’ in Eagleton and Žižek, 103.
 Gail Day et al., “‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’: the Eleventh International Istanbul Biennial. Once More on Aesthetics and Politics.” Historical Materialism18.4 (2010): 138.
 Day, “’What Keeps Mankind Alive?’: the Eleventh International Istanbul Biennial. Once More on Aesthetics and Politics,” 138.
Jordan n.d.; see other critiques from more-or-less the same direct-action perspective, such as the cartoon by Zampa di Leone, ‘What Keeps Bazaar Alive’ (di Leone 2004); see also the exchange between Resistanbul and Brian Holmes in Holmes 2009’
 Chantal Mouffe, Art as an agonistic intervention in public space. (2008) 6-7.
 Chantal Mouffe, Every form of art has a political dimension. Grey Room (2001) 98-125.
 Day, “‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’: the Eleventh International Istanbul Biennial. Once More on Aesthetics and Politics,” 135.
 Day, “‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’: the Eleventh International Istanbul Biennial. Once More on Aesthetics and Politics,” 137.
 Day, “‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’: the Eleventh International Istanbul Biennial. Once More on Aesthetics and Politics,” 139.
 Bertolt Brecht, Short Description of a New Technique of Acting Which Produces an Alienation Effect in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited by John Willett, London: Methuen. 1978 [1940/51]. 169.
 Day, “‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’: the Eleventh International Istanbul Biennial. Once More on Aesthetics and Politics,” 164.
 Day, “‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’: the Eleventh International Istanbul Biennial. Once More on Aesthetics and Politics,” 162.
 Day, “‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’: the Eleventh International Istanbul Biennial. Once More on Aesthetics and Politics,” 139.
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