What is autonomy in recent art, where does it come from?

I've encountered the concept in contemporary literary criticism, but recall little beyond it being prized by contemporary modernists, it being theoretical (whatever that means), and that it has at times involved 'unity'. How?

Is it just something about the artist's ideology (wanting to do their own thing etc,)? Or can a work of literature itself be autonomous?

What got me thinking about this again was just reading an article on 'affect' in recent cultural studies and post deconstruction. I have a lot less trouble with 'affect' (for which I have a clear personal referent for) than I do 'autonomy', The latter seems a nebulous and hermetic term. In concludes:

affect might in fact be valuable precisely to the extent that it is not autonomous

If you look at the article, it concludes counter to other recent scholarship claiming that affect is "asocial".

Could it be then that because we "cannot read affects", the text itself is autonomous from the affective desires it generates?

The article cites Deleuze to argue that affect is generated between a see-saw process involving the individual body and the mind. Affect seems to be a quality of the body and senses. Might that mean the text is autonomous when what is read, the language rather than something beyond it such as its "voice", lacks sensuousness?

  • why is this downvoted? why is it off-topic?
    – user38026
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 17:20
  • is this any clearer?
    – user38026
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 19:59

1 Answer 1


I am going to (try to) answer the questions down to the line across the page. To go beyond that into hermeneutics, contemporary literary criticism, Deleuze, and post deconstruction would draw out the answer to very considerable length. (This is not a criticism, just an indication in my case of practicalities.)

Autonomy of art- some conceptual distinctions

"The autonomy of art" is sometimes used as a slogan for the view that works of art are devoid of any practical function and thus devoid, as works of art, of instrumental value. This view is, traditionally, traced back to Kant's Critique of Judgment, and in this connection Kant is sometimes referred to as an "autonomist." ' For casual readers of the third Critique this may seem a plausible enough description of Kant's views, particularly in light of his influence upon writers associated with the art for art's sake movement in the early nineteenth century.2

But whether or not, or in what sense, Kant himself was an "autonomist" is not as simple a question as it might at first appear. This is, in part, because he never speaks of art - as opposed to the faculties of judgment and taste - as autonomous in the third Critique. It is also because "autonomy" has been used in aesthetics in so many different ways, since Kant, that it is no longer clear that any one thing is generally meant by saying that someone believes in the autonomy of art or is an "autonomist."

The confusion surrounding the meaning of artistic autonomy has been furthered in recent years by its usage as a slogan for both noninstrumental and instrumental views of the kind of value which distinctively attaches to works of fine art. The noninstrumental view, which I will refer to as strict autonomism, is associated in the twentieth century with noncontextualist or formalist programs in art criticism and historiography. It maintains that what a work of art is, as an object of value, is to be distinguished from what it does. The other view, which I will call instrumental autonomism, is exemplified by writers in the pragmatist and Marxist traditions. It emphasizes the work of art's distinctive capacity, as an object of value, to do something not done, or done the same way, by other kinds of objects. A significant difference between these two views is that while strict autonomism presupposes that artistic value is necessarily a form of intrinsic, as opposed to instrumental value, instrumental autonomism permits works of art to be valuable, as works of art, both intrinsically and instru- mentally. Thus while on a strict autonomist view the only standpoint which is relevant or "internal" to the evaluation of works of art as works of art is that of the spectator contemplating their "artistic" or "aesthetic" properties, an instru- mental autonomist view, in contrast, admits other standpoints into such an assessment as well; e.g., standpoints which view works as instrumental to knowledge or edification. In this sense instrumental autonomism affords a more inclusive framework for attributing value to works of art. (Casey Haskins, 'Kant and the Autonomy of Art', The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Winter, 1989), pp. 43- 54: 43.)

Kant and autonomy

Nothing ever absolutely starts with an individual thinker - that's my experience anyway - but Kant's Third Critique has as good a claim as any and better than any other I can think of to originate the idea of the autonomy of art.

Haskins (whose position there isn't space to develop) holds (43) that:

the view of art expounded in the Critique of Judgment is clearly of the instrumental autonomist type. Kant states this view compactly in section 44, defining the work of fine art (schöne Kunst) as:

a mode of representation which is purposive for itself, and which, although devoid of a purpose, has the effect of advancing the culture of the mental powers in the interests of social communication. (44: 306). (Casey Haskins: Kant quoted on 43.)

I think you'll need to read Kant further to track his full meaning here.

  • thanks, i wouldn't have thought of kant. you may feel unable to comment: but could modernist innovations be seen as a means to break apart the unity of the senses?
    – user38026
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 22:13

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