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  • Minimal Autonomies
  • Oliver Haslam (bio)
Nicholas Brown, Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism. Durham, Duke University Press, 2019, 232pp; $24.95 paperback, $89.95 cloth.

Nicholas Brown’s Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism explores art’s relationship to both the contemporary capitalist market and its own commodity form. The result is a book that convincingly argues for an aesthetic autonomy that is both plausible and political. Brown begins by foregrounding a question posed by György Lukács: ‘“Works of art exist– how are they possible?”’ before defining in detail the status of the commodity in relation to the market. Brown places art within this context, arguing that autonomy may be achieved through the deployment of internal forms that require interpretative attention and through an internal suspension of the commodity form. For Brown, such autonomy is unavoidably political, as he explains that ‘under contemporary conditions, the assertion of aesthetic autonomy is in itself, a political assertion. (A minimal one, to be sure.)’ (p33). Brown’s distinction of the ‘minimal’ here is crucial to his argument: if a work is overtly political then it will be valorised into a commodifiable point of view, whereas ‘the production of the unvalorisable lodges a “foreign body” at capitalism’s ideological weak point’ (p151). Brown demonstrates how the commodification of art is an unavoidable fact, but it is from precisely this market position that autonomy is achievable. Art objects are capable of achieving autonomy when they acknowledge their unavoidable relationship to a market and when they subsequently subvert this relationship through an internal formal logic rather than through external expectations such as explicit and potentially commodifiable political content: ‘a work’s assertion of autonomy is the claim that its form is self-legislating. Nothing more’ (p182). Through a revisiting of influential critiques such as Michael Fried’s ‘Art and Objecthood’ and modernist and postmodernist debates regarding artistic autonomy and form, Brown interrogates the nuances of art’s relationship to a contemporary market.

Brown begins by constructing a dense theoretical framework, building on the work of Marx, Hegel, Adorno and Jameson in order to contextualise art’s existence within contemporary capitalism. From this base, he systematically demonstrates moments of autonomy within an eclectic collection of case studies spanning the mediums of film, photography, sculpture, painting, prose, music and popular television. A chapter on the subject of film and photography brings into dialogue the photography of Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall with Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014), and Nic Pizzolatto’s [End Page 185] popular television show True Detective (2014) to reveal how formal, medium-specific, decisions create autonomy. Another insightful chapter considers the sculptures of Charles Ray in relation to Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005). Significant critical insights are proffered through Brown’s particularly astute analyses of citation and historicism formally inhered within studio albums by the Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso and The White Stripes. When discussing the medium of television, Brown reveals how David Simon’s The Wire negotiates its relationship with genre and unavoidable market expectations internally by moving within the structure of an established genre whilst also internally suspending such obligations by, for example, refusing ‘network televisual grammar’ and through the insistence of a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio (p169). Far from being exhaustive, these brief chapter descriptions are produced here to highlight the argumentative complexity of an analysis that brings together considerations of Marxism, historicism, genre and form, allowing for the convincing identification of autonomy within an array of artistic works and mediums. Such a breadth of case studies should also be taken here as indicative of the well-evidenced reliability of Brown’s primary assertions of art’s autonomy.

In chapter two, Brown offers Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) as an example of a text failing to hold as a work due to the novel making ‘claims at the level of the sentence that it has no interest in sustaining as a work’ (p95). Although this example adequately illustrates Brown’s wider argument for autonomy in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, this critique feels slightly underdeveloped. The inclusion...


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pp. 185-186
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