- Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art Under Capitalism by Nicholas Brown
Nicholas Brown's powerful new monograph, Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art Under Capitalism, opens with György Lukács's challenge to modernism over a century ago: "Works of art exist—how are they possible?"1 In 213 tightly argued pages, Brown makes the convincing case that a reinvigorated version of this question is foundational to our concepts of modernism, the avant-garde, and art produced during modernism's complex aftermath. But he also vigorously illustrates what those possibilities of aesthetic existence look like right now, whether we find examples in novels, photography, sculpture, popular music, television, or film.
Such claims build from an array of sources: in addition to examining the work of the Frankfurt School, the book develops with novel readings of Hegel and Marx and astute applications of Roberto Schwarz, Michael Fried, Pierre Bourdieu, and Frederic Jameson, among others. One can also hear echoes—sometimes explicit, sometimes not—of the work of Stanley Cavell, Walter Benn Michaels, Steven Knapp, and Robert Pippin. But Brown offers a fully integrated, commanding theory of his own. Autonomy reframes the dialectical phenomenon of modern capitalist economy, in which everything is already inescapably a commodity (and only exchange on the market socially ratifies its use value), as the challenge to art after postmodernism. "If a work of art is not only a commodity—if a moment of autonomy with regard to the commodity form is analytically available, if there is something in the work that can be said to suspend its commodity character," then, argues Brown, there is a normative demand to interpret that work, "[s]ince its form is a matter of intention" (8). In other words, Autonomy pinpoints why and how it is that there is something else that you should do—that you are compelled to do—with art objects that you can not do with commodities: interpret them. If you fail to treat them as such, which is to say, if you do not attempt to interpret them, or you imagine they do not require it, then you are failing to understand their public, still deliberative, meaning.
In sum, Brown argues that "[t]he originality of the present moment is that the concept of medium or material support must be expanded to include the commodity character of the work" (22–23). In the process, he makes a bracing argument that our understanding of what Adorno dismissed as the "cultural industry" must be entirely reimagined, along with our ways of making sense of the art that emerges (in Andreas Huyssen's phrase) "after the great divide" between mass culture and high art. What is now essential to art is not its "immediate relation to commodity production but, rather, the successful (or failed, canceled, or foreclosed) solicitation [End Page 414] of close interpretive attention" (22). One of the real strengths of the text is the consistency of that argument. Autonomy instantiates this claim with multiple models of close interpretive attention. That is, Brown establishes these theoretical points by mining surprising examples that completely open up new possibilities for understanding how autonomy works in a range of different contemporary media, particularly in texts that might never be considered relevant to a discussion of art's distinct role. Richard Linklater's critically acclaimed film Boyhood, Charles Ray's Unpainted Sculpture, modeled on (but not identical with) a totaled car, Tom McCarthy's curious contemporary novel Remainder, and the White Stripes's rock song "Hello Operator" are all put to work in a series of truly tour de force readings.
Juxtaposed, these interpretations of art (a category deliberately broadly conceived here) reveal how the modernist imperative to defeat objecthood, as Michael Fried memorably put it, has become intertwined with, and in some sense succeeded by, art's current imperative to defeat what we might think of as its "commodity-hood" (a neologism that Brown thankfully does not use, but one that might approximate the point he is making). As he explains, "[t]he...