Should Art Be Produced for Society?

The following text was submitted as one of three critical thesis essays submitted in August 2014

Many express concern about the importance of art’s autonomy, but why shouldn’t art be produced for society?  For the terms of this essay, autonomy, as it applies to an artist, means that an artist drive and creative process is independent from society and that an artist creates works for his or her own satisfaction.  An autonomous artist does not create art to appease this audience; he or she does not allow for social pressures to drive creative efforts,  despite awareness of society and social influences. Marcel Duchamp, Hal Foster, Jacques Ranciere, and Daniel Buren discuss autonomy in terms of art and how society impacts the artist.  The focus of autonomy is with the artist’s intent and process, and whether or not an artist is able to remain autonomous within the art market.

In order to allow for better understanding of this topic, this essay will be organized into three parts; the first part will focus on these authors and their ideas about autonomy as well as how a work’s reception in society impacts the artist’s creative process; the second part will be an analysis of these authors; the third, and final, section will focus on my own understanding of society’s relationship to artistic autonomy based on these authors.  Also, the word “art” in this essay refers to a work of art, the physical object. The questions that I am trying to answer here are: (a) why shouldn’t art be produced for society, and (b) how is autonomy lost when a work of art is created for society and not for the artist?

I. Marcel Duchamp focuses on the significance of the artist versus the spectator within the art market as a means to better understand the impact of viewership on art and the autonomous artist.  He is best known as a revolutionary artist who created ready-made artworks which are associated with the Dada movement. Aside from his work, he also wrote about art and the situation of an artist in the art market.  In “The Creative Act,” he discusses the relationship between the artist and the spectator.  He writes that an artist creates work based on his or her personal intuition and that there is no preconceived thought with regards to the final artwork.  In this sense, an artist is autonomous because the work is of his or her own instinct and feeling, not an impression of society.  But, how does Duchamp define art?  Why should the definition of art take precedent in attempting to understand an artist’s autonomy?  

For Duchamp, the major domain of Art encompasses the artist’s creation, the object of creation and ongoing spectatorship.  Artists must be aware of these different elements in order to be able to acknowledge and better understand the market in which they are exhibiting their work.  For Duchamp, the autonomous artist must be aware of society but should keep it at an appropriate distance away from the creative process.  This means that an artist should not create for society but should be cognizant of who will be receiving his or her work.  

The spectator, however, plays a large role in determining when an object of art rightfully becomes art.  Duchamp writes that “millions of artists create; only a few thousands are discussed or accepted by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterity.”  Once an artwork enters the public sphere, it no longer belongs to the artist; it belongs to the public because they determine its meaning, significance and value. Duchamp calls this “esthetic osmosis:” from the artist’s autonomous hands to the public’s critical and social evaluation.  This is where allowing for the critic to impact the artist matters because if a critic is able to evaluate the work and allow for the artist to gain better understanding of what he or she is exhibiting, an artist is able to see his or her work in a different light and gain a better understanding of the market evaluating his or her creation.  But, do these evaluations allow for an artist to remain autonomous?  Is an artist’s creative response to viewership autonomous or a means to appease society?

​For art critic Hal Foster, an artist who is aware of his or her self and of culture exhibits a greater possibility of creating autonomously because he or she is able to consciously distant society from the creative process; the artist must be able to identify the otherness of the self.  In his book, The Return of the Real, Foster writes that an artist embodies culture as creative motivation within his or her postmodern practice and theory.  He introduces the term “ethnographer,” which refers to an individual who studies people and cultures; for Foster, an ethnographer is the artist who is cognizant of social implications and influences. What an ethnographer is able to comprehend includes other disciplines that impact the artist, the art world and the life of a work of art.  An autonomous artist must be able to observe these outside forces but not allow them to interfere with the art making process.  

However, Foster notes that society has become a greater drive within the artistic process; he explains that artists have begun to “work horizontally, in a synchronic movement from social issue to issue, from political debate to debate, more than vertically, in a diachronic engagement with the disciplinary forms of a given genre or medium” (Foster, “Artist as Ethnographer,” 199).  This shift in the creative process is what distances the artist from his or her autonomous practice; though a work is able to speak on its own, the artist becomes lost within the temptations and demands of society that absorbs their work and deem it significant for exhibition and for art history.  An artist as an ethnographer, then, has pushed all creative efforts towards producing work for the people and the culture (and its institutions).  The artist has shifted from medium specific work to discourse specific, meaning that a drive to create has turned into a push for social gain; the artwork and the artist have become a social commodity and the artist has brought older techniques back into the contemporary light in order to further push works which were previously popular and significant in society.

​ In his book, The Future of the Image, French philosopher Jacques Ranciere writes that art is visually articulated by practice, interpretation, pictorial phenomenon and discourses from philosophers, writers and artists.  He believes that the point of painting is to put pigment on a flat surface, not to satisfy an audience with familiar elements; an artist is to carry out a purely technical operation by allowing for autonomous manipulation of materials and medium.  Ranciere does, however, discuss the social need for written and verbal mediation in order to resolve thoughts and criticisms about art.  There is a discrepancy between pure art and the written form in that words are now required because spectators are, more or less, unaware of the workings and understandings of an artist’s intention and process.  He writes, “to see something as art… means seeing two things at once… it is a question of the relations between the surface of exhibition of forms and the surface of inscription of words” (Ranciere, “Painting in the Text,” 79).  If words are now mandatory components of the public domain of art, how are artists to maintain autonomous when viewers scrutinize their works for meaning and significance?  What happens to a work of art when the public attempts to understand and interpret it by insisting words through it?

Ranciere is concerned with words creating additional representations within an artist’s work. His response to these questions refers to the exhibition of art within the public domain. He writes:

The power of words is no longer the model that pictorial representation must take as its norm.  It is the power that hollows out the representative surface to make the manifestations of pictorial expressiveness appear on it.  This means that the latter is only present on the surface by causing another subject to appear under the representative subject (76).

The words that spectators use to evaluate artwork alter the surface of the work itself because though words help to elaborate on the visuals, verbal language can remove the significance of the work and continue to remove the artist from their creation; verbal language manipulates the artist’s creation and removes the strength of the imagery.  If an artist becomes removed, how is an artist then able to create autonomously?  Furthermore, is an artist more inclined to make art for society if his or her identity is already veiled?

French artist Daniel Buren writes about autonomy in regards to an artist creating for his or her self while understanding the limited opportunities within society.  Between his essays, “Function of the Museum” and “Function of the Studio,” he observes the significance of an artist creating in his or her safe studio space while needing to send work into the public sphere for recognition, evaluation and acceptance.

In “Function of the Museum,” Buren discusses the three purposes of the museum: preservation, collection and refuge.  Preservation preserves the gesture and the illusion of eternity in a work; collection indicates a work in relation to history and different art movements; refuge refers to the safety of the work within the space of the museum.  Buren examines the issues regarding a work of art displayed in the museum.  The museum, as a safe place has been created for society utilizing bourgeois ideologies in order to accept, and exhibit, art which appeases the bourgeois class.  Although one is able to focus in on a work and see “the reality of the world into an image of the world, and History into Nature,” Buren observes that the artist assists in conforming his or her work to satisfy the audience.

He continues to write about this in regards to art in “Function of the Studio.” Buren identifies the significance of the studio as “the place of multiple activities: production, storage, and finally, if all goes well, distribution” (53).  However, he states that a work must exist outside of the studio and be redefined in order to become presentable within the confines of a museum or gallery.  Buren observes the gap between a work and its space.  He writes, “ is impossible by definition for a work to be seen in place; still, the place where we see it influences the work even more than the place in which it was made and from which it has been cast out” (53).  An artwork takes place in a museum but, it is not for the public, despite the fact that artists must allow for their work to satisfy the bourgeois class who must accept their work in to the museum.  Where does autonomy take place in this system?

II. ​The genuinely autonomous artist in contemporary society is rare because, as stated above, many artists conform their works to social desires and replace their drive with societal demands.  What Duchamp, Foster and Buren focus on are society’s cravings as they impact the art process.   

For Duchamp specifically, he understands the presence of autonomy for an artist prior to social integration, partially because Duchamp is an artist himself.  He says that the final work has not been decided or preconceived but, rather, occurs naturally within the artist’s process; there should not be an outside drive or motivation that influences this production.  Though an artist can feel pride in his or her efforts to create, Duchamp writes that the will of the work ultimately remains with the viewers.  Can an artist feel accomplished only if his or her work is accepted by society?  Does this force autonomy to diminish because of an artist’s desire for social acceptance?  “If an artist creates work as if his or her life depended on it”, for example as artist Marcel Broodthaers would say it should, “then he or she does not allow for society to absorb autonomy but evaluate it after production” (Broodthaers).

​ Foster discusses the shift in the creative process for an artist by means of the horizontal and vertical movements, as quoted above.  A horizontal movement refers to artwork that is for society, illustrating the issues and statements that society wishes to consider; it is a form of capitalist production.  Vertical movements reveal the engagement an artist has with his or her materials and medium.  Foster notes that this shift resulted in a new creative order that produced for the sake of culture and not for the self.  This transformation is because of society and because many artists crave public attention and fame; they want to be bought and sold.   The convention of art has transformed and, as philosopher Peter Osborne believes, artistic autonomy has become a social form, an institutional form (“Theorem 4: Autonomy. Can It Be True of Art and Politics at the Same Time?” 121).  For this reason, Foster fails to see the possibility of autonomy for an artist in the contemporary (postmodern) art milieu.  

Daniel Buren understands what autonomy means within the contemporary art world - legitimate autonomy within the confines of a studio acknowledges societal influence and standards of art while remaining separate from it - however, he observes that society requests that artists reform their work in order for it to be presentable for social standards.  While writing that a work is consummated within the safety of an artist’s studio, Buren says that the work cannot live there unless it wishes to become obsolete and insignificant.  The museum, Buren writes, does not reconfigure itself to accommodate for every work of art which enters it.  Can artists be autonomous if they must conform their work to social standards?

​Ranciere’s view is not too different from Duchamp, Foster or Buren, however, to some extent, he realizes a greater potential for an artist to hold autonomy. Though Ranciere makes it clear that the point of painting is to manipulate the materials on a desired medium, he still expresses society’s need for words in order to better articulate beyond the visual message.  Why is a verbal and written language required when viewing visual imagery?  Are artworks able to speak for themselves without additional mediation or explanation?  

The relationship between an artist and a spectator is heterogeneous.  Most spectators understand certain visual patterns or materials exhibited in works of art but society cannot grasp an artist’s mental process from when the work was created.  The attempt to comprehend an artist’s work requires social gratification in the power of words.  While words should not solely give the artwork life for spectators, as Ranciere says, they are necessary in order for an audience to attempt to conceive of an artwork.  He writes:

…art is alive as long as it is outside itself, as long as it does something different from itself, as long as it moves on a stage of visibility which is always a stage of disfiguration.  What [Hegel] discourages in advance is not art, but the dream of its purity.  It is the modernity that claims to vouchsafe each art its autonomy and painting its peculiar surface.  Here indeed is something to fuel resentment against philosophers who ‘talk too much’ (89).

Artworks are able to survive beyond their own capacity as long as there is a balance between visual speech and the verbal interpretation of the viewer.  A work can get lost if overanalyzed.  Though the visuals become somewhat lost in society’s communications, Ranciere believes that an artist is still able to remain autonomous so long as their aim remains with the materials at hand; perhaps an artist can learn more about their work from the remarks of spectators.  Does this mean that an artist can be autonomous if they create work for society?

III. ​What is most interesting about these arguments is that the artist is separated from the work because of spectatorship distancing the two.  An artwork can speak and be autonomous beyond itself but what about the artist who brought these works to life?  For an artist to create work specifically for the satisfaction of the viewers is to allow for the artist to lose his or her autonomy and become a commodity.  While Duchamp, Foster, Buren and Ranciere all acknowledge this distinction between artist and spectator, they lose the presence and significance of the artist in their theories and write in terms of the relationship between the life of an artwork in relation to the spectator.  Why does the artist disappear from their focus?

The art viewers and market often fail to truly acknowledge an artist unless his or her name has become branded by fame.  More specifically, an artist is lost after having created for the purpose of addressing a topic which appeases a community who has collected the work into an accepted sphere.  

​ Is it possible to create art without knowledge of viewership and the art market?  Duchamp said it best by stating that art is an all-encompassing relationship between an artist, the art object, and the spectator.  Before we answer the question, “why should art not be produced for society,” it is imperative to understand what allows for autonomy of an artist.  In order for an artist to be autonomous, the artist must understand several things: (1) the significance of the creative process for the means of satisfying his or her own artistic desires, (2) the relationship to spectatorship, (3) understanding that the work must enter the public sphere in order for the artwork to survive beyond consummation, and (4) regardless of how viewers feel about the work, an artist should understand the critique of it but continue to allow for creative expression and growth as an artist independent from his or her viewers.  The problem that Duchamp, Foster and Buren have realized is that while an artist may initially create work autonomously, he or she often falls into the temptations of social acceptance, fame, and financial gain; artistic motives shift from manipulating certain materials to creating work that society demands and craves.

Artistic autonomy is not definitive; there are times when an artist may exhibit personal autonomy as well as times he or she may carry out works of art for a social purpose; the social implications of the institution of art are imperative and crucial for an artist to become known for his or her creations.  However, artist Marcel Broodthaers would say that as an artist, “it’s nice to have done something… to show [work], to make it known to people” (276). Therefore, why should an artist not produce for society?  An autonomous artist exhibits work for the sake of having his or her visual idea exhibited to a greater public to view, not because the public has called for something specific.   The artist and the spectator must remain separate in order for the work to speak in which the artist has intended.

Though there are many concerns for the autonomy of art, an artist is able to be autonomous in light of the demands and diversity of viewership.  Regardless of society’s evaluation and critique of a work of art, an artist must have his or her own control and self-motivation.   Although artwork must exist within the public domain in order to survive and thrive as its own autonomous force, an artist’s efforts should not be for the viewer but for one’s self; art should not be produced for society but should be created and then exhibited to them; the work should draw viewers in to discover more and to see beyond the work itself.  While it is important to understand society’s critique, Marcel Duchamp, Hal Foster, Daniel Buren and Jacques Ranciere would believe that artists should allow for social evaluation to strengthen their own works while remaining distant from the desires and temptations of social acceptance and lust.  This strengthening should allow for artists to fully thrive within their own autonomous right and to hold greater power within their work.  Artists should not produce art for society, but they should be conscientious of it; otherwise, they risk losing their autonomous process, their authentic process and they transform into a commodity, a brand name for society, the culture industry.  

Works Cited

Broodthaers, Marcel, and Gloria Moure. Marcel Broodthaers: Collected Writings. Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2012.

Buren, Daniel. “Function of the Museum.” Theories of Contemporary Art, By Richard Hertz. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985. 189-192.

Buren, Daniel. “The Function of the Studio.” Trans. Thomas Repensek. (1971): 51-58.  Everyday Archive <>.

Duchamp, Marcel. "The Creative Act." Salt Seller; the Writings of Marcel Duchamp. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Foster, Hal. "The Artist as Ethnographer." The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996. 171-203.

Peter Osborne, ‘Theorem 4: Autonomy. Can It Be True of Art and Politics at the Same Time?,’ see Open, no. 23, 2012.

Rancière, Jacques. "Painting in the Text." The Future of the Image. London: Verso, 2007. 69-89.

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