The Autonomy Archipelago
For a middle power in spectacular decline, France comes off reasonably well amongst the united States of the Biennale: an Albanian-born, Berlin-based, artworld-respected artist, curated by an upper-level staffer of a big public institution, strikes near pitch-perfect balance. The parochial may shout a bit; art-marketeers will complain that Republican virtue continues to trump harder-edged market considerations, thus contributing to Paris’s supposed eclipse from the dominant attention economy; but fielding this pair of middle weights seems both a smart and an elegant choice, inasmuch as it mirrors the paradoxes of autonomy – the watchword of France’s geopolitical situation and of the artistic ideology it arguably incarnates better than any other nation.
Geopolitically, France has colonies in every time zone of the planet; the legitimacy for maintaining these “overseas territories” within the colonial fold relies on the claim that they enjoy some degree of administrative “autonomy” – a logic that requires a particularly elastic understanding of “autonomy.” (Several years ago, a French president was chatting amiably with a foreign counterpart over a glass of champagne. “I’m not sure what ‘autonomy’ means in French,” said the guest. “I see you speak our language perfectly,” replied the Frenchman.) The strategic redistribution of autonomy has become second nature to the elites of the Fifth Republic, because in their attention economy, the redistribution is all, the autonomy itself insignificant; the less traction autonomy is liable to gain in a given sector, the more it is to be encouraged. And the paradigmatic sector is that of art.
If Republican universalism and benevolence (along with the Eurozone that comes with it at no extra charge) can extend to clusters of islands in the South Pacific, the Caribbean, the shores of Newfoundland and that gigantic chunk of South America called Guyana, surely it can extend to any autonomous artist whatsoever, wherever he or she may be located, provided that location be squarely within the broadest framework of spectatorship. It is thus that autonomy opens not onto a horizon of emancipation but onto one of self-policing. For “autonomous” art owes its fleeting moment of limelight in the attention economy to repressing a crippling double thought: that it must be art, just art, and that art is not enough.Stephen Wright