Sensuous Resistance: The Legacy of Modernism for Sustainable Art

Adrian Paci, PilgIMAGE, 2005

This text probes some of the legacies of modernism for sustainable art practices, arguing for a re-evaluation of the notion of artistic autonomy as a path of resistance, and was published as part of the Dokumenta 12 magazine project, where the full text can be found.

In 1467 the Madonna del Buonconsiglio miraculously appeared in the town of Genazzano near Rome, descending from a cloud and hovering before an unfinished church wall. Genazzano immediately became a site of pilgrimage and devotion. At the same time, Our Lady of Shkodra, the most venerated icon in Albania, was seen at the height of the Ottoman siege, floating up into the sky, and was followed by two Albanian witnesses all the way to Rome, where they lost sight of it. The holy legend was kept alive from generation to generation and the Madonna was prayed to in Albania’s darkest times of foreign occupation and religious persecution, with hope expressed by the hymn “Madonna of Good Counsel, return to us.”

The rigid divide between autonomous art, for which the highest imaginable function is to have no function, and instrumental art, which is accused of sacrificing artistic freedom for the sake of a political message, is a direct legacy of modernism, and still informs many widely-held assumptions about the nature of artistic engagement. Recent theoretical reassessments of artistic autonomy however, point to a degree of convergence in contemporary art between approaches formerly considered to be binary opposites. Christoph Menke has argued that along with autonomy, art in modernity achieves sovereignty, which enables it to raise claims against rationality. It might therefore be suggested that the autonomy of art guarantees its status as a separate sovereign sphere, with a resultant independence from the rules and conventions of society. It is autonomy that gives art, as well as artists as social actors, the potential to be free and able to offer alternatives to dominant ideological paradigms. So, sustainability of art recognises no contradiction between autonomy and engagement, as long as the formal qualities are fulfilled, as it is precisely the autonomy of art that creates a space for resistance.