Art & Autonomy


Are we benefitting society?

Do we consider ourselves useful to others?

What can artists do in their practice to produce something meaningful in terms of social and political autonomy?


A degree in fine art provides a space to think. A space to think differently; to question aspects of society and life that people may otherwise take for granted.

Towards the end of our time in the academic institution, after the manic excitement of the degree show had passed there seemed to be a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the school of Fine Art. We had been able to experience the buzz of art and curating exhibitions but we had the space and safety net of academia to carry us through. Without this, people started to question why? Why they were pursuing this path or idea when they could have studied architecture or law got “good” jobs and had an obvious role in society.

These issues and uncertainties were raised and scrutinized in the recent talk and discussion from John Byrne and students from Liverpool John Moores University who have recently published the ‘Manual of Useful Art’. The talk was held at the Whitechapel Gallery in association with their recent exhibition ‘The Spirit of Utopia’, aiming to provoke thought into alternative futures for the economy, the environment and social change enabling the viewer to participate installations and events signifying models for social change. In our current climate these kinds of discussion seem prevalent within the arts, probing at what artists or art can do to help.


‘Autonomy’ was a leading topic in the conversation and described as something that had to be struggled for, collaborated for, and worked hard for. The autonomy project, initiated by John Byrne, grew out of a frustration of how to talk about art and art practice.

In an artistic field, this term (autonomy) finds itself unfortunately wedged between two possibilities: the romantic notion of the isolated Artist, developing works in a studio, unaffected by the socio-political beyond his walls; or the cold reality that to operate within those same socio-political arenas an artist and the mediators involved in a creative action are only there to facilitate public agenda(s) or to smooth social process.

The autonomy project is run by John Byrne (LJMU) Steven ten Thije (Van Abbemuseum) and Clare Butcher (independent curator, South Africa).

It seems there is always a need for validation when it comes to having a career as an artist. A constant pat on the back is required. Many artists tend to exist with a strict set of rules (i.e. artist statements) about what it is they do, often using the same art jargon to compile them, but as Byrne pointed out ‘this business of labels and labelling can become fearfully difficult’. Validation for our art to be meaningful can also translate as validation for our art to be useful. Therefore, it is unfortunate that many artists have become businessmen and see their success commercially.

John Byrne asks the question, ‘is autonomy now just for petty bourgeoisie artists who can run their own business as “artists”?’


The autonomy project and useful arts project has produced many interactive events:

–          Autonomy summer schools were created for emerging artists thinking about the relationship between use value and useful art. The students said these debates started off intellectually and ended on a more practical level.

–          Grizedale Arts, partners of the useful art projects, looked back to John Ruskin and the Mechanics’ Institutions which offered uneducated workers free education.

–          The Mobile Art School symposium sought ideas in how to reinvent art schools and scrutinize what they do and why.

Conclusions from this discussion at Whitechapel Gallery were similar to the conclusions reached at our own symposium, For What It’s Worth: The Relevance of Art Education Today. Art school exists to equip people with tools to go out and think differently in an ever growing instrumental environment.

As artists everything we make is applied and motivated by something urgent and real, so making or doing something that will exist in an active and dynamic way for people is surely one of the purest forms of art. Conversely when art becomes a business for the “petty bourgeoisie” (or “hipsters”) surely it loses that urgency and passion in which the romanticized stereotype of an artist is built upon.


Artists have a sense of urgency which drives what they make and the way that they think. John Byrne’s own sense of urgency came from our time of incredibly pressing political crisis and sees this project as grounding for thinking about addressing the problem and not claiming to have found the solutions. The main problems being how do you open spaces if there isn’t an outside exterior from capitalism?




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