Anne-Marie Bonnet (Bonn): The Myth of the ‚Autonomy‘ of Modern Art(ist) in Relation to the Networks of Legal/Juristic and Economic Contingency


Thinking about the tension between the theme of the autonomy of art - or rather its 'myth' - on the one hand and its legal and economic contingency on the other has proven to be a catalyst for the ideas of what is called 'modern/contemporary' art - or at least the western bourgeois conceptions of it. The rapport about my research on the topic will be presented in four parts:

A. General Introduction :

A.1. Preconditions for Looking at the topic ‘autonomy of/in art(ist)’  through the glasses of law and economy

 It turned out that the so-called 'autonomy' is virtually a touchstone for modernity. The concept of autonomy is regarded as fundamental, almost inherent to modernity Although it has been reflected on many times, its conception has been negotiated for a very long time primarily, theoretically and aesthetically, with brief references to the socio-historical conditions of possibilities, but it has rarely been related to the real contingency, both of the artist and of the work. Art history itself contributed for a long time to this hiding of the economic realities. For a long time it was considered ‘unfine’ or frowned upon to combine the aesthetic with the material!

A.2. Legal definition of art

Taking the legal and economic conditions of ‘autonomy’ under scrutiny has brought interesting insights to the surface. Starting with a short reflection of the immediate interaction between law and art by looking at the legal definition of art, raises the question if artists are freer/more autonomous than normal citizen ? Constitutional Law guarantees (in Germany) each citizen the freedom of expression, „why then does the constitution declare again separately that Art, Science, Research and teaching are free?“ In the context of the constitutional definition of artistic freedom/liberty of art one can find an attempt of definition of art.The fascinating point here is precisely the unanswerability of the question, whereby both sides of the questioning: here the art there the law  reveal their essence and incompatibility precisely in the mutual questioning, or determination. In this context appears the special status of the art(ist).

A.3. Special Status of the artist

 The modern artist enjoys a special status being highly regarded as an exceptional incorporation of cultural ideas of creative individuality (i.e.: autonomous sovereign individuum) and as a representative of specific cultural patterns, ideas and myths. For the time being, I would like to describe the special position of the artist in society - when we consider the economic & legal situation -  as paradoxical: s/he enjoys a high social/cultural reputation, which is inversely proportional to her/his real material/economic situation and precarious legal situation (although high fetched!). There is a lot of literature on the intellectual status, on the 'cultural grammar' of artistry, on habitus etc but very little on its real legal and economic situation, except for flowery euphemisms/descriptions

His independence/freedom so called autonomy is in fact the freedom to make himself heard or resonate on the so-called 'free' market! There is a hiatus between ideology and contingency.


B.1.  Brief recall of the historical genesis of the 'myth of autonomy' in and for art.

The new legal social conditions for artists practice established during the renaissance with a new status as ‘artist’ and their own modes of qualification (academies) and rules established their new ideological status (gifted inspired talented original) but legally and socially they were dependant on commands and their commanditors or maecenas. This was the case until modern times, when the commands were replace by the so called free market.

B.2. so called ‘klassische Moderne’: DADA - Duchamp

Duchamp as a key figure whose work is seminal for the reflection of the very specifity of western (Bourgeois art)

B.3 ca. 1830/50 until to day 2016

The now autonomous artist, i.e.  free from the rules of the academy or the wishes of commands he is was now free to find his place in the so called  ‘art world’ i.e. the ‘free market’. Around 1860 the so called ‘art world’ we know today existed and from the very beginning there are debates about what the autonomy/freedom of the modern artists means. The differences between the economic context and cultural coding of art has  been ignored by art history for a long time!

What ‘autonomy’ means in 'modernity' until the present will be presented in case studies in which precisely the activation or thematization of the interaction between art and economy and/or law became a central concern. These are exemples of art works conceptually activating/using the economical and legal ‚situation’(’conditions of possibility’:Bourdieu). This conceptualism is an artistic approach that reflects on the contractual, economic and social relations governing the mediation of art. Exemples of artists that explore the legal and economic spheres in, through and with art: Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, Seth Siegelaub, Maria Eichhorn, Carey Young, Andrea Fraser. They all uses aspects of legal moments or economic aspects in their artistic production and explore the  “contract” as a method of neo-institutional critique. This leeds to a consideration of the role of ‘cotracts’ and ‘values’ in law and economy on one side and the arts on the other side.

C. Role of the ‘Contract Principle’ &Values in the world of ‘Art’/’Law’/’Economy’

A contract documents processes of negotation, agreements between protagonists.  In art it becomes at the same time medium of the work and makes visible the social and economic relations (e.g. the contractual) that govern art’s mediation,’consumption’, distribution and ’reception’. The performativity of a contract is at the core of its artistic ‘usability’. Since contracts are mechanims for producing and exchanging ‘values’ then question arises : what are the ‘values’ in the art world ? While the church held the monopoly of legitimate manipulation of the values of salvation or ethical values, as Bourdieu showed, the academy, then the museum became the central bank of symbolic capital or aesthetic values, until the so called ‘free market’ took over and with it the diktat of economy. As Daniel Mc Lean has shown: Siegeslaub attempt of legal and economic regulation of the artist’s status became key moment in the history of conceptual art and „ paradoxically this attempt of securing the autorship of dematerialized art works .. turned them into commodities”. Thus the tensions and reciprocal influencing between the spheres:

economy <=> status of work & artist

law <=>status of work &artist

became evident as well as those between theory and commodification.

We have seen what art reveals about law and economy, or vice versa what (which dimensions) law and economy reveal in art(s).

D. Final conclusion so far/ to day:

The role of economic contingeny and legal/juridical conditions are deeply interwoven with the concept of art/the redefinition of art during the ‚concept art’ movement, which came up when the artist tried to get in controle or rather to keep controle of their work : when their autonomy was at stake! They realized that as soon as a work leaves the studio they loose controle. Since Duchamp we know ‘Kunst ist Vereinbarung’: Art is a contract, a deal, a convention, an accord, a declaration, a settlement, a consensus, a reciprocal agreement, a pact, a predefinition art is a contract/a belief system.The inner relationsship between the concepts of art and law culture became blatent in Seth Siegelaub’s initiative and all the further exemples. The culture of law and the culture of art challenge each other (against the background of economic conditions).

„Cultures in their very nature are marked by contests for control on the conception of reality „ as Anthony J. Amsterdam and Jérome Bruner write in their „Minding the Law“, so in fact as well in the ‘arts’ as in ‘law’ :

It is all about control of values and the definiton of reality.

The only ‘real’ autonomy is the one reflecting it’s contractual legal and economic as well as aesthetic prerequisites and working at being in controle of the unevitable sociohistorical ‘situation’.

Curriculum Vitae

Prof. Dr. Anne-Marie Bonnet studied German and English Studies at the Faculté des Lettres in Aix-en-Provence as well as Art History, German and Romance Studies at the University of Heidelberg, where she also successfully graduated with a Magister degree in 1980. At the University of Heidelberg, Prof. Dr. Anne-Marie Bonnet was awarded her doctorate in 1982 with a dissertation on the subject “Rodenegg und Schmalkalden, Untersuchungen zur Illustration einer ritterlich-höfischen Erzählung und zur Entstehung profaner Epen-Illustration in den ersten Jahrzehnten des 13. Jahrhunderts”. In 1992, she earned her habilitation with the work “Der ‘Akt’ bei Dürer und die Rezeption durch zeitgenössische Künstler” at the Department of Art History at the University of Munich. From 1993 to 1996, Prof. Dr. Anne-Marie Bonnet was Lecturer of “Deutsche Kunst – Kunst der Moderne” at the University of Leipzig. During the winter term in 1996, she worked as Professor for “Kunst des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts” at the University of Freiburg before moving to the University of Bonn in 1997. Prof. Dr. Anne-Marie Bonnet has since held the professorship for “Mittlere und Neuere Kunstgeschichte” at the Department of Art History at the University of Bonn. Since 1999 she has also been playing an active role in various commissions, executive boards, and foundations, including the Kunstverein Bonn since 2005 and the Federal Commission on the Acquisition of Contemporary Art for the Art Collection of Germany from 2007 to 2011. She likewise served as a member on the advisory board for the jubilee exhibition 450 Jahre Kunstsammlungen Dresden from 2009 to 2010.

Since October 2018 Prof. Dr. Anne-Marie Bonnet is Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Center “Law as Culture”.