Domeniek Ruyters: Why this title: The Uses of Art? It suggests that art has another dimension than some of us, used to a more autonomous interpretation of art, might think it has.
Charles Esche: Well, you know Domeniek, that we have been working on this word at VAM for quite a while. To cut a very long story short, I could say that the role of autonomy in modern art is not its role in contemporary practice. Rather than freedom of expression, it is more related to the economy of attention and how ideas gain purchase in a competitive environment. So autonomy remains a crucial concept but instead we talk about use in order to get at autonomy from another angle and, of course, we realise that some people within the world of art find that difficult.
There is also one danger of misinterpretation that people overlook the plural of uses. We are not advocating that art has only one use, but want to address its potential utility within our current ‘overcoded’ conditions (to use Brian Holmes vocabulary). We suggest that the main issue today is not the form of art as such, but much more how we engage with it, how we debate it, how it inspires us to think creatively about where we are and where we could go. Those who at the moment fetishize autonomy as something that needs to be protected make an important mistake, because they cling on to a past value without engaging it with the present tense. Often when having discussions with people who champion autonomy at the end we find that we both value exactly the same things in art, its openness, its possibility to think differently and present things we’ve never seen before. Where we part company is that we believe we should find ways to allow this openness to have agency in the present, when it can constructively manifest itself in the lives of people.