Autonomy and Commitment in Contemporary British Arts, Montpellier France, 28-29 May 2010

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J.-M. Ganteau and C. Reynier, EA741, Université Montpellier 3
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Autonomy and Commitment in Contemporary British Arts

A CERVEC Conference (EA 741 “Etudes des Pays anglophones”)

Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier III

28-29 May 2010

Our first conference on Autonomy and Commitment in Contemporary British
Literature attempted to reappraise postmodern literature in the light of
the two notions of autonomy and commitment that criticism has throughout
the years played against each other, the New Critics, the structuralists
and post-structuralists defending the thesis of a self-sufficient work of
art while other schools of criticism—cultural, feminist, Marxist,
post-colonial studies, etc.—have insisted on the connection between art
and the socio-political context. Should we come to the conclusion that the
autonomy of the work of art is necessarily at odds with any form of
commitment? Or that the so-called autonomy of the work of art is
fundamentally deceptive and finally impossible? Is commitment
intrinsically linked with art and autonomy nothing but a form of respect
for a certain class-determined ideology? Or should the two concepts be
re-thought and re-defined both individually and in relation to each other?
These are the questions that we now want to ask about contemporary arts,
in the wake of the 2009 conference on Autonomy and Commitment in
Modernist British Arts which addressed a wide range of productions, from
painting to sculpture, from film to photography, from radio plays to music
and which covered a wide array of movements: post-impressionism,
vorticism, expressionism, etc.

One might claim that autonomy has been banned from the contemporary
period, when the superb abstraction of Modernist forebears, in its
explicit autonomy, has been replaced by dependence on the generosity of
patrons (one is inevitably reminded of the role of the Saatchi group in
promoting the YBA, from the groundbreaking “Sensation” exhibition onwards
at least), a far cry from the Modernist experiments. The fact that Rachel
Whiteread’s most famous works should systematically bear witness to
collective memory seems to substantiate the hypothesis of the impossible
autonomy of contemporary art that remains committed to the past and
foregrounds its responsibility to collective, historical trauma. Sam
Taylor Wood’s reliance on and faithfulness to the genres and forms of the
past (from Fra Angelico to Cézanne through Chardin) betokens yet another
form of attachment and signposts the impossibility of autonomy.

Or does it? Is such art, in its flaunted dependency, to be understood as a
form of autonomy? Would abstraction (or at least contemporary artists’
problematization of mimetic devices), which Modernists tended to conflate
with autonomy, have become the correlate, even the modality, of a form of
commitment? Said differently, can committed art (aesthetically,
politically, religiously, ethically) be autonomous in any way? Or is
autonomy, both from the socio-historical context and the artistic context,
unthinkable, and if so, does it mean that art is necessarily synonymous
with commitment? Responsibility? Must art be a site of resistance,
expounding a message, defending a political point of view? Are such
politically committed art works servile and simply cultivating a clear
conscience? Conversely can committed art be autonomous? Are autonomy and
commitment exclusive of each other or compatible or even, necessary to
each other? Along what spectrum have they come to cohabit?
These are some of the tracks that those among you committed to
contemporary British arts are invited to follow, pursue further or
question in this conference on Autonomy and Commitment in Contemporary
British Arts that will take place at the University Montpellier III on
28-29 May 2010. Delineating the type of relation there may be between
these two apparently antagonistic notions of autonomy and commitment in
contemporary artistic production will be the aim of this conference.
Walter Benjamin's writings about the “aura”, Adorno's “Commitment” or his
essays on music, or more recent essays by Jameson, de Bolla or
Castoriadis among others may be apt starting-points for such a reflection
as well as the contemporary artists' own essays (one might think of
Winterson’s contributions, here).

Proposals dealing with the two combined notions of autonomy and commitment
in relation to modernist painting, sculpture, cinema, photography, music,
etc. will be considered carefully. Selected papers will be published in a
volume at the Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée.

Proposals of about 300 words should be sent by the 28 February 2010 to
Jean-Michel Ganteau ( and Christine
Reynier (
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