Art, Freedom, Collectivism: Janet Sarbanes Talks “Letters on the Autonomy Project”

Previous Story
Article Image

BmoreArt’s Picks: January 10-16

Next Story
Article Image

Baltimore News: BOPA, MLK Day Parade, Stephanie Ybarra

This weekend I had the pleasure of chatting with Janet Sarbanes. I had just finished her new book Letters on the Autonomy Project (available in print and to download via Punctum Books) which she will be launching at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffee House on Wednesday, January 11, at 7pm.

Janet Sarbanes is the author of the short story collections Army of One and The Protester Has Been Released. The 2017 recipient of a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol art writer’s grant, she has published art criticism and other critical writing in museum catalogs, anthologies, and journals including East of Borneo, Afterall, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her essay on Shaker aesthetics and utopian communalism received the Eugenio Battisti prize from the Society for Utopian Studies. She teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program and the MA of Aesthetics and Politics in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts. 

In the face of rising authoritarianism and on the heels of urgent struggle, autonomy calls to us. How might we excavate the theory and history of autonomous politics to arrive at new possibilities for radical democracy and the radical imaginary?

How can we rethink the ways in which artistic autonomy is theorized and practiced beyond the shrunken horizon of liberal individualism? How might we understand political and artistic autonomies as linked, rather than diametrically opposed? And what role does radical pedagogy have to play in all of this? Framed by the thought of Cornelius Castoriadis, and engaging with Marxist, Black Radical, and feminist approaches to liberation, as well as movements such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Letters on the Autonomy Project understands autonomy to be the capacity of a society, a community or an individual to modify its form. As Castoriadis argues, the struggle for self-determination requires unlimited questioning of the way things are, but also that we do or make something new in light of this interrogation. Autonomy is thus equally a project for thought, for education, for politics, and for art. 

Stylistically, these open letters, addressed inclusively to artists, activists, and academics, are modeled on the philosophical letters of Friedrich Schiller on the one hand, and the revolutionary communiqués of the Zapatistas on the other. Performing a kind of writing-as-praxis, they seek to grasp the potential of our moment with reference to historical and contemporary instances of political autonomy, notions of artistic autonomy, and art practices that connect the two. They also look at the possibilities of educating for autonomy, which cannot itself be taught. If we are indeed living in a time of creative struggle to remake the whole of society, then an understanding of the autonomy project—and how theory, pedagogy, activism, and art might contribute to it—is of burning relevance.


Excerpt from Sarbanes' "Letters on the Autonomy Project"
Excerpt from Sarbanes' "Letters on the Autonomy Project"

Bart O’Reilly: You devote the letters in the book to a diverse number of movements, including the student and worker strikes of May 1968, Italian Feminists demands to be paid for housework in the early 1970’s, The Black Panther Party, The Black Arts Movement, even to residents setting off fireworks on the 4th of July in L.A. and of course recent movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter and Me Too. You see these as examples of political autonomisms. Am I right to say that?

Janet Sarbanes: Yeah. 

Could we talk about the commonalities between these movements and explain a little bit about what the Autonomy Project is? 

In terms of my motivations for writing the book, I wanted to understand the times that we are living in. They seem to me to be extraordinary. And I felt like it was important for my own growth and to send these letters out there to stimulate other people’s thinking or perhaps intersect with it. I think we’re all thinking about these things right now. Robin Kelley says that social movements raised new questions. They raised new forms of understanding and as they were going on helped continue those struggles. It’s good to evaluate as a form of praxis and try to understand what they’re telling us. So, that motivated me to sit down and write these letters, it’s not in the past. Right? This moment continues. 

In this very moment, there are these huge strikes going, in California with academic workers. Things are going on in the academic workplace, which somehow has become one of the most exploitative workplaces. And that was not always the case. In California, we had 48,000 academic workers go on strike. It was the biggest strike of its kind in U.S. history. And then in the U.K. there are academic worker strikes going on right now also. We’re living in this moment of great socio-historical creativity. SoI was really excited by this radical horizon that is being resurrected. 

As you mentioned, the topics raised in the book are wide reaching, or wide ranging. But I think the connection to the sixties and seventies to begin with was sort of instinctive. This moment feels like what we were always told those decades were like. As I kept writing I realized the comparison makes sense in a different way on the level of scale. So, in the sixties and seventies there was this idea that everything had to change right now. One liberation movement would spark another liberation movement, and so on. And I think we’re in a similar moment. In a way there was an urgency back then and then there’s an urgency now that I think particularly comes from just this question of species extinction. We know we’re not living with the earth in the way that we should, or with each other. 

I have lived through a lot of years where that wasn’t the case. Although that didn’t mean that people weren’t still struggling and moving the autonomy project forward, as Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis describes it. His work is something I use to examine these ideas in the book. But there just wasn’t this sense that maybe everything could change. 

“Autonomy” is this lens I’m using to look back at the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies and connect them to what I see going on right now. It was this notion of autonomy that allowed me to understand those movements as movements towards self-determination. Once people start questioning some things, they can begin to question other things. And so how can you come at it in a way where these aren’t competing struggles, right? 

We can apprehend these different struggles like representation for a piece of the pie. But I feel like what’s going on now is that people are struggling against forms of domination and exploitation in a variety of ways, but those struggles are feeding each other. So, there is this politics of solidarity that I think is radical, like what I think we had in the sixties and seventies. This notion of autonomy is different from the notions of personal autonomy that we are used to thinking of when we hear the word. 

My whole point is that we should be attending to the social and political dimensions around art practices now, much more so than art practices themselves, because we must come up with new ways of instituting.
Janet Sarbanes

That’s true, you point to that distinction several times in the book. I think the liberal notion that under capitalism we’re all responsible for ourselves is an example of one kind of autonomy, but that is not what you mean in this context. You describe a difference between that kind of personal autonomy a more radical collective autonomy. 

We usually understand individual autonomy as a defensive stance against the demands of the collective. But we really need autonomous individuals to form autonomous societies, and we need autonomous societies to form autonomous individuals. So, there’s this kind of interplay and that’s the project in a sense—that’s what he is talking about.

What is art’s role in all of this? And obviously autonomy is a central concept for thinking about art and for defining art. You’re a painter, so, you know, painting is such an interesting field, I think critically speaking we’re trying to define a space, a space of autonomy. Because I think all forms of art are about looking at the world and changing it and thinking that you can change it—whether it’s through materials or perspective or by highlighting the social dimensions of art, as the Avant Garde has always done. That kind of political framing.
But I also thought that art really seemed absent from what was going on now. Not the force that it was in the sixties and seventies. This notion of a counterculture was missing—which you need to sustain struggles. But it’s not even really a matter of content so much as a matter of where art is and where the institutions of art are in relation to these struggles. Are they really engaging and modifying their form or are they seeking to stay the same?

And as you mentioned, we are living in this era under liberal capitalism and one of the most prominent ideologies is hyper individualism. That is coming under real scrutiny because it’s keeping us from the collective. To figure out these problems in a way that is not dominated by the capitalist processes we need to think about the ideologies that align art with capitalism and prevent it from acting as a viable counterculture. But it’s not all an attack on art, because obviously I care about art. I think art does something important and powerful, and I’m interested in the social dimensions of art. I always have been. But we should attend to the ways in which art is shared, the way it’s received. Improvisation for example is a kind of process in which the individual isn’t subordinated to the collective or vice versa. That is interesting, there is a contribution there. But I do think we have to unstick art practices and institutions from their entombment in the catacombs of global capitalism. 

You mentioned me being a painter, one thing that was really drilled into us in an art school was that in the ‘50s and ‘60s in America there was a kind abstract painting that sought autonomy for itself as a medium. That always seemed to me to be the kind of individual autonomy that you now see as being unproductive in terms of the Autonomy Project. And it’s just something I have struggled in my own work; I have always had an interest in theory. The Frankfurt School was something that I looked to, especially Theodore Adorno’s book Aesthetic Theory which you mention in your book. I remember asking a professor were there any theorists he could point me to that defends painting as a possibility in this political sphere? And he said, no most of that theory is critical of painting as a practice, and I think that’s partially because as you say it is entombed in the market. It’s an object to be acquired, and it’s the most valuable object we have. 


Portrait of Author Janet Sarbanes

There’s something you said just early in the book, I think it’s the first letter.

 “Is it possible to be political and still be an artist or to be an artist and still be political?”

In 2016 I was talking to a curator, and I remember saying I’m not sure I’m going to keep doing this considering all that’s going on politically. He told me that a lot of artists had come to him with that question, considering the election of Donald Trump and other pressing global concerns. I loved what you said about free jazz as an example of how the individual might contribute to the collective. Do you see any specific groups of artists or collectives that you think are good instances where art can inform politics? 

Well, thank you for that question and it makes sense to ask. I think one of the things that I’m interested in with this book was not looking at individual artistic practices but trying to look at the social and political framing around those practices. In a sense, as I said, there are always people doing interesting work. There are always artists making interesting work and exploring every new stratum of the psyche and the social. So, they’re always linking to the individual and collective autonomy. There is a sense, I think, in which those practices are cut off from taking on real social and political value now and that is my target. 

I’m also interested in art criticism, that is, bringing in more history, bringing in more anthropology or even ethnography. I’m thinking of someone like Jennifer Ponce de León where the work of individual artists or collectives is always considered in relation to political struggles. It’s that kind of thinking that I’m interested in tracing and pursuing, to really get at. And this is something Gabriel Rockwell talks about that I mentioned in the book, you know, the talismanic complex. The idea that an artwork can in and of itself as a single work have a political effect.  Adorno and Marcuse believed that art, simply by its form of exchange, has a political impact. I don’t think that ever takes place in the realms in which art is received and distributed today.

As for the Frankfurt School, that is our paradigm for understanding the politics of art. I think particularly the politics of arts autonomy. It can’t intersect with the world as it is, right? It always must project this utopian kind of future and the possibility that cannot be realized in the present. But there are always other forms of art. 

I go back to the debates over social practice and relational artthat what they’re really trying to foreground is that context. But that brings me back to the question of being a painter because I’ve heard this from other artists as well. I’m a fiction writer. Like, why write a funny story? You know, I really had to figure that out for myself. How does this connect?  I believe it does connect in some way that it helps people to become freer. But it only does so if it’s in a context of people who are engaged in the political and social project of becoming free. 

There are parts in the book that conceive of the Occupy movement as a direct action at its core, because it did not, like a protest, demand freedom, but encouraged participants to act as if they were already free. You talked about an older model such as in the writings of Theodore Adorno of looking at art as a means for some future liberation. That notion was a revelation for me: being free or engaged in the present, rather than feeling like you’re striving towards a predetermined goal of freedom.

Yeah, if you’re waiting for that, you’re missing out, in a sense, on what happens in the moment. And I do think art itself prefigures affects. In the case of Occupy Wall Street and the lead up to that, those new forms of practices were about collectivity. They were about sociability. So, it wasn’t politicized yet. But when sociability is politicized, it becomes solidarity. And that’s in a sense what happened in Occupy Wall Street and it opens up this space of social imagination where both art and politics are engaged in sort of a great refusal, as Marcuse would sayand you know Marcuse is interesting in relation to Adorno, because Adorno really held fast against this idea that critical theory should kind of engage with the moment in a in a really activist way. But for Marcuse there was a moment where he understood that politics was asking for the same things that art was asking for. Back then artists understood that. 

I think when you are in a moment where people are very active and they’re actively questioning all the core meanings of our society and they’re actively questioning the very nature of politicsas Occupy Wall Street didit wasn’t civil disobedience, it was political disobedience. It wasn’t “gesturing to”; it wasn’t a petition. It transformed into Bernie Sanders campaign, but at the time, it was rejecting our way of organizing society and saying we could organize in a different way. It doesn’t mean your painting has to be about that. It’s not about the content of the painting.


To figure out these problems in a way that is not dominated by the capitalist processes we need to think about the ideologies that align art with capitalism and prevent it from acting as a viable counterculture. But it’s not all an attack on art, because obviously I care about art. I think art does something important and powerful, and I’m interested in the social dimensions of art. I always have been. But we should attend to the ways in which art is shared, the way it’s received.
Janet Sarbanes

Yeah. I really like that you also made a point of saying in the book that Occupy was a cultural moment, and that it was driven by artists, that artists instigated the Occupy movement. Another thing I was curious about was when you talk about relational aesthetics. I thought that you drew some great parallels between activism and relational art. Relational aesthetics might be a way of shifting the place in which things happen, taking art outside just the museum or gallery.

I think there was a movement of relational aesthetics further and further away from the gallery. It started out as sociability and sharing soup, but then moved into social practice, as Grant Kester talks about, these long-term projects where people were really engaging, say with the city or globally with people, trying to improve their lives. But I think that that moment is over. My whole point is that we should be attending to the social and political dimensions around art practices now, much more so than art practices themselves, because we must come up with new ways of instituting. 

I’ve been involved in some artist-run efforts and I think the thing that happens in them is that you are usually struggling so hard just to keep your head above water. It seems like that is what consumes all the time, like paying the rent. The easy way out is to just get involved in the gallery system, if you are selected to be in the gallery system, then you’ve “made it” or whatever that means, and then you’re out of that grassroots initiative that drove the work in the first place and you’re sort of in this other space, it’s complicated really, isn’t it? 

I’m not underestimating the power of that and the pressure and the fact that we live in a society where you can’t just live. You must make a living. You don’t have health care and things like that. This puts so much pressure on the artistit foregrounds a lot of work that just gets taken for granted or not acknowledged on the part of artists. But it’s just like wages for and against housework, which is how Federici titled her manifesto. It won’t just be wages for art, it must be wages for and against art. Which is to say what art is under a capitalist system versus what we understand art to be. There is an element of self-determination there. And that is really, I think, hard to find. 

So, there’s the question of who determines what art is. It’s so overdetermined by the market right now. I do think the art world and art institutions are actually very central nodes and a way of deciding this. But I don’t think just getting money for art solves the problem. I think we realize the problems are much bigger than that. 

Yeah, I mean you mentioned that you’re not talking about changing artistic practice. You’re talking about the way in which the system itself operates. Then there is more creative freedom, but it takes place in a very different context. 

In the book you describe a scene that happened in Theodore Adorno’s class. His students conceived of it as a moment of planned tenderness toward their professor. At the start of the lecture, a student walked up to the board and wrote. “He who only allows dear Adorno to rule, will uphold capitalism his entire life.” While three students wearing long leather jackets approached the podium and sprinkled rose and tulip petals over Adorno’s head and attempted to kiss him on the cheek while exposing their naked breasts to him. And then Marcuse is quoted as saying that essentially the students were attempting to bridge the gap between a medieval, outdated mode of teaching and curriculum and to meet the reality, the terrible and miserable reality, which is outside of the classroom. 

This made me think about being an academic myself.  Being a professor up there in front of the class, telling students or dictating what to do or being an authoritative figure in that sense. I wondered how you approach that in your own teaching or how you think academics should tackle that question. I think that this protest in Adorno’s class was significant in that regard. 

You know the book is a series of letters, and I like to refer to correspondences that I found interesting and that correspondence, that historical moment between Adorno and Marcuse, is really instructive for us. I teach at Cal Arts and the kind of founding pedagogy of CalArts was again very predicated on the notion that art does something different in the classroom by attending to the social, and I would say the political, dimensions because that’s really what you’re after. At CalArts, you were considered an artist from the moment you arrived. It wasn’t an apprenticeship, you didn’t have to worry about acquiring skills in quite the same way that you need to in other kinds of academic arts environments. It was looked at as faculty collaborating with students, and that faculty were just artists with more experience.  

Today, by contrast, I think art programs are very tied to the market. Again, it’s sort of like preparation for that: how to network, how to get into that. And there is this question of what are we doing? What are we learning from each other? This is what’s important about the autonomy of academic institutions. They don’t have to be just steppingstones to the art market. That there is something else that happens that has all these different dimensions to it. I think autonomy is a big part of this because when you say to a 19 year old “you are an artist,” it makes a demand. They’re not an artist yet, but they have to project themselves into that role. And you must help them see themselves as an artist. It becomes student-centered teaching, project-centered thinking. 

This goes back to Jacques Rancière and his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, that teaching is not simply explicating. Rather you help students to understand that it is a language. You don’t determine the meanings that they make. You don’t determine the forms they come up with. I think this is a central question in the academic environment and it’s important to think about. It’s education like the Berkeley Free Speech movement. Is education preparing you to be a cog in the wheel? Is it preparing you to organize your life according to capital and its processes or is there something else it is doing? 

There’s always this disparity between the ethos of the art school versus the reality of working for or within the art school. On the one hand it is espoused to be this hallowed hall of free thinking and praxis, but the treatment of adjunct professors seems to completely contradict this paradigm. How can the institution be saying this as our pedagogical model, yet this is the way we’re treating our students and the faculty? 

Right, and then there are things like student debt? You’re determining the course of their studies and they must have the money to pay for their education. 

Yes that’s another thing I think about all the time. One of my teaching positions is at a community college where I have a lot of students who want to transfer to an art school. And then they’ll ask me, how do you survive once you graduate? How do you pay back your student loans? And in all fairness, I sometimes don’t have an answer for that.

Absolutely, I think there are all kinds of reevaluations going on, but there’s great education that happens at community colleges. So, the question of prestige and elites that high tuitions guaranteeall of this needs to come under scrutiny, and it is coming under scrutiny. There’s the public service loan forgiveness program, but that got off to a rocky start. There are places like UNAM, the autonomous university in Mexico, where the students went on strike for a year to fight the equivalent of a $1 tuition because it used to be free. 

I had that in undergraduate. I went to the National College of Art in Dublin, and they instigated a €150 registration fee. I think it was in our second or third year and students protested that. I think in Europe it’s creeping up, it’s getting more expensive there too, and becoming more like the American model. 


Well Janet, it was a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and I look forward to your book launch at Red Emma’s on Wednesday, January 11 at 7pm.

Related Stories
Baltimoreans Transform Historic Farm into a MD Writers' Retreat

Ron Tanner and Jill Eicher loved the idea of an educational non-profit and ultimately decided to make it a space dedicated to writers.

An Introduction to Issue 17: Transformation

We present the region’s courageous leaders, creative explorers, and ground-breaking thinkers who are envisioning a better future and joining with others to make these collective dreams a reality.

A Conversation with the Author on Her Debut Novel, They Dream in Gold, and an Upcoming Collaboration with Her Mother, Diana Wharton Sennaar, at the BMA

As a Baltimore native and graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Sennaar has developed a voice that is as distinct as it is clever.

An Interview with This Year's Featured Authors, Kwame Alexander and Jami Attenberg

“This is a love letter to Baltimore,” says Du Pree, executive director of the CityLit Project, describing the annual festival, now in its 21st year.