domingo, 12 de maio de 2013

The Work of Art adn the Self-Reproduction of Art by Niklas Luhmann

The following analyses are guided by two abstractions, (1) On the one hand they ignore all differences between individual art forms. Whether literature or theatre, plastic arts or music — all are relevant as long as social com­munication treats the object (by whatever criteria) as a work of art. Our interest is in the consequences flowing from the differentiation of art accord­ing to the special code: beautiful/ugly; here the differences between individual art forms are not immediately important. The second abstraction concerns the perspective which governs the posing of the problem, it requires a more extensive presentation.

We can discern in reality certain kinds of systems, which following a suggestion of Humberto Maturana are called “autopoietic” systems. These systems produce the elements of which they consist, by means of the ele­ments of which they consist. It is thus a question of self-referential closed systems or, more exactly, of systems which base their relation to their envir­onment (i.e. Umwelt) on circular, closed operational connexions. This kind of self-reference involves not only reflexion (i.e. the system can observe and describe its own identity), but also the fact that everything which functions in the system as unity receives its unity through the system itself, and this applies not only to structures and processes but also to the individual elements which for the system itself cannot be further broken down.

It is not difficult following this theory to define society as an autopoietic system. It consists of communications which are made possible and repro­duced by the communications of which it consists. What is regarded and treated as the unity of a communication cannot be pre-given by the environ­ment but is given by the connexion with other communications — above all by the conditions of meaningful negation (rejection). The concept of autopoietic systems thus fits society as a whole, and at the same time leads to an unequivocal delimitation of the societal system in relation to its environment in which there is no communication. The question is then whether this is the only case of autopoiesis in the sphere of social systems, or whether, and under what social-historical conditions, other social systems can also attain this structural form of self-referential closure and autonomy in the constitution of their elements.

My hypothesis is that the structure of modern society makes it possible to form autopoietic subsystems. The way in which this occurs is determined by the functional differentiation of the social system. It seems to be the case that not all social systems have reached the degree of autonomous differ­entiation which allows autopoietic self-reproduction. As a logical, lawlike compulsion is not apparent, we must therefore consider from case to case whether and at what level of development functional systems not only reach a certain autonomy and capacity for regulation but also dispose over the elements of which they consist.

This can be shown with sufficient clarity for the legal and the economic systems of modem society. In the one case, the system becomes autonomous through the communication of normative legal expectations, which can only be validated by reference back to other elements of the same system. In the other case, the system consists of monetary payments, which presuppose and permit monetary payments. This cannot be fully explicated here. In any case it cannot be seen as chance that precisely these two functional spheres dispose over a highly developed systems technology, and were able to repres­ent society in the liberal phase of the modern development of society.

For all functional systems the same question can be asked about the connexion between differentiation and self-referential closure as the basis for an open and complex relation to the environment. Only when this connexion can be made can closedness and openness increase and become more complex. The theme of the following considerations is directed to one of these functional systems, the social system of the production and reception of works of art (the system of art). And in this limited framework we shall only be able to treat some problems which arise when this system achieves autonomy over the determination of its elements, strives for self- referential closure and precisely thereby seeks to develop its sensibility in relation to its environment. As against Adorno it is a question here not of “autonomy vis-a-vis society” but of autonomy within society; we see the social nature of art not in negativity, in an “oppositional position towards society” (2) but in the fact that emancipation for a specific function is only possible within society.

Correspondingly, the autonomy of art attained in modern society is not something which excludes social dependence, nor something which drives art into a hopeless marginalisation. On the contrary: art shares the fate of modern society precisely because it seeks to find its way as an autonomous system.

That art has become differentiated as an autopoietic functional system in modern society is shown particularly clearly in the fate of all attempts to call into question the traditional criteria of the beautiful, the functions of representation, and even the symbolic quality of works of art. This calling into question becomes itself the execution of the autopoiesis of art. The denial of all expressive intentions is thus understood as a particularly refined and elusive expressive intention — despite all assertions to the contrary.

The reduction to mere objects, if that is the intention, does not escape the "frame effect”. (3) Like every operation of a self-referential system the execution of the artistic operation must involve preconditions, even if it is only the pre­condition of fitting into the system. Even an unlimited arbitrariness in the choice of form and theme would not be able to alter this. The operations create “inviolate levels” and are nothing other than a reference to the execu­tion of the autopoiesis of art; one can seek to avoid every definition of this precondition and allow it to change with the operations, but this only makes it clearer that it is a matter of autopoiesis. The alternative would be: to leave the system.


If art with all its forms is seen as a social system and one asks about the elements of which this system consists, one is led to individual works of art. We could therefore suppose: art consists of works of art and what a work of art is is determined by art. Circular definitions of this kind are nothing new, they were commonplace as constituents of theories of good taste in the first half of the 18th century. Our problem is first of all whether the work of art is really the elementary unit of the art system, which cannot be further broken down. Sociologically speaking this would be an anomaly. For society already consists of communications (not, for instance, of texts), and communications are events not objects; and the economy also does not consist of commodities or capital but of payments. If we follow this line, then we can consider the work of art, if need be. as a compact communica­tion or as a programme for innumerable communications about the work of art. Only thus does it become social reality.

In other words, works of art ensure a minimum of unity and interrela­tionship (e.g. the possibility of supplementation) of the communications about them. They concentrate, as it were, their context. Alter understands within certain limits what Ego experiences when, to put it in an old fashioned way, he enjoys a work of art, that is appropriates it. Communication about it, although it is in no way a question of a simple fact, can be correspond­ingly abbreviated. Communication tolerates and hides at the same time a high degree of discrepancy in what the participants consciously register and work through. The work of art unifies their communication. It organises their participation. It reduces, although this is a highly improbable state of affairs, the arbitrariness of the foreseeable response, it regulates expecta­tions. To submit to this with insight was once called “taste”.

Without reference to a corresponding object this order in communication could not come about. This is banal in the sense that one could not talk about potatoes if they did not exist. However, the work of art is separated from the world of useful or dangerous things. It seems to be made specific­ally in order to provoke communication. It is not a question of a sum of isolated pleasures to be attained but of a socially-arrived-at judgement which has no other meaning beyond itself. In art, one could almost say. communication becomes its own purpose, to use a problematic concept. At any rate it is pushed to improbable, and yet, agreed lengths. One’s own response is experienced as guided, so that even the most intricate and esoteric subterfuge offers the prospect of reproduction, i.e. the possibility of consensus. This is the reason why explicit communication to a great extent need not occur, indeed can even be felt as inappropriate? Whoever advances and grounds his judgement of art is already in danger of appearing as someone who does not speak (superfluously) about the work of art, but about himself.

The dissolving capacity of sociological analysis goes beyond the unity (wholeness, harmony, perfection) of the work of art. However, by this very means, it grounds a new understanding of this unity. Unity does not reside in the degree of centralisation of the problematic, nor in the interdepend­ence of details, and certainly not in the risk of failure or in the avoidance of mistakes. These are all viewpoints which are not to be neglected: guiding viewpoints of production, auxiliary viewpoints of admiration, and reference points for the explicated discourse. But the unity of the work of art lies finally in its function as a programme of communication, where the pro­gramme can be so self-evident that it requires no argumentation and conveys the certainty of already having been understood. Precisely that is what the theory of good taste seems to have meant, when in its analyses of artistic judgment it emphasised the speed of the formation of opinions, immediate certainty, intuition and the avoidance of all intermediary questioning by the understanding.


Now that we know what they are good for, let us concentrate further analysis on the works of art themselves. It must be here, if anywhere, that we look for the key to the autopoiesis of art.

The work of art is both condition and obstacle for the autopoiesis of art. Without works of art there would be no art, and without the prospect of new works of art no social system of art (only museums and their visitors). “New” means here, as it has since the 17th century, not only another example, but rather something which diverges from the foregoing and thus surprises. Genius lies in the accomplishment of discontinuity: it is clear that this temporal discontinuity presupposes a social discontinuity, i.e. the differ­entiation of art from the tutelage of other, above all religious and political, interests.

In this conjunction of the new with the surprising and the divergent more is involved than is immediately apparent. For whatever has to be new has for this reason no future. It cannot remain new. It can only be admired as that which was new. The social system of art is thus faced from this point on with the problem of the continual disappearance of newness. With this accords the view of art theory which holds that the work of art should be a self-contained, harmonic whole complete in itself, which guarantees its permanence in time through sovereign disregard for time itself. This still leaves the question, however, of what the individual work of art can then contribute to the self-reproduction of art.

That the individual objects are kept ready for admiration, repeatedly viewed, read, performed, and preserved as far as possible from destruction, goes without saying. Their destruction or even their sale abroad would be an ‘‘irreplaceable loss”. They are sanctified and secured with safety alarms. We cannot go on without them.......... but actually not with them either. Their prices are rising, their truth gains clarity, but our intercourse with them in the social system of art unexpectedly acquires another quality. Boredom creeps in, and official celebrations have almost the effect of a stubborn refusal of this state of affairs, of a counter measure or a compensation.

This is not least a question of the formal qualities of the work of art itself. Form is unstated self-reference. The fact that it can, as it were, put self­reference on ice shows that a problem has been solved. Form at the same time refers to the context which poses the problem and to itself. (4) It presents self-difference and self-identity together. Where this succeeds the impression of self-sufficiency is created. The work of art creates its own context. It seeks to harmonise form and context, to be the unity of this difference. The art form absorbs all references and what it radiates back is only its own significance.

Furthermore, the (aesthetic) form must be ambivalent to the degree that it gives pause and directs questions back to the work of art. It must stimu­late the comprehension of self-reference and thus also communication about the work of art. It has always been accepted and demanded that the work of art arouse “astonishment”. The “aestheticisation” of art requires in addition that only the work of art itself can answer the questions which it raises and that neither knowledge of its style nor of its function is suffi­cient as an answer. “Astonishment” is thus relieved of all kinds of functions of directing attention in the interest of religion, morality and politics; it too is, so to speak, differentiated.

The particular qualities of the aesthetic form are functional for the organisation of the experience of, and communication about art. They are dysfunctional for the autopoiesis of the system of art itself. For how is it to continue? What does the individual self-contained work of art contribute to making other works of art possible? Where does the “organisation” of autopoiesis lie if the work of art must lay value on its own isolation? The egg produces a chicken in order to produce another egg. The work of art would be the chicken, but where is the egg? Or: what corresponds to the genetic material - - always dependent on the environment and to an increased degree — which ensures the continuity of self-reproduction?


Our question can be answered with the aid of the concept of style. We define this concept functionally, without reference at this stage to its use in art theory. The style of a work of art allows us to recognize what it owes to other works of art and what it means for other, new works of art. The function of style is to organize the contribution of the work of art to the autopoiesis of art and in fact in a certain sense against the intention of the work of art, which aims for self-containment. Style corresponds to and contradicts the autonomy of the individual work of art. It respects it and despite this diverts surplus value. It leaves the uniqueness of the work of art untouched and yet establishes lines of connexion to other works of art.

For this concept of style it is unimportant whether style is introduced as a means of observation, description, analysis and criticism of works of art, or whether it already co-determines their production, i.e. artistic “praxis”. If this scholarly distinction has any relevance it does not apply here. The two levels have influenced each other at least since the early Renaissance. (5) At most one could say that the difference between observation and praxis is set up within the system of art and thus presupposes its differentiation, and perhaps also that something like style (or functional equivalents e.g. rules and recipes) brings about a corresponding difference of levels, i.e. of operation and observation as schooled, experienced observation.

Our functional determination of the concept of style also avoids the much discussed question: must styles dominate a whole epoch in order to fulfil their historical mission or is this neither necessary nor desirable? This is more a problem for the writing of art history than for art itself. The prob­lem of what a work of art says, assimilates and influences beyond itself can be solved within the framework of a pluralism of styles, even at the limit in terms of “the personal style” of an artist. We don’t have to carry the longing for unity so far that pluralism and eclecticism become prejorative concepts. On the contrary: art is perhaps better advised when it avoids the risk of a unified style and opts for multiplicity, as long as associations (eclecticism?) remain possible. The question whether and under what con­ditions unified styles dominate whole epochs is therefore excluded. It can only be answered in any case if we have clarified what is lo be understood
by “style”, and whether this phenomenon can actually support a special historical “compulsion to unity”.

If the considerations of the last section apply, style cannot be simply decided by differences of form. Rather it involves the work of art in its central statement: the manner in which form and context are related. It is the unity of this difference, and the manner in which it is achieved which makes the style of a work of art possible. Here context is everything which con­stitutes the horizon of the work of art and regulates ils references. It can and will also include negative references by means of omission, abbreviation and abstraction. Also the quoting of other works of art (often ironically, think of Stravinsky; or between art forms, think of the written quotations in Hanns Trier’s paintings) belongs only to the context. Style is not to be found in the quotation, but only in the way it contributes, as a quotation, to the form of the work of art (and not only as an element of the form).

Style can arise from the model character of individual works of art. It is thus possible in an effortless and unreflected way. The church tower of St. Paul de Leon becomes the model for other church towers in Brittany. This is only possible, however, if copying is permitted, if the uniqueness of the work of art is not a condition of quality and if prescriptive production is not harmful. Etymologically speaking copia originally meant a positive evaluation. In rhetoric, for example, it expresses the abundance of forms and figures of speech, and only when they are readily available in printed form does the meaning of “copying” become negative. As long as copying is praised as drawing on the rich knowledge of perfect forms, then the level of meaning of style lies in the similarity of works of art. This level is not clearly differentiated from the form and execution of the works. However, the reproduction process must substitute for the original object and its context more abstract symbols and it is this which compels the reduction to characteristics of a “style”.

The concept of style can already be applied etymologically to such pro­cesses. It refers then, and this is the case for the official terminology until far into the 18th century, to the manner (maniera) of the work of art. A further clarification did not appear to be necessary. In any case the literature on problems of style since antiquity is concerned more with distinctions than with what the distinctions have in common, which would have been the self­understanding of rhetoric. Even when the prescriptive production of works of art was rejected and value was placed on originality (but not singularity) this concept of style was still retained. It seems to have had, as the correlat­ive of the rejection of art governed by rules, just as indispensable a function, but now, as it were, as the compensatory concept to the rejection of rules.

On the one hand, style is thus not a recipe or a programme of decision by means of which the correctness of execution and the correctness of judge­ment of a work of art could be judged. This task was taken over historically to an ever greater degree by the work of art itself. On the other hand, not everything is acceptable. The proclamation of the sovereignty of the work of art raises the problem, like all proclamations of sovereignty, of arbitrari­ness and its control; and here there appears to be an increased recourse to nature and also to style at the beginning of the 18th century. The differen­tiation of the programme of decision and of style was basically already decided when the pluralism of styles and the eclecticism of execution were lirst registered — that is, in the 16th century. The rejection of art produced according to the rules is only a continuation of already observable uncertainty (contingency ). The work of art serves then the mastering of contingency and its return to necessity (6) and thus fulfils a function which could not yet be realised on the level of styles. It is only consistent then, that each work of art is accorded the right to be its own programme. However, what now guarantees that they will be art at all, and that there will go on being art?

This problem was not at all acute at first because the continuation of art was bound into the social structure and thereby guaranteed. The higher classes and the already differentiated functional centres of religion and politics saw to commissions. They needed art to illustrate their importance and this all the more as the old world was already reaching its limits. In the semantics devoted to art we nevertheless already find “preadaptive advances”, adaptations to something which does not yet exist; and it is not by chance that this anticipation of the future can be traced particularly clearly in the discussion of style.

If it can be generally said that works of art produce astonishment and admiration, now the kind of astonishment intended changes. The miracul­ous, pompous, exaggerated style is replaced by the call for the simple, the natural and the sublime. The concept of style includes both; it is still defined as manner or as a way of arousing interest, but the astonished interest, the pleasure, the agreeable feeling that style should arouse has now become autonomous. The work of art is no longer employed for the support and magnification of hierarchically superior meanings; it is no longer just decora­tion for churches and palaces. It no longer aims for that amazement, of which Shaftesbury said, it is “of all other Passions the easiest rais’d in raw and unexperienc’d Mankind”. On the contrary: it reckons with artistic connoisseurs. Now art produces its own public, and the only question now is who can participate.

When this development is first to be observed and what caused it needs more precise research. At all events it is clear that around 1700 artists are interested in a public aware of specific questions of art and aesthetically experienced and that this is more important than positive or negative judgements in individual cases. Admiration is not sufficient, it must be knowledgeable admiration. That means: art no longer consists only of the performance role of the artists; it requires, for only thus can it becomes a social system, the differentiation of a public specific to this system, the differentiation of complementary roles. The differentiation of a social
system for art results, in other words, in the differentiation of the difference between professionals and public.

At the same time the model of rhetoric disappears for the artist. Rhetoric had never demanded that the speaker share the attitudes and feelings which he seeks to produce in his audience. Precisely the bridging of this difference was his creative role, and it is this which is increasingly called into question towards the end of the 17th century in love as in art. An authentic relationship is now called for, and on this basis a community of views and attitudes, of enthusiasm is differentiated as something special. Exclusion and inclusion need now to be freshly regulated without recourse to rules and prescriptions which are used and controlled independently of attitude.

In other respects too this retreat of the rhetorical tradition, directed to a non-reading public, can be observed. For instance redundancy can be arranged in a freer and more individual fashion. The addressee can no longer rely on formulaic stereotypes; especially in poetry and literature one can develop one’s understanding through the text itself, and traditional formulas seem boring or even an imposition which underestimates the abil­ities of the observer or reader.

The system of art is thus placed under increasing, individually varied claims and needs new titles for artists. That they are artists now indicates only their self-allotted position in this functional system. They have to be, for instance, geniuses in order to distinguish themselves in this already differentiated sphere. For the same reason the manner in which art draws attention to itself changes. The old “amazement” has to be hotted up. And then the question of aesthetic norms, which guide production and critical judgement, is confronted with new demands. Finally, the understanding of style is related to the self-regulation of this relation between professionals and public and becomes temporalised in the course of this development. Only when there is no style to be found must new kinds of solutions be found for the relation of artist and public and especially for the old problem of amazement — for instance in the form of provocative or plaintive art or in the form of the grim effort to laugh at people, who do not take it seriously or do not even notice that they are being laughed at.


The functional definition of the concept of style is at the same time a histor­ical concept. By “historical concept” I mean that the concept is codetermined by a historical difference which it itself brings about. This does not exclude a functional definition but on the contrary presupposes it. The problem produced by the distinction between work of art and style is itself a histor­ical problem. It is given by the differentiation of a system of art. And only in relation to this problem does the recognition and change of style (as opposed to the work of art itself) make a difference. Or more concretely: it is not simply the model character of the work of art itself which fulfils the function of style, rather style becomes differentiated as a special level of intercourse with works of art. And only by this means is it possible to indi­vidualise the perfection of the work of art (freeing it of its model character) and at the same time posit style itself as authoritative and changeable.

The reference problem of the differentiation of autopoietic subsystems arises only in history and only relatively late - certainly long after the existence of art. Long before the problem became relevant the concept of style was already ready for it. With a difference of levels enters into the system of art. With it contingency as the possibility of choice of style could be formulated without making the individual work of art arbitrary: the work of art could assert its own necessity under the rule of a style (or even through eclecticism of styles). All this does not, however, explain how style fulfils its function, let alone whether and what restrictions of possible styles can be derived from the function.

The key to the further consideration of this question is offered by the temporalisation and historicisation of unified styles, their reshaping into epochal concepts. (7 ) This turning point is usually identified historically: along with many other historicisations it is carried through in the second half of the 18th century after Winckelmann had successfully used the concept of style as a means of art-historical research. (8) But what exactly had changed? The phenomenon of epochal styles and their sequence had not been unknown earlier. It was for instance widely recognised that the burlesque style of a Cervantes had been directed against the chivalric romances (which appear in the novel only as reading matter). But this polemical formation of style was not persuasive. It contradicted all the idealising praises used to recommend the work of art. It was also impossible to imagine how a style, directed to the destruction of an earlier style, could gain permanent validity; for what was the point of perpetuating the destruction once it had done its work. It was the old theme of varietas temporum, but one saw in it only a lack of permanence and perfection in the world which also affected art. Changes in views of art and of styles were registered, but they were seen in the light of differences of quality, decadence was noted or conversely past styles were given terms of abuse (gothic, barocco, etc.), which then later became the familiar style description. Time and the change of styles are negatively accounted for in the one or the other direction.

Only the historicisation of styles in the second half of the 18th century finally breaks with the traditional conceptions of time which had always allowed the unity of the beautiful, the true and the good to be thought of as the acme of perfection. Only now can the work of art fully lay claim to its own singularity; for the individual uniqueness of the work of art is the surest guarantee that art always produces something new. Only now does a theoretical aesthetic begin to work with problems specific to a sphere — that is, to react through reflexion to the differentiation of the functional system of art. The now temporalised concept of style is no longer suitable as a substitute for rules; and it no longer grounds in compensatory fashion the artistic value of the work of art. Instead it makes possible a consciously historically situated politics of style. Previously the politics of style e.g. the Academic Francaise in Colbert’s lime had been a politics of purifica­tion; concern for the selection and legitimation of those forms which guaranteed quality. Now it is a question of decisions by means of which one gains historical distance and defines what corresponds to one’s own time. This is no longer meant prescriptively but assures only the framework within which the work of art acquires meaning beyond itself.

One of the most important consequences of historicisation is that the comparability of works of art aquires a temporal direction and is thereby limited. Traditional art theory had measured all works of art against com­mon ideals of perfection and then, as can be read in the Lives of Vasari, placed them in temporal sequence. Time led to perfection — or at a time of decadence away from it. Now historical placing takes priority and is located deep in the work of art, which compares itself with previous art. seeks and gains distance, aims for difference, excludes already given possibilities. By this means it defines its style or the style it relates to. However, comparisons directed to the future make no sense. The work of art cannot define itself by its distance from future possibilities which have not yet been conceived. Giotto could not paint “not yet like Raphael”. And the historian who makes such comparisons fails his object, history. They are possible for art theory but only when tied to the precondition of a classical ideal of perfection.

This is the case not least because art through its disposition over styles has the opportunity, which practically no other functional system (least of all religion) has, of breaking abruptly with the past. Because works of art are anyway complete art can consciously and ruthlessly create discontinuity. It is not compelled to continuity. It does not have to wait until the invest­ments have been written off. It does not even owe its patrons continuity. It can immediately fulfil the wish for the new. This is why art often produces anticipatory signals in social evolution which can be read retrospectively as prognoses. This is all the more easy if changes of style no longer indicate differences of quality and leave the validity of works of art of the past untouched. While every work of art strives to be as good as possible, the aim of style is not the better but the different. Seen from this perspective the work of art becomes an element in a development of style, in which there is an awareness of style as a completeable and replaceable unity. The work of art could contribute nothing to the development of style if this were not the case. It could only have an insignificant effect if style were an endless, infinitely continuable quantity. The temporal structure of style itself, its micro-time, allows it to further construction or defy decadence, to operate avantgardistically or nostalgically, and to engage the whole quality of the individual work of art for such a politics of style. At the same time the work of art is and remains independent of style: and yet it can be good. And it is precisely the value of the works of art of a style which gives the latter its historical weight.


Style is thus, we may say, what joins work of art to work of art, and thereby makes the autopoiesis of art possible. Autopoiesis, however, only means.
that, in general art continues to be possible and does not say how. Also from a formal point of view' autopoiesis is possible in many different ways — we have seen for instance that a work of art becomes a model for many others. What leads then to closer determination of the structure, to more exact indications of the characteristics which a work of art ‘'passes on” to others? What constraints are accepted in order to determine in which direction autopoiesis should go? It would be premature to answer this question by pointing to pluralism of styles and interpreting it as anything goes. Cer­tainly plurality and choice of style (both that which needs grounding and that which is capable of grounding) are important in this context at least since the 16th century. Concentration on just one style has been avoided (probably at all times) — which does not exclude the possibility that such a unified style for this very reason has not been sought for and considered desirable. But there are also other limitations which go beyond the plural­ism of styles. They consist of reactions of the system of art to its own differentiation and autonomy, i.e. recognizing within the system that the sys­tem of art must provide for its own autopoiesis not in a free and arbitrary way but in a social environment.

In this sense style functions as the level of contact between the system of art and its social environment. Here the system of art must define, limit and defend the closed nature of its reproduction and the autonomy of its choice of structure. Here it must refuse the claims of “interested parties” and in just this manner react to society. Here it must make evident its own work logic so that it becomes clear why art canot be made to measure or ordered simply according to taste. The decisive insight is this: that this does not create arbitrariness or simply defend “artistic freedom”, but that this need to define autonomy determines important characteristics of styles, that is, removes them from arbitrariness. Every theory which simply opposes freedom to compulsion is a failure, given the complexity of the situation. From the perspective of systems theory the autonomy of reproduction appears rather as a burden or in any case as a constraint to use the differ­ence between system and environment for self-determination.

As long as style is considered as rules or prescriptions for the correct production of works of art this level of the establishing of difference to society cannot unfold. It is assumed that society will enjoy beauty directly and that it is only a question of mastering the difficulties involved in the production of works of art. This changes in the 18th century and the new historical consciousness of style demands that the given social situation of art be reallocated. Romanticism is perhaps the first clear example, h celebrates “infinite reflexion” in the work of art itself It uses as context settings of which it knows that nobody in the social environment believes them. It celebrates paradoxes. It cultivates irony. The inclination to quote art in art begins (to be distinguished from the re-use of historical elements of style).

The subsequent realist and naturalist movements of style also face the necessity of pursuing a politics of distance. Precisely if one follows the stylistic programme of confronting reality then it must be made clear in the work of art that this alone is not yet art; the comprehension of reality must also be made apparent and it must be shown that the work of art is finally due to the employment of specifically artistic means.

The retrospective definition of historically superseded art forms as “styles” also serves the same function. It too suggests, at least for the 19th century, a kind of stylistic consistency, which is increasingly used in a puristic manner, faithful to the original. What had a certain justification for the completion of Cologne cathedral or the rebuilding of Carcassonne is generalised via the concept of style to the extent that it can also apply to new buildings. Then, in architecture at least, style can be offered by catalogue; but if you order it then you must follow the logic of the choice of style down to the details.

This kind of attention to style elements in the production and judgement of works of art still has the characteristics of a programme which guides the selection of action and experience. It has not only “ideological” but also concrete relevance. However, it is not a programme of decision in the sense that the quality of the work of art is simply given by the execution of the programme. The individualisation of the work of art demands rather that the work of art be its own programme in a concretely deciding sense, i.e. that it itself delimits what is possible for it. Style is then, just as much as material, the limitation of self-selection — and in both cases it is a limitation which requires ostentatious emphasis.


This double function of style, on the one hand, ensuring the production of the elements by the elements of the same system, and on the other, delimit­ing the field in which this occurs, exactly corresponds conceptually to the definition of an autopoietic system. If this outline of the argument were to be developed and empirically confirmed, it would show that art too differ­entiates itself as an autopoietic subsystem in the course of the evolution of modern society; or at least that it is obliged to attempt this because it cannot otherwise maintain itself. From this hypothesis follows a corollary which concerns the “inclusion” of the public in the system of art.9

Above we indicated that art theory, as regards the social context of art, occupied itself at first with the general function of arousing amazement. The recipient must first of all be startled and astonished so that he is stimulated to experience and respond to art. This aspect is refined in a development of theory in the first decades of the 18th century, which attains its final form with reference to a public specific to art. The capacity for judgement of this public, formulated in the concept of taste, is assumed as a natural capacity, but already seen as something which must be acquired through reading or conversation in the salons or simply through the exercise of critical judge­ment. This changes with the further differentiation of the system of art and with the understanding of “style” as a mediating level between art and society. Demands on the public are increased.

If works of art are also expected to realise styles despite their self­sufficient isolation, then the connoisseur must be first of all a connoisseur of styles. He must be able not only to distinguish style but also to judge the correctness of style in detail, that is, be able to recognize breaks in style. This does not mean that he must or should judge as a purist; but he must be able to judge whether breaks in style are justified or not by the individual intention of the work of art.

This is, however, only a superficial, possibly dispensable requirement. More importantly, the work of art itself — as a component of its style — must increase the demands placed on participation, and this to an ever growing degree since the 19th century. The visual demands which painting has required of the observer since the 19th century become ever more complex and cannot be naively fulfilled. They demand broken immediacy and thus a particular distance to the object. With literature one has to think of the emergence of irony and further of intenser forms of confusion of the reader.

The decoding of the work of art in terms of what is art in it requires trained activity; and this is not only a regrettable side effect of the complex­ity of the work of art but the ground of its quality; it is its inherent intention, the requisite of this continued effect, the explication of its style. Further stages are reached when the transition to another medium becomes required and demands a corresponding training. Thus modern music is only under­standable with the aid of the score (who cannot hear must read), while conversely the highly refined rhythm of modern poetry is scarcely readable; one has to hear it performed (who cannot read must hear). As a result the increase in the demands on inclusion has the effect of exclusion.

All this is of course conditioned by the demise of rule-governed aesthetics. If there were rules and if they were followed and if this were the style then nothing more would be required of the public than the understanding of the application of rules. But towards the end of the 17th century it was felt that this was not pleasurable enough and so art was given licence to discover how it could please. But art freed itself from this, driven by the necessity of assuring itself of its autopoiesis and thereby its style.

A final judgement on this development is not yet possible. Its effects can be observed as a reduction of the communication system of art lo a narrow circle of admirers and as a greater differentiation of the art forms in the sense that an understanding of modern poetry does not mediate an understanding for modern painting or theatre or in particular for the art of direction in the theatre. A priori it does not follow, however, that this must remain so and above all that this situation must be determined by decisions of style. It is clear enough that this would imply significant pre­judgements about the future of art.


Are there functional equivalents for style? Are there other possibilities of solving the same problem?

We could think of fashion. Fashion also constitutes itself within time limits and yet it too functions despite this. In fact around 1700 the question was already raised whether a judgement about art could be anything but a question of opinion and fashion. Is beauty subject to fashion or something for all time? Diderot along with many others set himself this question at the beginning of his Traite du beau and it reveals a certain indecision that he could not immediately answer it.10 The problem becomes really acute when epochal styles last such a short time and succeed each other so fast that they have the effect of fashions. Is there a functional equivalent or even fusion into one and the same phenomenon today?

One affinity between style and fashion obviously resides in the fact that fashion can also be generalised and can involve different areas. It is there­fore necessary to undertake a more exact functional analysis of fashion in order to determine similarity and difference. It is not easy to know what was meant when around 1600 people started to say “la mode” as well as “le mode”. At first the transient and evanescent was certainly emphasised. Precisely this turned out to be omnipresent once it had been fixed by the concept. Not only clothes and manners but also linguistic expressions, religious feelings, the style of sermons, dietary habits, the refined manner of cutting meat, and even the preferred way of killing and being killed, the duel, revealed themselves as products of fashion. Everywhere people appeared to take pleasure in the transient and the new. And then it was soon seen that it was not only a question of pleasure but also of security, especially for extravagences or other conspicuous deviations." A lot can be dared and supported as fashion because it does not mean a long term speculation. And by its success fashion turns the burden of proof around: whoever does not adopt it becomes conspicuous.

The effects of fashion appear when not only behaviour but opinions about behaviour become socially regulated. For this, communication is necessary which profiles opinions, censures them and varies them in relation to their distance from behaviour. Anticipations and connexions become possible, and security can already be gained in a certain distance from the given if one follows fashion. To this extent fashion if it is successful cancels ridiculous­ness. It can normalise the strangest deviations, but not all at the same time.

If we see fashion primarily as a strategy of security for the unusual which pays for the risk through the decline of the fashion, then it is understandable why people have hesitated to surrender all values (or even the most import­ant) to it. it was not only necessary to rescue from fashion true virtue (note the necessity of affirmation); beauty loo must not be surrendered to it. Below this level of values the situation is less clearcut in relation to “style”. One can insist that the actual function of fashion is not the same as that of style. Security as regards the unusual is not yet autopoiesis, is precisely not a guarantee for self-reproduction. And yet a peculiar community of function can be seen. Does not the development of style profit from fashion? Does not the possibility of betting on fashion serve the risks of innovation in the development of style? And above all: could it not be the case that the input of extravagence must be constantly increased in the succession of styles in order still to be able to offer formal innovations, so that style and fashion gradually converge? The autopoiesis of art would then have to accommodate itself to change of fashion and the question would then be not so much what a work of art contributes to style but how does one fashion in style provoke the next.

The temporalisation of the complexity of the system, the transference of significance to succession, is also a reaction to the difficulty of nailing down beauty as a criterion for works of art. What functions is in fact only the operative code, the difference between acceptance and rejection as beautiful or not. On this level historical judgement which can easily be given precision creeps in as a substitute criterion. Styles and even works of art are incorpor­ated in a historical spectacle and judged from this perspective. In one respect, however, change of style and change of fashion could still be distinguished: by the degree of toleration for the abritrariness of the break. Styles seem to develop according to Cope’s rule (12) they start simply and modestly and end in confusing complexity. Recommencement is governed therefore by the law of simplification and a clarity to be regained. This can be followed from the emergence of the classicist style to that of the functionalist style, i.e. over a period of more than 150 years. In this respect at least there were conditions of continuation in the succession of styles, the negation of the preceding did not mean a blank cheque for the arbitrary. Whether this still applies, since the functional style prescribed that it remain simple, is the question. It is difficult to avoid the impression that what has followed is only possible by means of arbitrary modification, by the intensification of an individual prin­ciple, which can no longer be distinguished from a change of fashion.

Certainly the tempo of change has increased — so much so that change of style can no longer be explained by generation change. (It is rather the ease that generations are to be determined and artists`fates explained by what style was the fashion in their youth.) If this is already, or will be the sitution we should not let our judgement be guided by prejudice against fashion. Neither style nor fashion preclude the quality of a work of art. More attention should be paid, however - as it were, against the polities of style to the question whether the substantial work of art can fulfil its func­tion of organising communication through itself. A maxim of La Bruyere is apposite here: "A man of fashion does not last long because fashions pass; if by chance he is a man of merit he is not destroyed and he continues to exist somewhere; just as estimable as before, he is simply less esteemed”.

Of course this supposes that the difference between "in” and "out” does not completely supplant the difference between “beautiful” and Ugly”.


Style, as we have known it for two hundred years, appears to be dissolving into fashion; at the same time it is threatened by the danger of history. In order to perceive and correctly estimate this danger it is first necessary to comprehend the new function of history. More and more it serves merely as a proof of the contingency of what has established itself. It is being restored, cultivated, preserved and protected against its ordained end at enormous cost as a mode of the self-doubt of the present. Old music is celebrated on old instruments, although — and because! — the development of instruments permits a better sound. Factories in the style of tudor castles are rescued, at least as facade, that is quite sufficient* Behind the facade in Bielefeld, for instance, is a supermarket. The last horrors of the fin de siecle become objects of vehement communal politics. Spinning wheels and steam locomotives, no-longer-usable pithead towers, wooden fridges and copper kitchen utensils — the past deluges the present in order to demonstrate that it doesn't have to be as it is. It is obvious that this has nothing to do with artistic interests or aesthetic qualities.

Protest is sufficient and here one must have enough understanding in order to be able to evaluate the pressure exerted in this fashion on aesthetic experience- The relics of past cultural efforts, whatever their immanent value, are being used as witness against the present. If they weren't technically perfect — so much the better. If they look somewhat helpless and decrepit

— all the more convincing. If they line up with the other disadvantaged and underprivileged — that is exactly the intention. Besides, it is not a question any more of their original function and so they can be alloted a new func­tion at odds with all past valuations and instructions for use: that of the proof of contingency. The view of the past changes according to what one wants to see in the present. If you see the present as progress, the witnesses of the past with their insufficiencies demonstrate the appropriate “not yet”. If on the other hand you want to document the problematic state of society and how little future content it has to offer then the past is drawn upon in order to show that things could be different.

The “museumising” of art appears imperceplably to be taking on this function. The simple and the clumsy, set in the right light, demonstrates against the over-refinement of a late age; religious painting now says: I don’t want to paint after nature, why should I? Strikingly, it is more difficult to show this state of affairs with literature and music — perhaps because print­ing had made a greater simultaneous presence of the non-contemporary possible, and there was always a choice. All the same: the remarkable Hesse-renaissance shows that the same motives are at work. Whatever the case, our argument is that the function of appealing to historicity inhibits purely aesthetic interest and makes unprepossessed seeing and hearing more difficult if not impossible. This applies all the more as the organisational side of the art industry has taken up this historical interest and oriented its marketing strategies to it. With the result that art is ahvays displayed with the implied expectation that it be experienced from the viewpoint that it would not be possible like that today. What is left over consolidates itself as the avantgarde.

              “Et in Arcadia Ego” 

In this way art collections turn into museums. If, additionally, change of style and change of fashion converge and the resistance to the “museumising” of art practically disappears, then the reproduction of art appears to be hardly dependent any more on a broadly based stylistic programme. Differ­ence and estrangement are enough. This may have the practical advantage that museums can buy works of art in the expectation that they will shortly attract interest as historical objects. Being in fashion and being out of fash­ion fit nicely together — at any rate in the calculations of the organisation.


The results obtained do not allow us a certain judgement on the situation of art in modern society. They leave the question largely open whether, and to what extent, the social system of art as an autonomous, self-reproducing apotoietic system can be differentiated. They only indicate some problems which must be registered in such a development and which are already noticeable to a considerable degree. A social differentiation of fine art into a social system with its own functional autonomy is not just, if at all, a progress to be welcomed. There is also an intensification of the internal problems in the sphere traditionally cultivated as art. Society continues to pay sub­sidies but withdraws its guarantee of continuity from an ever-the-same fine art. The internal constellation of art — seen in regard to society and not in terms of the multiplicity and diversity of works of art — has become more complex. It accommodated itself to a dependence on time and from this follows the temporalisation of works of art themselves. Even — and especially — the old works are assigned a historical place. The superiority of
Doric columns is discussed, a taste for the archaic developed. Translated into the language of sociology, we can advance the hypothesis of the rela­tion of several variables, i.e. the relation of:

1 an increasing differentiation of a functional system for art;

2 an increasing autonomy and responsibility of this system of profes­sionals and public for self-reproduction of their communication by means of works of art;

3 a development of self-reflective theories, of "aesthetics” in the new sense, for the control of this autonomy and for the solution of the specific (incomparable) problems of this sphere, thereby setting in motion

4 an individualisation of works of art, until finally by the middle of the 18th century the uniqueness of the object becomes the condition of recognition;

5 as a result: the problematising of self-reproduction and the application of the difference of levels of meaning, concerned with the distinction between style and work, to the solution of the problem;

6 a use of the level of meaning of style to ground autonomy in the difference from (and at the same time dependence upon) the social environment and to include/exclude participants; and finally this produces:

7 the complete temporalisation of the complexity of the system with the result that

8 the time-bound value of styles and even of the objects threatens to displace the objective criteria of beauty (which if at all could only be determined self-referentially).

Through all this, art mainly makes difficulties for itself. It thereby also betrays uncertainty in relation to its social function, the main focus of system-immanent reflexion in other functional systems. The usual response has been to consider — and reject — a service function for other functional systems. Rightly, since it precisely cannot be the function of a fully differen­tiated functional system to contribute to another functional sphere. If analyses based on systems theory and social theory are employed then one arrives at very different departure points for a functional analysis and for observing and describing the self-descriptions of the system of art. This may give impulse to a rethinking of the traditional premises of aesthetic reflexion.

The point of departure is communication in relation to an unusual object, disconcerted communication, which is directed back and bound to the object. Does art therefore serve the testing of communication by means of a case specially created for the purpose? Does it attain by means of the convincing object the limiting case of communicative community, which can dispense with communication to such a degree that communication only disturbs it? Is this a luxury which one can occasionally afford or is it the extreme point from which everything else can be opened up to communication? Is it not precisely the Rationality of art which, beyond all definite statements, lends as medium, as it were, to the world a touch of the unreal? And is it not precisely the stringency of the work of art which assigns everything else the character of the “not really necessary” (without having to talk about alternatives at all).

We leave the question completely open whether a self-reflective theory useful for art itself can be developed from such considerations and whether it could still be called “aesthetics”. Given such a state of affairs it is under­standable that any social function of art is frequently disputed and its autonomy equated with absence of function. You can sign the death sen­tence in this way. Or you can revise the foundations of theory.

A sociology which conceives of modern society as a functionally differen­tiated social system does not assert that all functions resulting from functional differentiation work equally well. It has its doubts about religion and it can also pose the question in relation to art, whether differentiation suits it and whether it can succeed in autopoeietic self-reproduction. There is no answer to this question which can be derived from theory. Faced with self- referential states of affairs, methodologically given asymmetries of deduction and causality are inadequate. One can only proceed as we have done, that is by seeking to discover what difficulties result from such a development and which functional alternatives are still available shortly before all options are closed off.

"Andy Wahrol was one of the stupidest people I’ve ever met in my life."


1 We exclude other possibilities of a theoretically based analysis of art, for instance the conception of art as symbolically generalised medium of communication. See Niklas Luhmann, “Ist Kunst codierbar?”, in Luhmann, Soziologische Aufklärung, Vol. 3., Opladen, 1981. 245-266. ‘

2 Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, Frankfurt, 1970, 334, 335.

3 Erving Goffmann, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organisation of Experience, New York, 1974.

4 The distinction form/context is thus much more illuminating than the distinction form/content. See Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Cam­bridge, Mass, 1964 and George Brown, Laws of Form, New York, 1972.

5 Ernst H. Gombrich, “Norm and Form” in. Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, London, 1966.

6 On this important tradition leading to secularisation see Hans Blumenberg, “Kontingenz” in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Vol. 3, Tubingen 1959, column 1793f.

7 For more extended treatment see Luhmann, “Temporalisierung von Komplexital”, in Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik, Vol. 1, Frankfurt, 1980, 235-300.

8 Winckelmann’s History of the Art of Antiquity is a classical example of the con­ception of history as the movement from the simple to the complex; here the concept of style acquires the function of ordering historical differentiation.

9 For other examples see Luhmann/Karl Eberhard Schorr, Reflexions- probleme im Erziehungssystem, Stuttgart 1979; Luhmann, Politische Theorie in Wohlfahrtsstaat, Munich 1981.

10 Adam Smith also had difficulties in limiting the influence of fashion on the judgement of beauty. See his Theory of Moral Sentiments, V. 1. And for Baudelaire rash ion was half the game; without it the outcome would be an indefinable abstract beauty. See “Le peintre de la vie moderne”.

11 Cl. on the dialectic of social security and individual profile, Georg Simmel Philosphie der Mode, Berlin, 1905.

12 b. D, C ope, The Primary Factors of Organic Evolution, Chicago, 1896.

 In: Thesis Eleven 12(1) (1985): 4- 27. 

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