Autonomy and Heteronomy in the Finnish Visual Arts

Text: Axel Straschnoy 8.1.2017

“Let’s play we are artists. Artists do whatever they want”
– Alma, 4 years-old.

Much has been written about the peculiar Finnish arts funding and distribution system.(1) One of the key concepts in this setup is autonomy. The idea is that when funding is available directly to artists — bypassing curators and institutions — artists are autonomous. But what is this autonomy we have gained and how does it express itself?

As an artist working within this system, I have tried to find an answer to these questions both by making projects that tested how far this claim of autonomy can be pushed and by reading theoretical writings on the subject. As an art-worker I have found the autonomy provided by the system to be limited and not only because, as Lawrence Weiner has said: “you question me about choice and I say there is no choice one can give another”.

What follows are notes written in search of continuing the conversation on the subject.

From the autonomy of the artwork to the autonomy of the artist.

“Adorno subjects the social concept of autonomous art to the history of capitalism. The history of modern art thus becomes for him in large part the history of art’s relationship to / struggle with the commodity form.”
– Peter Osborne, Theorem 4: Autonomy. Can it be true of art and politics at the same time?

Autonomous art, or l’art pour l’art, has a point of origin in the Kantian idea of free beauty. It is art which is not at the service of an idea, or beauty that is not at the service of an object. Put simply, beauty without a purpose. Its apparition is intimately connected to the expansion of capitalism and the transformation of the bourgeoisie into the ruling class. Autonomous art is never a mural but an easel painting. Free from serving a purpose, free to travel, free to be bought and sold. The freedom behind autonomous art is bourgeois freedom. Art, like money, can travel freely and be exchanged.

The artist who produces autonomous art is, however, not autonomous him/herself. Forced to sell his wares in the market like any other merchant, his/her livelihood depends on his/her success in the market.

The Finnish funding system is intimately connected to the Nordic Model. In the same way that the latter sought to provide some relief to workers from the necessity to sell their labour force in the market, the Finnish funding system sought to release the Finnish artists from the necessity to cash-in on their works.

“In pre-capitalistic societies, few workers were properly commodities in the sense that their survival was contingent upon the sale of their labor power. It is as markets become universal and hegemonic that the welfare of individuals comes to depend entirely on the cash nexus […] The introduction of modern social rights implies a loosening of the commodity status”
– Gøsta Esping-Andersen, The three worlds of welfare capitalism.

While workers who are forced to sell their labour-power become commodities in themselves, artists who are forced to sell their artworks are producers of commodities. In the same way that unemployment insurance loosens the workers’ commodity status, public funding for artists loosens the commodity status of the artwork. Since funding decisions are made by boards composed mainly of artists, as the larger part of exhibition spaces are run by artists, and as the shows are selected through open calls juried by other artists, artists would appear to be sovereign, deciding what gets produced and what gets exhibited. Following this logic, the opposite of the autonomy of art is the autonomy of the artist.

However, because artists travel, exhibit elsewhere, and want their works to function in less autonomous contexts; because the circulation of exhibitions, publications and information about artworks influences the work produced here; in short, because in a way the art world is today globalised and because artists still have the hope or desire to sell their works in the market, artworks produced in Finland still look like autonomous art. And autonomous art is, following Osborne, “an art that so appears […] It does not mean that the artwork is ‘autonomous’, in some positive ontological sense, but that it appears to be so: it has the capacity to produce this illusion.”

The question — in a context in which the funding systems are changing, in which the state expects to benefit from funding art(2) and when the minister of culture states that the best way to support art is to buy it — is thus for me, whether we are autonomous artists producing autonomous art; are we autonomous artists behaving like heteronomous artists; or are we actually not autonomous at all.

Because, as Rancière would have it:

“I think that autonomy is a category that has to be related to actions, rather than to groups of people.”
– Jacques Ranciere with Nikos Papastergiadis and Charles Esche, Assemblies in art an politics: the break with professionals.


(1) See KOITELA, Jussi. “Taiteilija maksaa? Kuratoinnin uhka ja muut pelot” Mustekala Blog, January 16, 2014 (, STRASCHNOY, Axel. “A Different Solution to the Same Problem” Mustekala Blog, January 27, 2014, (, STRASCHNOY, Axel. “Exhibiting Elsewhere” Mustekala Blog, August 11 2014 (

(2) As Otso Kantokorpi has said: “on arveluttavaa, että OKM:lle tunnutaan jatkuvasti annettavan taiteen instrumentalisointia edistäviä päämääriä, jotka ovat poliittisten konjunktuurien alaisia. Edellinen suuri mantra oli kulttuurivienti […] Jossain välissä muotia oli luovasta taloudesta puhuminen. […] Nyt tulemme siis näkemään hyvinvointitaiteen noususuhdanteen […]” KANTOKORPI, Otso: ”Sipilän hallituksen kulttuuripolitiikkaa 1: Hallitusohjelma, taiteen vapaus, taiteilijan asema, hevosen lanta ja Suomen Taiteilijaseura”, 29 May 2015 ( last accessed December 2016