For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Autonomy Guaranteed? Cultural Work and the “Art–Commerce Relation”"

by Banks, Mark (2010)


The aim of this article is to examine synthetically the concept of ?autonomy? in cultural and creative industries work. Following a brief discussion regarding the definition(s) of autonomy, and its historical linkages to discourses of art, the author then rehearses three prominent social science critiques which suggest that the possibilities for autonomy in cultural work have been seriously diminished or compromised. Against these readings, utilising Bill Ryan?s work on the ?art?commerce relation?, the author then discusses how autonomous cultural work is, in fact, impossible to destroy since ensuring its survival is a prerequisite for the production of value in cultural and creative industry production. Finally, the author considers how this provision of freedom may then serve to underwrite autonomous cultural work of a more radical and, crucially, negotiated character than that conventionally conceived of in the orthodox critiques.

Key Passage

Here, the “seduction of autonomy” (Knights & McCabe 2003, p. 1613) is sufficiently powerful to override any misgivings, constraints or disadvantages that might emerge in the workplace. The pay-off for enhanced uncertainty and employment risk is the freedom to work more flexibly, informally and in accordance with one’s own biographical preferences and ambitions — however degraded or compromised these may be, or may become (Ursell 2000). For critics, such developments may serve to underline how, as Foucault (1982) argued, the application of power proceeds only through the provision of freedom. Yet, the freedoms available in cultural work can often appear limited or illusory — potentials divested of any substantive possibility for challenging the structures and iniquitous effects of the capitalist labour process. Indeed, while government is routinely acknowledged as a “congenitally failing operation” (Rose & Miller 1992, p. 190 ), it is telling that many Foucauldian studies of cultural work, while acknowledging the latent possibility of “resistance”, have often struggled to identify any significant reversal of power relations in work environments, or identified how non-work subjectivities are brought into play to offset the nefarious impacts and demands of labour (see, for example, McRobbie 2002; Nixon 2003; Prichard 2002; Ursell 2000). Autonomy might well be foundational to cultural work — but it is a mask that conceals an underlying oppression. (p.257)


Foucault, Autonomy, False Freedom, Creative Industry, Creative Work, Art, Cultural Work, Freedom, Self Determination


On Foucault, Foucault

Links to Reference



How to contribute.