University of Sussex
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Artists are only a law unto themselves

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posted on 2023-06-09, 13:57 authored by Micheal O'ConnellMicheal O'Connell
The tacit freedoms which appear to be granted artists are considered here. What is the nature of those freedoms and what are their origins and consequences? Artists and their artworks have certainly challenged moral convention and had a destabilising effect. More often though, it is only the laws of the ‘art system’ which are being broken. In fact, an implicit rule for art, since the Romantic period, has been to break with previous orthodoxy. In this case artists are not ‘a law unto themselves’, in the typical usage of the phrase, but its original biblical meaning may be apt. That referred to a grouping being inherently compliant with the given morality and codes, and therefore not needing to have any law imposed upon it. The chapter explores these questions and reflects on the problematics of politically motivated art. Secondly, would didactic art inevitably be poor art? Reference is made to a significant essay by Theodore Adorno, recent writing by Claire Bishop and John Roberts, Yates McKee’s account of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the work of Forensic Architecture and other artists and practitioners. There are important implications for any conscious attempt at the instrumental employment of art, as panacea for societal ills, say, or to prompt social change. The suggestion is even made that perhaps it is art which is parasitic on politics, and not the other way around. It would be crude nevertheless, to dismiss the broader effects produced by artefacts and performative interventions and, likewise, to deem meritless, works which serve campaigning intentions. Meanings can unfold in ways which are not straightforward and ‘art’s inventive forms of negation’ (Bishop) are something to defend.


Publication status

  • Published

File Version

  • Accepted version


Counterpress Limited

Page range


Book title

Art, law, power: perspectives on legality and resistance in contemporary aesthetics

Place of publication




Department affiliated with

  • Music Publications

Research groups affiliated with

  • Sussex European Institute Publications

Full text available

  • Yes

Peer reviewed?

  • Yes


Lucy Finchett-Maddock, Eleftheria Lekakis

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First Open Access (FOA) Date


First Compliant Deposit (FCD) Date