Johanna Drucker sums up her argument in her book, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (University of Chicago Press, 2005), as follows:
. . .the critical frameworks inherited from the avant-garde and passed through the academic discourses of current art history are constrained by the expectation of negativity. Fine art should not have to bear the burden of criticality nor can it assume superiority as if operating outside of the ideologies it has long presumed to critique. Fine art, artists, and critics exist within a condition of complicity with the institutions and values of contemporary culture. (247)
According to Drucker, artists of the 2000s (representatives of which her book discusses in some detail), no longer see "complicity" with mass culture as an evil to be avoided. These artists use mass culture to create dynamic, visually arresting works the ultimate ambition of which is to be aesthetically pleasing. No requirement of "criticality" is necessary for ideological correctness: the purpose of art is to be aesthetic, and contemporary artists are exploiting the aesthetic possibilities of mass culture to create "fine art" that doesn't pretend to an inherent "superiority" over that culture. Complicity is ok, as is taking sensory pleasure in art.
I'm ultimately fine with this argument, although it's unfortunate that a defense of aesthetic value in art has to in effect make common cause with mass culture in order to ensure that "art" survives as a viable endeavor to begin with. (It's the devil's bargain that's unfortunate, not popular culture, or at least particular productions of popular culture, some of which I enjoy just as much as the next guy.) And why is it necessary to equate autonomy in art with a claim of "superiority"? Earlier in the book, Drucker tells us that the high modernist view of art as in its separate sphere actually did damage to the aesthetic claims of art:
By appearing to be entirely aesthetic (its forms and expressions entirely contained in the visual appeal to the senses and lacking in any prescribed or circumscribed purpose), fine art sustains the concept of value as a notion by pretending to be autonomous. The "value" of a work of art is never to be accounted for in the costs of materials and labor or in the investments in production. Fine art appears to be far from the crass worlds of commerce and remote from the real of factory production. Fine art distances itself from the systems that in turn exploit these myths to advantage. Art is not a shell game or a poker bluff, but an assertion of the symbolic basis of value production. . . .
It seems that Drucker is reciting the oft-told story of how modernist art took itself to be free of complicity, innocent of ulterior "purpose," by "appearing to be entirely aesthetic" and "pretending to be autonomous" but really wasn't after all, blather, blather, blather. It's an article of faith that academic criticism clings to like piranhas: art can't assert autonomy or singularity, can't carve out an aesthetic space beside the "crass worlds of commerce," because all expressions are socially or culturally or historically determined. Works of art can be studied alongside tv shows and pop albums because they're just as inevitably a part of "culture" as any other commodifed object.
I say this is an article of faith because although it is true that all human beings creating works of art are subject to the prevailing assumptions of time and place, this does not seem to me to be a very profound observation. It amounts to saying that living artists are, well, alive rather than dead. (Or that deceased artists lived on this planet rather than on one in some adjacent solar system.) Yet is is held as an unassailable truth in post-New Critical academic criticism that literature must be historicized, that the unavoidable fact that writers put the fruits of their influences into "circulation" means that culture authors texts to the extent that the notion of aesthetic autonomy is just a nefarious illusion.
But why does the fact that any artistic work can be seen to one degree or another as illustrative of cultural forces rule out the possibility it might also be granted a kind of autonomy? If your goal is to show that all cultural expressions are subject to the historical mediation demanded by a properly Marxist view of culture, you can certainly do so, and arguments about the "autonomy" of certain excluded expressions would correctly be dismissed as incoherent. But they would be incoherent only when considered from within this interpretive framework, which is being posited as the only acceptable way of making sense of works of art or literature.
However, if this particular way of making sense of artistic and cultural expression has the virtue of being "true"--albeit in the trivial sense I have indicated--it can hardly claim exclusive rights to truth since its own investment in it rests on the underlying assumption that truth is relative. If literary texts cannot claim to embody universal or unmediated or noncontingent truth because everything is an artifact of incidental human activity, I cannot see any logically disallowed reason why one such activity could not be the study of literary texts for their posited "literary" qualities conceived as separate from their status as cultural representations, congeries of historical forces, conduits of sociological information, or whatever else works of literature can be considered good for. To object that such an approach to literary study (or the study of any of the arts) presumes itself "outside of the ideologies" is either irrelevant--since all critical approaches must scramble to the "outside" in order to speak authoritatively about the "inside"--or just wrong. The "autonomy" game does not presuppose itself outside the rules of relativism; it simply solicits recognition as one game among the others. "Pretending to be autonomous" is good enough for those who think this particular aesthetic game yields interesting insights. "Appearing to be aesthetic" is, in fact, to be aesthetic.
Thus the real question at issue is not whether autonomy is a valid concept in art/literary criticism but which concepts are to be accorded primacy in academic criticism. If the notion of the "autonomous object" is accompanied by close and accurate reading that results in a coherent account of a text or work of art , it can hardly be dismissed as fallacious. It can be assigned a lesser significance in the critical heirarchy, deemed less "serious" in an environment in which the merely literary and the merely aesthetic are identified with a dandy-ish formalism and can be marginalized safely enough while real scholars get on with the business of interpreting history, explaining culture, and intervening in politics. It can be made the scapegoat for all the shortcomings of the previous generation's critical assumptions and duly assigned its own historicized place in the critical, and curricular, past. In the struggle for dominance in that small part of academe originally (if reluctantly) set aside for "literature," the proposition that poems, stories, and novels are best regarded as wholly unlike other, more transparently discursive verbal texts, self-enclosed, formally intricate, autonomous, and that the critic's job is to advance ways of reading such textd that enhance the reader's experience of them, has clearly lost out. It is unlikely to make a comeback, although periodic efforts like Drucker's to defend aesthetic pleasure will no doubt still persist.
Although it does seem to me that a debate about terminology, about the conventionality of the critical lexicon, is still in order: When the powers that be in literary study want to show they have not entirely abandoned the old critical order, they like to point out that much current academic criticism is underpinned by what they want to still call "close reading." But this term has become so overstretched through misuse that, at best, it now merely means "paying attention" and at worse means "interrogating" the text vigorously enough that you finally do find there what you wanted to find. "Close reading" for the New Critics was a reading adjusted to the contours of the text, a reading that seeks to conform itself to the demands made by the text itself and doesn't demand that the text conform to the critic's preconceptions. It does so by, indeed, assuming the work's autonomy.
"Literary criticism" is still identified as the task undertaken by academics who study and write about literature. But academic criticism often seems to have little use for the "literary" as a subject of inquiry except when it can be shown to be illusory, or elitist, or a prop supporting various evil hegemonies. Since it is clear enough that many academic critics would rather be engaged in cultural criticism, ideological criticism, or sociological analysis--anything but the lowly explication of literary texts--perhaps the term "literary criticism" could be turned back to those who do have an interest in exploring, even "appreciating" the possibilities of the literary when considered as an autonomous practice. I'm really not sure why cultural studies scholars and historicists would want to hold on to the designation, anyway.
Then there are terms such as those used by Drucker: "negativity"; "complicity." By the first, Drucker seems to mean the incorporation of images, motifs, and sensibilities from mass culture only to "subvert" these references by using them to implicitly critique the insipidity of mass culture. This has been a common response to the encroachment of mass culture on high art, and Drucker is right to suggest that sometimes high art simply borrows from popular culture and that such borrowing is not always an attempt by the artist or the writer to "say something" about culture. That this move attributing "criticality" to works is so familiar only reinforces (for me) the extent to which criticism of art and literature has become wholly fixated on the something said at the expense of the forms of saying (and how form itself mutates straightforward "saying"), but I'm not sure why she needs to use "complicity" as a description of the act of avoiding negativity.
The term only reinforces the notion that artists and writers must be judged by the sociopolitical consequences of their work. Drucker wants it to be acceptable for them to refuse the "burden of criticality," but to be inevitably "complicit" with cultural practices and attitudes expressing sometimes dubious "values" can't help but suggest there is a lack of integrity in the art work found complicit, a lack of purity that makes art and literature questionable allies in the fight against temporal Power.
For me, that they are weapons of questionable efficacy in this ideological skirmish is the mark of their most indispensable value. In their excesses and frequent ungainliness, their refusal to submit to the expectations of ordinary discourse, works of art and literature manifest an a-temporal power that compels succeeding viewers and readers to consider them anew (sometimes to enlist them in ideological skirmishes), to regard them as representations informed by their origins in historical circumstance but not bound by them, however culturally complicit they ulimately must be. If this is not quite metaphysical "autonomy," it's also not an illusion.