It’s that grim and glum time of year again – no, I’m not entirely referring to my birthday, which happens to roll around with painful inevitability this day every year, reminding me of things undone, projects unattempted, chances missed, increasingly grey hair, & so forth – instead, it’s the time that three (or more?) largely unqualified (speaking only for myself) bloggers attempt to work their collective way thru Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Let’s call it “Tuesdays with Teddie” (Dienstage mit Teddie) (or whatever day we happen to get around to it).
This may be a weekly feature on the blogs of y.v.t., the goateed Bob Archambeau, & the doesn’t-have-a-picture-up-but-is-probably-better-looking-than-either-of-us Dave Park, or it may be more like a monthly, depending on how much energy we can muster. Anyway, since I seem to have a spare moment between manuscript revisions & grading midterms, I’ll throw out the first pitch, trusting that Bob & Dave will field – mibbe they’ll even repost what little I have to say here, with their own comments. So here goes –
Ästhetische Theorie was Adorno’s last work, the manuscript he was beavering away at when he died in 1969, but in many ways it seems an inevitable book, the capstone of Adorno’s work & the grand theoretical statement to justify the many thousands of pages he’d devoted over his career to discussion of works of art – literature, yes, but to a much greater extent music. Adorno’s critiques of the “culture industry,” for which he might be best known in some quarters of the American academy, are like a mouse to the elephant of his music criticism.
The book itself is famously difficult – probably even more difficult in its “definitive” translation, that of Robert Hullot-Kentor (U Minnesota, 1997, & the one I'll be citing), than in the 1984 Christian Lenhardt version. In part pressed by his publisher, Lenhardt divided the book up into sections & subsections, broke various Joyce-length paragraphs into more manageable chunks, & even split up sentences – all in the service of a more reader-friendly Adorno. Which, as Hullot-Kentor rightly argues, is precisely not the point. This is a book that is meant to be worked through, clause by clause, sentence by sentence. I’m tempted to say that Adorno’s unit of composition is precisely the sentence – as long & Germanic as his sentences may be – so that while Minima Moralia spins its mordant paradoxes over one-half to five page, densely packed units, Aesthetic Theory both constructs a larger argument (with maddening repetition – only partly an effect of the unfinished state of the manuscript – and constant maze-like divagation) and crams whole volumes of argument into single periods.
The closest the book has to an “overture” (leaving aside the “Draft Introduction,” which is yes probably the best place to start, but I’m already typing) is the 1st section, “Art, Society, Aesthetics” (pp. 1-15). (Section & paragraph titles are indicated in the table of contents, but not in the text, by the way, which presents itself as a single 350-page block of prose – a Steve McCaffery poem, e. g.) The section begins with a discussion of the present state of art, now recognized for better or worse as fully autonomous, fully liberated from its former social function:
Artworks detach themselves from the empirical world and bring forth another world, one opposed to the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity. (1)(See the dialectics machine kicking in? – dialectics, the art of thinking two opposed ideas at the same time.) Adorno’s starting right out with biggest single issue of Marxist aesthetics, the political or social function of the work of art.
As a result of its inevitable withdrawal from theology, from the unqualified claim to the truth of salvation, a secularization without which art would never have developed, art is condemned to provide the world as it exists with a consolation that – shorn of any hope of a world beyond – strengthens the spell of that from which the autonomy of art wants to free itself. (2)
It’s worth remembering that the most widely disseminated Leftist aesthetic of the last century – so-called “socialist realism” – argued that art had a responsibility to advance the cause of human progress, & further that it should do so by communicating with its audience. Adorno, one can’t emphasize too much, isn’t interested in art that communicates with the average viewer/reader/auditor, whether it’s a big mural of Comrade Joe Stalin, a touching film about a boy & his tractor, or a neo-Romantic symphony. Adorno is an intransigent advocate for modernist art; the last of the mandarins. For him drama means not “Waiting for Lefty” but “Waiting for Godot” (Aesthetic Theory was to be dedicated to Beckett). It helps to think of Adorno’s aesthetic canon in terms of the harshest instances of 20th “high” modernism: Webern, Beckett, Anselm Kiefer. Philip Glass, Tony Kushner, Andy Warhol, they won’t do – they’re all contaminated by the “culture industry.”
So on one level Adorno’s aim – tho he would never put it so vulgarly – is to justify the art of the 20th century in dialectical materialist terms, to show how forbiddingly abstract & esoteric artworks actually serve to reflect social structure.
Artworks are afterimages of empirical life insofar as they help the latter to what is denied them outside their own sphere and thereby free it from that to which they are condemned by reified external experience. (4)So when we’re seeking the the “social” element in a contemporary artwork, we should be looking not for a direct portrayal of workers’ conditions (Hard Times) or an unsuspecting bearer of the destiny of history, but at the formal structure of the work. The fragmentation of “Wandering Rocks” and the profluence of “Penelope” are surer keys to the social significance of Ulysses than a mere totting-up of the number of unemployed alcoholics or repressed women in the novel.
If art opposes the empirical through the element of form – and the mediation of form and content is not to be grasped without their differentiation – the mediation is to be sought in the recognition of aesthetic form as sedimented content. (5, my emph.)
That artworks as windowless monads [Leibniz, anyone?] “represent” what they themselves are not can scarcely be understood expect in that their own dynamic, their immanent historicity as a dialectic of nature and its domination, not only is of the same essence as the dialectic external to them but resembles it without imitating it. The aesthetic force of production is the same as that of productive labor and has the same teleology; and what may be called aesthetic relations of production – all that in which the productive force is embedded and in which it is active – are sedimentations or imprintings of social relations of production. (5)
The basic levels of experience that motivate art are related to those of the objective world from which they recoil. The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form. This, not the insertion of objective elements, defines the relation of art to society. (6)
Art perceived strictly aesthetically is art aesthetically misperceived. Only when art’s other is sensed as a primary layer in the experience of art does it become possible to sublimate this layer, to dissolve the thematic bonds, without the autonomy of the artwork becoming a matter of indifference. Art is autonomous and it is not; without what is heterogeneous to it, its autonomy eludes it. (6)(Takes a breath–) Basta for now. I have in unguarded moments been accused of being a Zukofsky scholar, which might account for the cento nature of these comments. Your ball, folks.