autonomy of art
dialectics of appearance
Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903–1969) was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. His academic career is marked by a series of remarkable and influential encounters. While at the University of Frankfurt, Adorno studied sociology and psychology with Siegfried Kracauer. Music remained a lifelong interest for Adorno, who even trained as a concert pianist under Alban Berg. His first published essays were on the modernist composer and pioneer of atonalism Arnold Schönberg. In fact, Adorno referred to his own later theoretical work as “atonal philosophy.” In 1926, his first attempt at the Habilitationsschrift (a document required for promotion to a university position), titled The Concept of the Unconscious or The Transcendental Theory of the Mind, was rejected. But his second attempt, Kierkegaard: The Construction of the Aesthetic (1933), which has become a widely influential work, was successful. Adorno established the Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt with his longtime friend and collaborator Max Horkheimer in 1931. With the rise of Nazism in Germany, Adorno and other Jewish intellectuals were expelled from their university posts. As a result, Adorno went into exile in Oxford, England, before departing to the United States, where he lived and worked in New York City, Los Angeles, and Berkeley. He returned to Frankfurt after the war, where he reestablished the Institute of Social Research in 1949. The intellectuals, economists, and sociologists associated with the Institute included Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas. It is this group of thinkers who comprise the first generation of what has been termed “critical theory.” Upon Horkheimer’s retirement in 1959, Adorno assumed the role of director and held that post until the late 1960s. The student uprisings and social unrest in Paris during May 1968 spilled into West Germany, where students occupied the Institute’s buildings. Adorno’s comments on the protests were widely ridiculed, and he fled to Switzerland, where he died in 1969 while working on his unfinished magnum opus Aesthetic Theory (1970).
Adorno’s work has been central to discussions of modernism. His work bears the influence of his friendship with Walter BENJAMIN, who encouraged Adorno’s interest in the work of Karl MARX. The published correspondence between Adorno and Benjamin constitutes one of the most intriguing and important intellectual documents of the twentieth century. Texts such as Dialectic of the Enlightenment (1947), cowritten with Horkheimer, Negative Dialectics (1966), and The Philosophy of Modern Music (1958) serve as touchstones of postwar critical thought. Adorno’s work, however, has been criticized for being elitist, Eurocentric, and too reliant upon a dialectical method associated with high modernism. Nonetheless, his interdisciplinary approach to the study of the “culture industry” and his argument for the autonomy of art have played a considerable role in the manifold discourses bearing the prefix “post”: postmodernism, post-structuralism, post-Marxism, and even postcolonialism. In this regard, it is significant that Adorno’s major works were written during his exile in the United States, where the importance of his work to many American scholars and activists, including Angela Davis, who studied with Adorno, is inestimable. Moreover, his aphoristic, performative writing style shares something with the post-structuralist writing practices of Jacques DERRIDA, who shared Adorno’s contention that no thought—even critical theory itself—escapes the pull of the marketplace, nor does it exist as a kind of second-order language that transcends the discourse it critiques. Their paratactical style of writing is meant to undermine the traditional authoritative voice of the scholar as it constructs a space from which to critique the exchange economy of advanced capitalism.
Adorno’s discussions of the culture industry began with his disagreements with Benjamin over the latter’s belief in the transformative potential of film and radio to radicalize the masses. In his early essay “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (1938), Adorno insists that technology denies artistic innovation by promoting a passive viewer, thereby stunting political consciousness. (It should be noted that Benjamin’s thought underwent a crisis that caused him to abandon this early position.)
Adorno develops his position further in the chapter titled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in Dialectic of the Enlightenment, which serves as an excellent introduction to his work. Drawing on the work of Friedrich NIETZSCHE and others, Adorno and Horkheimer analyze the advent of the culture industry in late capitalist societies. In responding to what they call “the darkening of the world” brought about by fascism, Stalinism, and the Holocaust, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that the world has retreated into myth and barbarism, which are dialectically present in the Enlightenment origins of modern society. The concept of the culture industry refers not only to popular culture but also to the entire sphere of popular media and culture that produces commodities for mass consumption. In late capitalism, which presents social and cultural problematics that are more complex and nuanced than those Marx faced in the late nineteenth century, the culture industry even renders art a mere commodity. Meaning that it has no ontological, societal, or even cultural use. Art itself becomes a myth (see Roland BARTHES), which is, in turn, an ideological position paradoxically sustained by capitalism itself. For Adorno, a commodity is defined in Marxist terms: it is a mass-produced object whose exchange value is its only use value. In this system, the consumer is passive, politically apathetic, and objectified.
The illusory pleasures offered by the culture industry only serve the ends of profit and the further exploitation of the masses, Adorno argues. The “standardization” of culture is accomplished in the name of a unified economic and political power. (These issues have only become more pressing with globalization and its attendant entertainment industry, which includes social media and its effects.) To counter this rather pessimistic diagnosis of the current state of affairs, Adorno posits “true art” as the diametric opposite of popular media and culture. This concept of art that Adorno forwards is problematic in its claims of universality, but it marks one of the most extended and complex meditations on the role of art in contemporary society.
The pressing question is: can art survive late capitalism? Art, Adorno answers, is related to genuine happiness as opposed to the illusory, fleeting sensual gratification of the culture industry. Here he has in mind modernist avant-garde art and music, which attempts to resist commercialization and homogeneity. The task Adorno sets art is to counter the vagaries of capitalist exchange value; to preserve a form of subjectivity that is not one of degradation and objectification. In these terms, art as “the social antithesis of society” (1970, p. 8) must recognize social relations as alienated and reified in order to represent and criticize them. This argument has been central to the debates surrounding the notion of the avant-garde in modern Western art historical discourse. One of the primary texts of that debate, Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), is very much informed by Adorno’s position.
Adorno’s argument is grounded in a complex understanding of the autonomy of art that runs throughout his works. Autonomy means that art has an existence independent from politics, religion, and the economy as such. With the fusion of economic and political power in late capitalism, art is alienated, presented as a mere commodity, which, paradoxically, becomes the source of its force. However, and here, Adorno differs from Marxist thinkers such as Bertolt Brecht, Jean- Paul Sartre, and the New Left, art maintains an autonomy that gives it a critical distance from which it observes and critiques the socioeconomic sphere. It is not a product of society in any direct manner. Contrary to Sartre’s famous calls for a “committed” art, for instance, Adorno demures: “This is not the time for political works of art” (1974, p. 93). Adorno seriously doubts the efficacy of social, leftist, committed art. Rather than committed art, Adorno will champion challenging, even alienating, modernist artworks that radically rethink and experiment with the relation of form and content. For example, Adorno addresses Samuel Beckett’s writing as such an instance of aesthetic formal experiment within the history of modernism that evinces the autonomy of art that he theorizes.
There is no doubt that this conception of autonomy is one of Adorno’s more contentious, yet it is essential to his masterful rethinking of Kantian and Hegelian aesthetics as well as to his understanding of how the political intersects with the philosophic and the aesthetic. Furthermore, he asserts that modernist avant-garde art movements continue to use this autonomy (a concept perhaps better explained by Pierre BOURDIEU’s notion of the “field of cultural production,” which more easily accounts for art’s autonomy and its extenuating circumstances) to grasp the critical “truth content” available to us. The aporias, contradictions, allusions, and varying interpretations of “true art,” Adorno argues, signal its problematic nature for late capitalist society. This problematic, alienated nature is the “truth content” of the work. It is this “truth content” of the work of art that Adorno posits as a proleptic necessity to any possible revolutionary transformation of society.
The attempt to synthesize these ideas on commodity fetishism, the culture industry, and the autonomy of art into a general theory of aesthetics is to be found in Adorno’s posthumously published Aesthetic Theory. It is a wide-ranging text that references Cimabue, Paul Gauguin, and Eugène Atget in a single breath. Here, Adorno attempts a radical examination of classical aesthetics (notions of beauty, nature) and modern aesthetics (he returns to Benjamin’s concept of the aura and the notion of the “beautiful semblance”). Martin Jay has characterized this singular and often provocative text as “Western Marxism, aesthetic modernism, mandarin cultural despair, and Jewish self-identification” swayed by the “pull of deconstruction” (Jay, 1984, p. 22). Only recently has the achievement this work represents begun to be fully appreciated. For many years, it was overshadowed by Hans-Georg Gadamer’s thoughts on aesthetics in Truth and Method (1960), which evinces the centrality of Martin HEIDEGGER to continental philosophy.
In what is not so much a continuation as a refinement of his earlier thinking, Adorno posits art as a site of struggle against conformity and passivity. He addresses what he terms the “dialectics of appearance” (Dialektik des Scheins). For Adorno, the aesthetic is not a realm of mere appearance or illusion, rather it is the medium of truth. Aesthetic appearance is an index of “truth content.” What he argues against is clearly stated in an excerpt from Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951):
Cultivated philistines are in the habit of requiring that a work of art “give” them something. They no longer take umbrage at works that are radical, but fall back on the shamelessly modest assertion that they do not understand. This eliminates even opposition, their last negative relationship to truth, and the offending object is smilingly catalogued among its kind, consumer commodities that can be chosen or refused without even having to take responsibility for doing so. (p. 216)
It is against this neutralization of art that Adorno constructs the constellation of his argument. A primary claim of Aesthetic Theory is that the dialectical goal of the autonomy of art is to question appearance, to dissolve the closed, illusory realm of appearance into a “caesura” or “riddle.” Thus, the autonomy of art enables it to resist its classification and domestication within the exchange economy. In doing so, however, it denies the existence of any stable, locatable truth as such. What Adorno presents here is an aesthetic theory in which avant-garde art, literature, and music can index “truth content” through their “enigmatic character.”
To date, Adorno’s work has been central to discussions of Marxist and formalist art history. Further ties to the discourse of modern and contemporary art are to be found in Adorno’s privileging of abstract art. He does this to avoid the traps of representational or mimetic art and to emphasize that art is not an imitation of reality, rather it is the radical other of late capitalist reality. The assertion that art is autonomous and must resist the incursions of mass- produced culture (kitsch) put forth by Adorno played a crucial role in Clement Greenberg’s formalist theory of modernist painting. Greenberg’s notion of each artistic medium’s “area of competence” echoes aspects of Adorno’s argument. However, Adorno’s concept of the autonomy of art—as site of resistance that indexes “truth content” in aesthetic form—embodies a more pointed ethical outrage and commitment to the memory of the past and the abuses of state and economic power. It offers us the challenge to think and create the possibility of art today and in the future:
Art, which even in its opposition to society remains a part of it, must close its eyes and ears to it: it cannot escape the shadow of irrationality. But when art itself appeals to this unreason, making it a raison d’être, it converts its own male diction into a theodicy … The content of works of art is never the amount of intellect pumped into them: if anything it is the opposite. (1974, p. 93; translation emended)
Adorno connects his late thoughts on aesthetics with his often solemn conte...