A aesthetic theory of Adorno

Image: Verner Molin


Considerations on the relevance of Theodor Adorno's book

This year, the publication of aesthetic theory Adorno turns 52 years old and, until now, that hostile text, with its paragraphs that cross pages and its elusive and paradoxical argumentation, still hasn't said everything it had to say. In a recent article for the magazine New Left Review, Patricia McManus cited the book's reflections on the relationship between artistic form and value judgments in her response to Joseph North's call for a “left-wing literary criticism that is also a radical aesthetic education, aimed at cultivating modes of sensibility and subjectivity that can directly contribute to the fight for a better society”.

If Adorno had anything to contribute to this struggle, it is far from a given. To many readers, with its conceptual vocabulary grounded in the German aesthetic tradition and its conviction that philosophy should dictate the terms of art, the book might seem as if it belongs more to the past than the present. Still, it seems that the aesthetic theory still has something to say about the question of what art is capable of and – perhaps even more strikingly – unable to accomplish in a world that remains as unfree as it was when Theodor Adorno left it.

A striking resonance with the current discussion of New Left Review about literary criticism can be found in Theodor Adorno's call for "the study of those alienated from art". It is the equivalent, in aesthetic theory, the figure of the “ordinary reader”, with whom the critics of the last decade, according to McManus, have been increasingly concerned: the individual who, fortunately, is unaware of the signifiers, discourses and any other paraphernalia of the literary bibliography, and simply read what you like and don't read what you don't. Would such a figure be a mere projection, a symptom of the crisis of legitimacy that affects the academy, as argued by Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan? Or, as Rita Felski, Amanda Anderson, and Toril Moi think, could a better understanding of the ways in which readers actually read be the basis for a critique that is more engaged with the real world?

Theodor Adorno's position on this issue is typically dialectical. This figure is not presented without a touch of elitist haughtiness: “the naïve of the cultural industry, greedy for its merchandise, fall short of art”[I]. And yet their unfamiliarity is said to allow them a clarity that the regular operagoer, patron of museums or literary critic lacks. They are able to perceive the “inadequacy [of art] to the process of current social life – but not its falsity – much more clearly than those who still remember what was once a work of art”[ii]. Anyone who squints at a work of modern art and asks, “what is it good for?”, has, in this sense, a more lucid view of the contemporary status of art than the critic – in particular, that, “the with regard to art ceased to be self-evident … even its right to exist”[iii].

To the extent that such passages achieve the fusion of a condescending unfamiliarity towards those outside the academy with his internal self-loathing, it might seem that they unite the weaknesses of both sides of the debate about the "ordinary reader". But Theodor Adorno does not intend to idealize or depreciate. The figure he proposes is, instead, a critical intervention on “engaged” art and literary criticism of his time. Unlike Benjamin, practically the only critic who, during Adorno's lifetime, can be considered worthy of a constant engagement with the aesthetic theory, Adorno considers it axiomatic that the democratization of art was a failure. Rather than bringing art to the masses, the technical reproducibility of the artwork, in Adorno's view, simply produced a more refined form of mass culture - see the whining around the publishing world that "literary fiction" is just a elitist designation of advertising – while the homogenization of classes destroyed the coherent and identifiable audiences for whom the work of art was intended.

This historicization of the relationship between art producers and their “consumers” is a minor component of the critique of art. aesthetic theory to one criticize engage. Theodor Adorno argues that, when viewed from the perspective of an individual without artistic sensibility, it becomes clear that the categories of such criticism are fired from a pistol – that is, launched without any rigorous conceptualization of what a work of art really is. é. Brecht's maxim that literature must be “no less intelligent than science” and, therefore, must produce knowledge as true and useful as the social and even the natural sciences, seems to be even more fragile when one considers imagine explaining it to the non-reader. “For questions such as 'why is such a thing imitated' or: 'why is something narrated as if it were true, when it is not and only distorts reality', there is no answer that convinces those who ask such questions”[iv], writes Adorno.

There is something ridiculous about even the most serious works of art, he argues, whose roots lie in the archaic character of the “mimetic impulse”. The concepts and categories of political criticism, which approximate the seriousness of the social sciences with the moral urgency of the struggle for justice, are therefore attractive precisely because they place a fig leaf over the work of art, covering it up – as well as the costumes worn by the ape, in Kafka's short story, in his address to the academy.

For Theodor Adorno, therefore, any attempt to obtain a moral and political education directly from literary works is doomed to bump into the “non-identity” of literature. It was this claim to the autonomy of the work of art – often accompanied by the anecdote of Adorno turning pale when bare-breasted students invaded his classroom – that often compounded the accusations of political quietism and, even more absurdly, conservatism. But just put a few sentences from the aesthetic theory alongside those of the “new aesthetics” that – headed by the book Aesthetics and Ideology (1995) by George Levine – invoked Adorno to call for a return to the artistic object, against its “politicization” by Foucault, Jameson and Said to perceive the difference.

Certainly, insofar as he insists that the work of art, while obviously a social fact, cannot be deduced from his social circumstances, Adorno is at odds with other strands of Marxist criticism. It also resists, at least in my reading, the left Nietzscheanism of Deleuze and Guattari, whose characterization of the work of art as just a kind of “assembly” on the “plane of immanence” suggests that artistic techniques and effects (no deeper distinction is drawn here) are social practices simply because they happen in society.

According to aesthetic theory, what distinguishes the work of art from the rest of perceptible reality is the fact that it orders its material according to its own logic. In the case of literature, this appears most obviously in the transposition of non-linguistic experiences into language; but it also manifests itself in the more granular business of the style – something not considered worthy of critical attention by the contemporary historicist paradigm.

Theodor Adorno, however, claims that the social function of art stems precisely from its distinction from other goods, modes of production, services and forms of information. The self-imposed rationality according to which the work of art selects and organizes its constituent elements parodies the rationality of the social world. The work of art achieves its critical function not in what it says, but in what it does: “it accuses the rationality of social praxis of having become an end in itself and, as such, the irrational and insane reversal of means into ends ”. The horrors of out-of-control, maddened technical rationality – above all, the Holocaust – are never far from Adorno's analysis of Beckett and Kafka's 'negativity'.

Even the lightest verse of Eduard Mörike has, for him, a political character, simply because its elements seem to have come together of their own accord, free from the cruelty with which the social world transforms everything within it into something identical to itself. same. A left-wing critique, guided by the aesthetic theory, would not, therefore, seek to bring the work of art closer to the social world. Instead, she would seek to further distance it.

Adorno is, to say the least, elusive about the implications of this. A aesthetic theory she is parsimonious in the use of the verbs to have, to have and to need. One way of understanding the book would be as an attempt to define limits to other conceptions of a work of art. in fact, the aesthetic theory often seems to harshly criticize the paradigms of the present. It is difficult not to read Adorno's assertion that, for example, the technologies, social processes and ideologies without which the work of art could not exist are crystallized within it as a defense of the aesthetic experience against the Foucauldian episteme.

Their resistance to the total politicization of art, however, could be directed at post-George Floyd American academia. It also expresses no small amount of ambivalence toward the kind of materialism propounded by McManus, which is understandably gaining ground in a pervasive climate of unionization impulses among graduate student-workers in American universities.

In the terms of Theodor Adorno, a critique that considered the material conditions that actually existed – in which there is “so much to read and so little time”, as McManus writes – would have to consider the displacement of these forces within the studied object in order to become something more than a “mere” sociology of universities and the publishing world. Such critical models, after all, retain the same obsession with the reality principle that dominates the managed world – with seeking to “punish” art for claiming to be something more than it is, by diminishing it.

To close with an assessment of their 'positive' contributions would be to betray the unwavering negativity of the aesthetic theory. However, in a certain sense, it can be said that it converges with North's perspective, expressed in literary criticism (2017), that the criticism to come would place greater emphasis on a “therapeutic” use – a word I deliberately use in connection with Adorno – “rather than a merely diagnostic use of the literary”. Such an emphasis is, paradoxically, apparent in Adorno's insistence on the 'mutism' of art, that is, on the way in which it transforms discursive ideas and concepts into appearances.

Even the most discursive works have, for Theodor Adorno, more things in common with nature than simply é, than with philosophy or politics. “Nature”, here, refers not only to natural objects, but to everything that is dominated, mutilated and repressed by the civilizing process. The work of art becomes a locus of preservation for those aspects of the world destroyed by instrumental reason, offering a negative image of what Fredic Jameson, in his own work on Adorno, referred to as “a powerful vision of a collective culture liberated ”.

Therefore, in this sense, Theodor Adorno shows himself as having more in common with the emancipatory spirit of the 1960s than he let on – although, in his perspective, unlike “culinary or pornography”, art reaches such a level precisely at suspend the immediate sensation of pleasure (“Anyone who listens to music looking for the beautiful passages is a dilettante”). A fully realized aesthetic would not, however, advocate a regressive anti-rationalism – whose pitfalls were definitely proved by fascism – or a sensory hedonism. Following the original program of the Frankfurt School, it would operate in a dynamic alliance with psychoanalysis and anthropology, illuminating everything that lies in the shadows of reason, and that is necessary to rescue reason in its fullest and broadest sense of its most determined antagonist – herself.

Such a project is considerably more abstract than that outlined in McManus's essay, or, for that matter, anything that criticism has sought to accomplish since the iconoclastic moment of poststructuralism. But even Adorno's most abstract considerations are reinforced by an anguished ethical commitment. The most significant contribution of aesthetic theory for the present moment perhaps it is the centrality of suffering in its problems and categories.

After all, rescuing aesthetics does not mean discarding criticism of moral and political commitments. On the contrary, in an age when art has no clear social function, one justification for its continued existence is its ability to reduce suffering. Art is the appropriate medium for understanding and expressing suffering because it “escapes and rejects rational knowledge”. While today's engaged criticism too often omits the distinction between the representation and the reality of suffering – a categorical error for which Adorno would blame mass culture – an Adornian aesthetic could be situated among the ethical paradoxes of the therapeutic work of art.

The work of art caresses, with “the caressing hand of memory”, human anguish, a relief that does not contain in itself any measure of betrayal. Criticism can offer a language for these paradoxes, it can provoke and convey comfort. Unlike politics, it is able to tell us what can and cannot be said – what can be transformed and what has left its scar forever.

*Michael Lipkin Doctor of Philosophy from Columbia University.

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published on the website of New Left Review.



[I] ADORNO, Theodor W. aesthetic theory. Translation by Artur Morão. Lisbon: Editions 70, 1970. p.28

[ii] Ibid, p.28.

[iii] Ibid, P. 11.

[iv] Ibid, P. 141.

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