The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 21, 2017

The Treasonous Clerk: Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic, Part III
James Matthew Wilson - 10/28/09
Theodor Adorno

This is Part III of a seven-part essay on "Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic." You can read Part II here.

To speak, in contemporary society, of art and beauty in the same sentence, much less as realities integrally involved with one another, is to risk being laughed at. Perhaps Hans-Georg Gadamer was the first to theorize systematically how we must understand the aesthetic as a category of being or a mode of analysis independent of any talk of the beautiful, but his argument was founded on, and in redress of, the suspicion popular since the eighteenth century that beauty is a mere matter of subjective feeling or opinion; and so also were the fine arts believed to be, but they belonged to a different class of subjective phenomena. As such, chatter about beauty could be cast off as either manipulative rhetoric for the seduction of women or the expression of vain, vague, nostalgic longings for rustic landscapes, while talk of the aesthetic could remain serious—indeed, humorless—even as it grew impermeable to rational explanation and debate. We could trace a historical graph of the past couple centuries showing that the falling fortunes of the idea of beauty bear an inverse relation to the ever more lofty or “professionalized” reputation of art and aesthetics: a yawning separation so great that the advent of cultural studies has made possible serious formal discussion, subsidized by extensive bureaucratic institutions, of some very unserious “art,” during which any reference to the standards or reality of beauty would be, at best, a cause of embarrassment and, at worst, occasion for an intricately formulated debunking of one more “bourgeois ideology.”

The consequences of this division and dismissal of art and beauty proliferate. We observe, for instance, the strange congruity of our culture’s suspicion of any substantive claims about the beautiful with its increasing, everyday ugliness in architecture, urban planning, worship, speech, and manners. And we note, as well, the still further division of art into such purely modern groupings as “mass culture,” “popular art,” and high or “elite” art. One cannot help but think that we abet the exacerbation of the former consequence in denying to ourselves a public language to describe that with which we cannot possibly be content; in a fashion typical of modern rationality, we resolve our discontent by rendering it mute, and we “mute” it by pretending it is unreal and by denying it a vocabulary with any moral force. Similarly, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that the radical division of the arts into the “entertainment industry,” or “mass culture,” and the stuff still taught in schools, supported by nonprofits and the State, and collecting dust in museums and pretentious wine-sipping stares in the galleries of Soho, amounts to something other than the natural hierarchical division of artworks into lesser and greater, or even simple and difficult. Rather, artworks in the view of our society have lost their ontological integrity in being denied a foundation or reality in beauty, and so have been entirely subordinated to diverse instrumental uses.

Naturally, the works themselves are transformed in this subordination. The great mass of Western persons now live in a poppy dream of consumption and repose; the “entertainment” they imbibe comes brilliantly adapted for digestion, distraction, and a speedy market of evanescence and novelty. Meanwhile, the bohemian and “high” art-consuming elites make use of obscurities to flatter their sense of political enlightenment and as expressions of a very fragile form of cultural power. Supposedly politically “conscious” art serves to confirm the latest feminist or “ethnic” cause—not because anyone looks at it and is changed, but rather, its presence in mostly empty public space gives testimony to the virtue of those corporations or universities who sponsor it. Elsewhere, austere rehashes of an earlier age’s love of abstraction, or pornographic titillations, more truly attract elite audiences, who like to be reminded of their winnowing, ascetic sensibilities while also having their generally unmastered sensuality pandered to and “affirmed.” The rise of homosexual-themed art seems to accomplish all of the above. If artworks in every age have served instrumental ends, the ends in ours are attenuated and debased compared even to the vain adornments that artists provided sovereigns in the early days of the modern absolute state. In those days, artists proclaimed (and so, subtly admonished) their patrons to be better men than they actually were; our age flatters its elites by telling them they are just fine indulging whatever desires they might feel so long as they pepper it with austere gestures and make donations to virtuous third-world causes.

As might be expected from such remarks, I wish to argue for a restored sense of the philosophy and practice of the fine arts as bound up inexorably with the reality of beauty as one of the transcendental properties of being. Rather than forwarding this claim in mere abstract theory, I shall situate it historically and provide brief descriptions of the thought of two thinkers who have best grasped different dimensions of the function of art and beauty, and their mutual necessity in the modern age.

The greatest mind of the Frankfurt School, Theodor W. Adorno spent much of his life in study of art’s truth in the age of ideology and Enlightenment. His account of the function of art is intensively historical and sociological and yet stands in decisive opposition to the historicism and “bourgeois relativism” that obscure or soften the difficult vision of truth art can sometimes open. The vertiginous turning of his dialectical theory of art is interesting in its own right as a byzantine refinement of Marxist historical materialism, but it also merits attention because of its explanatory power regarding the difficulties of modern art and its implications for why postmodern art owes a debt to the modern and yet is an incoherent falling off from it as well. He offers us an account of art that likely reflects the terms in which many modern artists have conceived it in their practice, and yet, crucially, his aesthetic theory refuses to loosen art’s clasp on either truth or, perhaps surprisingly, beauty. Moreover, he locates art as a reality bound to, but distinct from, any society’s ideology and rehabilitates the medieval notion of art as derived from the intelligibility of the cosmos, as a reflection and imitation of the “Book of Nature.”

Jacques Maritain

I shall then turn to an early treatise of the French neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain. While Maritain was prolific as a philosopher of art and beauty for much of his life, his Art and Scholasticism (1920) and The Frontiers of Beauty—two essays eventually gathered and published as one volume—offer the single most concise and suggestive account of these matters I know. If much of Adorno’s writing is retrospective, trying to understand the currents of modern art after most of them had run their course, Maritain’s writings are contemporary with the developments they seek to explain. Indeed, the power of this early book is partly lodged in Maritain’s almost polemical campaigning for his contemporaries to understand their work differently than they actually did. It is a work of philosophy that would reinterpret apparent historical contingencies into a more permanent language—without, for all that, losing sight of the historical transformations of art from culture to culture or age to age. Adorno and Maritain alike both saw modern art as having achieved an unprecedented degree of “spiritualization,” a consciousness of its autonomy and its function to open up the flesh of everyday life and discover truth in that mortal wound. Their claims merit our attention not primarily as theoretical expressions of the modernist sensibility, but as accounts of art and beauty that cannot be laid by and that, in fact, are as adequate for our purposes as they were to those of some decades past.

Adorno: “Only What Does Not Fit into This World Is True”

As a late Western intellectual heir of Karl Marx, Theodor W. Adorno developed his thought on dialectical historicism. For Marx, the dialectic explained how real evils ultimately serve the interest of an apotheosis or end of history, so that one could understand agricultural and feudal social formations preparing for the rise of bourgeois capitalism and industry, and these social forms would eventually be superannuated by the emergence of a stateless dictatorship of the proletariat. Following Hegel, Marx’s dialectic suggests that apparent evils in fact serve a historically necessary or good function, and even evident falsehoods—ideology—reveal and conceal at once historical truths. Adorno accepted the dialectical movement of historical reality, but stripped it of its teleology; history is not moving toward a total synthesis that will resolve and end its shiftings. Belief in any such necessary journey was the prototype of the ideology of Enlightenment, of modernity; Adorno believed that the truth of history could be expressed only in the fragment, the essay, the shudder or glimpse, where ideology momentarily ruptures. Indeed, it should only be so expressed; philosophies of totality conceal the truth to which they lay claim. The only adequate philosophy is that which confesses its perspectival partiality. In “Why Philosophy?” he explains,

Philosophy guided by a sense of responsibility for everything should no longer lay claim to a mastery of the absolute, should in fact renounce all such notions, in order not to betray them in the event, without, however, sacrificing the concept of truth itself. The province of philosophy lies in such contradictions as these. They confer on it a negative character.

Truth appears in critique, in the moment of negation, where what has previously been accepted as truth is made visible and momentarily transparent. One has no steady gaze on truth, but one may stand in shifting relation to it by means of critical agility. Robbed of the teleology that the realization in history of a complete system would provide, the dialectical movement itself becomes problematic, for it has no end against which to measure itself, but only the untruth that is one with it like the glazed sunlit side of a leaf. As such, Adorno’s dialectical analysis of reality tends to spiral in a fashion more sophisticated and more elusive than that of other post-Marxist social theorists. Everything worthy of analysis expresses a historical situation compounded of truth and falsehood; every social change may offer us a glimpse of truth on its obverse, but some new falsehood dwells on top.

The charter document of this historical theory is Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), which Adorno coauthored with Max Horkheimer, another prominent thinker of the Frankfurt School. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, the conception of rationality heralded by the figures of the Enlightenment (which they view as an event reaching back before the seventeenth century and as the condition under which we now exist) dispelled earlier conceptions of reason, myth, magic, and religion. The promise of enlightenment was the promise of liberation from superstition and the dissolving of falsehood in the light of rational truth. But the method of enlightenment, instrumental reason, was soon transformed from its finite function of dissolving primitive social forms into a social form itself; the method of instrumental reason did not last as a tool of enlightenment, but became the standard, the substantive belief, of enlightenment as a regime. Anything that does not conform to the method gets dismissed out of hand as false or irrational. What began as a project of intellectual liberation, in which thought frees itself of calcified ideology by means of critical reflection, becomes itself the calcified ideology that stultifies reflection.

Adorno and Horkheimer

However, Enlightenment is distinct from other social forms in its totalitarian ambitions. It seeks the reification, rationalization, and administration of all things; it would reduce and reify all things to the order demanded by its method. Begun in the name of luminous truth, truth may be entirely concealed by the absolute ambitions that all things be made fit, be instrumentalized. This account grows darker in light of the general dialectical framework Adorno elsewhere provides. All apparent goods conceal within themselves evils; real progress carries within itself real barbarisms; appearances of freedom and rational “disenchantment,” whatever truth they may show forth, hide new enslavements and enchantments in their shadows. The totalizing claims of enlightenment thus hint not only at the size of its promise but also at the severity of its threat. He writes, “All enlightenment is accompanied by the anxiety that what set enlightenment in motion in the first place and what enlightenment ever threatens to consume may disappear: truth.”

In his magnum opus, Aesthetic Theory (1970), Adorno critiques several of the German idealists for misunderstanding the nature of art and yet modeling their philosophies on artworks. The idealists, Hegel above all, viewed artworks as justified insofar as they were the pre-conceptual or nonconceptualized other of thought, of Idea Itself. The concrete and sensuous was thus dialectically integrated as an inarticulate promise of Absolute Idea. However much this seems to depreciate the importance of art, it actually takes the dialectic of the concrete artwork and the ineffable truth it contains as exemplary of how all things operate.

A similar criticism could be directed at Adorno, save that he is entirely aware of what he is doing. He views the flattened, banal surface of modernity as a patina of pure ideology concealing, and so inadvertently revealing, truth by its very operation. We are at every moment reminded of our freedom and set at greater remove from it. We are informed of our happiness even as we become less and less capable of reflecting meaningfully on what it might be. The tail-finned world of enlightenment is all shiny steel surface melded to iron cuff. Insofar as an artwork makes an inassimilable appearance, insofar as it momentarily stands as forth as unintelligible within the scheme of modernity, it causes a “break or rupture.” These fugitive moments of rupture manifest in an artwork are the shattered moments where truth shines like a shard in the otherwise seamless enamel of ideological order. As such, the lyric poem may be the emblem of art in general and, indeed, the exemplum of the difficult and ephemeral means by which truth appears in an order arrayed against it:

The idiosyncrasy of poetic thought, opposing the overpowering force of material things, is a form of reaction against the reification of the world, against the rule of the wares of commerce over people which has been spreading since the beginning of the modern era—which, since the Industrial Revolution, has established itself as the ruling force of life.

Adorno’s essayistic philosophy is modeled on art’s idiosyncrasy. Aesthetic Theory comprises, effectively, one long undivided paragraph whose stylistic density makes one think that each sentence is a new thesis advanced rather than a supporting plank within a sustained argument. Sustained argument would be itself a weakness, a concession to totalizing systemization that would lose its critical perceptions in the process of vindicating them in the eyes of modern standards of rationality. In this respect, Adorno follows the aphoristic philosophy of Nietzsche rather than the scientific method of Marx; and yet he emphasizes again and again that in sacrificing argument he is not sacrificing truth, but making the vision of truth briefly possible in the stillness between two waves of ideology.

If art is the form of his philosophy, what is art itself and whence the truth it reveals? The shattered dialectical mirror Adorno gives us offers multiple answers, of which I shall provide four in the next part of this essay: religious enchantment, fait social, suffering, and natural beauty.

Click here to continue to Part IV of this essay.

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