The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

The Treasonous Clerk: Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic, Part IV
James Matthew Wilson - 11/02/09
Theodor Adorno

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

In the last section of this essay, I concluded with the observation that the form of Theodor W. Adorno’s philosophy is patterned on his vision of the art work. We must ask, then, 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: religious enchantment, fait social, suffering, and natural beauty.

Adorno always theorizes art historically rather than ontologically, presuming it to be internally situated within a historical society and to take its definition from that situation; even so, he insists that artworks do not merely express as epiphenomena the ideologies of their age. Indeed, he summarizes in “Lyric Poetry and Society,”

Ideology, as a concept, must not be taken as meaning that all of art and philosophy amount to some particular persons’ passing off some particular interests as general ones. The concept of ideology seeks rather to unmask false thought and at the same time to grasp its historical necessity. The greatness of works of art lies solely in their power to let those things be heard which ideology conceals. Whether intended or not, their success transcends false consciousness.

In refusing a mere expressive relation between society or its ideology and the artwork, Adorno routinely returns to the putative connection between art and “pre-modern” social forms such as religion, myth, and magic. The stark, primitive forms of much modernist art and the theory that accompanied it frequently suggested that the modern artist sought to restore the ancient identity of art and religion as if by sheer act of will. Rilke was Adorno’s national bête noir in this regard, but in the Anglo-American tradition nearly all the major literary modernists engaged in some such religious voluntarism. The drive to craft a new religion of and for art in W. B. Yeats; to recuperate the “old time” religion in Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom; the ritualism in the dramatic ambitions of Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden; the esoteric sacramentalism of Ezra Pound, H. D. and, more tenuously, William Carlos Williams—all these instances speak to a curious modernist belief. Art depended on religious sense, myth, and ritual, and so, for art to be possible in the modern world, those things must be restored at least as ancillaries of art.

Adorno refuses such thinking out of hand. He acknowledges the historical origin of artworks in cultic and magical use; as such, artworks have internal to themselves an unmistakable trace of enchantment. But enlightenment disenchanted the world, removing us from the conditions of religious or magical belief. If artworks in some sense carry into modernity a trace of those archaic conditions, their truth content must stand in dialectical relation not to a society that is gone, but to the society that is the present. As such, the enchantment of artworks derives not primarily from their past instrumental function in religion but by means of their inassimilable difference from the modern order of instrumental reason. Indeed, insofar as an artwork is art rather than a cultic instrument, it has always historically found its meaning in this difference. In a short essay, “Theses Upon Art and Religion Today” (1945), Adorno contends,

art, and so-called classical art no less than its more anarchical expressions, always was, and is, a force of protest of the humane against the pressure of domineering institutions, religious and others, no less than it reflects their objective substance. Hence there is reason for the suspicion that wherever the battle cry is raised that art should go back to its religious sources there also prevails the wish that art should exercise a disciplinary, repressive function.

Art’s truth lies in its protest against, not in its comportment with, this or that social order—much less a sacred order. This is not to say that art is merely a protest; only that, insofar as art reveals truth, it does so unsystematically and in a condition of dialectical opposition to whatever ideology is normally taken for “everyday” reality. Truth appears as what does not fit in with the world and so Adorno writes off as barbaric or infantile the effort to recover a social order in which the truth of art conforms with the systematic order of religion, myth, or magic.

In refusing an ontological connection between religion and art, Adorno introduced the possibility that art might merely express a society’s ideology or that it might stand outside and against it. But, in his dialectical imagination, these are not mutually exclusive alternatives. To what extent, then, does art’s origin lie in its being a fait social, a production or epiphenomenon of its society? And to what extent may art be understood to stand outside social history, whether as a rupture or as something autonomous, above history, as post-Kantian aesthetic theory tends to affirm?

Answering such questions is rendered onerous by the fact that the very conception of art as autonomous is itself a fait social. One source of art’s autonomy is its uselessness in an enlightenment society committed to the triumph of instrumental reasoning. Another source is the meeting of that uselessness with the modern conception of the division and specialization of labor. Art thus becomes the particular division of labor responsible for a certain kind of uselessness—purposive purposelessness, or creation without a concept, as the idealists might put it. An age of utility thus renders art its useless other; an age of specialization fetishizes this uselessness as possessing a certain elevation, an autonomy. Such autonomy also appeared as a mirror of the emerging “bourgeois consciousness of freedom that was itself bound up with the social structure.” Thus the artwork not only is the other to modern, administered society, but may also mirror the self-image of the modern individual who feels autonomous to choose his purpose and ends much as does a work of art. Even so, Adorno does not reduce the modern conception of the artwork as autonomous to a reflection of a regime that dominates everything in the name of liberation and individual freedom. However many ways art may be social—and he lists many others besides those I have noted here—it registers resistance to society, it seeks to critique and render itself autonomous in the face of ideology. On the one hand, it must be made—reified—and so enters into the concrete relations of the society in which it is situated; on the other, as an object made, it stands forth as something independent that, at least briefly, resists integration into the logic of its age.

Adorno speaks of the resistance or protest of artworks being “neutralized” with time; his classical example of this is the opera, which shows forth for a period as true art, but eventually becomes an eviscerated form that is perpetuated as social fashion retaining and reforming the vestiges of serious art as a simulacrum. We must remember that the value of the opposition art manifests is not reducible to the opposition itself. Art absorbs and expresses the conditions of its age, but also reveals them for the untruth—the ideology—they are. In underscoring this, we emphasize that art is a matter of truth just as everyday life is a matter of unreality; neither can be understood in terms of mere subjective feeling or experience, and art, above all, is not resolvable into that cliché American feeling of standing in opposition as a “nonconformist.”


Thus, in the essay “A Social Critique of Radio Music” (1945), Adorno dismisses those accounts that would paint artistic pleasure as relative, as mere sensation and personal opinion. We may find this artistic relativism easy to believe only because it conforms so neatly with the broader forms of relativism essential to an advanced capitalist society in which human freedom is controlled and contained by being reconstituted as “consumer choice.” One believes art is subjective, a matter of taste, only to the extent that one has accepted its conformity to an instrumental and dominating logic of standardization and commoditization. Music in modernity changes not because “tastes change” and “the people” demand what they want, but because music must be reconfigured to fit this logic. Adorno demurs:

Music is not a realm of subjective tastes and relative values, except to those who do not want to undergo the discipline of the subject matter. As soon as one enters the field of musical technology and structure, the arbitrariness of evaluation vanishes, and we are faced with decisions about right and wrong and true and false.

I can think of no more uncompromising defense of the integrity of artworks as manifesting truth in their inherent form. Adorno’s historicism leads not to relativism or to a philosophy of history that will culminate in liberation; it leads rather to a desperate defense of the true made present in works of art against the temptation to conceal everything within a lying logic of enlightenment.

The historical-dialectical nature of Adorno’s philosophy would seem an unpromising one for a defense of truth. He cannot intend truth as the ultimately coherent, intelligible system of reality—the Logos—for that would suggest that truth might have its apotheosis and the instrumental cunning of ideology might at last be overcome. There is no way out of the darkness in which we live, but only the encounter with truth. Adorno describes this encounter in surprisingly familiar ways. Artworks deliver a “primordial shudder”; they are “neutralized and thus qualitatively transformed epiphanies”; it is “resembled by the apparition, the heavenly vision”; and so “They become eloquent by the force of the kindling of thing and appearance. They are things whose power it is to appear.” In their appearing or speaking, they produce images or promises of what is not, a sort of “unstillable longing in the face of beauty.” This tremor, this shudder, this vision is of truth even though it is a truth in several senses produced by falsehood; not merely does art show us what is not by means of artifice, but it depends upon the ideological assumptions of its society for much of its form and content.

But what kind of truth thus appears? I shall advance only two answers—those that seem most distinctive to Adorno’s theory. Art may be produced by a society’s ideology but the demand for it derives from what remains foreign to that ideology, which means what is repressed by it. In a sense, art speaks, in a nondiscursive language, real suffering. This seems primarily, but not exclusively, a particularly modern formulation of art’s claim to truth. In the ages of enlightenment, suffering is the experience that cannot be assimilated into bureaucratic order and it is also the product of the rational rage for such order. Adorno writes, early in Aesthetic Theory,

If thought is in any way to gain a relation to art it must be on the basis that something in reality, something back of the veil spun by the interplay of institutions and false needs, objectively demands art, and that it demands an art that speaks for what the veil hides. Though discursive knowledge is adequate to reality, and even to its irrationalities, which originate in its laws of motion, something in reality rebuffs rational knowledge. Suffering remains foreign to knowledge; though knowledge can subordinate it conceptually and provide means for its amelioration, knowledge can scarcely express it through its own means of experience without itself becoming irrational. Suffering conceptualized remains mute and inconsequential, as is obvious in post-Hitler Germany . . . [art] takes into itself the disaster.

Art speaks a suffering that cannot be spoken in the discursive language of society without losing the truth of its content. One is often disgusted with the modern propensity to provide technocratic or juridical solutions to moral or intellectual problems; in the age of such continuous “ameliorations,” art provides the useless and inassimilable language that does not betray the experiential truth of its meaning. The limitation of this answer to the content of the truth of art is precisely its historicism; suffering is the underbelly of an age of rationally distributed delights. As Adorno instructs, its teleology is immanent and particular, and so art’s identity is distinct in the age of enlightenment from what it might be at other times, at least as a matter of degree.

Can art make eloquent something more profound than the suffering produced by, but excluded from, rational history? Perhaps surprisingly, Adorno gestures toward such a fundament, located precisely in that which modern aesthetic theory is thought to have transcended: natural beauty.

Immanuel Kant

Recall Adorno’s phrase “primordial shudder.” Great art can deliver a kind of shudder that is the image of the fear and awe man encountered in the pre-modern “enchanted” world. While, as we have seen, Adorno resists the “infantile” effort to tie art to religion, he understands well that the pre-modern encounter with the natural world as enchanted or, better, intelligible and powerful was a real one. Kant tried to define it when discussing the sublime in the Critique of Judgment, but succeeded only in suggesting man’s intellectual domination of a physically intimidating natural world. Adorno seeks to recover the real, trembling existential nature of man’s encounter with the “Book of Nature.” The natural world once appeared authored and thus intelligible to us, filled with meanings that were necessarily mute or pre-conceptual for our yearning, uncertain intellects. This experience of enchantment is at once unifying—we feel ourselves fitted into a kind of reciprocity with nature—and alienating: we sense its power and inscrutable intention and so rightly fear it. We encounter an intimation of identity with nature that only leads us further toward what Adorno emphasizes as its “non-identity,” its existence as other or apart from us and our concepts.

Adorno thus resents and dismisses the banal elations declaimed by nature enthusiasts or romantic landscape painters. Such persons, as it were, patronize nature, making it simpler than it is: a place of pure, unmediated pleasures. On the contrary, “what is beautiful in nature is what appears to be more than what is literally there. . . . Natural beauty is perceived both as authoritatively binding and as something incomprehensible that questioningly awaits its solution.” Nature does not restore us to tranquility and oneness of identity, it rather bespeaks mystery after the fashion of Christian mysteries of faith. The exploration or contemplation of nature, its enumeration, does not exhaust its meaning. Natural beauty makes sense to us and yet resists comprehension; it invites further attention and threatens us with the unpredictable, unspoken, and unconquerable at once.

Artworks are produced and signify as if according to the method of nature; they are an artificial image of natural beauty not according to content (Adorno regarded landscape painting as a sign of bad conscience) but according to operation. As such, they reproduce in us the shudder of man before primordial nature in a secondary, neutralized, or autonomous way. As art becomes more “spiritualized,” moving away from representation and imitation, it approaches the being-in-itself with which nature confronts us; art grows more “natural” the less it imitates the content of nature. Because the enchantment of nature has been overcome and subjected to instrumentalization, the artwork becomes the only place with the Book of Nature still appears; the metaphor becomes literal. Adorno concludes,

The total subjective elaboration of art as a nonconceptual language is the only figure . . . in which something like the language of divine creation is reflected, qualified by the paradox that what is reflected is blocked [for we know artworks are human creations]. Art attempts to imitate an expression that would not be interpolated human intention. . . . If the language of nature is mute, art seeks to make this muteness eloquent.

Art thus strives to make present to us a primordial truth that—while never simple, pure, or “immediate” as the romantics or modern art-religion advocates claim—touches the reality of the human condition buried beneath ideology. Art’s autonomy from modern use reminds us of, or reveals to us, the autonomy of the natural world in whose bosom all human beings uneasily live.

The importance of art as resistance is thus quite other than the familiar kinds of “resistance” or “protest” we expect to find besmirching college art museums and right-thinking galleries in our day. The “happenings” of the ’60s, with their hope of restoring ritual and participation to art in a supposedly post-Christian age, Adorno eyed with disgust; they were perfectly intelligible to the sense of “false needs” in modern society, reducing art to one more means of integrating persons with social controls. As his students at the University of Frankfurt organized mass protests and demonstrations late in that decade, Adorno did not recognize himself in their idea of revolution and retreated further into works like those of Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan that truly resisted the logic of enlightenment. Any art or thought immediately susceptible to praxis—even the praxis of destroying public property—he saw as already reconciled to ideology. Freedom was not a condition in which one could live, and no political action or “engaged” art would bring it about; freedom rather was an experience one might have when encountering the mute language of true art in its broken isolation. The only response to such experience was a shudder.

One can only imagine what Adorno would make of art in the decades since his death in 1969. He celebrated art’s “mute eloquence,” and yet most art now is subsidized to speak loudly and clumsily, utterly oblivious to its essential dependence on form. He clearly found the instrumental categories of modernity dehumanizing and destructive; yet the postmodern practice of treating distinction and aesthetic judgment alike as just one more ideology obscuring the essential indifference and equality of all things would strike him as exactly the wrong lesson to learn. Most postmodern thought reduces everything to expressions of ideology, so that there is neither the possibility of a fragmentary shudder of truth’s appearance nor any truth to appear—only joy in the simulacra that constitute human experience. For many years, Adorno reserved particular scorn for jazz music. Jazz presented itself as an act of rebellion, resistance, and freedom even as it was almost unprecedented in its degree of standardization and commoditization. Little interested in the aesthetic, “jazz fans” nonetheless wore their devotion as a badge of “nonconformist” individuality. He saw there the first instance of art not slowly being “neutralized” and absorbed by society, but rather, an art form conceived from the beginning to be marketed as a commodity whose specific (purchasable) content was a rejection of commodity society. The myriad identical teen malcontents thrumming black-dyed hair or causing neighborhoods to quake with their car stereos are just a late manifestation of this commoditized rebellion against commodity, of standardized de-standardization.

Adorno thus stands as one of the great advocates and interpreters of “spiritualized” modern art. So penetrating was his critical intellect that he understood how the truth of artworks had found poignant expression in and against modernity, while also anticipating that its protest qualities would be reified and absorbed. His account of art’s truth is too austere by half; in modernity, only art that was hermetic and difficult could be beautiful and make truth appear. Beckett’s writings become the plausible angel of modern art, for they alone resist art’s absorption without despairing of art itself as a locus of truth. Furthermore, the effective stasis and impotence in which his dialectical theory seems to leave us seems predicated on an assumption that what is necessary cannot be objectively good, but good only in the eyes of ideology. His account of enlightenment rightly perceives its subtle and pernicious stratagems but refuses the possibility that even falsehood might be founded on the good-seeking essence of all actions.

As a historical matter, his writings on art shine forth as singularly important. In an age anxious to reduce everything to ideology, “opinion,” and “subjective” feeling, Adorno practically defined ideology for our century and showed that its opposite was not an anti-intellectual “bourgeois relativism” but a savage and pained adherence to truth. In an age of rationalists, sensationalists, and psychoanalysts, he argued for the real truth and formal significance of art. In the process, he demonstrated that it was possible for an aesthetic theory to be thoroughly historical without giving in to mere historicism. Art is a matter of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, of beauty and ugliness; to view it otherwise is a sign not of progressive, knowing enlightenment but of infantile commodity fetishism. The pretension of our elites, which hold so much of bourgeois life in contempt—from the family, to religious belief, to conformity to natural law—are themselves the consummate bourgeoisie. In appearing to transcend the nickle-and-dime concerns of the average person, they expose not a sensibility for true art but simply a taste for more expensive modes of consumption. At this, Adorno’s writings do more than weep.

In the concluding part of this essay, we shall turn to Jacques Maritain’s early masterpieces on the philosophy of art in hopes of recovering a more robust, but less well acknowledged, account of the reality of art and beauty.

Click here to continue on to Part V.

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