Close Reading: Aeshetic Theory, Chapter 1

A close reading of Chapter 1 of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: ’Art, Society, Aesthetics’.

Key terms: Autonomy, the empirical world, uncertainty, heteronomy, form, negation, noncommunication, sensuous, sublimate, pleasure, spirit, negative, disinterested liking, knowledge, unconscious/nonintentional

After the disintegration of work-life-aesthetic integration (in which art had ”not yet separated from magic, historical documentation, and such pragmatic aims as communicating over great distances by means of calls or horn sounds”, p.3), Adorno claims that the autonomy of art “freed itself from cultic function and its images” (p.1) and began to emerge as a distinct concept. This autonomy is art’s separation from the empirical world: “art is useless for the business of self-preservation” (p.17. Initially “nourished by the idea of humanity” (p.1), it was reliant on Enlightenment notions of humanism, of which Adorno (with Horkheimer) wrote an explicit critique in The Dialectic of Enlightenment; however “as society became ever less a human one, this autonomy was shattered. […] Yet art’s autonomy remains irrevocable.” (p.1) Humanism has showed its inhuman nature (he understands Nazism not to be an aberration from Enlightenment thought but rather its logical consequence); but art cannot return to its pre-Enlightenment state: “All efforts to restore art by giving it a social function – of which art is uncertain and by which it expresses its own uncertainty – are doomed” (p.1). Not only does this leave art with an “uncertainty over what purpose it serves, […] It is uncertain whether art is still possible; whether, with its complete emancipation, it did not sever its own preconditions” (p.2). Adorno wants to understand further the how art binds itself to, and holds itself at a remove from, society.

Dismissing any “effort to subsume the historical genesis of art ontologically under an ultimate motif” (p.3), he argues that “the concept of art is located in a historically changing constellation of elements; it refuses definition. […] Art can be understood only by its laws of movement, not according to any set of invariants.” (p.2/3) Art has no historically fixed ontological underpinning, but is rather “at every point indicated by what art once was” yet “legitimated only by what art became with regard to what it wants to, and perhaps can, become.” (p.3) Art exists as a tension between what we understand art to be, and how it inevitably diverges from this understanding. While “art’s difference from the merely empirical is to be maintained” (p.3), there is an interchange between the two: “much that was not art […] has over the course of history metamorphosed into art; and much that was once art is that no longer” (p.3). Art must be understood as a dynamic process: “Art acquires its specificity by separating itself from what it developed out of” (p.3): ‘new’ art does not legitimise itself by being like what already exists, but rather how in how it differs. “Truth exists exclusively as that which has become”. (p.4) The legitimacy of the new is one and the same process as the disavowal the old; a process of artworks “negating their origin” (p.4).

I think this seems to make suggest that at any moment it should appear as if there is no more possibility for art: that our understanding of art would exhaustively describe the limits of art; and that this is exactly the role of art, to open up new territories (while foreclosing others) that were previously inconceivable. Indeed, Adorno suggests an particular claustrophobia to his current moment of writing; 1910 ‘revolutionary art’s’ exploration of “the sea of the formerly inconceivable” have “not been compensated for by the open infinitude of new possibilities” (p.1); this “expansion appears as contraction” (p.1). However, while Hegel also considered art a “transitory […] product of history” (p.4), he held that the “substance of art […is] its absoluteness” (p.4). Adorno suggests instead that “art’s substance could be its transitoriness” (p.4) – as “the revolt of art […] has become a revolt against art” (p.4); this is why he is unclear as to whether ‘art’ as concept might persist.

He claims that art’s detachment from the empirical world “brings forth another world” (p.2) and this leads artworks to “tend a priori toward affirmation” (p.2). But he’s keen to distance this from “clichés of art’s reconciling glow enfolding the world” (p.2), which plague both bourgeois and religious (“those Sunday institutions”, p.2) understandings of art. Instead he urges that in relation to “art’s inescapable affirmative essence […] Art must turn against itself, in opposition to its own concept, and thus become uncertain of itself right into its innermost fiber.” (p.2) So art must answer its uncertain position in society by pursuing a deeper instability, a deeper uncertainty. Adorno is interested in art having a contradictory relationship with society – “Art can no more be reduced to the general formula of consolation that to its opposite” (p.2), arguing that “through the ages […] art has turned against the status quo and what merely exists just as much as it has come to its aid by giving form to its elements” (p.2). I’m not quite sure how this conciliatory force leads the empirical world to reintegrate the autonomous.

Key for Adorno’s understanding of autonomy is that art’s “rejection of the empirical world […] inheres in art’s concept and thus is no mere escape, but a law immanent to it” (p.2). Autonomy does not simply or permanently detach art from the empirical world: “The pure concept of art could not define the fixed circumference of a sphere that has been secured one and for all; rather, its closure is achieved only in an intermittent and fragile balance[…]. The act of repulsion must be constantly renewed.” (p.8) The opposite of autonomy, heteronomy, refers to art’s dependant relation to the ‘empirical world’; Adorno claims that it is revealed through (at least) two different ways: that an artwork can perish through their reliance on certain themes that as they become ‘extinct’ – for example, the contemporary reader’s inability to significantly empathise with the common theme of adultery in Victorian and early-twentieth century novels, after the role of the bourgeois family in society diminished (however, entropy is not guaranteed: it’s also possible for what is ‘authentic’ in an artwork to persist despite the decline of its themes). But more significantly, this heteronomy of art lies ”right into the smallest detail of their autonomy, […] they are not only art but something foreign and opposed to it.” (p.5) Art is not only an unstable concept through it’s historic mutability; but because “admixed with art’s own concept is the ferment of its own abolition” (p.5).

He writes more about the distinction between artworks and the empirical world: “Inherently every artwork desires identity with itself, an identity that in empirical reality is violently forced on all objects as identity with the subject and thus travestied. Aesthetic identity seeks to aid the nonidentical, which in reality is repressed by reality’s compulsion to identity” (p.5) In empirical reality, identity of things is forced. It is “only by virtue of separation from empirical reality” (p.5) that artworks are allowed to preserve the non-identity of objects, such that their particularities are not erased in the recognition and conception by the subject – which would be an essential to any ‘instrumentalisation’ – the relationships with things determined by uses and ends, that compose the empirical world. This separation from the empirical life – this “heightened order of existence” (p.5) – offers lives lived in the empirical world freedom “from that to which they are condemned by reified external experience.” (p.5) This explains why it is not simply independent: artworks have a contradictory substance. While they “are alive in that they speak in a fashion that is denied to natural objects and the subject that make them” (p.6), they simultaneously exist “as artefacts, as products of social labor” that “communicate with the empirical experience that they reject and from which they draw their content” (p.6). The content of art is composed of (recognisable?) elements of the empirical world; their entry into art spares them from the kinds of understanding and domination that are determined by the empirical world: “Art negates the categorial determinations stamped on the empirical world and yet harbours what is empirically existing in its own substance.” (p.6) This might offer a clue as to what Adorno means by the empirical world; not a physical space, or set of materials, but a collection of understandings, values and/or processes.

This negation (‘of categorical determinations’) is undertaken through “the element of form” (p.6); with forms themselves often traceable back to the empirical world. Rather than suggesting that “art’s autonomous realm has nothing in common with the external world other than borrowed elements” (p.6), he suggests that “the communication of artworks with that is eternal to them [i.e., the empirical world; …] occurs through noncommunication.” (p.6) Artworks do not simply disengage from the world; or engage the world through didactic forms of representation, allegories, metaphors; but rather through their disengagement returns to indirectly re-engage. He suggests that the most potent artwork, the one which has most to (noncommunicatively) say about the empirical world, does so not through “the insertion of objective elements”; instead, “unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems. The complex of tensions in artworks crystallises undisturbed in these problems of form and through emancipation from the external world’s factual facade converges with the real essence.” (p.7) He does not specify what this ‘real essence’ of the empirical is.

Up to this point, he’s mostly spoken about how artworks emerge from the empirical (however abstractly); but he argues that these tensions between autonomy and heteronomy continue to be present in the perception of the artwork too. Adorno speaks of a “tendency to perceive art either in extra-aesthetic or pre-aesthetic fashion” (p.8), and that “something in art calls for this response”; that indeed, “art perceived strictly aesthetically is art aesthetically misperceived” (p.8). The tensions between autonomy and heteronomy do not just take place in production; in the perception of an artwork it is necessary to understand “art’s other […] as a primary layer in the experience of art”. This layer (of the empirical) must be actively ‘sublimated’ (“to dissolve the thematic bonds”, p.8) in the understanding of a work; otherwise its autonomy becomes merely “a matter of indifference” (p.8). Art’s distance from the empirical world must not be a pre-resolved, but rather a tangibly present and continual tension. ’“Art is autonomous and it is not: without what is heterogeneous to it, its autonomy eludes it” (p.8). This tension forms the criteria of an artwork’s ‘success’ (without specifying what exactly he means by success here): that firstly, an artwork should integrate “thematic strata and details into their immanent law of form, and in this integration at the same time maintain what resists it and the fissures that occur in the process of integration” (p.8). The successful artwork is that whose elements and form reveal the strain and struggle of a process of integration – perhaps making evident the process of autonomy itself. He refers to a kind of attraction of the artwork: the resonation of “the suppressed and unsatisfied needs” of elements of empirical reality as ‘sensual interest’, that it makes “makes artworks more than empty patterns” (p.14); without it, “art is shorn of all content, and in its place posits something as formal as aesthetic satisfaction” (p.14).

Adorno has a low opinion of the idea of finding ‘satisfaction’ in art: suggesting the demand/expectation for art to be enjoyable is a vengeful desire for it to ‘make up’ for its autonomy: unproductive within the empirical world, “it should at least demonstrate a sort of use-value modelled on sensual pleasure” (p.17/18). His disparagement of ‘pleasure’ in art leads to a much more radical propoition: “What popular consciousness and a complaisant aesthetics regard as the taking pleasure in art, modelled on real enjoyment, probably does not exist. The empirical subject has only a limited and modified part in artistic experience tel quel [“as it is”], and this part may well be diminished the higher the work’s rank.” (p.16) Adorno displaces the importance of the experience of the viewer to such a degree that the beholder of an artwork has only a partial experience of a work. The constitution of the perceiving subject becomes compromised; the artwork’s “truth […] opened up to, and overpowered, the beholder [….] the beholder disappeared into the material” (p.16). It worth noting though: Adorno is not to eliminating possibility of pleasure arsing within art as a critical position at certain historical moments; his claims here only pertain to when pleasure “appears in art literally, undefracted”, saying “it has an infantile quality” (p.18).

So: the artwork integrates aspects of the empirical world; but alongside the more obviously heteronomous aspects of an artwork, Adorno suggests that the ‘unreal and the nonexistent’ that might appear in art are “not independent of reality”, but are rather “structured by proportions between what exists” (p.9). Art is really made of art’s other – empirical reality – which the process of autonomy continually negates. He uses various terms that relate to this process of negation within the artwork, that I can’t get a clear distinction over: ‘form’, ‘integration’, ‘constellation’ and ‘synthesis’; I’m curious about how they relate to the term spirit. “Not only art’s elements, but their constellation as well, that which is specifically aesthetic and to which its spirit is usually chalked up, refer back to its other” (p.9). Autonomy is described as that which within the artwork “sanctions the socially determined splitting off of spirit by the division of labour” (p.5). It reappears again: “The artwork is related to the world by the principle that contrasts it with the world, and that is the same principle by which spirit organized the world” (p.9). There is a ‘spirit’ attributed to the constellation/form/synthesis(?) of elements, but also a spirit that ‘organised the world’. It features a bit more in his discussion of Freud and Kant.

Adorno is critical of psychoanalytic readings of artwork that reduce them to “unconscious projections of those who have produced them”, arguing that in doing so this analysis “forgets the categories of form” (p.10). “In the process of production, what is projected is only one element in the artist’s relation to the artwork and hardly the definitive one; idiom and material have their own importance, as does, above all, the product itself” (p.10). What is asserted here is the authority and articulacy of the artwork independent of the artist. “Psychoanalysis treats artworks as nothing but facts, yet it neglects their own objectivity, their inner consistency, their level of form, their critical impulse, their relation to non psychical reality, and, finally, their idea of truth” (p.11) Specifically, what is lost in this is the artwork’s negativity: “The psychologism of aesthetic interpretation easily agrees with the philistine view of the artwork as harmoniously quieting antagonisms […] and suppresses any negativity in the finished work.” (p.15) This negativity is defined as the “force by which it exceeds the given” (p.15) Freud’s understanding of the art “seems to seal itself off from art’s spiritual essence” (p.13); so the ‘spiritual’ of art might therefore relate to negativity: an independence and capacity to exceed both the artist and the empirical world. While Adorno criticises Freudian aesthetic theory’s over-emphasis on the artist, he does suggest that that there might be a legitimate study for a “psychology of art”; “artists of the highest rank […] the sharpest sense of reality was joined with estrangement from reality” (p.12) and bear a ‘fantastical’ “wish to bring about a better world” (p.12).

An account of spirit in artwork does not lead him to consign artwork entirely to the spiritual: “The psychoanalytic theory of art is superior to idealist aesthetics in that it brings to light what is internal to art and not itself artistic. It helps free art from the spell of absolute spirit.” (p.11) He places this accusation at the Kantian and rationalist traditions’ understandings of art, which propose a “subjectivist approach, which […] tacitly seeks aesthetic quality in the effect the artwork has on the viewer” (p.12). Adorno praises Kant’s notion of ‘disinterested liking’ as being “the first to achieve the insight [that ;…] divides aesthetic feeling […] from the power of desire” (p.13). Desire here is a disposition associated with ‘empirical reality’. Adorno’s critique of Kant centres his inability to permit “the idea of something beautiful which possesses or has acquired some degree of autonomy in the face of the sovereign I” (p.14). While Kant understands that “the separation fo the aesthetic sphere from the empirical constitutes art” (p.13), he “transcendentally arrested this constitution, which is a historical process, and simplistically equated it with the essence of the artistic” (p.13) – autonomy is no longer a ‘dynamic’ (p.13) process, but a given – as disinterested liking divorces itself from the risk of heteronomy. Art becomes purely ideal, purely transcendent, purely spiritual, and without critical tension: ‘debasing’ art to “a pleasant or useful plaything” (p.15/16). Adorno’s understanding of art insists that “the Kantian ‘without interest’ must be shadowed by the wildest interest, and there is much to be said for the idea that the dignity of artworks depends on the intensity of the interest from which they are wrested” (p.14). “Artworks imply in themselves a relation between interest and its renunciation” (p.15) – heteronomous and autonomous forms of desire.

He suggests that due to art’s spiritual nature a tension has emerged between what has been historically included or excluded by the spiritual: “the spiritualization of art incited the rancour of the excluded and spawned consumer art was a genre, while conversely antipathy toward consumer art compelled artists to ever more reckless spiritualisation” (p.17). Art in society has split into two: “For a society in which art no longer has a place and which is pathological in all its reactions to it, art fragments on one hand into a reified, hardened cultural possession and on the other into a source of pleasure that the customer pockets and that for the most part has little to do with the the object itself.” (p.19). Rather than the idea of ‘aesthetic pleasure as constitutive of art” (p.19), which he (after Hegel) sees as always being “an accidental aspect” (p.19), he rather places a greater importance in the notion of knowledge: “what the work demands from its beholder is knowledge, and indeed, knowledge that does justice to it: The work wants its truth and untruth to be grasped” (p.19). I’m curious – does this knowledge need to be there for each and every viewer? Is it that this un/truth is grasped by the discourse more broadly? Where does this knowledge come from?

One final thing that I’m interested in; perhaps relating to the unconscious or nonintentional: “The insistence of the nonintentional in art […] points up art’s unconscious self-consciousness in its participation in what is contrary to it; this self-consciousness motivated art’s culture-critical turn that cast off the illusion of its purely spiritual being” (p.9). And related: “Even the most sublime artwork takes up a determinate attitude to empirical reality by stepping outside of the constraining spell it casts, not once and for all, but rather ever and again, concretely, unconsciously polemical to the spell at each historical moment” (p.6). I’m interested in this ‘unconsciousness’ of this opposition; and whether to interpret this as the ‘consciousness’ of the artist or the artwork. I think he’s suggesting that rather than trying to comment on the world around them at a remove, he thinks artists can produce more powerful and successful art by turning far away from the empirical world, permitting them to semi-accidentally produce something that articulately reframes it. He connects it with “Wedekind’s derision of the “art-artist” […] and indeed with the beginnings of cubism” (p.9) Does this correspond to the disparaged idea of ‘artists making work for artists’ – which instead suggests they should be making work for ‘lay people’, ‘ordinary people’, ‘non-artists’, ‘the public’? Making work which seems to have no relevance to the world is disdained as being elitist, self-absorbed, etc.; in opposition, art which aims to communicates clearly with the world around it is held as good, honest, hardworking. I’m not sure whether I’m aligning two very different things. Later: “Art is not only the plenipotentiary of a better praxis than that which has to date predominated, but is equally the critique of praxis as the rule of brutal self-preservation at the heart of the status quo and in its service” (p.15) – Art can not only act independently as the agent of future praxis; but it is critically independent of the idea of praxis being productive/essential/useful, or contributing to the current powers that dominate the empirical world. Art should resist the temptation to legitimise itself through operating though ways we understand to be important/useful/productive.

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