Art and Aesthetics After Adorno: Prospectus

Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (1970) offers one of the most powerful and comprehensive critiques of the discipline of aesthetics ever written. In it we find a deeply critical engagement with the history and philosophy of aesthetics, and with the mainstream traditions of European art through the middle of the 20th Century, is coupled with the vision of a new, thoroughly historicist model of aesthetic theory. The central question posed by this volume is wether and how developments in art and in aesthetic theory since Adorno wrote call for modifications of the views he presented there. Indeed, it could be said that the horizon of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory was set by high modernism. Much has happened since then, and Adorno’s powerful critique calls for reconsideration in this light. This volume of essays gathers the work of leading philosophers, critics, and theorists, around this central set of issues. Rather than share a set of views for or against Adorno, they hold in common a deep respect for the power of Adorno’s views and a concern for the future of aesthetic theory. 

Questions about the fate of aesthetics are hardly new. Indeed, Adorno’s “Draft Introduction” to the Aesthetic Theory he cited a passage from the work of Moritz Geiger (1880-1937) that speaks to the ongoing identity-crisis of aesthetic theory. Aesthetics, he says, is “blown about by every philosophical, cultural, and scientific gust; at one moment it is metaphysical and in the next empirical; now normative, then descriptive; now defined by artists, then by connoisseurs; one day art is supposedly the center of aesthetics and natural beauty merely preliminary, the next day art beauty is merely second-hand natural beauty.” While the history of aesthetics may be somewhat less random than this description suggests, aesthetics has nonetheless labored under ongoing uncertainties about itself. Hegel expresses the concern that art may not be a suitable subject for “systematic and scientific treatment” at all. Before Hegel, in Kant, there are worries about whether aesthetic reflective judgment marks out a “field.” And, before Kant, aesthetic theory voices uncertainties about whether or not matters of taste require something other than epistemology in order to be settled. In the course of its attempts to grasp central questions about “beauty” and “art,” aesthetic theory has often found itself in a centrifugal relation to its subject-matter, attempting to transforming itself into epistemology, psychology, sociology, moral philosophy, and politics. Indeed, almost all the models on which modern aesthetic theory has been based have been drawn largely from extra-aesthetic domains. Beginning in the 18th century, aesthetic theory attempted to imagine itself now as a version of the theory of knowledge, now as a branch of philosophy concerned with questions of judgment, now as a vehicle for morality, now as a stand-in for political science. Since that time it has looked to sociology, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, cognitive science, semiotics, ontology, pragmatics, systems theory, the theory of communication, cultural studies, and ideology-critique, for guidance. What can explain this seemingly endless series of displacements, evasions, shifts of identity, and changes of heart? And in light of the extraordinary theoretical disarray surrounding them, what hope might there be for a theoretical account of terms such as “beauty” or “art”?

Following Adorno’s lead, the plan of this volume is to move along two axes, one directed toward questions of history, the other directed toward more conceptual matters. The history in question involves the development of aesthetic theory in relation to the suppression of [the desire for] what can best be called the “concrete concept” during the period in which one form of reason, the rationalized form, came to be instutionalized as normative. To speak of the “concrete concept” is register art’s way of demonstrating the insufficiency of purely conceptual ways of knowing the world, along with the concenquences that abstract knowing entails. It is at the same time a way of staking claims for the values that it makes (and adds) to the world. To account for these facts we need to engage not only Adorno’s negative-dialectical materialism but also Hegel, whose convictions about the role of art in providing a “sensuous manifestation of the idea,” in spite of the fact that Hegel’s own claim was coupled with the belief that art could be surpassed by a form of “concrete thinking” somehow more satisfactory than it, i.e. pure thinking. Art, he wrote, “is not…the highest way of apprehending the spiritually concrete. The higher way, in contrast to representation by means of the sensuously concrete, is thinking, which in a relative sense is indeed abstract, but it must be concrete, not one-sided, if it is to be true and rational.” For Adorno, by contrast, the possibilities of art are set by the untranscendable horizon of history. 

In spite of a renewal of interest in aesthetic theory in the last several decades, developments since Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory have not managed to shrink the gap between the theory of aesthetics and art’s resistance to systematic treatment at the level of ideas. They have neither been able to accept the bifurcation of sense and concept nor to reconcile their differences. But neither have contemporary developments managed to render those problems irrelevant. 

On the contrary, art has itself become incorporated within the widening gap between the relatively non-theoretical partisans of history, politics, and “cultural studies” on the one hand and those who favor “analytical” (read: conceptual) approaches to art on the other. Each of these factions claims to have some privileged access to the truth-content of art, but the net result has been a dialogue des sourds. Indeed, the mutual incomprehensibility of these approaches can be of staggering proportions. In attempting to ascertain the ontological status of a fictional work, for example, the assumption is that a work of art can be grasped by means of conventional, philosophical truth-categories such as being/not-being, original/copy, or that the truth-content of any given work of art can be expressed discursively in ways that are consistent with the principles of propositional logic. Such categories not only exclude the historical and material specificities that make the work of art in question the way it is; they are deemed to transcend them. And yet the examples seem more compelling than whatever an analysis of them might yield. In the face of them philosophy can seem embarrassed. (What would ontology have to contribute to an analysis of Francis Bacon’s “Innocent X,” which carries a force that goes well beyond the paradox generated by the muteness of the outcry it depicts?) By the same token, an aesthetic theory that situates art wholly within the framework of social labor, as Adorno does, or within networks of social and political power, as neo-Marxists and Foucalutians wish, has relatively little to say about the peculiar ontology of art, its refusal, for instance, to abide by the bifurcation of “being” and “not being.” Most conventional conventional forms of historicism ignore whatever that refusal might contribute to, or subtract from, the dynamics of power. The point is not to credit one or the other of these perspectives as more adequate or true than another but rather to recognize that art may act as a foil for all such exclusionary approaches. Whereas the vocation of aesthetic theory would seem to be to help us recognize in art the very things that such exclusions seem to let slip away, aesthetics has typically presented us with views that either divide “sense” from “concept,” “history” from “truth,” “experience” from “idea.,” or that attempt magically to reconcile these terms. 

The questions of art’s resistance to aesthetic theory and of the mis-recognition of art by the theory designed to comprehend it are central to this volume. How and why did this happen? At what cost did it occur? Addressing these questions requires an account of the formation of aesthetic theory as we have come to know it as well as insights into shifts in the nature of art and the cultural spheres adjacent to it. 

In identifying itself now with questions of taste of a more normative and “empirical” kind, now with “reflective” judgments of that originate in subjective feelings of pleasure and paint, now with the aims of moral philosophy, now with politics, now with empirical approaches to “experience,” now with the theory of material production, now with the dynamics of desire, now with the social organization of experience, etc., aesthetic theory has consistently been pointing to the very domains of praxis from which art has been set apart. Such separations may have been necessary in order for art to identify and validate itself as an integral and autonomous sphere of activity during a time when other such spheres were also consolidating themselves in independent ways. But because these separations were not complete, i.e. because art still retained recognizable traces of its relationship with what we may more broadly call the “praxis of life,” the mis-recognition of art by aesthetic theory can itself provide critical insights into the ways in which those extra-aesthetic domains were subjected to the conditions that rendered art unfamiliar. 

The questions Adorno was raising became especially sharp in the broad stretch of time that has come to be known as “modernity”–i.e., during the period when something like the “theory of art” began to fashion itself as coequal to discourses concerned with truth and morality and when the practice of “art” itself began to emerge as a domain of artefactual production no longer intelligible within the praxis of life. But it is no longer clear that art occupies an autonomous domain at all.

In the course of the “Draft Introduction,” Adorno passes under critical review a vast array of theoretically informed approaches to art: work-immanent studies, phenomenological aesthetics, a form of nominalism that he associates with Benedetto Croce, empiricist aesthetics, and hermeneutics, along with Kant’s “Critique of Judgment” and Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art. Given Adorno’s critical assessment of this entire, heterogeneous tradition, his work might well be taken as constructing a space for the appearance of art by systematically excluding every conceivable approach to it: “art” would be defined in methodological terms as the structural remainder, as the thing that theory consistently fails to explain. But this is hardly the project that Aesthetic Theory sets for itself. Quite the contrary. Each of Adorno’s negations is designed to disclose some element of aesthetic truth and each can in turn be incorporated into a dialectical understanding of the relationship between aesthetic theory and art. Moreover, Aesthetic Theory aims to hold the “objective status” of art firmly in place rather than to locate it as a function of the affects or the judgments of the subject. (Adorno’s critique of the association of art with subjective inwardness is evident from his early work on Kierkegaard.) In his insistence upon art as an object-domain Adorno follows hegel’s response to Kant, who identified the task of aesthetics as universalizing the subjective judgment-power work required for the mediation of the sensuous and super-sensuous worlds. And yet Adorno can hardly refuse Kant’s idea that aesthetics must address itself to what the division of experience into the separate domain of cognition (sense) and morality (the supersensuous) fails to grasp. Adorno’s aesthetics is Kantian in its commitment to the principle of art’s incongruity with the realm of the cognitively true and the morally good, but it is un-Kantian in that it refuses to make art a function of subjectively grounded claims. For Adorno, aesthetic theory is directed neither toward questions of taste and judgment nor towards questions of experience rooted in the subjective apprehension of forms. Rather, it offers a window onto a domain of works that are non-identical with both the concepts we bring to them and to the materials of which they are comprised. Artworks are things, and their “thingly” qualities ought to be respected; but artworks are not mere things. Insofar as they are woven into the fabric of social and historical relations, Adorno regards artworks as the “social antithesis of society.”

To be sure, one can replace a aesthetic theory qua theory of art with descriptions of aesthetic experience, as certain branches of phenomenology have sought to do. (The work of Elaine Scarry moves in this direction.) Insofar as phenomenology takes its bearings by lived experience, it might appear to be uniquely suited to the development of a philosophical aesthetics. The reasons are hardly obscure. Like art itself, phenomenology deals with the realm of embodied experience as complex, integrated, and irreducible. Its procedures defy any approach to the world that would begin from the “top down” or from the “bottom up.” Phenomenology attempts to register the fact that any engagement with the world must commence “in the middle.” It is equally discontent with the reduction of experience to its “conditions of possibility” and with the mere description of the content of experience. 

In Adorno’s view, however, the phenomenology of art runs aground because it strives to be just as presuppositionless as the concept, free from all privileged anteriorities. It aims, after all, at the “things themselves.” He objects that phenomenology finds itself limited when confronted with artworks because it is driven by a search for essences of a kind that art will never yield (the most blatant of these being the “essence of art”): “It wants to say what art is. The essence it discerns is, for phenomenology, art’s origin and at the same time the criterion of art’s truth and falsehood.” Adorno also objects that art inevitably presents us with some “content” to which phenomenology is unable to respond. If we take “content” to mean some legible subject, decipherable theme, or recognizable figure in the work, then the criticism seems at best partially valid, especially in the wake of abstract art, whose aims and interests lie elsewhere. But “content” as Adorno means it not just topic or theme; it is a name for everything that is communicative in art. Moreover, phenomenology would hardly deny that art asks to be engaged on levels that are incompatible with the wish for pure essentiality. The “essence” of art is hardly art itself. Art is “essential” only in that it remembers and preserves a form of concreteness that has been lost from the abstract concept and its particular instantiations in the world. That concreteness is “essential” in art to the degree that it is the abstract concept’s lost other half. In contrast to phenomenology, Adorno’s dialectical model is one in which the abstract and the concrete continuously mediate one another in art: “Highly mediated in itself, art stands in need of thinking mediation; this alone, and not the phenomenologist’s purportedly originary intuition, leads to art’s concrete concept.”