Some notes on Adorno’s ‘Aesthetic Theory’

I recently began reading Adorno’s posthumous magnum opus Aesthetic Theory. It was a relatively spontaneous decision, forcing me to grapple with Adorno’s problematic much earlier than I had planned. It seems now to have been an unconscious recognition of the necessity to take on the only dialectical materialist philosopher of music, to correct some limitations in my own thinking. A few points:

Firstly, if you want to practice politics and change the world, Adorno’s not really your guy (I mean, he called the cops on student protesters, right?). However, if you want to understand the conditions of the production and reception of art under monopoly capitalism, Adorno is really your guy.

Secondly, while Alain Badiou slams Adorno quite convincingly in his ‘Five lessons on Wagner’ for his terminal negativity, there’s something missing in Badiou’s critique. Badiou might be seen as the champion of art as creative procedure and affirmation, and Adorno might be seen as the champion of art as critique and negativity. Nonetheless, Adorno grapples with the question of the relationship of critique and construction, and Badiou’s truth process is predicated upon a) an immanent critique of the situation by way of an event, and b) an ideological construction the ‘idea’ (or Badiou’s philosophy), that is distinctly anti-capitalist and critical. So it’s not all that simple.

It is true though that one of the weaknesses of my recent way of thinking about the role and development of art was its heavy emphasis on creative process with only an abstract relation to the context in which the creation takes place. Even utilising Trotsky’s theoretical world, a refined but orthodox Marxist one, there was a lack of attention paid to the commodification of the artwork and what it means for artistic creation.

Mine (perhaps Trotsky’s, perhaps vulgarised) was a simple dialectic of the alienation of art from the social whole (within the social whole) across the course of human history (after the rise of class society, or perhaps even before). An alienation that was necessary for the genesis and development of art as such (as for the productive forces in general), but that was nonetheless begging for its resolution by way of a social revolution that increasingly breaks down the division of labour in society and makes art a part of life and life artistic. That is to say, art is a form of non-alienated labour within an alienated society, pointing us to a future where this kind of labour can be generalised, where all social labour is non-alienated labour, is a free act of the subject.

The problem was that while there was this general dialectic, these ideas could not take into account the discontinuity of the role and essence of art under different socio-economic systems, in different historical totalities. In short, it could conceive of the general genesis and line of the development of the productive forces of art, not their relations of production (or only very abstractly, all subsumed under the concept of ‘alienation from the social whole’). Practically what this means for a composer is that while there is a general raison d’être for continuing to write music (albeit a humble one), and a general orientation towards not giving up on the refinement of musical creation, despite the fact that this might be charged as ‘elitist’, it does not give you much of an orientation. The ‘development of the productive forces of music’ does not necessarily mean ‘more complexity’, it means ‘more refinement of the human spirit by way of the refinement of the object’. Complexity is absolute, refinement it relative. A simplification of sorts could be a refinement if it is the next step for the musical spirit of humanity. Adorno provides the deepest, most penetrating analysis of the set of relations that art finds itself in under monopoly capitalism. He starts from art as the commodity, and shows how art must take stock of this fact and critique it, even if in a way that is constantly being undermined by its very form.

This does not mean we have to become Adornians, and write critical music. Art must certainly be a creative and affirmative procedure. Nonetheless, you must first wade through the murky crystalline waters of Adorno’s diagnosis of art under the rule of the commodity. If you don’t, your affirmation will be vulgar and weak.

Anyway, this is all background stuff. The juicy stuff comes when you get into dialectics between tradition and innovation, construction and expression, autonomy and heteronomy, the individual subject and the objective development of art, duration and event, etc etc. I will have to find time to write some more posts dealing with all this… But to finish with some smashing quotes from the first 50 or so pages:

It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist. – p. 1

Art’s double character as both autonomous and fait social is incessantly reproduced on the level of its autonomy. – p. 6

The darkening of the world makes the irrationality of art rational: radically darkened art. – p. 25

The new is necessarily abstract. – p. 26

The absolute artwork converges with the absolute commodity. – p. 28

[A]rt must go beyond its own concept in order to remain faithful to that concept. – p. 37

New art is as abstract as social relations have in truth become. – p. 39

The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself: That is what everything suffers from. – p. 41

Because there is nothing that can avoid the experience of the situation, nothing counts that purports to have escaped it. – p. 43

Art is the historicophilosophical truth of a solipsism that is untrue in-itself. – p. 53

Absolute expression would be objective, the object itself. – p. 56

Of course, none of this gives you an answer to the question of ‘what is to be done [in art]?’, but it is a necessary component to the process of answering this question. Adorno: necessary, but not sufficient.