The Ideal of Being Grown Up: Remarks on Adorno.

In Aesthetic Theory Adorno describes the situation in modern art in terms of the “culture industry” (the theme that has already received some attention in Adorno and Horkheimer’s joint effort in Dialectic of Enlightenment).  The opening section of AT, which is provisionally labeled “Situation,” discusses the present situation in art and art theory.  Here the idea of the “culture industry,” among other interesting engagements, receives a following formulation:

They push for deaestheticization of art [Entkunstungdearting?].  Its unmistakable symptom is the passion to touch everything, to allow no work to be what it is, to dress it up, to narrow its distance from its viewer.  The humiliating difference between art and the life people lead, and in which they do not want to be bothered because they could not bear it otherwise, must be made to disapper: This is the subjective basis for classifying art among the consumer goods under the control of vested interests.  If despite all this, art does not become simply consumable, then at least the relation to it can be modeled on the relation to actual commodity goods. [16-17, Hullot-Kentor trans.]

“The humiliating difference” and “consumable” are two phrases that immediately (at least for me) jump out of this description of the present situation (still present, I believe, and thus the incredible relevance of almost everything Adorno has to say about art) – take, for example, “modern music” – Alex Ross, whose book The Rest Is Noise I whole-heartedly endorse, poses the problem in a following way:

While the splattered abstractions of Jackson Pollock sell on the art market for a hundred million dollars or more, and while experimental works by Matthew Barney or David Lynch are analyzed in college dorms across the land, the equivalent in music still sends ripples of unease through concert audiences and makes little perceptible impact on the outside world. [xii]

The fact that Ross mentions “selling for a 100 millions or more” should not be taken as an endorsement of consumability of art – in a sense, Jackson Pollock is as unconsumable as ever – but as a sign that the general public is comfortable not only with the idea of looking at a Pollock painting, but also with the idea that it is “good art” and is thus worth millions of dollars.  Adorno touched on the same theme when he mentioned what seemed strange and ironic to him in an example of seeing abstract works being hung in the lobbies of American hotels.  Ross’s observation, it seems, only raises an issue of consumability in relation to the apparent difficulty: how is it possible that “modern music” is not as accepted (and easily consumed) as other forms of “modern art”? It is, of course, clear that Marx needs to make an appearance in this particular discussion – however, I am not inclined to go there in this post as I would like to simply sketch a sort of a quick portrait of the situation via my reference to Adorno (I am sure our friends at Larval Subject or Rough Theory would have more intelligible things to say on this matter). 

Back to Adorno then.  What is so “humiliating” about the difference between “art” and “life”? And, more importantly, who is “being humiliated” by that difference?  From the context of Adorno’s discussion of the “culture industry” one may understand that it is those who “administer” the culture industry that feel humiliated by the difference between “high” art and “low” life – the difference must be made to disappear precisely because it is this difference that humiliates: “Away with elitism in art!” However, it seems that Adorno is more interested in the economy of such humiliation (whether it actually takes place is still in question in this particular section of AT).  In the citation above, Adorno points out an interesting connection between this humiliation and consumability of “modern art” – it is precisely the inability to make art consumable that humiliates! Further in the discussion of the present situation Adorno notes: 

Valid art today is polarized into, on the one hand, an unassuaged and inconsolable expressivity that rejects ever last trace of conciliation and becomes autonomous construction; and, on the other hand, the expressionlessness of construction that expresses the dawning powerlessness of expression. – The discussion of the taboo that weighs on subject  and expression touches on a dialectic of maturity.  Its Kantian postulate, that of emancipation from the spell of the infantile, holds not only for reason but equally for art.  The history of modern art is that of a straining toward maturity as the organized and heightened aversion toward the childish in art, which becomes childish in the first place by the measure of a pragmatically narrow rationality.

What is this “dialectic of maturity” that requires us to moves away from the infantile in art and commands us to make art mature and thus consumable? Will the “humiliating difference” between infantile (“immature” and even “irrational”) art and grown-up pragmatic “life” disappear if through the ongoing efforts of the culture industry we make “modern music” into a mature, consumable and useful contribution to society?

5 thoughts on “The Ideal of Being Grown Up: Remarks on Adorno.

  1. Interesting post. This is somewhat unrelated, but I’ll just put it “out there.”

    One of the issues that always sort of bothers me about Adorno’s approach is that much of his concern is with the forces that lie behind artwork in order to determine the politics of the artwork and its complicity with or refusal of the reigning power structures. Certainly, Adorno is right to diagnose art as recently “on its own,” excited and celebrating its freedom but at the same time somewhat uneasy or confused about the role it is to play. The upside of this type of analysis yields a way to think artwork as constitutively powerless, the work of art then, would be set loose from the “disciplining” impact of power which inundates the artwork’s vigor and channels it into forms of (humiliating) rapport that for one, merely produce more power. While the work of art may be free from the calculating and productive forces of power, perhaps thought of more as a “mutative intensity” it would still serve to not simply represent or imitate the social order, but represent the various power inscriptions of the existing arrangement of things.

  2. Pingback: Economics Topics News » Blog Archive » The Ideal of Being Grown Up: Remarks on Adorno.

  3. Paco, i think i understand what you’re saying – i’m not sure if i can speak for Adorno in this case but i think i personally would say something like this: clearly a work of art can stand on its own, but i would then ask what exactly is this “own” of the work of art? i think i read Adorno primarily as a more sophisticated version of the same argument that Alex Ross is trying to put forward – and as i said, it clearly needs to go in the direction of Marx here…

  4. Mikhail, I understand your point re:Ross/Adorno. Sorry, I kind of tossed off a response more to the first of the Adorno passages you cited. So, yes, my response is clearly–just a minute ago re-reading it– less directed to what you said and more (go narcissism!!) towards the direction in which I’ve been thinking, namely, along the lines of what precisely is the work the work of art “does,” and some recent thought I’ve had of “getting away” from Adorno’s perspective/diagnosis which is always tied to political problems that lurk behind production.

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