Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory of art as apparition. I would like to rescue that fleeting, fragile, but tough-minded apparition from those who wish to dissipate it into the fog of an ideological mystification or the smoke of an unprofitable write-off.
There is a received wisdom among that small but vocal minority sometimes known as the cultural left (as distinct from any political left) that equates bourgeois high culture with capitalism and its oppressions, though Peter Bürger notes that “whereas art forms owe their birth to a specific social context, they are not tied to the context of their origin or to a social situation that is analogous to it, for the truth is that they can take on different functions in varying social contexts” (69).
Both the current socio-political right and the current intellectual left reduce all values to those of socioeconomic and political performativity, what Horkheimer and Adorno call instrumental reason. As Jean-François Lyotard writes, “Artistic and literary research is doubly threatened, once by the ‘cultural policy’ and once by the art and book market” (76). The “cultural policy” is today much more effectively that of the radical Right than that of Lyotard’s Stalinist specter, though both aim for what Herbert Marcuse described as affirmative culture. Andreas Huyssen notes that “The neo-conservative lament about the politicization of culture…is only ironic in this context since they themselves have a thoroughly political notion of culture” (206).
For the socio-political right, agents of capital whatever ideologies of “traditional values” they may flaunt, all human activities can be reduced to the pursuit or obstruction of profit. For the intellectual left, all can be reduced to the maintenance or subversion of bourgeois ideology. For seemingly wholly opposed ends, both sides participate in and perpetuate advanced capital’s tyranny of the social, which like vulgar Marxism reduces all questions to those of economics. (Given that so many American leftists ignore economics altogether in favor of so-called cultural critique and cultural activism, perhaps such Marxism isn’t so vulgar after all. Talking about money is always considered vulgar, isn’t it?)
The attack on “bourgeois culture” as a purely negative goal seems much more important than the struggle toward an unalienated society to the radical academics whose social guilt leads them, without confronting their privileged positions within an educational system that functions largely as a vehicle of social exclusions, to call their pangs of conscience leftist. Denis Donoghue notes that the Western intelligentsia “show no sign of giving up bourgeois comfort but resent the society that provides it.” (Parenthetically, the concepts of cultural pluralism and cultural activism function largely to displace desires for equality and democracy from the social to the aesthetic realm: a bracketing not everyone can afford.) They forget Lyotard’s caveat that modernity consists in both the discovery of the lack of reality of reality and the invention of other realities (77). There must be a creative as well as a critical dimension. Such invention is one function of art, insofar as a function is demanded of it.
In his discussion of the absence of a “classical” avant-garde (an interestingly paradoxical notion, like the tradition of the new) in the United States, Huyssen implicitly recognizes that bourgeois culture has never played a central legitimating role for U.S. capitalism, for which it has been at worst irrelevant and at best another commodity. As Andrew Joron points out, “Any ‘legitimation function’ would be superfluous: the American machine, with its proudly exposed components of Accumulation and Repression, has no need for such a carapace” (4).
Having no classical institution of art, the U.S. could not develop or receive an equally classical negation of that institution. “Such an iconoclastic attack on cultural institutions…only made sense in countries where ‘high art’ had an essential role to play in legitimizing bourgeois political and social domination….The cultural politics of 20th-century avantgardism would have been meaningless (if not regressive) in the United States, where ‘high art’ was still struggling hard to gain wider legitimacy and to be taken seriously by the public” (167). Huyssen argues that in the U.S. “high art [did become] institutionalized in the burgeoning museum, concert, and paperback culture of the 1950s,” but immediately undercuts this argument by acknowledging that in the U.S. modernism “entered the mainstream via mass reproduction and the culture industry” (193).
In Adorno’s words, “Society today has no use for art and its responses to it are pathological. In this society, art survives as reified cultural heritage and as a source of pleasure for the box-office customer, but ceases to have relevance as an object” (22). He goes on to write that a genuine experience of a work of art is a release, however fleeting and contingent, from the shackles of that society. “Happiness in the presence of works of art is a feeling of having made an abrupt escape” (ibid.).
The historical avant-garde’s attempted sublation of art into the praxis of life eulogized by Peter Bürger in Theory of the Avant-Garde has been fulfilled in the commodity aesthetics which moves beyond marketing objects to marketing experience itself. Capitalism has thus carried out what Marjorie Perloff calls the shift from a material to a situational aesthetic. (In Andrew Joron’s description, “Here in America…‘culture’ has been reduced to a simple play of intensities, to the simultaneously brutal and sentimental pulsions of mass media”.) Unlike Perloff, who in his terms might be said to be interested not in the new but merely in the novel, Bürger recognizes that such a sublation might not be wholly salutary. Rather than lifting up the quotidian, it has leveled the aesthetic: “the culture industry has brought about the false elimination of the distance between art and life, and this also allows one to recognize the contradictoriness of the avant-gardiste undertaking” (Bürger 50).
Perloff writes that “The aesthete’s longing to protect art from the encroachments of industry…has dogged the artistic production of our century from the time of the Eiffel Tower to our own. It is the distinction of the avant guerre to have created the first artistic movement that tried to solve this problem, to break down the barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low,’ between, so to speak, the Ivory and the Eiffel towers” (201). In this regard, Perloff agrees with Bürger: both believe (Bürger in a much more self-critical fashion) that such a self-transcendence or self-negating of art as institution can be conducted by formal means, from within the institution of art. Contrarily, Martin Jay notes Habermas’ caveat that “the utopian dedifferentiation of art by itself is insufficient to undo the pathologies of modernization.” Indeed, by itself that dedifferentiation turns exactly into its dystopian opposite.
This is the much-noted aporia of the avant-garde: the historical avant-garde seeks to break down the walls between the institution of art and the praxis of life, but the praxis of life remains one of capitalist instrumentality. Thus, to collapse art into that praxis is to abdicate to capitalist social relations, and to close that space of critical and utopian thought which is the ground from which all such sorties set forth: “the (relative) freedom of art vis-á-vis the praxis of life is at the same time the condition that must be fulfilled if there is to be a critical cognition of reality. An art no longer distinct from the praxis of life but wholly absorbed in it will lose the capacity to criticize, along with its distance” (Bürger 50). To conflate, in critique or otherwise, capitalism and the bourgeois institution of art (as if art were more bourgeois than other institutions, as if art has not always been both complicit with and a reproach to domination) is to cooperate in capital’s colonization of one of the few areas of social life not wholly absorbed by capital, collapsing art into culture and culture into society. (The academic institution commodifies and bureaucratizes creative discourse as much as any gallery or museum does, showing as insatiable an appetite as any television network for the new and improved products—legally described as “intellectual property”—by means of which academic discourse sustains and reproduces itself.) In Bürger’s words, “Given the experience of the false sublation of autonomy, one will need to ask whether a sublation of the autonomy status [of art] can be desirable at all, whether the distance between art and the praxis of life is not requisite for that free space within which alternatives to what exists become conceivable” (54).
Art embodies the other-than, Ernst Bloch’s principle of hope: a surplus, a utopian element that never fails or disappoints precisely because it is not. As an evocation of this possibility, I cite Jameson’s description of “the classical [German] aesthetic, which projects…a Utopian realm of beauty and culture beyond the fallen empirical world of money and business activity, thereby winning a powerful critical and negative value through its capacity to condemn, by its very own existence, the totality of what is, at the same time forfeiting all [capacity for] social or political intervention in what is, by virtue of its constitutive disjunction or autonomy from society and history.” However, I reject Jameson’s valorization of negation, his reduction of the utopian potential of art to critique and refusal. Huyssen realizes that “Out of negation alone, neither a new art nor a new society can be developed” (154). The affirmation of the contrary may operate as a mode of resistance to what Adorno and Horkheimer call the “commendation of the depressing everyday world” (cited in Huyssen 139), but as Huyssen points out, “the very notion of resistance [as set in opposition to affirmation] may be problematic…there are affirmative forms of resistance and resisting forms of affirmation” (221). It is too often forgotten that Adorno’s relentless negativity was in the service of a positive hope, the dream of an unalienated society. “Art is the promise of happiness, a promise that is constantly being broken” (Adorno 196).
The aesthetic, precisely because of its obsolescence, has become a category of possibilities other than (and not simply opposed to) those offered by commodity culture. But I don’t wish to valorize art in purely ideological terms, as Bürger does. By such criteria the “oppositional” poem and the “oppositional” speech are indistinguishable, and the demand for an engaged literature becomes a capitulation to the ontological tyranny of things-as-they-are. As Adorno argues, “In art, direct protest is reactionary. Even critical art has to surrender itself to that which it opposes” (31). (This is not a prohibition on subject matter, as evidenced by Adorno’s praise of Paul Celan.) Bürger’s longing for a “political art” (by which he means an art whose content espouses a particular political tendency: as his argument makes clear, all art, like all other social practices, is inherently political), if fulfilled, can only transform an enabling uselessness into a despairing futility. As Abigail Solomon-Godeau writes of one of Bürger’s examples, “John Heartfield’s covers for AIZ (Arbeiter Illustriete Zeitung) had no discernible effect on the rise of fascism, although he was able to draw upon two important historic conditions unavailable to contemporary artists (a mass audience and a definable left culture)” (Ross 206).
Huyssen writes that “Even under the conditions set by the capitalist culture industry and its distribution apparatus, art ultimately can open up emancipatory avenues only because it is granted autonomy and practical uselessness” (152). I would further assert that art can open up such avenues only by means of its uselessness, its abandonment of and by means-ends rationality. Art embodies and enacts a refusal of performativity by an alterity irreducible to the sum of its determinations.
Art preserves the possibility of liberation because its uselessness marks out a space not colonized by or valued by capital. Its “obsolescence” is also its resistance to being easily consumable; its loss of “relevance” is also a freedom to keep alive certain human possibilities. In Jameson’s words, “the profound vocation of the work of art in a commodity society [is] not to be a commodity, not to be consumed” (395). Art offers an image of what Kant called the kingdom of ends, that other realm of freedom in which things and people exist for and in themselves and not as the means to something else. As Adorno asserts, “The utopia anticipated by artistic form is the idea that things at long last ought to come into their own” (195).
Contrary to the assertions of those whose socially-inflicted sufferings are merely spiritual, art is not a mode of social oppression. As a reservoir of values which society honors only in the breach, it functions exactly contrarily. “By their presence art works signal the possibility of the non-existent; their reality testifies to the feasibility of the unreal, the possible” (Adorno 192). For me growing up in the Bronx ghettoes, art pointed toward freedom; nor were “beauty” or “truth” dirty words. I have been oppressed by many things in my life, but not by art, which enacts potential rather than closure.
Art, like all human activities, occurs within social frameworks and contexts. This should be taken for granted. But this is not what distinguishes art from other social practices and institutions. Art is a social practice, but it is not only a social practice. “Art is never coterminous with ideology” (Adorno 195). Elements of art escape social determination, and it is this excess which defines it as art. One cannot and should not erase an artwork’s social context, but one can't and shouldn't replace the artwork with that context. If art is either condemned as ideology or valued only as oppositionality, then it vanishes as art. As Adorno reminds us, “There is nothing in art that does not derive from the world; and yet all that thus enters art is transformed” (201).
Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Christian Lenhardt. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.
Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.
Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1971.
Joron, Andrew. The Cry at Zero: Selected Prose. Denver, CO: Counterpath Press, 2007.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.
Perloff, Marjorie. The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre and the Language of Rupture. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 1986.
Ross, Andrew. Ed. Universal Abandon?: The Politics of Postmodernism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.