Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

A Strange Antiquation: T.W. Adorno’s Aesthetics in 1968

Aesthetics by Theodore W. Adorno 

This review, by a new contributor at artcritical, is published on the 50th anniversary of the death of Adorno, August 6, 2019

T.W. Adorno in 1968
T.W. Adorno in 1968

Academic, stuffy, German – Theodor W. Adorno has become emblematic of a certain sense of unfeeling in art. He was critical of TV, partial to Schoenberg, and aggrieved by the crassness of life in exile in 1940s America. Some of his students, infatuated with the youthful spontaneity of 1968, supposed that Adorno represented the old institutions that continued into post-war Europe, seeing his criticisms of mass culture being ‘pre-digested’ as identical to the conservative dismissal of contemporary art, culture, and even values. Determined to take action, they scrawled ‘If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease’ on the blackboard. Three of them surrounded him and exposed their breasts as others handed out leaflets proclaiming, ‘Adorno as an institution is dead.’ Adorno would confide in Max Horkheimer, writing: ‘To have picked me of all people, I who have always spoken out against every type of erotic repression and sexual taboo!’

It is here, then, that we arrive at Aesthetics, a book that immediately appears to confirm this suspicion of conservatism; with lectures on Kantian and Hegelian aesthetics, the enlightenment, Bach, beauty, ‘sensual immediacy’, Jugendstil, they hardly relay the sense of urgency felt in Europe in 1968. Published as part of a series of Adorno’s lectures ranging from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to topics as broad as metaphysics or history and freedom, Aesthetics works both as an introduction to his final work, Aesthetic Theory, and an exhaustive look at aesthetics itself. But to make the assumption that these lectures on aesthetics or any other book in this series are conservative in their approach would be to make the same mistake as those students, who praised youthfulness and energy above everything.

One of the first points that Adorno stresses is that art criticism is not confined to the history of art. It is not something that is exclusive to the classics but must necessarily come up against the most contemporary artwork. Adorno is then able to discern antagonisms crucial to art beyond movements themselves in ways that surpass writers like John Berger who came after him. For while Berger looks at art’s necessary social content, Adorno is able to recognise not only the social content of art but its historical content and ideals – whether through the technique of its form or its rebellious spirit – and tie this to the contradictions internal to art as that which is necessarily excluded from it.

Recognizing that classical sculpture ‘showed no trace whatsoever’ of this exclusion, however, one student questioned whether this was the case for all forms of art. But this exclusion should not be taken as a literal and material exclusion. ‘This aspect can potentially lie in the principles of artistic design. […] [I]t may even crawl away and entrench itself behind the choice of any objects at all.’ Classical sculpture, as an art form that ‘flourished in the classical Athenian city-state, connected the urban citizens to the extent that it incorporated, one could say, the protest against the harming of the human body within the civil process of life. It is certainly true that the free citizens of Athens at that time did not perform manual labour themselves, and that they consequently remained free of the bodily deformations that the work process so easily inflicts on other humans.’ Art in Hellenistic society was informed by the ideal of the human body and its form in its essential embodiments – the form of the athlete in Discolobus, or beauty in Venus de’ Medici – but this ideal necessarily excludes the foundation of Athenian society as a slave society. Embodied in its art was the contradiction between that ideal and the material it necessarily obscured to achieve that form, and so the concrete form itself becomes mediated by this exclusion.

Jean-Francois Millet, Man with a Hoe, 1860–62. Oil on canvas, 32.25 × 39.5 inches. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
Jean-Francois Millet, Man with a Hoe, 1860–62. Oil on canvas, 32.25 × 39.5 inches. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

And so, while Berger can lament Jean-François Millet’s peasants as an overlooked subject in European art history, Adorno is able to relate art to its totality; its colour, its subject, object, composition, not as a mechanical application of the golden mean, not as subject to rationality but a rationality itself that nevertheless relates to what is external to it. ‘[A]nd the relationship between these … aspects keep changing at every stage of art history.’ Aesthetics demonstrates Adorno’s approach to form and social content that separates him from other critics, historians, and philosophers, providing an essential framework to understand art in its development from classical to modern art. This is felt most keenly when discussing the fact that art’s fate is not sealed through rebuttals but a ‘strange antiquation’, or the injustice of rendering the horrors of the Third Reich in a crude mimetic conception of art. Soon, any resemblance to the repressive institutions of post-war Europe is exposed as merely a passing one.

Theodore W. Adorno, Aesthetics. [Translation of Ästhetic (1958/50).] Eberhard Ortland (Editor), Wieland Hoban (Translator).  Polity Press, ISBN 9780745679402. $69.95hb; $28.95, pb; $15.19 Kindle edition.