Presentation at the 2020 CAA College Art Association conference in Chicago on the panel “Another Revolution: Artistic Contributions to Building New Worlds 1910-30 (Part 1)” with Aglaya K. Glebova and chair Florian Grosser with discussant Monica C Bravo.
The Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky’s book Literature and Revolution (1923) and its critique of the claims of “revolutionary” art at the time was seminal for the subsequent thought of the Marxist critics of modernist art, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Clement Greenberg, all of whom addressed socially and politically committed art as varieties of modernism, subject to the same self-contradictions of bourgeois art in capitalism. They took inspiration from Trotsky’s Marxist approach to history in capitalism, specifically his claim, drawing from Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, among others, that the transition beyond capitalism begins only well after the revolution, and that neither revolutionary politics nor ostensible “revolutionary culture” actually prefigure a true socialist or communist society and culture but only exhibit the contradictions of capitalism raised to a heightened and more acute degree. Moreover, modernism as a pathological symptom of capitalism did not exemplify a culture of its own but only a crisis of bourgeois culture that was not a model for a future emancipated culture, but at best was merely a constrained and distorted as well as fragmentary and incomplete projection of capitalism that was authentic only as an exemplar of its specific historical moment.
The history of Marxism is contemporary with and parallels the history of modernism in art. Charles Baudelaire, who coined the term “modernity” to refer specifically to the 19th century, and initiated modernism in both artistic practice and theory, is, like Marx, a figure of the 1848 moment. Modernism in art emerged around this central crisis of the 19th century, namely the capitalism resulting from the Industrial Revolution.
The relationship between modernism and Marxism was a potentially fraught one, however. In the aftermath of the post-WWI revolutionary wave, mostly Marxism became hostile to modernism, describing it as bourgeois decadence — a symptom of the decay of bourgeois society and culture in capitalism. Pre-WWI Marxism had a similar estimation of the culture of advanced capitalism, but less simply derogatorily than the utter condemnation by Stalinist repressive Socialist Realism seen in the 1930s and after. Stalinism regarded modernism as formalist and individualist, and raised earlier bourgeois art as a “Socialist Realist” and Humanist standard against it.
Leon Trotsky, one of the central leaders of the 1917 Russian Revolution, was a Marxist, like Lenin himself, whose sensibilities were formed in the pre-WWI era. Called upon to weigh in on debates within the Communist Party about state patronage of art in the Soviet Union, Trotsky wrote his book Literature and Revolution, which sought to clarify the Marxist attitude towards modern art, especially purportedly revolutionary and even supposedly “proletarian” art. Trotsky was unequivocal that there was and could be no such thing as proletarian art, but only bourgeois art produced by working class people. This is because as a Marxist, the terms bourgeois and proletarian were not sociological but rather historical categories. For Marxism, bourgeois society and culture had been proletarianized in the Industrial Revolution, but this did not produce a new society and culture but rather the proletarianized bourgeois society and culture went into crisis, exhibiting self-contradiction — unlike the bourgeois society and culture that had emerged out of Medieval civilization in the Renaissance.
The bourgeois social culture and art in the crisis of capitalism, like its economics and politics, demanded the achievement of socialism. This was the proletarian interest in modern art: the authentic democratization of culture and art that capitalism both made possible and constrained, giving rise to only distorted expressions of possibility and potential. Modernist art for Trotsky could not be considered a new culture but rather an expression of the task and demand for transcending bourgeois society and culture.
This is the value of art as an end in itself, taking itself as its own end or purpose; hence, l’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake, is an expression of freedom, in both the bourgeois emancipation of production for its own sake and the Humanistic value of life in itself — a value unknown in traditional culture, which elevated morality above life, and subordinated aesthetic production to ritual or cultic community values.
This meant that the history of society, including its transformation in bourgeois emancipation and crisis in capitalism, could find expression in the history of art. The Marxist approach to art is hence primarily historical in character.
Later, towards the end of his life, in 1938, a decade and a half after his book Literature and Revolution, Trotsky wrote a series of letters to the American journal Partisan Review in which the art and literary critic Clement Greenberg first published. In his letters on “Art and politics in our epoch,” Trotsky described their relation as follows — please allow me to quote from Trotsky at some extended length, for in a few paragraphs he sums up well the attitude of Marxism towards art:
“The task of this letter is to correctly pose the question. “Generally speaking, art is an expression of man’s need for an harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him. That is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion. . . . “The decline of bourgeois society means an intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions, which are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions, calling forth an ever more burning need for a liberating art. Furthermore, a declining capitalism already finds itself completely incapable of offering the minimum conditions for the development of tendencies in art which correspond, however little, to our epoch. It fears superstitiously every new word, for it is no longer a matter of corrections and reforms for capitalism but of life and death. The oppressed masses live their own life. Bohemianism offers too limited a social base. Hence new tendencies take on a more and more violent character, alternating between hope and despair. The artistic schools of the last few decades – Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism – follow each other without reaching a complete development. Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society. “To find a solution to this impasse through art itself is impossible. It is a crisis which concerns all culture, beginning at its economic base and ending in the highest spheres of ideology. Art can neither escape the crisis nor partition itself off. Art cannot save itself. It will rot away inevitably . . . unless present-day society is able to rebuild itself. This task is essentially revolutionary in character. For these reasons the function of art in our epoch is determined by its relation to the revolution. . . . “The real crisis of civilization is above all the crisis of revolutionary leadership. Stalinism is the greatest element of reaction in this crisis. Without a new flag and a new program it is impossible to create a revolutionary mass base; consequently it is impossible to rescue society from its dilemma. But a truly revolutionary party is neither able nor willing to take upon itself the task of “leading” and even less of commanding art, either before or after the conquest of power. . . . Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them. Artistic creation has its laws – even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself. Poets, painters, sculptors and musicians will themselves find their own approach and methods, if the struggle for freedom of oppressed classes and peoples scatters the clouds of skepticism and of pessimism which cover the horizon of mankind.”
There are several key ideas to be noted here. To begin with, that Trotsky — that is to say, Marxism — does not seek to provide an answer but rather only to correctly pose the question of the relation of art to politics in capitalism and any struggle for socialism: it is not prescriptive of a solution, but only diagnostic of a problem. That art is a “protest against reality,” no matter whether “conscious or unconscious, optimistic or pessimistic,” still a “protest,” whether expressing “hope or despair” — a very peculiar proposition that would not apply to art before capitalism, or before modernism. Adorno famously characterized art as the “expression of suffering” — also a description specific to the history of art in capitalism. And that art cannot save society — as the revolutionary cultural modernist Bohemians of the Russian Revolutionary era claimed — indeed, it cannot even save itself. Not least because it is a specialized activity on a very narrow base: the oppressed masses live their own lives, from which art is necessarily separated and exists apart.
So what can art do, according to Trotsky — according to Marxism? It can express the suffering of capitalism in which the “intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions . . . are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions,” and hence express a task, the “ever more burning need for a liberating art” expressed by every “really creative piece of work.” Art can express a need — but could not itself satisfy that need. This is the translation of the famous Marxist formulation, that bourgeois society in capitalism stood at a crossroads of “socialism or barbarism,” or, as Trotsky put it, art along with the greater society will “rot away” inevitably under capitalism.
Clement Greenberg’s essay on “Avant-garde and kitsch,” published the following year after Trotsky’s letters on art in Partisan Review, described the barbarization of bourgeois art in capitalism as its “Alexandrianism.” Art in capitalism became instantly transfixed, and, as such, museumified, leading a paradoxical undead existence or only as a spectral after-life of its emancipation in bourgeois society. Georg Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness, published in the same year as Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, described this greater effect in society as “reification” or thing-ification, as the “spatialization of time,” what Marx called the congealing of human action in capitalism in the form of capital as “dead labor” which dominates living labor. Greenberg described the avant-garde as the attempt to set Alexandrianism in motion, and, as such, imitating the processes of art. Kitsch, in which Greenberg included Socialist Realism, by contrast, imitated the avant-garde, but exhibiting an apparent timeless value, as opposed to the avant-garde’s “superior consciousness of history.” This was modeled on Marxism itself, as the political avant-garde of bourgeois society in capitalism. Marxism distinguished itself from the rest of bourgeois intellectual culture and politics only by its critical historical consciousness, of its fleeting ephemeral specific moment, as Benjamin described it in his “Theses on the philosophy [or, concept] of history,” the “now-time” (Jetztzeit) of revolutionary necessity that “blasts the continuum of history,” to which culture — barbarism — inevitably conforms, as kitsch.
Trotsky’s Marxist assertion that “art is a protest against reality” is based on the earlier bourgeois recognition by Kant and Hegel that art, as Geistig or Spiritual activity, seeks not to express what is, not to affirm what exists, but rather to express what ought to be, the potential and possibility for change: art is the expression of freedom. Greenberg’s avant-garde expresses a fleeting historical potential for transformation that kitsch obviates, neglecting the task of freedom in favor of a timeless naturalization of art. Benjamin wrote in his essay on “The author as producer” (1934) that the task of artists is to teach other artists: as he put it, the artist who doesn’t teach other artists teaches no one. Benjamin called this artistic “quality,” which he distinguished from political “tendency.” Benjamin went so far as to assert that art could not be of the correct — socialist — political tendency if it failed to have formal aesthetic quality. Such quality was primarily educative in value: it demonstrated and educated the potential transformation of aesthetic form itself, for both viewer and producer.
Adorno’s posthumously published draft manuscript Aesthetic Theory — which references Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution as a key departure for his approach — concludes with a criterion for judging the art that lives on in capitalism despite the self-evidence of even its right to exist having been long since lost, that art is the “writing of history” of “accumulated suffering.” Marxism’s essential legacy for considering the history of modern art, especially as consciousness of the condition of failed socialist emancipation from capitalism formulated by Benjamin, Adorno, Greenberg and others in the post-revolutionary crisis era of the 1930s, is this memory of accumulated suffering — the suffering from the unrealized potential of both art and society. | §
Chris Cutrone is a college educator, writer, and media artist, committed to critical thinking and artistic practice and the politics of social emancipation. ( . . . )
Letter in Weekly Worker1077 (October 8, 2015). [PDF]
Entire exchange with Rex Dunn on art and Marxism available as compiled PDF.
Rex Dunn poses “teleology” against “accident” in support of “essentialism” (“Obfuscations”, Letters, October 1). But this neglects that, according to Hegel, Geist, as the “self-moving substance [essence] that is subject”, is the expression of the unfolding and development of freedom. Art is certainly geistig activity, but is not itself Geist. Hegel’s telos is not posed as a future, but rather in the present: the present as a necessary and not accidental result of history.
The telos is not the future in the present, but what Hegel called “the eternally present in the past”. We cannot judge humanity according to an as yet unrealised potential ought – what could and should be – but rather we are tasked to find the actuality in what is. Not where is the present headed, but how does it point beyond itself? This means that what appears as humanity’s “essence” is an expression of necessity in the present – the necessity of the present. We should not assume that such necessity will not change, for that would prematurely foreclose possibilities we cannot see now. We are not serving the future, but are failing the present – and the past.
Schiller wrote of the “play drive” that unites freedom and necessity, in Homo ludens. But even Schiller didn’t think that art should replace all other human activity. Play may express freedom, but it is not itself freedom. Beauty is the symbol, not the realisation, of freedom. Our goal is not a beautiful society, but a free one.
Marx and Adorno, following him, dismissed the idea that work was to become play. Rather, from “life’s prime need” it was to become “life’s prime want”: that we will work because we want to do so, out of a sense of social and individual duty, and not capitalist compulsion. Our task is not to realise human play, but rather to actualise freedom. According to Adorno, art, like everything else in capitalism, expresses necessity – the necessity of freedom. But it is not itself freedom. Nor will it become that as some final end. Freedom is not the end of necessity in play, but the transformation of necessity – giving rise to new necessities. Freedom is not a state of being, but a process of becoming. More specifically, it is the movement of that process. Human “essence” is not art, but freedom. There is no reason to believe it will ever end – without an end to humanity. We do not know freedom’s end, but only its need, its next necessary step. Art in capitalism points to that, the next stage of history, not its end.
As Adorno put it, in the last line of the concluding chapter of Aesthetic Theory, on ‘Society’, “…what would art be, as the writing of history, if it shook off the memory of accumulated suffering?” The history of art, as that of Geist, expresses the history of freedom. We suffer not from lack of play, but from the task of freedom. | §
(Thomas Rowlandson, political satire with phantasmagoria show [c. 1810])
Letter in Weekly Worker1075 (September 24, 2015).[PDF]Rex Dunn replied in Weekly Worker1076 on (October 1, 2015).[PDF]
Rex Dunn (‘No to “Marxist art”,’ September 17) replies to my letter on ‘Marxism and art’ (September 3) to invoke Adorno, but only partially and critically. And undialectically.
I think it is a mistake to try to adjudicate Marxism on the basis of postmodernist categories, such as ‘essentialism’ versus ‘anti-essentialism’ and ‘structuralism’ or ‘post-structuralism’. Marxism is none of these. They are too beholden to the New Left’s concerns, and neglect the older, deeper history. Such antinomies of postmodernism are nonetheless potentially related to what Marx called the “phantasmagoria” of capitalism, in which cause and effect and means and ends become confused and reversed.
As Adorno wrote to Benjamin about capitalism, “The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness … perfection of the commodity character in a Hegelian self-consciousness inaugurates the explosion of its phantasmagoria.”
While this may seem terribly abstract, it does say something about art and capitalism, as well as the struggle for socialism. Socialism is a symptom of capitalism, as is modern art. It is capitalism’s unrealised potential, necessarily distorted as it is constrained. But to regard that potential properly means returning to the bourgeois-emancipatory character of art in the modern world. It will appear ‘inhuman’.
While humans may have always made art, they did not always make art as an ‘end in itself’. Like production for its own sake, art for art’s sake is a bourgeois value, but one perverted by capitalism. Its ideal remains – as Dunn himself acknowledges with his vision of a socialist homo aestheticus.
So this is why it becomes necessary to follow modern art, as Adorno did, in an “immanently dialectical” method of “critique”. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory seems general and unsatisfactory because it remains a meta-theoretical statement that should have been unnecessary from the standpoint of his concrete critical essays on art and literature. Yet it was still necessary for him (to try) to write. Why?
Adorno’s concrete essays have apparently sometimes given the mistaken impression that he was a partisan for some art over others. Dialectical critique was mistaken for polemic. That’s why Adorno also sometimes appears to equivocate: the dialectic is lost.
That is the problem with the apparent oppositions of postmodernism that actually share something in common that is unacknowledged: that the antinomies of society in capitalism point beyond themselves. So does art.
Socialism will not mean returning to pre-bourgeois ‘art’, but fulfilling the freedom of art, announced, but betrayed and mocked, by bourgeois society in capitalism. That will mean going beyond art in capitalism, but in ways neither Aristotle nor Adorno nor Kant nor Hegel nor Marx himself – nor we ourselves – would quite recognise.
Adorno, like Trotsky, whose Literature and Revolution (1924) and other writings on art and culture were profoundly inspirational for him, did not prescribe what a true – free – ‘human culture’ would be, but recognised the need to struggle in, through and beyond capitalism – beyond art – on the basis of capitalism, to make it possible. | §
Letter in Weekly Worker1072 (September 3, 2015).[PDF]Rex Dunn responded in Weekly Worker1074 (September 17, 2015).[PDF]
Marxism cannot definitively judge, let alone prescribe, and also cannot tie down art to its (supposed) context of production. But Marxism can raise consciousness of history and historical potential for social change – in all domains.
Clement Greenberg defined ‘avant-garde’ art as having a “superior consciousness of [the] history [of art]”, where ‘kitsch’ elides that. But the necessity of such consciousness is a symptom of the need to overcome capitalism. We may need avant-garde art now, but its criteria didn’t apply before capitalism and so won’t apply (in the same way) after capitalism.
This is what Howard Phillips shies away from in condemning “transcendence” – even while also writing that good art should “point beyond” its context (‘Dylan and the dead’, August 13). As Adorno wrote, art is the attempt to make something without knowing what it is. In other words, art goes beyond theoretical understanding or analysis through concepts, and so must be experienced aesthetically. That aesthetic experience can either affirm society as it is or point beyond it. Often it does both. Art is dialectical – as anything under capitalism.
Certainly one can essay at what makes art good or bad. But the art itself cannot be reduced to such theoretical essaying. As Walter Benjamin put it, art that doesn’t teach artists teaches no-one.
Specialisation is necessary: critics are not artists; artists are not politicians. There are important interrelations among art, criticism and politics, but they are not the same thing. Marx’s Capital was not a work of economics or even of political economy, but rather a (political) critique of political economy. Such critique pointing beyond existing social conditions, with consciousness of potential historical change (ie, beyond the law of the value of labour) could indeed be attempted in any domain (eg, in the physical sciences), but would remain speculative, provisional and disputable. The dialectic is unfinished.
The question is whether Marxist theoretical critique helps potential possibilities – both within and pointing beyond capitalism – become better realised in practice. That effect will always be indirect or oblique. Critical theory is not prescriptive or programmatic, but it is critical. Good critical theory can have some – however indirect and weak, but still productive – effect on the practices of art: on its production and consumption.
But, above all, we need not Marxist art or theory, but Marxist politics. Without that there is only pseudo-theory (pseudo-critique), pseudo-art (ie, kitsch: art without historical consciousness), and pseudo-politics.
The problem with Stalinism, in art as in all other domains, was not in its authoritarianism, but in its opportunist adaptation to the status quo (which required authoritarian enforcement), at the expense of more radical possibilities for changing society. | §
Dunn attacks ‘sexual fetishism’ as a species of ‘commodity fetishism’ in Marx’s sense. But this specifically neglects and actively elides the crucial difference of Marx’s critique of anthropological ‘fetishism’ from Freudian psychoanalysis’s theory of ‘(sexual) fetishism’ that postdates Marx and has nothing to do with political economy. Marx’s theory of ‘commodity fetishism’ has nothing to do with truth versus deception, and everything to do with the ‘way things really are’, the Hegelian “necessary form of appearance” of social reality.
Dunn makes a plea for “humanism” and for “the person” against sexual objectification, claiming that Demarty’s defence of avant garde art is in league with the capitalist dehumanisation of people, the “shock effect” that enhances “exchange value”, but is spurious as the true aesthetic value of art. But is that all that the avant garde can be reduced to? Aren’t Mapplethorpe’s nudes more meaningful – don’t they make one think? – rather than merely shocking? Demarty makes a good case for Mapplethorpe’s art as art.
Dunn restates something observed originally in bourgeois thought long ago: that art must go beyond mere propaganda or entertainment (which is what all art in traditional civilisation was), that it must make one think about aesthetic experience. The question is how it might do so. Sexual objectification can be an occasion for thought and not only mindlessness. It is impossible to separate art – ‘good art’, that is: art that makes one think – from the transformation of humanity in capital, however that may be distorted by unfreedom.
If Dunn thinks that an overly great theoretical effort is required to redeem avant garde art’s social value, then this neglects Hegel’s observation that art in modern society cannot stand on its own, but must be made sense of conceptually, through criticism and historical comparison, which Demarty’s article does attempt to do – for instance, showing how Bjarne Melgaard’s ‘chair’ might relate to its historical reference and predecessor as artwork, Allen Jones’s The chair. By contrast, Dunn seeks to anathematise art works, such as Mapplethorpe’s black male nudes, for their complicity in capitalism, as if it were possible to be otherwise.
Yes, in capitalism, sex is “bought and consumed” as a commodity in the ‘culture industry’. But is that what is wrong with capitalism, that people participate in sexual availability through commodification? Or is the problem rather that human sexuality is rendered worthless, the way any commodity is, in the ‘alienated’ crisis of value in capital? Furthermore, if art that participates in sexual objectification is rendered out of court, then this will cut us off from being able to contemplate and think about the specifically aesthetic experience of sex (not reducible to and apart from its other aspects: for instance, emotional intimacy).
Why is the appreciation of another as a sexual object in itself dehumanising? Aren’t human beings (also) objects? As Kant put it in the moral ‘categorical imperative’, the point is to not treat other humans ‘only’ as objects, but ‘also’ as subjects. We inevitably treat one another as objects in our social relations, but this is not the problem with capitalism. The problem in capitalism is that objects (and not only subjects) become worthless. We all want to be valued objects, erotically and otherwise.
Dunn’s comparison with ‘alienation’ in religion is problematical, in that it turns religion into an attribute of social oppression in itself, rather than recognising that this is what it became in retrospect, by comparison with bourgeois freedom. Religion not only oppressed the peasants, but also made their lives meaningful. The analogue between capitalist alienation and religion is retroactive: indeed, the ancient gods were not nearly as evil as capital!
It won’t do to attack the ‘false idols’ of art for participating in capitalism. For human beings in the present system are no less false. As Adorno wrote, “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”
Adorno’s Marxism was successfully defended on November 12, 2012 and officially submitted on March 4, 2013. Chris Cutrone graduated from the University of Chicago, receiving the PhD in the Committee on the History of Culture, on March 22, 2013.
Theodor W. Adorno’s writings comprise an attempted recovery of Marx for a dialectic of 20th century social and cultural forms. Through immanent critique of modern aesthetic, philosophical, political and psychological forms of social subjectivity and its antinomies, contradictions and discontents, including those of ostensible Marxism, the thought figures of Adorno’s essays are modeled after and attempt to elaborate Marx’s self-reflexive critique of the subjectivity of the commodity form. Adorno’s critical theory considers modern aesthetic form as social form. Following Marx, Adorno’s critique of modern social forms is concerned with their potential for emancipation as well as domination: the term “culture industry,” for instance, is meant to grasp comprehensively the context for the critical social object and form of aesthetic subjectivity in common for practices of both “hermetic” art and “popular” culture, and is meant to characterize the condition and possibility for critical subjectivity itself, including Adorno’s own. In Adorno’s essays, objects of cultural criticism become “prismatic,” illuminating the formation of subjectivity and providing moments for critical reflection and recognition. However, Adorno’s works faced and sought to provoke recognition of the possibility and reality of social regression as well as regression in thinking. Coming after the collapse of 2nd International Social Democracy in 1914 and the failure of world revolution 1917-19, and inspired by Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch’s thought from this period, Adorno developed a critique of 20th Century society that sustained awareness of the problematic of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky’s Marxism. The coincidence of the later reception of Adorno’s works with the emergence of social discontents, oppositions and transformations of the 1960s New Left and its aftermath, however, obscured Adorno’s thought during two decades of “postmodernism,” whose exhaustion opens possibilities for reconstruction of and development upon the coherence of Adorno’s dialectic, as expression of the extended tasks and project of Marxism bequeathed by history to the present. [PDF March 2013]
J.M. Bernstein, Lydia Goehr, Gregg Horowitz, and Chris Cutrone
On Saturday, November 20, 2010, Platypus hosted a panel entitled “The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today” moderated by Chris Mansour at The New School for Social Research in New York. The panel consisted of Philosophy Professors J.M. Bernstein (The New School), Lydia Goehr (Columbia University), and Gregg Horowitz (Pratt Institute and Vanderbilt University), and Chris Cutrone (Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago), member of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the event. Full video is available online at <http://newyork.platypus1917.org/what-is-critique-symposium-video-documents>.
Chardin, The House of Cards (1735)
J.M. (Jay) Bernstein: Some 25 years ago, I asked Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson why two revolutionary Marxists spend so much time talking about Jane Austen. They replied, “Because that’s where the bourgeoisie have pitched their tent.” I felt that answer was true, but also insufficient. If the bourgeoisie have a stake in high culture, as one of the ways society reproduces itself, then it makes sense for Marxists to critique the practices that constitute high culture. But, beyond the issue of social integration, what stake do Marxists have in art?
The Marxist story runs something like this: By a certain moment, everyday life in modernity had become formed by the reduction of use-values to exchange-values, the fungibility and exchangeability of all material artifacts, the rule of technology, the rule of bureaucracy, the domination of capital markets, and the disenchantment of nature. Now, if you were Adorno, you would say that all of this amounts to the hegemony of instrumental reason over all forms of human reasoning. You would further say that art, in becoming purposeless, could become a refuge for another form of world address. Artworks are not fungible, not replaceable by one another, and not quantifiable. Rather, artworks make a claim on us simply by virtue of their material complexion, their ordering of sensual materials.
Modern art—I see modernism as the extension of modern art—is the attempt to think through this moment. First and foremost, the autonomy of art from politics, from science, from all the functions it might have in the world, was a world-historical calamity. Modern art begins as a kind of disaster. To understand the meaning of art is to understand the nature of that disaster. Art was taken out of the world and deposited in this realm where it has to make sense of its practice wholly in terms of itself. The puzzle of modern art is this functional emptiness that is nonetheless a form of content. First for Friedrich von Schiller, then for Adorno, the autonomy of art became a sort of opportunity. I think you can read all of modern art, right through high modernism into certain versions of postmodernism, as having embarked on the same project.
Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1601)
Yves-Alain Bois, along with all the writers who are part of what I will call “the aesthetic,” agree in one way or another that the primary gesture of modern art is the tearing away from materials, ideologies, and formalisms. At first—that is, with Dutch Realism in the 17th century, as with Caravaggio and, later, Chardin—this tearing away is emancipatory. It frees art from religious and related forms of reference, allowing representations to become immanent in gesture, rather than exemplifying some presumptively eternal idea. It is here that we see art becoming autonomous. In this respect, modern art was part of the secularizing of the world, but with this secularization came the idea that a wholly secular world could be infinitely valuable. Thus, with secularization came the project of sacralizing the everyday, but in a wholly secular way.
However, this project became increasingly harassed and defensive as modernity itself became an ideology, a series of forms of closure and domination. At that moment modernity ceased to be the emancipator, and became a problem. I would place that moment somewhere around 1848, with the failure of the bourgeois revolutions, though of course for some, notably Rousseau and Schiller, modernity had become a significant problem much earlier.
The notion of decoding, for Yves-Alain Bois, is broadly what Jacques Rancière means by the shift from the representational regime to the aesthetic regime. It is what Adorno means by the retreat of form in the face of materials that are in-formed, and what Gilles Deleuze means by the shift from representation to sensation. All of these I take to be riffs on the notion of purposefulness without purpose, which has this thought behind it: What painting provides is an account of our conviction in, and connection to, the world through visual experience. With modern art it became natural to find the authority of painting in its capacity to demonstrate how objects have a more than instrumental call on our capacity to live with them. That thought is fully there, for example, in Dutch Realism and in the tradition of the still life. By placing physical things in the visual environment and purifying them of any uplifting or instrumental features, by just letting them be there for our visual inspection, art returns us to this world. It allows us to be present to ourselves and for the world to be present to us.
Van Gogh, Chair (1888)
This is both enthralling and a disaster, because it means that everyday life has begun to disintegrate. I think of Van Gogh’s Chair (1888) as an eloquent moment connecting the dignity of the mere thing with the dignity of paint on canvas. Van Gogh’s moment is just that, a moment in which object and canvas speak to one another, each lending the other its authority. In the very moments of art’s so-called existential emptiness, of its not being about the world, there is the appearance of the world. This is art’s power.
Philistines hate art for that moment of emptiness. This moment, at one level, is irredeemable. But this moment of emptiness is art’s moment of fullness. Modern art imbricates and provides a refuge for a disenchanted but affirmative materialism in which objects could be meaningful in themselves, and not just in what they are useful for. These objects are sources of compelling experience amidst a world of sensory bombardment. They are a promise of happiness.
Though this promise is wildly different from Benjamin to Adorno to Rancière, these thinkers all avow some version of it. The promise is often taken to be insufficient as, after all, artworks are not life. What they promise is a different future, and in so doing artworks threaten to leave our present evacuated. This is the central difficulty of all modern art practices: If art has no other power than its mere presence, the attempt to provide it with political significance from the outside is always bound to fail. Art can only have what it offers, namely the salience of visual experience, by embracing the difficulty of that moment of protest by allowing for visual fullness.
Having said that, I need to return to where I began. This moment of protest in art only has cultural significance if the world cares about culture. I take the problem of the present not to be that art has gone awry, but that culture has gone awry. The bourgeoisie has discovered that capital can reproduce itself without social integration. Capital can get on very well with a dispersed, fragmented, wholly disarticulated cultural domain. The difficulty of modern art, in my judgement, is this: How can art address the problem of cultural weight when the bourgeoisie has disavowed it altogether?
Lydia Goehr: To Adorno critique is not the promise of happiness, nor the promise of freedom. It is always immanent critique, the turning of thought back upon itself. Asking the question, “What is critique?” might indicate that we have raised the very notion of critique to a concept. In that respect we fetishize the concept of critique, just as we have fetishized the concepts of “happiness,” “life,” “history,” and so on. Critical theory is about the immanent critique of our language, which is to say, the language of our thought and the language of our concepts. Language is our concepts, our concepts are our social logics. The way in which we think through thought is by producing a challenge to that which has authority over us, namely our concepts, like “personality,” “narrative,” and “subject.” The paradox, or the extreme difficulty, of doing immanent critique is that we have to use the tools that are the subject of our critique, so the critique always has to turn back on itself as an ongoing process. In that sense it has no external objects, although it is constantly mediated by the objects that are antithetical to our thinking—namely, things like works of art.
The real difficulty is that you can never break out of the thinking about thinking. You are constantly confronted by the things that have most authority over you, namely the concepts you are actually implying. I want to illustrate this by one example I like to use from the field of music. When we perform a musical work there’s this idea of Werktreue, of being true to the work. We know that the work has authority over our performance insofar as we are performing a work, but Adorno suggests that the way we are true to a work is precisely by being untrue to it. What he meant was that, insofar as we perform the work against its grain, by not just trying to replicate it, but by playing with it, we challenge the authority that the work-concept has over us. To be true to the work ends up being untrue to the concept of the work. Performance of music, then, becomes a way to redeem something about the musical work, if the musical work is resisting the concept under which it falls, namely the concept of “a musical work.”
This is the way that some of the so-called “social truth content” comes out of critique: It exposes the authority that concepts have over us. My suggestion is that one way to think about critique is in terms of looking for ways in our thinking to break the authority our thinking has over us. In that sense, there is nowhere to go outside of our own capacity to think.
Gregg Horowitz:I started really thinking about this panel around ten days ago. At the end of every day, it was almost tomorrow, which meant that the thoughts were already too late. I only found my way out of this conundrum through this extraordinary document that has been published in a recent issue of the New Left Review, of a discussion between Adorno and Horkheimer in 1956, which Gretel Adorno recorded.  They discussed what it would mean to rewrite the Communist Manifesto. And I thought—that’s a thought about today. It is visibly a thought about today. For such a project, you would think the main themes in connecting up the past, the present, and the future, would be something like this: The past was the revolution, the present is actually existing socialism, and the future depends on whether actually existing socialism points in a meaningful way to a socialism worth endorsing. But that’s not what they talk about. Rather, the past is the party, understood as an audience whom a writer interested in socialism might address. Marx, after all, begins the Communist Manifesto with an address to the party. The future, then, is a question of who would care about the writing. And the present, it turns out, is largely a matter of motorbikes. This is Europe in 1956, and youths are riding on motorbikes all over, making pestiferous noise. The question kept occuring to Horkheimer and Adorno, “Why does everybody love motorbikes?” Now this seems to be what it means to think about the present: thinking about the sound of motorbikes roaring in your ears as you think through the party, on the one hand, and whom to address, on the other.
If our future is anywhere, the thought usually goes, it will be in the present. No other future can matter other than the future that is here in the present. This self-conscious entrenchment in the present reminds us that critical theory, both as it was articulated but also, more importantly, as we have to receive it, was not simply a response to social regression, but a symptom of social regression. As Adorno said, philosophy carries on because its moment of realization was missed. For philosophy, as for critical theory, something has migrated into the realm of thought that is somehow not at home in the realm of thought. In this sense philosophy is struck by the same regression that critical theory takes itself to be reflecting on.
To put this point in a more general register, thinking is not self-determining, but is always shaped by the practices out of which it emerges and to which it instinctively tries to return. The more it is frustrated in this endeavor, the more insistent it is to return. The idea that thinking is not self-determining represents the decay of a certain image of philosophy. At that point one wants to assert that the whole project of spinning a system of thought out of concepts is now simply behind us. It is for this reason that we can say that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud remain the central background figures, because they sought to think through, not the future completion, but the radical incompleteness of philosophy. That philosophy, of all disciplines, would be radically incomplete implies that all practices are radically incomplete. No thought, no practice, can cordon itself off from the social world of which it is a part. Critique wants to get behind the veil, to get to the bottom of things from which we can start over in the full light of truth. But precisely this impulse, this thought, has to be treated as symptomatic—it ends up inhibiting thought.
We always start exactly where we are. This is neither to say that nothing of the past is left, nor that everything is so thoroughly mediated that the origin has disappeared. Rather, there is no starting over because nothing of the past ever goes away. The urge to start over attests to a learned distrust in our capacity to remember, to sustain experience. Memory is weak, and in response to this weakness the feeling arises that things are going away, and we want to get back to the things themselves. This weakness is crucial to reflect on. For it is not in the strength, but in this moment of memory’s weakness that the past rises up in the light of that future which we cannot determine in the present.
All understanding of the present has to start with the acknowledgement that we are not the future the past had in mind and that, for this reason, in some sense we stand in the way of the future the past had in mind. I do not know how to sustain this thought for long—it hurts. One task that we can pose to critique, insofar as we turn against ourselves in this moment of weakness, is to unlock another future—perhaps another modernity.
I am putting to critique the task of understanding the present, but to understand the present is to grasp it as if it has already passed away. In the dialogue between Adorno and Horkheimer, Adorno makes the comment that the horror of the present is that we live in a world where we cannot imagine a better one. To say that we live in a world where we cannot imagine a better one is to say that we cannot see this world as one that has passed away. We cannot see the present in the light of a future that the present does not intend. The standard line is that, for critical theory, to grasp the world as past has meant totalizing the world, or seeing it from the point of view of its completeness, with nothing falling outside the totality. But this is a limited conception of totalization. It is not merely that nothing falls outside, but that anything that does fall outside of the totality is a harbinger or an ambassador of a different world. This thought has been susceptible to a religious interpretation that I am going to do everything I can to avoid. Totalization in this respect is the precondition for opening up the cracks through which the light of the future can shine, right now, on the past and the present. Horkheimer says in his dialogue with Adorno, “I don’t believe things will turn out well.” And by “things” he means everything. But the thought that things might turn out well is indispensable. Nothing falls outside but the thought that something in the present does shine a light on the past.
With regard to art, I agree with Jay that modernist art has been taken up as a kind of self-overcoming of the present. Modernist art is not the future—Heaven forbid—but, rather, it is the light that shines from the future onto the past, the light whose uselessness is what the present does not yet know how to make use of. Adorno only articulated this thought retrospectively. That is, Adorno felt that the moment of modernist art’s capacity to be this light had already passed. Modernist art had been absorbed by the culture industry.
The contrast between the culture industry and modernist art is often articulated so radically that absorption is thought of as cancellation. But absorption is not the same as negation. Rather, I think of absorption the way I think of how, when you wash your dishes, the sponge absorbs the odor of what is being discarded. It is retained in trace form. The inevitability of the absorption is clear once the demand for a different future has been articulated. Once made, that demand is already on the way to becoming a commodity. What we need is not a demand for another future, but for another past. We need the paradoxical demand of a past that will steer us toward a future that we cannot anticipate. From this it follows that no art practice can ever be “subversive.” Art practices can be subverted, but no art practice can ever be subversive. Art is, and should be, too much in love with experience in the present to ever be subversive. For any art that is worth taking seriously, absorption in the culture industry seems inevitable.
However controversial this statement may be, I believe critical theory has before it now the task of demolishing the false overvaluation of art, in order to save us from the idea that art will save us. Perhaps critical theory is tasked with helping us to expect less of art. At one point in this exchange between Horkheimer and Adorno, Horkheimer says, “The more eager one is to break the taboo, the more harmless it is…. One must be very down to earth, measured, and considered so that the impression that something or other is not possible does not arise.”  What Horkheimer calls for here is a toning down of the rhetoric, because with every moment of melodrama in the effort to cancel the present moment, we render the weight of the present moment insignificant. It becomes the occasion for a spectacular display of pathos, which Horkheimer is trying to resist. Perhaps what we should drive toward, critically, is lower expectations for art, so that we have an opportunity to experience, not our distance from, but our proximity to, what is better—though this proximity is also a kind of distance, and what is better remains obscure.
Chris Cutrone: The scholar of Benjamin’s and Adorno’s work, Susan Buck-Morss provided a pithy formulation for defining the tasks of both art and criticism in the modern era: “[Artists’] work is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience; our job as critics is to recognize this.”  Two aspects of Buck-Morss’s formulation of the work of artists need to be emphasized—“sustaining the critical moment” and “aesthetic experience.” The subjective experience of the aesthetic is what artists work on, and they do so in order to capture and sustain, or make available, subjectivity’s “critical moment.”
Adorno, in his 1932 essay “The Social Situation of Music,” analogized the position of modern art to that of critical social theory: The role of both was to provoke recognition. Adorno further warned that there could be no progress in art without that of society. His posthumously published but unfinished monograph Aesthetic Theory can be considered to have at its center, organizing the entire discussion of the modern experience of art, the theme of the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of art. In this, Adorno was elaborating in the aesthetic realm his thesis in Negative Dialectics, that philosophy and critical theory were both necessary and impossible, simultaneously.
What does it mean to practice art in an epoch of its impossibility and continuing necessity? A clue can be found in Adorno’s claim in Negative Dialectics that “philosophy lives on because its moment of realization was missed.” Adorno’s treatment of philosophy and art is modeled on Marx’s treatment of capital. The potential for a dialectical historical transformation, in which capital would be simultaneously realized and abolished, became for Adorno the question of what it would mean to simultaneously realize and overcome the aspirations of modern philosophy and art. What would it mean to overcome the necessity that is expressed in modern practices of art? The Hegelian thought figure of art’s attaining to its own concept, while transcending it through a qualitative transformation, was mobilized by Adorno to grasp both the history of modern art and the desire to overcome its practices.
The Hegel scholar Robert Pippin, in his response to the journal Critical Inquiry’s 2003 forum on the current state and potential future for critical theory, described postmodernism as a repetition of the “Romantic recoil” from modernity.  Specifically, Pippin pointed to modern literary and artistic forms as derived from such Romanticism, of which postmodernism was the mere continuation, but in denial of its repetition. And Pippin pointed out that such repetition is in fact a “regression,” because consciousness of the historical condition of the problem had grown worse.
Hegel posed the question of the “end” of art. He meant by this not the cessation of practices of art, but rather the ability of those practices to make the activity of “Spirit” appear in a self-contained and self-sufficient manner. While religion had been superseded by art, art had come to be superseded by “philosophy.” By this, Hegel meant that art needed philosophical interpretation to be able to mean what it meant. Art needed criticism in order to be itself. This was a specifically modern condition for art, which Hegel addressed in a rather optimistic manner, seeing art’s need for criticism as a hallmark of enlightenment rather than a disability or liability.
But Adorno took this Hegelianism with respect to art and turned it from an explanation of art’s historical condition to a critique of those historical conditions. Like Marx who had turned Hegel on his head, or put Hegel back on his feet, Adorno inverted the significance of Hegel’s philosophical observation. Where Hegel had, for instance, regarded modern politics as the realm of reflection on the state, and by extension the self-objectification of civil society in the state, Marx regarded the modern distinction between state and civil society as expressing the pathological necessity of capital, in which the self-contradiction of capital was projected. Adorno similarly addressed the complementary necessities of art and criticism as expressing a self-contradiction in (aesthetic) subjectivity.
As Adorno put it, however, this did not mean that one should aspire to any “reconciliation” of art and philosophy, nor of theory and practice. Just as Marx critiqued the Left Hegelians for their Romantic desire to merely dissolve the distinction between state and civil society, so too did Marx and Adorno alike regard this separation as the hallmark of freedom. In a late essay, “Marginalia to Theory and Practice” (1969), Adorno attacked “Romantic socialism” for wanting to dissolve the distinction and critical relationship between theory and practice, maintaining that, by contrast with traditional society, the modern separation of theory and practice was “progressive” and emancipatory. So too was the separation in meaning between art, as non-conceptual knowledge, and criticism, informed by theoretical concepts.
Adorno, like Marx, looks forward, not to a return to a pre-modern or pre-capitalist unity of theory and practice, nor to a reconciliation of form and content, as had been the case in traditional culture, but to a qualitative transformation of the modern division of meaning in art and criticism, in which each would be simultaneously realized and abolished as presently practiced. The problem is that, rather than being raised to ever more acute levels, there was already in Adorno’s lifetime a retreat from the productive antagonism, the dialectic of theory and practice, or in this case art and criticism.
Adorno drew upon and sought to further elaborate the approach of his friend and mentor Walter Benjamin, who argued in his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer” that no art could be of correct “political tendency” unless it was also of good aesthetic quality.  Furthermore, Benjamin argued that every great work of art “either founds or dissolves a genre.”  As Benjamin put it, the work of art that fails to teach artists teaches no one. Artists do not “distribute” aesthetic experience, but produce it. New art re-works and transforms, retrospectively, the history of art. Benjamin argued that there could be no progress in society without that of art, for necessarily involved in both is the transformation of subjectivity.
The history of modern art, as Benjamin and Adorno recognized, presents a diverse multiplicity of practices, none of which has been able to come to full fruition. Benjamin described this poignantly in his Arcades Project as “living in hell.”  Benjamin and Adorno’s thought-figure for such historical consciousness of modern art comes from Trotsky, who pointed out, in a June 1938 letter to the editors of the American journal Partisan Review, that the modern capitalist epoch displayed the following phenomenon in its historical course:
[N]ew tendencies take on a more and more violent character, alternating between hope and despair. The artistic schools of the [first] few decades [of the 20th century]—cubism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism—follow each other without reaching a complete development. Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.
This was because, as Trotsky put it,
The decline of bourgeois society means an intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions, which are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions, calling forth an ever more burning need for a liberating art. Furthermore, a declining capitalism already finds itself completely incapable of offering the minimum conditions for the development of tendencies in art which correspond, however little, to our epoch…. The oppressed masses live their own life. Bohemianism offers too limited a social base.
Trotsky said of art that, “a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.”  And not merely rebellion against existing conventions of art, but against the conditions of life in capitalism.
But what, then, would be a “liberating art?” Adorno addresses this in terms of the aspiration for “artistic autonomy,” or the self-justification of aesthetic experience. This is related to how Kant described the experience of the beautiful, in nature or art, as the sympathetic resonance the subject experiences of an object, which thus appears to embody “purposiveness without purpose,” or a telos—an end-in-itself. Except, for Adorno, this empathy between subject and object in Kant’s account of aesthetic experience is not affirmative, but critical. In Adorno’s account of the modern experience of art, the subject recognizes not the power of experiential capacities and the transformative freedom of the human faculties, but rather their constraint and unfreedom, their self-contradictory and self-undermining powers. The subject experiences not its freedom in self-transformation, but rather the need for transformation in freedom. Adorno emphasized that the autonomy of art, as of the subject, remains under capitalism an aspiration rather than an achieved state. Works of art embody the striving for autonomy that is denied the subject of the modern society of capital, and thus artworks also embody failure. Hence, the history of art furnishes a rich inventory of failed attempts. This is why this history remains unsettled and constantly returns. Modern works of art are necessarily failures, but are nonetheless valuable as embodiments of possibility, of unfulfilled potential.
The constrained possibilities embodied in modern art are, according to Benjamin’s formulation, approached by the subject with a combination of “desire and fear.” Modern artworks embody not only human but “inhuman” potentials—that is, the possibilities for the qualitative transformation of humanity, which we regard with desire and fear. They thus have simultaneously utopian and dystopian aspects. Modern artworks are as ambivalent as the historical conditions they refract in themselves, “prismatically.” But it is in such ambivalence that art instantiates freedom. It is the task of theory, or critique, to register the non-conceptual while attempting to bring it within the range of concepts. As Adorno put it, the aspiration of modern art is to “produce something without knowing what it is.”  In so doing, art acts not only on the future, but also on history.
Modern artworks find inspiration in art history. This is the potentially emancipatory character of repetition. Artists are motivated by art history to re-attain lost moments by achieving them again, but differently. Artists produce new works that, in their newness, unlock the potentials of past art, allowing us to re-experience history. But this work on history is not without its dangers. As Benjamin put it, “even the dead are not safe” from the ambivalent “progress” of history, because this history unfolds in capital as a “mounting catastrophe.”  The history of modern art, like that of capital more generally, furnishes a compendium of ruins. The simultaneously progressive and regressive dynamics of history find their purchase in this: that historical forms of experience and consciousness inform present practices, for better or worse. It is the work of critique to attempt to better inform, through greater consciousness, the inevitable repetition in the continuing practices of art, and thus attempt to overcome the worst effects of the regression involved in such practices.
In the Hegelian sense adopted by both Marx and Adorno, the greater consciousness of freedom is the only available path for freedom’s possible realization. Consciousness is tasked to recognize the potential that is its own condition of possibility. This is why Adorno and Benjamin addressed works of art as forms of consciousness. Art can be ideological or it can enlighten, provoking consciousness to push itself further.
The dialectic of art and criticism is necessary for the vitality of art. The self-abnegation of criticism, on the other hand—the disenchantment of consciousness that characterized “postmodernism”—has clearly demonstrated the barrenness of such abdication of responsibility on the part of critics and theorists more so than artists, who were thus left at the mercy of poor, unclarified concepts. The challenge posed by modern critical-theoretical approaches to art has been warded off rather than engaged and pushed further.
Artists’ work continues to demand critical recognition, whether the critics recognize this or not. What such critical recognition of the work of history taken up by art would mean is what Marxist aesthetic theorists like Adorno and Benjamin pursued, and from whose efforts we can and indeed must learn. For a new condition of art has not been attained, but only an old set of conditions repeated, without their repetition being properly recognized. The relation between art and social modernity, or capital, continues to task both art and theory. Art is not merely conditioned by, but is itself an instance of the modern society of capital. But, like society, for art to progress, theory must do its work.
LG: Chris, you seemed to read Adorno’s distinction between regression and progression as if progress is simply the bit we want, but it seems to me that Adorno’s point was that the progressive and the regressive are two sides of the same coin, both of which lead to catastrophe.
CC:In Benjamin and Adorno’s philosophy of history, which they are deriving from Marx, capital is simultaneously progressive and regressive. Capital progresses through a kind of recursive movement, and so they understand overcoming capital as also completing capital. Benjamin and Adorno take up the concept of Aufhebung—the sublation, the realization through negation, or the self-overcoming—to articulate this “completion.” Art, far from being outside capital, is part and parcel of capital’s historical movement. Art moves historically through a “progress,” if you will, of progress and regress—like capital. Of course, this raises the question of emancipation. Colloquially, progress is usually thought of in these terms: “Are we making progress? Is progress progress? Or, is it actually progress in domination, in which case it is not progress?” I feel that an unfamiliar aspect of Benjamin and Adorno’s thought is an idea they take from Marx, which complicates the relationship between progress and regress: Capital moves through a process of the discontents capital itself produces. The opposition to capital that these discontents engender form the basis for the reconstitution of capital in a new form, though there are important differences in the form these discontents take. You can have a system of discontents that advances capital in one way, or in a completely different way.
Goebbels touring a Nazi exhibition of "degenerate" modernist art, Berlin, 1937
To take perhaps the most dramatic example, I’m sure we are familiar with the anti-totalitarian idea that communism and fascism are simply two sides of the same coin. In a way, for Benjamin and Adorno, fascism was the necessary doppelgänger of communism, in that both communism and fascism had an ambivalent relationship to the progress and regress of capital. Nevertheless, one could distinguish between communism and fascism, as Benjamin and Adorno themselves did. One could distinguish between how the contradiction of capital is being pushed through communism versus the way it was being pushed, in a more obscure manner, through fascism. One salient point here would be Wilhelm Reich’s argument, in “Ideology as a Material Force” (1933), that Marxists had failed to recognize the progressive character of fascism, which of course did not mean that Reich found fascism “progressive.” Rather, Reich meant that fascists were more in tune with the ambivalent progress and regress of capital than the Marxists were. The Marxists, in a sense, were helpless in the face of the progress of capital—therefore, the ambivalent progress of capital took the form of fascism rather than communism in Germany.
GH: Of course, after 1848, modernity becomes not the solution, but the problem. However, I resist a certain version of the argument which posits that, since modernity is the problem, there must be something which is not modernity that provides, if not the solution, at least the answer. The full secularization of history entails that there is nothing outside history. So I think modernity has to be the answer to the problem it raises. In my remarks I held up what I am calling “another modernity,” which I acknowledge to be only a sort of marker. It is possible we may have to make out this other modernity by figuring out, again, the difference between communism and fascism, though I find this possibility a bit dreadful. However, this would mean withdrawing from the language of disaster and catastrophe—a withdrawal I would justify on the basis of Adorno’s resistance to pessimism. Pessimism is the conviction that things will inevitably get worse. But, for Adorno, it is the dark gift of history that this is false. The only gift of having survived 1945 is the dead certainty that things cannot get any worse. From this anti-pessimistic thought, I think there must emerge something like an anti-catastrophic line of thinking.
JB: You would have to think past Adorno to do that, though. I keep pointing back to early modern art, and to what I have called the “secular sacralization” of the everyday. I do this because one of the things Adorno thematized, but did not see in the art he loved, was the burden of giving everyday life the intensity and fullness of satisfactions once found in religious forms of life. Adorno and Benjamin were overly impressed by the sacred, or the messianic, and this was their worst temptation. If they were alive now, I fear they would be doing political theology, which is the worst thing to happen in political thought since Carl Schmitt. As I see it, Adorno’s anti-representationalism ultimately led him to think of what was utopian in distorted ways.
Bartolomeo Manfredi, Cupid Chastised (1613)
CC: Your critique of Benjamin and Adorno points to the difference between understanding modernity as post-Renaissance, versus understanding modernity as post-1848. Art after 1848 is about disenchantment, secularization, and sacralization of the everyday, but in a fundamentally different way than the art from the Renaissance period through the Romantic period, up until the time of Hegel. This difference hinges on the difference between Kant and Hegel, on the one hand, and Marx, on the other, which should not be understood simply as a difference in thinking. Rather, it is a matter of the real historical difference between the pre-1848 and post-1848 world, which makes it necessary to pose quite differently the question of Enlightenment, disenchantment, desacralization, and resacralization.
Jay, I think you have posed art as occupying a space outside capital, outside modernity, representing a romantic response to the instrumentalization of the world. I believe there were elements of this in Lydia’s remarks as well. In contrast, I think Adorno and Benjamin challenge us to see how art also becomes instrumental reason, in the sense that art is an instrument of capital. It is not as though there is reason that is used instrumentally, and reason that is not used instrumentally. Rather, reason becomes instrumentalized by capital so that the Enlightenment becomes a more ambiguous phenomenon after 1848. There is a reversal of means and ends after 1848 such that one can no longer understand capital as the advance of Enlightenment, but can only see the Enlightenment as the means of capital. Rather than “non-conceptual knowledge,” Adorno and Benjamin see art as part of the reason of capital, but also, therefore, as bearing the ambivalence of capital and potentially making that ambivalence recognizable.
A similar difficulty, which came up in Gregg’s presentation, is getting beyond an understanding of emancipation in terms of cracks or fragments in society. This conception of emancipation traces back to a kind of Romantic Counter-Enlightenment, from which Marx and, thus, Benjamin and Adorno, would have to be distinguished. I take great issue with the claim that Adorno and Benjamin were enchanted by the sacred. Like Hegel, they were tasked with understanding continuity and change in the desacralization of the world. Hegel had to account for the ways that religious metaphysics remain with us in spite of, and even through, the disenchantment of the world. Kant and Hegel understood this in the sense that religion was a prior form of reason, but I do not think they argue for a Romantic re-enchantment of the sacred against the disenchanted world. Marx, Benjamin, and Adorno certainly do not.
LG:This treats Adorno and Benjamin as if they are producing a theory of society or a theory of art in a traditional sense—that is, taking a step back, coming up with a theory, and then imposing it upon society, art, or capitalism. What Adorno and Benjamin share in their writing is precisely this turning back on themselves to ask how, actually, does one write about this. They always turn back on the structures of thought and writing.
CC:I don’t think I implied that Adorno and Benjamin felt they could step outside their object of critique. They consider their own thinking symptomatic of capital, which means that they understand their own opposition to capital as itself being a symptom of capital. In this sense the only difference they could establish between their own thinking and others’ was the measure of self-clarification and self-awareness they achieved, which is an issue of the philosophy of history. There is a difficulty in understanding what opposition to capitalism means. The usual approach is to look at how capital breaks down—to look for apparent cracks, which provide the grounds for “resistance.” This is the typical language of the Left in the late 20th century, down to the present. In contrast, Benjamin and Adorno follow from Marx in recognizing that it is not the case that capital moves by a smooth logic, interrupted by moments of collapse representing something outside of capital. Rather, part of what makes capital an “alienated” logic is that it is no logic at all; it reproduces itself not in spite of, but precisely through breakdown, resistance, discontents, and a host of contingent or “spontaneous” factors.
There is an undigested Romantic legacy, in the wake of 1789, of positioning oneself, along with all humanity, under the treads of history. This tends toward a one-sided understanding of capital as instrumental reason, whereas in fact Adorno and Benjamin, like Marx and Hegel, are actually trying to overcome a Romantic rejection of modernity. Trying not to fall on one side of that Romantic rejection is hard without seeming to speak from some kind of objective view outside of the phenomenon, but I think that is primarily an issue of style and presentation.
Q & A
Q: In your comments, Gregg, you said that returning to the distinction between fascism and communism seemed dreadful. But what hope for the redemptive power of art, or even of thought itself, exists outside of the hope for socialism, a movement that the revolutionary Marxist tradition understood as the attempt, for the first time, to put social relations under the dominion of social consciousness?
GH: My expression of despair was only at the prospect of having to frame the problem that way. The articulation of socialism necessarily involves the retrieval of the emancipatory moment of “actually existing socialism.” But what must we return to in order to retrieve this emancipatory moment? I don’t have an answer to that, but if there is an answer afoot, we need to hear it. Several times in the last month I have heard the following remarkable thought—and when I say remarkable I simply mean I want to know more—that Khrushchev represented an actual breakthrough, from which we might retrieve a different practice of communism. That is the kind of thought that I do not know how to make use of, even in trying to think about what you and I share, which is a view of socialism as the horizon of emancipatory political practice.
Q: Jay, in your remarks you have described our culture as being problematic in its relation to art, which I took to mean that we have a “wrong culture.” What do you mean by this?
JB: “Wrong culture” would be optimistic. I am interested in how the culture question has lapsed. It was standard even in the 1960s to articulate how system integration, the way in which various institutions make capital reproduction possible, required social integration, whereby people would have harmonious beliefs, values, and ideals. At a certain moment, capital recognized that this was not strictly necessity, and that people did not actually need a whole lot of ideological forming. My claim is that an image of radical culture was parasitic on the idea that there was a dominant culture. There is no longer a coherent dominant culture against which to mount a critique that could push forward the formation of an alternative political will. This is what requires us to rethink the notion of critique.
CC: I think the world appears to lack a common culture holding the system together because the common culture that exists is poorly recognized. Counterintuitively, I think there are a great deal of assumptions shared by Islamic fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, postmodern bohemians, and so on, but these common assumptions go unrecognized and unremarked. These assumptions have become ideology in a classic sense. The task would be provoking recognition of this commonality in order to make legible the unity of the opposites in our world, rather than thinking that we live in some sort of cultural plurality that resists any attempt to understand it as a totality. That this appears to be the case is simply an artifact of our failure to understand it. One could just as well make a plausible argument, from the standpoint of the 19th century, that the world was being held together without a hegemonic culture in 1830, 1848, or 1870. The task would be to find the hegemonic culture that is there, but which is completely naturalized.
LG:But are we talking here about culture with a small C, or Kultur with a capital K?
GH: I had a version of that question in mind. In a review of the Anselm Kiefer art show that appeared recently in the New York Times, Roberta Smith hauled out of the dustbin of history a critical concept you almost never see anymore: She referred to Kiefer as a “middlebrow painter.”  The concept seemed archaic to me. Even though it was clearly meant as a slander, “middlebrow” had none of the negative charge it used to have. Suddenly there was, in the concept of middlebrow, a whiff of democracy. It sounded optimistic, as though it is something to aspire to. So, I don’t mean to imply by this that Anselm Kiefer is a great painter or anything, but reading this review of his work suggested to me that, whatever might come to count as a common culture, it is definitely not going to be culture with a capital K—it is not going to be a matter of cultivation, in that sense.
JB: With respect to what I am calling the breakdown or the loss of culture, I am thinking about what goes on, for instance, in Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, which captures how ideality or hopefulness is no longer available as something that could be transformative. It is not simply “ideology,” or a series of false beliefs, that make a culture, even with a small C. There has to be a notion of ideality. That notion, which appeared in Germany under the phrase “critique of pure cynicism,” really has its American moment now, and it is that difficulty I was pointing to.
LG: From that, it follows that the real confrontation now would not be between critical theory and capital, directly, but between critical theory and democracy. This is really where the issue is for politics.
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (1913)
CC: The word I want to introduce into the discussion is “kitsch.” Maybe we now have kitsch culture and kitsch politics. There are interesting parallels between Clement Greenberg and Benjamin and Adorno. It is interesting that Greenberg foregrounds the question of democracy by treating avant-garde and kitsch as symptoms of democracy. But in this way Greenberg also raises the question of the relationship between capital and democracy. The culture industry was a concept that Adorno meant to embrace high art as well. Schoenberg and Stravinsky were also a part of the culture industry. In that respect I think one has to see how avant-garde and kitsch practices subsist on a common ground and how Schoenberg and Stravinsky are two sides of the same coin. Adorno certainly was not just a partisan for Schoenberg over Stravinsky, which is how Adorno is usually read.
Q: A few of you tonight have touched upon the concept that an artwork is not successful unless critique is doing its job. But what is critique’s job description, so to speak, in relation to art today? And what should it be?
Beethoven, Symphony 5 (1804–08), I. Allegro con brio
LG:It is not that art will not function unless critique does its job, but that critique is this ongoing process of rethinking what is being asserted. One of the reasons Adorno admired Schoenberg was that he thought you could not reduce Schoenberg to whistling, and this meant that in some way Schoenberg was not assimilable by the culture—in its form it would always rub up against culture. If you understood what it was that made Schoenberg so difficult and so unassimilable, so unwhistleable, you could perhaps understand again what was amazing about a Beethoven symphony or even, in my view, a Puccini opera like La Bohème. This is where I think even Adorno got himself wrong, in that he made too many blanket statements about the kind of music that was subsumable by this society. The real resistant potential is to try and listen to Puccini as a great composer, not to listen to Puccini as a composer under the conditions of commodification.
Puccini, La bohème (1896), O soave fanciulla
CC:I don’t think Schoenberg was unassimilable—if anything, his work was assimilated. But I also do not think that Adorno thought Schoenberg was unassimilable, and so I don’t think unassimilability is what Adorno valued in Schoenberg. Adorno talks about Schoenberg and the culture industry in terms of “the inevitable” versus “the incomprehensible,” as a sort of antinomy within a historical moment of the culture industry. Inevitability and incomprehensibility are, to Adorno, two aspects of the same thing. The operation of capital is not comprehensible by individuals but it is clearly socially assimilable. In this sense, capital is inevitable and incomprehensible. What Adorno valued about Schoenberg was that, in Schoenberg, you cannot escape that simultaneous inevitability and incomprehensibility as easily as you can escape it by putting on Puccini, for instance, or Stravinsky, who gives you the comprehensible sublime.
Q: In your comments, Jay, you have proposed the everyday as a different route to go besides the messianic or sacred. But how is the everyday supposed to get beyond all the problems you have raised with shareability, for instance? Doesn’t everydayness run into all the same problems we run into with culture?
Schoenberg, Erwartung/Expectation (1909)
JB: I think the everyday has always been the question for modern art. Whatever we might mean by modernity, it has to be the thought of a wholly secular form of life. What we don’t know is what shareability is going to look like. That is something art practices will need to invent, in the sense of figuring out, as they go along, variations on this idea of immanent sharebility, which comes out of the practice itself and yet remains a practice. What makes art particular, at least for me, is that it bears this burden.
Q: I think the theme of the failure of postmodernism to advance historical consciousness has not been fully fleshed out. What is it about how postmodernism saw art that has left us with less access to historical self-awareness or consciousness?
CC:There have been assumed but, unfortunately, naturalized and invisible categories we have used in discussing art and critique, and I think the invisibility of these categories points to problems of historical consciousness. In a sense, we necessarily read figures like Adorno or Benjamin—or, as I pointed out before, Marx—in terms of categories that they themselves wanted to transcend. One thinks of how the classic postmodernist art critics, the October group, separated the avant-garde from modernism. I do not think critics like Benjamin and Adorno, or Clement Greenberg for that matter, would have accepted the opposition of the avant-garde to modernism in the way that postmodern critics superimpose on the history of modern art. Similarly, the relationship between Romanticism and modernism has been a troubled one throughout our discussion. To the degree there has been a critique of Adorno and Benjamin, the critique was of a residual Romanticism they purportedly exhibit. That they appear to retain a Romantic understanding of modernity is itself a signal of how much influence postmodernism, and particularly postmodern art criticism, has exerted on how we think about modernism. Thus, for instance, modernist art becomes a kind of secular religion. A return to these figures as points of reference—especially Adorno, as someone who anticipated but preceded emphatic postmodernism in art criticism—is salient today precisely to the extent it allows us to estrange ourselves from these kinds of rhetorics. We should resist the notion of Adorno and Benjamin as mandarin intellectuals and holdover Romantics, and we should resist a Romantic conception of modernism, whether we use that term positively or negatively. I say this in hopes of at least pointing to how our discussion bears the damage that has been done by the way we talk about art after postmodernism. Our discussion bears the traces of an abdication of criticism over at least the last 40 years, since Adorno’s time. In all the ways we have talked about the modern work of art—in terms of whether modernism is finished or unfinished, how it subsists, how and why it is still necessary, and so on—I think we have been forced to concede something. | §
Originally published in The Platypus Review #31 (January 2011). Transcribed by Andony Melathopoulos
The scholar of Benjamin and Adorno’s work Susan Buck-Morss, in her response to the October art journal’s 1996 Visual Culture Questionnaire, provided a pithy formulation for defining the tasks of both art and criticism in the modern era, “[Artists’] work is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience; our job as critics is to recognize this.” Two aspects of Buck-Morss’s formulation of the work of artists need to be emphasized, “sustaining the critical moment” and “aesthetic experience.” The subjective experience of the aesthetic is what artists work on. And they do so in order to capture and sustain, or make available, subjectivity’s “critical moment.”
Adorno, in his 1932 essay on “The Social Situation of Music,” analogized the position of modern art to that of critical social theory. The role of both was to provoke recognition. Furthermore, Adorno warned that there can be no progress in art without that of society. Adorno’s posthumously published but unfinished monograph Aesthetic Theory can be considered to have a central theme organizing all its discussion of the modern experience of art, the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of art. In this, Adorno was elaborating in the aesthetic realm his thesis in Negative Dialectics, the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of philosophy and critical theory. What does it mean to practice art in an epoch of its simultaneous continuing necessity and impossibility? A clue can be found in Adorno’s claim in Negative Dialectics, that “philosophy lives on because its moment of realization was missed.”
Philosophy of art
Adorno’s treatment of philosophy and art are modeled on Marx’s treatment of capital. The potential for a dialectical historical transformation, in which capital would be simultaneously realized and abolished, became for Adorno the question of what it would mean to simultaneously realize and overcome the aspirations of modern philosophy and art. What would it mean to overcome the necessity that is expressed in modern practices of art? The Hegelian thought-figure of art’s attaining to its own concept while transcending it, through a qualitative transformation, was mobilized by Adorno to grasp both the history of modern art and the desire to overcome its practices.
The Hegel scholar Robert Pippin, in his response to the 2003 Critical Inquiry journal’s forum on the current state and potential future for critical theory, described postmodernism as a repetition of the “Romantic recoil” from modernity. Specifically, Pippin pointed to modern literary and artistic forms as derived from such Romanticism, of which postmodernism was the mere continuation, but in denial of its repetition. But Pippin also pointed out that such repetition is in fact a “regression,” because consciousness of the historical condition of the problem had grown worse.
Hegel had posed the question of the “end” of art. But Hegel meant by this not the cessation of practices of art, but rather their ability to make the activity of “Spirit” appear in a self-contained manner. While religion had been superseded by art, art had come to be superseded by “philosophy.” What did Hegel mean by this? Nothing but that art needed philosophical interpretation to be able to mean what it meant. Art needed criticism in order to be itself. This was a specifically modern condition for art, which Hegel addressed in a rather optimistic manner, seeing such need for criticism in art as a hallmark of enlightenment rather than a disability of art.
But Adorno took this Hegelianism of art and turned it, from a historical explanation of its condition, into a critique of such circumstances of history. Like Marx who had turned Hegel “on his head,” or put Hegel back “on his feet,” Adorno inverted the significance of Hegel’s philosophical observation. Where Hegel had, for instance, regarded modern politics as the realm of reflection on, the self-objectification of civil society in the state, Marx regarded the modern state and civil society distinction as expressing the pathological necessity of capital, in which the self-contradiction of capital was projected. Adorno similarly addressed the complementary necessities of art and criticism, as expressing a self-contradiction in (aesthetic) subjectivity.
As Adorno put it, however, this did not mean that one should aspire to a “reconciliation” of art and philosophy or theory. Just as Marx critiqued the Left Hegelians for their Romantic desire to dissolve the distinction between state and “civil” society, the separation was regarded, by Marx and Adorno alike, as the hallmark of freedom. In a late essay, the “Marginalia on Theory and Practice” (1969), Adorno attacked “Romantic socialism” for wanting to dissolve the distinction and critical relationship between theory and practice, maintaining that, by contrast with traditional society, the modern separation of theory and practice was “progressive” and emancipatory. So was the separation in meaning between art, as “non-conceptual knowledge,” and criticism, informed by “theoretical” concepts.
So Adorno, like Marx, looked forward, not to a return to a pre-modern or pre-capitalist unity of theory and practice and reconciliation of form and content, as had been the case in traditional culture, but a qualitative transformation of the modern division of meaning in art and criticism, in which each would be simultaneously realized and abolished, as presently practiced. The problem is that, rather than being raised to ever more acute levels, already in Adorno’s time there was a retreat from the productive antagonism, the dialectic of theory and practice, or art and criticism.
Adorno drew upon and sought to further elaborate the approach of his friend and mentor Walter Benjamin, who argued, in his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer,” that no art could be of correct political “tendency” unless it was also of good aesthetic “quality.” Furthermore, Benjamin argued that every great work of art “either founds or dissolves a genre.” As Benjamin put it, the work of art that fails to teach artists teaches no one. Artists do not “distribute” aesthetic experience but produce it. New art re-works and transforms, retrospectively, the history of art. Benjamin argued that there can be progress in society without that of art, for necessarily involved in both is the transformation of subjectivity.
Politics of art
The history of modern art, as Benjamin and Adorno recognized, presents a diverse multiplicity of practices, none of which have been able to come to full fruition. Benjamin described this poignantly in his Arcades Project as “living in hell.” Benjamin and Adorno’s thought-figure for such historical consciousness of modern art comes from Trotsky, who pointed out, in a 1938 letter to the editors of the American journal Partisan Review, that the modern capitalist epoch displayed the following phenomenon in its historical course:
[N]ew tendencies take on a more and more violent character, alternating between hope and despair. The artistic schools of the [first] few decades [of the 20th century] — cubism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism — follow each other without reaching a complete development. Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.
This was because, as Trotsky put it,
The decline of bourgeois society means an intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions, which are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions, calling forth an ever more burning need for a liberating art. Furthermore, a declining capitalism already finds itself completely incapable of offering the minimum conditions for the development of tendencies in art which correspond, however little, to our epoch. . . . The oppressed masses live their own life. Bohemianism offers too limited a social base.
Trotsky said of art that, “a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.” And not merely rebellion against existing conventions of art, but the greater conditions for life in capitalist modernity.
So, what would be a “liberating art?” Adorno addresses this in terms of the aspiration for “artistic autonomy,” or the self-justification of aesthetic experience. This is related to how Kant had described the experience of the beautiful, in nature or art, as the sympathetic resonance the subject experiences of an object, which thus appears to embody “purposiveness without purpose,” or a telos, an end-in-itself. Except, for Adorno, this empathy between subject and object in Kant’s account of aesthetic experience, is not to be affirmative but critical. In Adorno’s account of the modern experience of art, the subject recognizes, not the power of experiential capacities, and the transformative freedom of the human faculties, but rather their constraint and unfreedom, their self-contradictory and self-undermining powers. The subject experiences not its freedom in self-transformation, but rather the need for transformation in freedom. Adorno emphasized that the autonomy of art, as of the subject, remains, under capitalism, an aspiration rather than an achieved state. Works of art embody the striving for autonomy that is denied the subject of the modern society of capital, and thus also embody failure. Hence, the history of art furnishes a rich inventory of failed attempts. This is why its history is unsettled and constantly returns. Modern works of art are necessarily failures, but are nonetheless valuable as embodiments of possibility, of unfulfilled potential.
The constrained possibilities embodied in modern art are, according to Benjamin’s formulation, approached by the subject with a combination of “desire and fear.” Modern artworks embody not only human but “inhuman” potentials, or, the possibilities for the qualitative transformation of humanity. They thus have simultaneously utopian and dystopian aspects. Modern artworks are as ambivalent as the historical conditions they refract in themselves, “prismatically.” But it is in such ambivalence that art instantiates freedom. It is the task of theory, or critique, to register and attempt to bring the non-conceptual within the range of concepts. As Adorno put it, the aspiration of modern art is to “produce something without knowing what it is.” In so doing, art acts not only on the future, but also on history.
Modern artworks find inspiration in art history. This is the potentially emancipatory character of repetition. Artists are motivated by art history to re-attain lost moments by achieving them again, but differently. Artists produce new works that, in their newness, unlock the potentials of past art, allowing us to re-experience history. But this work on history is not without its dangers. As Benjamin put it, “even the dead are not safe” from the ambivalent “progress” of history, which unfolds in capital as a “mounting catastrophe.” The history of modern art, like that of capital more generally, furnishes a compendium of ruins. The simultaneously progressive and regressive dynamics of history find their purchase in this, that historical forms of experience and consciousness inform present practices, for better or worse. It is the work of critique to attempt to better inform, through greater consciousness, the inevitable repetition in the continuing practices of art, and thus attempt to overcome the worst effects of the regression involved in such practices.
In the Hegelian sense adopted by both Marx and Adorno, the greater consciousness of freedom is the only available path for freedom’s possible realization. Consciousness is tasked to recognize the potential that is its own condition of possibility. This is why Adorno and Benjamin addressed works of art as forms of consciousness. Art can be ideological or it can enlighten, provoking consciousness to push itself further.
The dialectic of art and criticism is necessary for the vitality of art. The self-abnegation of criticism, the disenchantment of consciousness that characterized “postmodernism” has clearly demonstrated the barrenness of such abdication of responsibility, on the part of critics and theorists even more than artists, who were thus left at the mercy of poor, unclarified concepts. The challenge posed by modern critical-theoretical approaches to art have been warded off rather than engaged and pushed further.
Artists’ work continues to demand critical recognition, whether the “critics” recognize this or not. What such critical recognition, of the work of history taken up by art, would mean is what Marxist critical aesthetic theorists like Adorno and Benjamin pursued, and from whose efforts we can and indeed must learn. For a new condition of art has not been attained, but only an old set of conditions repeated, however without their being properly recognized. The relation between art and social modernity, or capital, continues to task both art and theory. Art is not merely conditioned by, but is itself an instance of the modern society of capital. But, like society, for art to progress, theory must do its work. | §
Presented at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, October 26, 2010. Originally published in 491 #2 (November 2010).
What was postmodernism? — Habermas’s critique
Postmodernism challenged the institutionalized modernism of the mid-20th century, offering more radical forms of social discontents and cultural practice. It meant unmasking the values of progress as involving ideologies of the political status-quo, the problems of which were manifest to a new generation in the 1960s. But, more recently, postmodernism itself has begun to age, and reveal its own concerns as those of the post-1960s situation of global capitalism rather than an emancipated End of History.
In 1980, Jürgen Habermas, on the occasion of receiving the Adorno prize in Frankfurt, predicted the exhaustion of postmodernism, characterizing its conservative tendencies. Habermas called this situation the “incomplete project” of modernity, a set of unresolved problems that have meant the eventual return of history, if not the return of “modernism.” How does Habermas’s note of dissent, from the moment of highest vitality of postmodernism, help us situate the concerns of contemporary art in light of society and politics today?
In his Adorno prize talk, Habermas emphasized the question of the “aesthetic experience . . . drawn into individual life history and . . . ordinary life,” and “not [already] framed by experts’ critical judgments” (12–13). Habermas thinks that such aesthetic experience “does justice to . . . Brecht’s and Benjamin’s interests in how artworks, having lost their aura, could yet be received in illuminating ways,” a “project [that] aims at a differentiated re-linking of modern culture with an everyday praxis that [would be impoverished by mere traditionalism][, a] new connection [that] that can only be established on condition that societal modernization will also be steered in a different direction [than capitalism].” (13). Habermas admitted that “the chances for this today are not very good” (13).
Instead, Habermas points out at that, “The disillusionment with the very failures of those programs that called for the negation of art and philosophy has come to serve as a pretense for conservative positions” (13–14). This is how Habermas characterized postmodernism, an anti-modernism that was an ideology of the “young conservatives,” namely Foucault and Derrida (among others).
Habermas drew a parallel of the postmodernism of Derrida and Foucault to the “neo-conservatives,” for which he took the Frankfurt School critical theorists Horkheimer and Adorno’s former secretary, in their time of exile in the U.S. during WWII, Daniel Bell, as representative. Bell had described the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” as resulting in what he called “antinomian culture,” which produced a nihilistic “culturati” in a “counterfeit” high culture of “multiples,” hedonism for the middle class, and a “pornotopia for the masses.” What Bell, as a self-styled “conservative,” deplored, such as the “conformism” of a liberal “heterodoxy” that became a “prescription in its confusions,” postmodernists celebrated. But they agreed on what Habermas called the destructive aspects of the “negation of art and philosophy,” against which various “hopeless” “Surrealist revolts” had been mounted, as an inevitable result of modernity. Whereas Bell, for instance, explicitly called for the return of religion as a way of staving off the nihilism of modernity, the postmodernists implicitly agreed with the conservative diagnosis of such nihilism, for they explicitly abandoned what Habermas called modernity’s “incomplete project” of enlightenment and emancipation. Postmodernism was a form of anti-modernity.
Critical art, liquidated
So, how does art figure in such a project of enlightened emancipation? The scholar of Benjamin and Adorno’s work Susan Buck-Morss wrote, in response to the postmodernist art journal October’s 1996 Visual Culture Questionnaire, that, “[Artists’] work is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience. Our work as critics is to recognize it.” Buck-Morss protested against what she called the “liquidation” of art in the move of “attacking the museum,” “producing subjects for the next stage of global capitalism” by replacing concern with the “critical moment of aesthetic experience” with a discourse that “legitimates culture.” In so doing, Buck-Morss pointed out that failing to properly grasp the social stakes of aesthetic experience resulted in the “virtuality of representation,” ignoring how, for Benjamin and the Surrealists he critically championed “images in the mind motivate the will” and thus have “effect in the realm of deeds.”
Indeed, prominent October journal writer Hal Foster had, in the 1982 essay “Re: Post,” gone so far as to call for going “beyond critique,” really, abandoning it, for in critique Foster found precisely the motor of (deplorable) “modernism,” which he characterized as consciousness of “historical moment” that “advanced a dialectic.” Foster stated unequivocally that critical “self-reflexivity” needed to be abandoned because it (supposedly) “enforces closure.” Foster called the Brechtian terms “defamiliarization” and “estrangement” “quintessentially modernist.” But Foster remained equivocal regarding the matter of art’s potential to “initiate new ways of seeing,” even if he stayed suspicious of “the old imperative of the avant-garde and its language of crisis.”
The crisis of criticism — driving art underground
But the concern, for Foster, as with the other leading October writers (such as Rosalind Krauss and Douglas Crimp), was reduced, from social problems, to problematizing art: (in Crimp’s words) “on the museum’s ruins.” But the museum is still standing. The question is whether it still houses art. As Buck-Morss pointed out, the museum is the “very institution that sustains the illusion that art exists.” What this means is that, disenchanted with art, the “realm of deeds,” in which “images in the mind motivate the will,” abandoned by the critics, is ceded instead to the “advertising industry.” The museum, lacking a critical response, is not overcome as an institution of invidious power, but, instead of sustaining the socially necessary “illusion” that “art exists,” however domesticated, becomes an embodiment of the power of kitsch, that is, predigested and denatured aesthetic experience, to affirm the status-quo: high-class trash. Art becomes precisely what the postmodernists thought it was. The museum has not faced the crisis of meaning the postmodernists wished of it, only the meaning has become shallower. In Adorno’s terms, the museum has become an advertising for itself, but the use of its experience has become occulted, in favor of its exchange-value: the feeling of the worth of the price of the ticket. But the experience of art is still (potentially) there, if unrecognized.
For Buck-Morss, there is indeed a crisis — of (lack of) recognition. Criticism, and hence consciousness of aesthetic experience objectified in artistic practices, was in crisis in postmodernism. Critical theory ceased to be critical — and thus became affirmative, even if it was confused about this. This was the result, in Habermas’s terms, of the “postmodernist” turning away from the “incomplete project” of modern art’s critical response to social modernity: a conservative result, by default, even if under the “pretense” that it was progressive or even radical.
Against such postmodernist abdication and thus affirmation of existing “culture,” Buck-Morss called for approaching art “emblematically and symptomatically, in terms of the most fundamental questions of social life,” “bringing to consciousness what was before only dimly perceived, so that it becomes available for critical reflection.” Otherwise, Buck-Morss warned that “tomorrow’s artists may opt to go underground,” and “do their work esoterically, while employed as producers of visual culture.” We might also say that there is the option of continuing to make “art,” but without recognition of its stakes by critics, impaired by a discourse of “visual culture” and supposed “institutional” critique or opposition — that is, an institutionalized opposition to the institution (such as effected by the October writers, who have since entered the canon of academicism, for instance in the academic art of the postmodernist art school). This outcome represses, or drives “underground,” the concerns of artists regarding aesthetic experience, which, according to Habermas and Buck-Morss, following Benjamin and Brecht, are potentially “vital” and “fundamental” to “questions of social life.”
The question of the more recent phenomenon of “relational aesthetics” needs to be addressed in such terms, for “relational aesthetics” claims to be about mobilizing attention to the aesthetic experience of the social for critical ends, in society as well as art.
Several important critical accounts of relational aesthetics have been attempted. Claire Bishop has addressed the problem of relational aesthetics raising the social at the expense of recognition of social antagonisms. Stewart Martin has questioned the relational aesthetics opposition of the social to the (autonomous) art object of traditional (modernist) aesthetics. But Martin has also interrogated the hypostatization of the social, whether considered either as a relatively unproblematic value in itself or as a zone of antagonism, as in Bishop’s criticism. Additionally, Martin has addressed shared problems of the late paradigmatic but opposed attempts on the Left to politicize aesthetics by Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou. Martin has deployed a sophisticated understanding of Marx and Adorno on the commodity form towards these ends. Thus it becomes possible for Martin to address relational aesthetics practices’ “naïve mimesis or aestheticization of novel forms of capitalist exploitation,” in treating art as a “form of social exchange” that advocates an “inter-subjective art of conviviality” (370–371), as well as address the potential political stakes of various approaches to art. — Conversely, it becomes possible for Martin to address what he calls the otherwise naturalized “commodity form of the political” (372).
Martin is concerned to be able to preserve a social-critical approach to what he calls the “arty non-art of late capitalist culture.” It is necessary, according to Martin, to avoid the “Hegelian trap” of “harmonious rapprochement,” through a dialectic of “anti-art and pure art,” resulting in an “artification of the world” that however “breaks” with attempts to “critique bourgeois culture.” Instead, Martin recalls Adorno’s recognition that art’s “autonomy,” its simultaneously “anti-social” and “non-subjective” or “objective” aspect, was inherent both in its commodity character and in its “resistance to commodification,” through “immanent critique or self-criticism” (373). It is this aspect of art, common to both “anti-art” and “pure art,” that, for Martin, “relational” aesthetics, with its emphasis on the supposedly “inter-subjective” character of the social, occludes.
Historical temporality of artworks not linear succession
John Roberts, in his recovery of Adorno, has focused as well on the “asocial” aspect of art as the potential source of its critical value. Roberts recovers the key idea, from Benjamin and Adorno, of artworks’ “pre-history” and “after-life” in history, in order to introduce the problem of the historical temporality of the experience of works of art, which is not reducible to their immediate aesthetic experience or the thoughts and feelings of the artists who produced them. Works of art are “objective” in that they are non-identical with themselves, in the sense of non-identity in time. In Adorno’s terms, artworks have a “historical nucleus,” a “truth-content” revealed only as a function of transformations in history. According to Benjamin, this is how artworks can gain stature and power with time.
The example Roberts uses is the late, delayed reception of early 20th century avant-garde artworks in the 1960s, which inspired artists. This is a very different account from the notion, common in postmodernist criticism, of artists rebelling against the preceding styles and art criticism and historical discourses of abstract expressionism. Artists may have remained innocent of the cloistered disputes of the art critics and historians, though their works were used as evidence in these disputes; and they may have remained more sympathetic to abstract expressionism as art than the postmodernist critics were. The pendulum-swing or grandfather-rule accounts of the vicissitudes of history are inadequate to the non-linear temporality Roberts highlights.
Roberts discusses works of art as forms of “deferred action” in history, with which artists and viewers engage in new forms of art production and reception, which belie notions of successions of styles traditional to art history. This allows works of art to be understood as embodiments of objectified experience that change as a function of historical transformations, as potentially informing a proliferation of experiences unfolding in history, rather than, as Foster, for example, feared, forms of “closure.”
Neo-avant garde or neo-modernist?
It is important that neither Habermas (nor Bell) nor Buck-Morss accepted the idea that gained traction in the 1970s of a division between modernist and avant-garde art. For neither did Benjamin or Adorno. (Peter Bürger’s influential study, Theory of the Avant-Garde, was, importantly, a critique of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory on this score.)
What Martin calls the “dialectic” of “anti-art” and “pure art” has continued, though not necessarily in terms of opposed camps, but rather in what Adorno recognized as the necessary element of the non-artistic in artworks. Now that postmodernism has been exhausted as a trend in criticism (as seen by significant reversals on the part of its standard-bearers such as Foster), it becomes possible to recognize how postmodernism reacted inadequately and problematically to this dialectic, conflating realms of art and social life, and thus repressed it, obscuring its operations from proper recognition.
The emergence of “relational” aesthetics in the 1990s marked the exhaustion of postmodernism, as both its culmination and its negation (it is significant that Foster was hostile, calling it a mere “arty party”), but also a terminal phase of the recrudescence of the problem of the social and of politics, long wandering lost through the postmodernist desert of the 1970s and ’80s, during which Adorno, for example, could only be received as an old-fashioned modernist. But, since the 1990s, critics and theorists have found it increasingly necessary to reconsider Adorno.
Today, which may be considered a post-postmodernist moment, art practices can be broadly grouped into two seemingly unrelated tendencies, neo-avant garde (such as in relational aesthetics) and neo-modernist (in the revival of the traditional plastic arts of objects such as painting and sculpture). The task would be to understand what these apparently independent tendencies in art have in common as phenomena of history, the society and politics with which art practices are bound up. Postmodernist art criticism has made it impossible to properly grasp such shared history of the present, hence its exhaustion today, leaving current art unrecognized.
But, in the midst of the high era of postmodernist criticism, Habermas sounded an important note of dissent and warning against this trend, reminding of what postmodernism left aside in terms of society and politics. For it is with respect to society and political ideology that art remained potentially vital and necessary, if under-recognized as such. In his Adorno prize talk, Habermas raised the problem of art as an exemplary task for the “critical intellectual.” This is because, as more recent critics such as Bishop, Martin and Roberts have noted, art, in its dialectical transformations, allows for the recognition of history, the present as historical, revealing not only the history of art, but of modern capitalist society and its unfulfilled forms of discontent, as registered in aesthetic experience. | §
Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970), trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997).
Daniel Bell, “Foreword: 1978,” The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1978), xi–xxix.
Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), 69–82.
Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004), 51–79.
Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents,” Artforum (February 2006), 179–185.
Susan Buck-Morss, Response to the Visual Culture Questionnaire, October 77 (Summer 1996), 29–31.
Hal Foster, “Re:Post,” Art after Modernism, ed. Brian Wallis (Boston: David R. Godine, 1992), 189–201.
Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity — An Incomplete Project,” The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983), 3–15.
Stewart Martin, “Critique of Relational Aesthetics,” Third Text 21.4 (July 2007), 369–386.
The German Marxist critical social theorist and practicing musician and composer Theodor W. Adorno, in his 1932 essay on “The Social Situation Music,” observed that the “contradictions and flaws which cut through present-day society” are traced in the “clearest possible lines” through art, and that, “at the same time,” art is “separated from this same society by the deepest of all flaws produced by this society itself” (Adorno, Essays on Music, 391). He pointed out that art finds itself in the same position as “social theory,” tasked with provoking recognition (393). Art, like theory, must “decide whether and how the entrance into social reality might be made” (393).
Susan Buck-Morss, in her response to the October art journal’s 1996 “Visual Culture Questionnaire,” wrote that “the role of artists is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience; the role of critics is to recognize this.” In saying so, Buck-Morss cut against almost 20 years at that point of “postmodernism,” which was concerned, as Hal Foster, one of the principal writers for October, who we recently interviewed in The Platypus Review, argued in the early 1980s, to get out from under the constraints of modernism by moving “beyond critique.” Buck-Morss argued, to the contrary, that what was needed was precisely critique and not merely discourses whose role is to “legitimate culture.” Without this, Buck-Morss argued, artists might “opt to go underground” and express the critical content of aesthetic experience only “esoterically,” as producers for the culture industry. This has indeed happened.
The topic of “culture industry” is notoriously difficult and so is easily misconstrued. One common way of misapprehending Adorno’s critique of the culture industry is to address it only in terms of concrete institutions. It is misunderstood that art outside Hollywood, museums, or the art market’s galleries is somehow outside, resistant to or otherwise opposed to the culture industry. But, for Adorno, the culture industry, a term he used as an alternative to the more misleading categories of mass or popular culture, was the cultural guise of capital. The culture industry was a concept meant by Adorno to grasp the overall social context for cultural production, and was inclusive of both the industrially distributed products of the emphatic “industry” and of the most hermetically produced and experienced works of art. The stakes of Adorno’s critique were the stakes of aesthetic experience in modern society, the forms of subjectivity that Adorno considered social in nature, and thus characteristic of the historical moment of capital. The politics of aesthetic experience was thus engaged by Adorno.
Walter Benjamin famously wrote, at the end of his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that whereas fascism aestheticized politics, communism responded by politicizing art. Earlier, in his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer,” Benjamin wrote that not only poverty but the struggle against poverty could be turned into an object of aesthetic contemplation. Benjamin wrote that art that doesn’t teach artists teaches no one, and that only work of good aesthetic quality could be of good, emancipatory political tendency. Benjamin is usually interpreted on the “Left” in ways that deprecate the aesthetic in favor of the political. But a further and different interpretation than is usually offered on the “Left” of Benjamin’s point — and Adorno’s following him, regarding the culture industry — is that the problem with both art and politics is that the essential dialectic of art and politics, in which it becomes possible to have a political critique of aesthetic experience and an aesthetic critique of politics, has been forgotten and thus repressed.
This is an era of bad art because of bad politics, and bad politics due to bad art. Good art would involve not only the critique of bad art but of bad politics; good politics would involve not only the critique of bad politics but of bad art. For bad art is bad politics, and bad politics is bad art.
When Benjamin called for politicizing art, this did not mean for him suspending the aesthetic but rather inquiring into and critiquing the political stakes of aesthetic experience. What would it mean to critique and problematize, and thus politicize, the aesthetic experience of bad politics as bad art, and bad art as bad politics? It means challenging established patterns of feeling and thinking that constitute our subjectivity, whether for the experience of art or participation in politics. For what Benjamin was concerned with, along with Adorno following him, was the transformation of the subject for both art and politics. By giving up on addressing questions and problems of aesthetic form, a deeper engagement with problematic forms of politics is abdicated. For both aesthetics and politics involve social forms, even and perhaps especially when such social forms seem to take place only within the hermetic realm of private aesthetic experience. The abjection of the aesthetic in postmodernism is a form of political repression — a repressive form of politics.
Fredric Jameson, in his 1991 book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, wrote that,
It is . . . necessary to add about the “media” that it . . . failed to come into being; it did not, finally, become identical with its own “concept,” as Hegel liked to say, and can thus be counted among innumerable “unfinished projects” of the modern and the postmodern. . . . What we have now, what we call “media” is not that, or not yet that, as might be demonstrated by one of its more revealing episodes. In modern North American history, of course, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a unique event, not least because it was a unique collective (and media, communicational) experience, which trained people to read such events in a new way. . . .
[T]he projection of a new collective experience of reception . . . this event was something like the coming of age of the whole media culture. . . . Suddenly, and for a brief moment (which, however, lasted several long days), television showed what it could really do and what it really meant — a prodigious new display of synchronicity and a communicational situation. . . . Yet this inaugural event . . . gave what we call a Utopian glimpse into some collective communicational “festival” whose ultimate logic and promise is incompatible with our mode of production. . . .
No wonder, then, that the small screen longs for yet another chance at rebirth by way of unexpected violence; no wonder also that its truncated afterlife is available for new semiotic combinations and prosthetic symbioses of all kinds, of which the marriage to the market has been the most elegant and socially successful.
Media populism, however, suggests a deeper social determinant, at one and the same time more abstract and more concrete, and a feature of whose essential materialism can be measured by its scandalousness for the mind, which avoids it or hides it away like plumbing. (355–356)
The event of “unexpected violence” that gave the media yet another chance at rebirth was, of course, the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack — also, as media art.
A subsequent, recent work of art that recalls the 9/11 attack is (the School of the Art Institute alumnus) Paul Chan’s 2005 video installation 1st Light.
The morning of the 9/11 attack, I moved through my day in a disjointed, out-of-body way, floating in an unreal reality, a timeless time, under an absolutely clear blue sky without a plane anywhere to be seen, a dream-world impelled by a real nightmare. All the while I trembled like the nervously frenetic flickering or vibrating electrical lines in the sky of Chan’s video.
Chan has described his work as “light and the lack of light — light struck through” referring to its use of silhouette imagery. Chan said he was “wary” of its “hypnotic” effect (225). His interviewer, Adam Phillips, observed the paradox that viewers “looked into it as though it had tremendous depths. Which of course it does” (225). Chan commented, in response to Phillips’s question about how the “relationship between . . . political activism and art . . . would no longer be of any interest,” that those asking such questions “don’t know that they’re uncomfortable talking about art . . . because there’s no quick and easy and right solution to it” (227). But Chan concluded that art is “a shared conflict in which [he] want[s] to invest as much time as possible, because [he] [doesn’t] know what other form provides the opportunity, the challenge, to reimagine the contradictions in such a way” (227).
Chan’s piece captures well what his interviewer called the “anti-redemptive” but “gentle” trauma — of the 9/11 attack (225). Chan’s work is a good representation of us, as we are. But (how) does it present potential possibilities for how we could and indeed should be? How, if redemption is ruled out of court, along with any notion of freedom that goes beyond “mistakes,” or the “failure” to be “like everyone else,” in which, as Chan put it, “things [can] become light. They can move in a way in which they were not originally intended to move” (224), like so much debris of a terror attack?
The question is whether and how work such as Chan’s makes available, for critique, this feeling, or merely exemplifies it, in a readily readable way, for its viewers. What is the politics of endlessly contemplating ourselves in such a suspended manner, and how could practices of art challenge such politics? | §
1. Paul Chan interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Adam Phillips, in Utopias: Whitechapel Gallery Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Richard Noble (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 224–227.