Negative Art History: Adorno and the Criticism of Culture

Article excerpt

Theodor W Adorno. Aesthetic Theory. Trans., ed., and intro. by Robert HullotKentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. 448 pp. $49.95.

The present moment of art history seems unpropitious for a revival of aesthetics; the concept of culture is instead ascendant. Cultural studies, cultural relativism, cultural difference, cultural nationalism, cultural heritage, and visual culture, for the most part, have taken the place of aesthetics, making work within the latter tradition appear anachronistic and even abstruse. Any theory that suggests the possibility of nonalienated thought, any writing that upholds the ideal of the autonomy of artists and artworks, and any doctrine devoted to beauty is isolated in an intellectual universe dominated by the concept of culture.

Theodor W. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, originally published in 197o and now adroitly translated from the German by Robert Hullot-Kentor,1 thus appears at an extremely propitious moment in the development of art history and cultural studies. His book stands within the aesthetic tradition of Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten and Immanuel Kant, yet breaks with it at the same time. Adorno's tract is a densely written, yet philosophically expansive, aesthetics, at once negative and positive. It is negative because it rejects any philosophical or artistic doctrine that proposes the present identity of subject and object, or of subject and itself. It is positive because it argues that great works of art (invariably for Adorno, they are the most complex and demanding examples of modernism) possess a cognitive worth, or "truth content" (Wahrheitsgehalt), far exceeding their formal or sociocultural particulars. By means of this plenitude of meaning, "autonomous" works of art, according to Adorno, point to a future world in which human creative potential is finally realized and each person's individuality is at last confirmed.

In contrast to Adorno's dialectical aesthetics, cultural studies-the currently predominant analytic paradigm-is often one-dimensional, affirming the exclusive validity of "local knowledge" and confusing what is and what ought to be.2 "Culture as a common denominator," Adorno writes, "already contains in embryo that schematization and process of cataloging which brings culture within the sphere of administration."3 To speak confidently of Polish, Benin, Jewish, or Andean cultures, in other words, is already to begin to plan their regulation, containment, and fossilization. At the same time, however, that cultural studies freezes, or reifies, culture, it undermines the foundation on which the culture concept is built. By rejecting "master narratives" but still upholding the integrity of national, ethnic, class, and gender-based cultures and subcultures, cultural studies is caught in a true contradiction. Local cultures, after all, are only master narratives in their own, more circumscribed domains. The articulation of global and local knowledge, as well as of history, politics, and culture itself thus remains an incomplete, if not impossible, project for cultural studies. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, on the other hand, inclines humanistic studies toward a mediated account of the relation between the artwork and society, between cultural fragments and the cultural whole.

Undoubtedly, there is a certain historical inevitability about the eclipse of aesthetics. From its eighteenth-century origins, aesthetics has been rent by internal contradiction, alternately defining its purview as the particularity of works and the generality of the concept of art. Moreover, aestheticians have committed the categorical error of using the immaterial (language) to grasp the very materiality and palpability that constitutes the domain of the aesthetic. They have insisted on what Edgar Allan Poe called "the physical power of words," while simultaneously proclaiming, after Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the perfect irreconcilability of the plastic and poetic arts. …