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.4 The aesthetic dimension has thus long seemed intellectually unsustainable and geographically indefensible. Its cognitive domain is neither reason nor feeling, and its anatomical locus neither brain nor heart.
The failure of aesthetics, some critics further argue, is as much a matter of ethics as of logic.5 Its very origins and significance bespeak an effort to contain the radical democratic impulses of the speaking and writing section of the European bourgeois class. In the course of its historical development from emergent to hegemonic class, the European bourgeoisie gradually realized that it was responsible for the creation of an economy and society in which commodity production (production, to paraphrase Marx, not just for use-value, but exchange value; not just exchange value, but surplus value), became the paradigm for all economic and social production and reproduction.6 Capitalism had "left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous `cash payment."' Seeking to make the best of a bad situation-or perhaps seeking to mask from itself the full significance of its own actions-a certain intellectual subsection of this bourgeoisie developed ideas about the autonomy of art and the rationality of taste. They began to believe that their own (forced) segregation from the domains of justice and morality in fact constituted a heightened form of freedom and that they carried the flag of a new (and professionalized) conception of what Jurgen Habermas calls "aesthetic-expressive rationality."8 A devotion to aesthetikos-that domain of human experience concerned with perception and the senses-therefore arose as an ideological means to overcome the division (endemic within capitalist society) between the perceiving subject and the material object. What was thus also obscured by aesthetics, which Marx later described, was the alienation of humans from themselves, since the object world is also a human world. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant described the capacity of the aesthetic to unite humans by means of noncognitive reason. He wrote that beauty resided in the form of the purposefulness of objects; it was, however, purposefulness without purpose, usefulness without use, and lawfulness without law. Thus the apprehension of beauty, or the designation of a thing as beautiful, entailed both subjective feeling and objective seeing. An embrace of the aesthetic was tantamount to an acceptance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract. It implied obedience to a General Will in which external compulsion and internal volition were indistinguishable. In fully embracing the beautiful work of art, we would all be transformed from poor, alienated beings into glorious, transcendental subjects.
But this reconciliation of subject and object effected by beauty occurred in theory alone. The realm of the aesthetic was palliative in its social function-"affirmative" in the language of Herbert Marcuse-serving to disarm the more critical thinking and writing sections of the bourgeois class and weakening ties between them and the numerically stronger, but theoretically weaker, popular classes.9 For the tradition of critical theory, therefore, the historical legacy of aesthetics was bound to end as a sham. Walter Benjamin argued in 1936 that humankind's "self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order."10 What has long been needed therefore, according to Benjamin, is not an aestheticized politics, but a fully politicized art.
For the past several decades, much of the best art-critical writing has been concerned, in the words of Laura Mulvey, to "break the spell of illusion" cast by the aesthetic. Other key contributors to this development include John Berger, Susan Sontag, Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, and Griselda Pollock. Mulvey's widely cited essay from 1975, "Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema," however, is an exemplary instance of the effort to destroy aesthetics and uphold a politicized culture. Her proposition that classic Hollywood films exerted their thrall by means of an oppressive "pleasure in looking" (that mode of vision that cast women as passive subjects and men as active "bearers of the look") was a critical intervention in the Women's Movement. It was also, however, part of a broader indictment of the auratic (the term is Benjamin's) work of art, and as such the essay functioned as a kind of prolegomena for the discipline now known as cultural studies. The latter may be briefly defined as a mode of interdisciplinary writing and research that has rejected aesthetic distinctions of value among media and devoted itself to the study and appreciation of new communicative forms and technologies. (Mulvey's role in this development is somewhat paradoxical given her stated disdain for Hollywood cinema, but she does embrace what she considers popular and alternative film and photographic practices and traditions.) Advocates of cultural studies focus on the reception-not the produc tion of cultural artifacts, assume the ubiquity and ultimately determining character of ideology, embrace multiple cultural traditions, and insist that cultural authority is ipso facto a manifestation of political power.
In undermining the authority of single and unique works of art, however, and in rejecting the immanent stringency of any one aesthetic argument over any other, some cultural critics have risked throwing out the "baby with the bathwater," as Adorno suggested in a prescient maxim in Minima Moralia (1951). Rehearsing ideas that he would later develop in Aesthetic Theory, Adorno argued here that the role of the critic is to explore the truth content of works of art-that is, to recover aesthetic specificity through immanent criticism. This procedure will necessarily expose the artwork as a social testimony. Precisely such a criticism would seem to be rejected out of court by a new art history concerned chiefly with the popular reception of artworks and their cultural significance. Summarizing the viewpoint I associate with cultural studies, Adorno writes: "For meaning, as we know, is not independent of genesis, and it is easy to discern, in everything that cloaks or mediates the material, the trace of insincerity, sentimentality, indeed precisely a concealed and doubly poisonous interest." "But," Adorno then objects, "to act radically in accordance with this principle would be to extirpate, with the false, all that was true also, all that, however impotently, strives to escape the confines of universal practice, every chimerical anticipation of a nobler condition, and so to bring about directly the barbarism that culture is reproached with furthering indirectly."
A similar sentiment is expressed nearly two decades later in Aesthetic Theory:
Whoever wants to abolish art cherishes the illusion that decisive change is not blocked. Exaggerated realism is unrealistic. . . . Whether art is still possible today cannot be decided from above, from the perspective of the relations of production. The question depends, rather, on the state of the forces of production. It encompasses what is possible but not yet realized: an art that refuses to let itself be terrorized by positivist ideology. As legitimate as Herbert Marcuse's critique of the affirmative character of culture was, its thesis requires the investigation of the individual artwork: Otherwise it would become an anticulture league, itself no better than any cultural asset. Rabid criticism of culture is not radical (251-52).
The contemporary impulse to refuse, in Mulvey's words, the visual pleasure of artworks and deny them any truth content-prior even to performing the work of immanent critique-can be attributed in part to the overvaluation of genesis and reception ("relations of production") Adorno describes. Intentions are never noble; they are stained by "insincerity and sentimentality." Forms are never perfect; they are mediated by exchange value. Yet, however compromised, artworks may by the structure of their forms, the coherence of their references, and their very exalted status as fetishes "strive to escape the confines of universal practice" and function as "anticipation of a nobler condition." To refuse aesthetic engagement, therefore, is to succumb to "positivist ideology," which may be defined here as that mode of thought in which "contradictions are anathema" and in which aesthetic meaning is "all the more entangled in the particularity of mere subjective, instrumental reason."12
If cultural studies proposes that artworks are the helpless bearers of tradition, ideology, and power, negative aesthetics proposes that art is at once independent of and complicit with these "instrumental" forces. Whereas the former concentrates on the subject of art, the latter addresses the object of art, understanding it, however, as a form of praxis. As sensuous, rational, and constructed objects, artworks that deserve their name possess a scope, reason and ambition that permits them to stand aloof from the generalized irrationality, acquisitiveness, and small-mindedness of capitalist culture and society. And yet as products of alienated institutions and divisions of labor that create commodified consciousness, they also bear the stamp of positivist ideology. That ineluctable contradiction, according to Adorno, constitutes their historical engagement and their praxis. The "truth content of artworks," Adorno writes, ". . . is not external to history but rather [is history's] crystallization in the artworks" (133). The basis of the artwork's praxis lies in its demonstration that technical rationality can exist independent of irrational reason, a reason, that is, that forgets it exists for the purposes of overcoming what Marx called "the self-estrangement of man from himself and from nature," thereby enhancing "species being" and "life activity."'3
The implications of Adorno's work for the practice of art criticism and history today lie in its suggestion that a consistent engagement with the form of an artwork may be the only way to grasp its historical and ideological location and its posture within the ongoing dialectic of reason. This conclusion may seem banal (return to the object!), but is not because of the critical purpose of the activity. For Adorno, as for Marcuse, artworks comprise, in the latter's words, "an `authentic language'the language of negation as the Great Refusal to accept the rules of the game in which the dice are loaded."14 But unlike his Frankfurt School colleague, Adorno insists that artworks must always be determinate, not general negations of existing formal categories, ideologies, and social structures. That is, they must possess their own highly developed, organized, or formally "determined" structure, rather than exist as expressions of mere nihilism, resignation, or abstract negation; the latter are described by Adorno as instances of "bad art-literally pre-artistic."15 "[Samuel] Beckett's plays," Adorno writes, "are absurd not because of the absence of meaning, for then they would be simply irrelevant, but because they put meaning on trial; they unfold its history... [Such] artworks enunciate their meaninglessness with the same determinacy as traditional artworks enunciate their positive meaning. . . . Artwork that rigorously negates meaning is by this very rigor bound to the same density and unity that was once requisite to the presence of meaning" (153-54).
Adorno's language and concepts here strike the art historian as unusually dated. The artistic negation of traditional media, genres, and techniques-for the purpose of clearing space for the new or achieving a transvaluation of values has clearly gone on for so long now that there can be little tradition left to negate. (This is part of what Harold Rosenberg meant by the oxymoronic title of his book, The Tradition of the New.) The names Beckett, Jackson Pollock, and Karlheinz Stockhausen precisely signal for us the endpoints of a history of modernism that was steeped in what T. J. Clark once called "practices of negation."16 Indeed, it may be true that a certain version of modem art making-unaccommodating, styptic, ironic, autonomous ended a generation or so ago, but the worth of critique or negation itself-in whatever complex artistic or theoretical form it may takehas certainly not been obviated.
Adorno's own style of writing in Aesthetic Theory is, to say the least, dissonant, as he devises a critical language proximate to his content. (The purposeful ambiguity of the book's title is indicative of the effort to marry form and meaning.) The difficulties of translation are readily apparent, but Hullot-Kentor's text is fully adequate to Adorno's dotted and rebarbative prose. He dispenses with the chapters, headings, subheadings, and paragraphs imposed on Aesthetic Theory in the 1984 translation by C. Lenhardt and restores long subordinate clauses and parataxes. In its breathless centrifugality, Adorno's text thus again recalls the writings of some of the authors and composers he liked most-Stephane Mallarme, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alban Berg. Like them, Adorno rejected strict linearity in thought and motif, preferring instead to construct his compositions by means of circuits of reference, allusion, and repetition. Like their best works, Aesthetic Theory contains the stubborn insight-rarely offered by cultural critics today-that redemption may be glimpsed only by means of the most difficult and determined artistic ciphers of negation. 17
I . Hullot-Kentor, who has taught at both Harvard and Stanford, also translated Adorno's Kierkegoord (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
2. For a succinct analysis of the term cultural studies, see The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During (London: Routledge, 1993), 1-25.
3. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Diolectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Seabury Press, 1977), 131.
4. Edgar Allan Poe, "The Power of Words," in The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Random House, 1965), 442.
5. Cf. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990); see also William Pietz, "Fetish," in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 197-209.
6. Karl Marx, Capital (New York: International Publishers, 1996), I: 72.
7. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Bantam, 1992), 20.
8. Jorgen Habermas, "Modernity-An Incomplete Project," in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), 8.
9. Herbert Marcuse, Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 95.
10. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1978), 242
11. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: New Left Books, 1974), 4344. 12. Karl Marx, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 78. 13. Theodor Adorno et al., The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, trans. Glyn Adey and David Frisby (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 5. 14. Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), x.
15. Theodor Adorno, "Commitment," in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Urizen, 1978), 317. 16. T J. Clark, "Clement Greenberg's Theory of Art," in Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, ed. Francis Frascina (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 55.
17. The author wishes to thank D. C., M. J. W., and 0. K. W. for their helpful corrections and suggestions.
Stephen F. Eisenman is the chair of the Department of Art History at Northwestern University in Chicago. He is the author most recently of Gouguin's Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997).…