Adorno, Art Theory, and Feminist Practice

By Mullin, Amy | Philosophy Today, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Adorno, Art Theory, and Feminist Practice


Mullin, Amy, Philosophy Today


Preamble

In her essay "Refining Feminist Theory: Lessons from Aesthetics," Hilde Hein argues that conventional male-oriented aesthetic theory, because it is "invincibly pluralistic and dynamic" can "serve as a model for feminist theory" (Hein 1993, 3). She suggests that feminist theorists "struggling with similar dilemmas of diversity and singularity" (5) should turn to conventional aesthetic theory. She believes this aesthetic theory can serve, not as an ally of feminism, but as a model for feminist theory. This is because "even the most ponderously unifying of aesthetic theories ... nevertheless resort ... to metaphors of organic dynamism, holistic interactivity, and innovation---to generative myths of order-in-variety and unity-in-diversity" (4).

As I read this essay, despite my commitment to both feminist theory and aesthetic theory, warning bells sounded. It is dangerous to regard any type of theory as "invincibly" pluralistic, for then we need not take care to ensure pluralism is given its due. More seriously, the fact that conventional aesthetic theories resort to metaphors of unity in diversity, is simply not good enough reason to regard them as models for feminist theories.

Feminists are struggling to avoid the dangers of essentialism, whereby women are taken to have a common essence, as are men.1 Such essentialism covers over differences amongst women, including differences of power, and it erects barriers between men and women who may share a progressive agenda.2 As a result, feminist theories work towards understanding how we can construct both theories and communities that acknowledge and respect the differences and similarities amongst feminists.3 Metaphors of unity and diversity may please us, but they do nothing to point us in the direction such research must take.

It is important to note that Hein does devote four pages of her essay to a discussion of reasons why conventional aesthetic theory is not "adaptable wholesale to a feminist theoretical strategy" (9), due, for example, to its mind-body dualism and fear of the body. Despite this useful discussion, Hein's essay echoes certain problematic claims made by an aesthetic theorist she would certainly consider to be male-oriented: Theodor W. Adorno.

According to both Hein and Adorno, aesthetic theory is a privileged mode of thinking through particularity. Hein claims that aesthetic theory can serve as a model for feminist theory. Adorno claims that aesthetic theory is particularly suited to oppose totalizing political systems. Like Hein, he believes that reflection on art can provide us with a model of a form of community which does not require its members to minimize their differences from one another (Adorno 1982, 271-731). They therefore both share a belief that aesthetic theory is an important resource for liberatory political thought and political action.

I choose to discuss Adorno as a test case for Hein's claim that conventional (nonfeminist or male-oriented) art theory can serve as a model for feminist theory for the following four reasons: (1) Hein praises conventional art theory for its images of unity in diversity and Adorno's writings are full of such images; (2) like Hein, Adorno believes that art and art theory are politically significant; (3) nevertheless, Adorno condemns art that is self-consciously political. He has been an important influence as a result in contemporary dismissals of feminist artmaking;4 and (4) ironically, it is precisely the features of artmaking that Adorno condemns and that feminist artists engage in, that have important lessons for feminist thinkers and practitioners outside of the arts. Feminist artmaking practice has more to teach us about forms of community that do not require their members to minimize their differences from one another, than do the images of unity in diversity presented by conventional aesthetic theory.

I will therefore argue, against the grain of both Hein and Adorno, that feminist artmaking practices, not conventional aesthetic theory, can serve as a model for feminist theory more generally. …

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