Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Adorno and Heidegger on Art in the Modern World

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Adorno and Heidegger on Art in the Modern World

Article excerpt

Many readers have noticed that the works of Adorno and Heidegger bear many striking similarities, especially with respect to the question of art and its place in the modern world. In this essay, I shall discuss some of these similarities, and then turn to what I consider to be a significant difference. Ultimately, I want to show what is at stake in the thought of Adorno and Heidegger in general.

Art as an Alternative Way of Experiencing

As is well known, both Adorno and Heidegger argue that the experience of art constitutes an "alternative" to the dominative reign of subjectivity which has come to pervade the modern world. Adorno refers to the repressive power of "rationality" (Rationalitat) and "identity" (Identitat) in our fully bureaucratized and "managed" world (die verwaltete Welt). In a similar vein, Heidegger speaks of the pervasiveness of "representational thinking" (vorstellendes Denken) which seeks to make everything available or disposable (verfugbar) for the purposes of a subjectivity that has become the "measure of all things." For both Adorno and Heidegger, art promises a way out of this oppressive modern rationality and subjectivism insofar as it constitutes an alternative kind of experiencing. As Adorno writes, works of art "slough off a repressive, external-empirical mode of experiencing the world." In a similar fashion, Heidegger suggests that art can "foster the growth of the saving power" and thereby counter-act the threat posed by the all-consuming, homogenizing tendency of what he calls the Gestell.2

It is clear that both Adorno and Heidegger think of art as providing a possible alternative to the repressive reign of"rationality" or "representational thinking" in the modern world; yet one must guard against an overly facile understanding of the two thinkers on this point. Contrary to common misconceptions, both Adorno and Heidegger insist that there is an essential kinship, yet difference, between the experience of art and the kind of experience to which art provides an alternative. As Adorno emphasizes throughout his Aesthetic Theory, art is intrinsically related to, yet distinguished from, the rationality of constitutive subjectivity; "art shares in rationality."3 Thus for Adorno, even artworks aim at some form of identity; "aesthetic identity is different, however, in one important respect: it is meant to assist the non-identical in its struggle against the repressive identification compulsion Identitdtszwang that rules the outside world."4 Accordingly, art does not subvert from an entirely "extraneous standpoint,"5 but rather through a kind of "immanent critique."6 Of course, Adorno's position on art as a kind of"immanent critique" need not be very surprising; it is the logical extension of his philosophical manifesto outlined at the beginning of Negative Dialectics: "To use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity-that is, what the author felt to be his task ever since he came to trust his own mental impulses."7

In a similar vein, Heidegger speaks of a basic kinship, yet difference, between art and the essence of technology. In his essay on "The Question Concerning Technology," he writes: "Because the essence of technology is nothing technological, essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it. Such a realm is art."8 The kinship resides in the fact that both art and the Gestell are "ways of revealing, of aletheia."9 The difference has to do with the fact that the Ge-stell blocks the possibility "that man might be admitted more and sooner and ever more primally to the essence of what is unconcealed and to its unconcealment"10 (while art can open up and foster that possibility). As is the case with Adorno, Heidegger's position here on the relatedness of art and the Ge-stell reflects a more basic principie of his thought in general. …

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