Adorno’s Alternative Aesthetics, part III by Reinaert de V.

June 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Bullfighter 3

rineke dijkstra“bull fighter vila franca de xira and montemor o novo, portugal” / 1994/ c-print

adorno is famous for saying (in translation) that “to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.” this was notably said after the horrors of world war ii & therefore after reason’s demise. his statement is rather tough for us to listen to, considering the fact that we evaluate most things with a capitalist’s measure—that is ‘does it sell?’ because of our one-dimensional rationalism, we tend to think that to buy comfort, pleasure, privilege &c. is the rule. all the while, we forget & ignore the tangible value of ever noticing our own day-to-day suffering & that of others. when suffering is to be done away with (when it is to be purchased away), we also recoil when it stares at us (as it usually does), and as it posits itself in the unnerving manner of artistic expression. so, if we can’t look to suffering as way to understand our own struggles, then how can we see what we’ve done to ourselves by distancing each other from the very nature we pretend to love? art shows us these enigmatic problems & it is this hard-to-recognize expression that often scares us away & it suggests the very natural discomforts we run from. again, we look to art for answers, but we should be critical of the wholeness we seek, since the whole is never what it might seem to define completely without pain & without essential mystery. with this said, I offer gratitude again to reinaert de v. for showing us how adorno magnifies what we can’t see & what we’re afraid to know about art & aesthetics.


“Authentic artworks, which hold fast to the idea of reconciliation with nature by making themselves completely into a second nature, have consistently felt the urge, as if in need of a breath of fresh air, to step outside themselves. Since identity is not to be their last word, they sought consolation in first nature.” (AT, p.63)

Adorno distinguishes two separate though overlapping ‘worlds’ or spheres. On the one hand there is the mediated world of social convention we live in, which he terms Second Nature, and which consists of all we have made our own and has thereby become an extension of our-selves. And on the other side of the divide there is First Nature, consisting of everything unmade, unmediated, and thus outside of our reach, that “has its substance in what withdraws from universal conceptuality.” (AT, p.70) Authentic artworks express this duality. They reveal the tension that exists between these two opposite poles, which lets itself be felt as a fundamental divide between what ‘merely is’, and what could, nay, what should be. Accordingly, these works express that there will always be something missing, something that eludes our grasp, and does not conform or bend to our will. Namely, something to be found out there, in First Nature, and in particular in Natural Beauty which appears alive (AT, p.5)“luminous from within” – as though something more. It is the difference or contrast between these two worlds that ‘animates’ and brings to life natural objects. But by holding “fast to the idea of reconciliation with nature”, authentic artworks come to find consolation in the knowledge that, as Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) so pointedly put it: “never the twain shall meet”. The longing of artworks to reconcile themselves – become one – with First Nature, stems from the “immediacy” (AT, p.70) of the mediated world of conventions that suffocates them. It is their need of fresh air that makes them go out in search of new forms that allow them to ‘bridge the unbridgeable’ and ‘express the inexpressible’, in order to escape a world closing in on them – and to open it up by re-establishing contact with what is ‘outside’ of it. But in the process of doing so, they reveal themselves to be in fact Second Nature, because by aiming and ultimately failing to become First Nature, artworks fully crystallize undisturbed into Second Nature. After all, as we saw, the nearer one gets to it, the more elusive and ephemeral it becomes: “fleeting to the point of déjà vu…” And more importantly, following from the above, everything at the work’s disposal, content as well as form, can never escape being conditioned and determined beforehand, for all of our experiences are by definition mediated. So it is in their “immanent problems of form” that they bring out the “complex of tensions” and “unresolved antagonisms of reality” which “converges with the real essence” of the work (AT, p.6). Through the drama of the struggle between First and Second Nature, as embodied in great works of art, it finally manages to let go. That is, the admittance of its failure, as exposed in its inherent shortcomings – its authenticity –, allows the artwork to open up and surrender itself to First Nature, “as if in need of a breath of fresh air”. And it is this beautiful failure, a gesture at something more, outside itself, that makes First Nature enter the work and illuminate it from within [1]. Thus revealing the limits of our reach and the vicissitudes of reality, as well as its transience (AT, p.70).

“If in keeping with Hegel’s insight all feeling related to an aesthetic object has an accidental aspect, usually that of psychological projection, then what the work demands from its beholder is knowledge, and indeed, knowledge that does justice to it: The work wants its truth and untruth to be grasped.” (AT, p.15)

And here we come to the heart of the matter, where Natural Beauty, history, and the development of art grab into each other like cogs. Because on the one hand Natural Beauty seems to suggest a purely random process of continuous growth and development, while on the other hand certain objects and artworks light up as if they have got something to tell, while others lie dormant. So the question becomes: what is it about these particular works and objects that makes them flare up in the first place? The answer may lie in the mechanism of projection. For even though nature feeds and sustains us, in its materiality it remains indifferent to our affairs, it thus provides the perfect foil for our endeavors. Not only does art share this indifference to the extent that – for it to stand out and create an opening – it is continually forced to split-off and run counter to “reality’s compulsion to identity” (AT, p.4), freeing the artwork “to model the relation of whole and part according to the work’s own need” (AT, p.4) through which it gains its luster. But in its very effort to fend off reality’s compulsion, art is compelled to ally itself with the non-identical – with what resists and does not bend to our will – linking it even further to nature. Because for it to distinguish itself, merely changing its appearance will not do when everything has already been conquered and mediated by spirit, it would only be more of the same. Which is why, to be truly challenging the work needs to be non-identical as well, or to identify itself with what is suppressed – that is nature. However, art, like everything else, can only sustain itself by retaining its self-identity, or as Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) says “one paints a painting, not what it represents.” (AT, p.4) Yet, due to its alliance with the non-identical, art’s identity is by its very nature unstable, so much so that art and artworks are “right into the smallest detail of their autonomy […] something foreign and opposed to it” (AT, p.4) and therefore prone to self-annihilation. It is in this sense that art’s development closely resembles and mirrors that of society’s, since both are driven by the same dialectic of nature and its domination. To survive in a hostile and unaccommodating world, man had no choice but to slowly detach himself from his immediate surroundings, and subject them to his will, but by severing those ties one by one, he became more and more estranged from his humble beginnings[2]. Art, owing to its sympathy for the non-identical, followed man in his detachment from nature – essentially a process of disenchantment – which has culminated in his autonomy and self-mastery. This autonomy art achieved by separating itself from the imprints of nature’s heterogeneous material, freeing it from its cultic roots and religious aura, and allowing it “to take every possible object as an object of art […] and expunged from it the rawness of what is unmediated by spirit.” (AT, p.63)

[coming up] more on the role of projection in the dialectic of art and society.


[1] The “beautiful failure” of an artwork exposes a lack. By showing ‘how things are’ in their endless variety and complexity, authentic artworks simultaneously show how things should or could be. After all, ‘the way things are’ never quite matches up with our expectations thereof. This sense of longing for something “more” – for something that will in fact ultimately fulfill our deepest desires and highest hopes – and which is felt through its painful absence, is exemplary of the works of James Joyce (1882-1941), especially his haunting masterpiece “Ulysses” (1922). But one can also see something similar at work in Charles Baudelaire’s notion of beauty. The fullness of an artwork thus springs forth paradoxically from an experienced lack. Since it cannot be directly stated or ‘brought out into the open’, only indirectly alluded to: it enters the work from the outside, as it were. Therefore, as with man’s autonomy, an artwork can only be considered art, if it appears to be more than the sum of its parts. Adorno uses the metaphor of a child sitting at a piano “searching for a chord never previously heard. This chord, however, was always there; the possible combinations are limited and actually everything that can be played on it is implicitly given in the keyboard. The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself: That is what everything new suffers from.” (AT, p.32). However, to achieve the desired result – of showing ‘how things are [and were]’ – a thorough mastery of the subject matter is required. For precisely this mastery will allow the artist in his work (and the beholder of it) to overcome and be free of ‘all that is’: “Subjective pleasure in the artwork would approximate a state of release from the empirical as from the totality of the heteronomous. Schopenhauer might have been the first to realize this. The happiness gained from artworks is that of having suddenly escaped, not a morsel of that from which art escaped.” (AT, p.15) – and thus, it is “the totality of the heteronomous [i.e. ‘all that is’]” “over which, for their happiness, [artworks] must soar and back into which at every moment they threaten once again to tumble” (AT, p.6). Unsurprisingly, art’s “beautiful failure” also points to a continuous frustration with ‘how things are’, being that it is what prevents art from fully expressing itself, destining it to pull back the curtain on reality’s inevitable shortcomings. This inherent tension or ‘critical tendency’ of art is the reason why Adorno warns not to rest in the pleasurable feeling it affords, since it would amount to a state of release and a dissipation of energies. Instead Adorno promotes poetry that retreats “into what abandons itself unreservedly to the process of disillusionment. It is this that constitutes the irresistibility of Beckett’s work.” (AT, p.16) For the modernist poetry of Samuel Barclay Beckett (1906-1989) is no longer satisfied with mere spielerei, because, in a sense, there is no more room to play – no more outside. The absurd and fragmentary style of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is another instructive example of what, according to Adorno, constitutes modern art. For Kafka’s writing not only successfully captures the modern subject’s complete alienation from self and society in its depictions of rampant bureaucracy. But due to its radical idiosyncrasy – “the subject thrown back on himself” (AT, p.63) – it also creates these cryptic self-enclosed worlds that reflect in a negative or inverted way, modernity’s ever-expanding reach: “artworks as windowless monads “represent” what they themselves are not” (AT, p.5). The question however is, if art has to forever discard the beautiful in favor of anguish and disillusionment, or if instead there will come a time when there will be once again room for wonder and beauty – as Adorno himself notes: “It is outside the purview of aesthetics today whether it is to become art’s necrology.” (AT, p.4) For further reading on this latter issue, I strongly recommend Sir Ernst Gombrich’s highly original and beautifully written study of The Preference for the Primitive.

[2][Footnote 7] By “severing those ties” which bind us to nature, man in effect ‘blinded’ himself. For ‘Reason’ needs something that resists in order for it to keep its bearings and stay its course, a “rawness [that] is unmediated by spirit” (AT, p.3). Because the downside of being able “to take every possible object as an object of art” (AT, p.63) is that art fully sides with the subject, and in doing so becomes subservient to man’s (arbitrary) will. From that moment on decisions on what to depict and how, are made irrespective of material necessity, which leads to a subversion of “the primacy of the object in subjective experience.” (AT, p.71) And with the object thus demoted and dismissed, art merely mirrors the personal taste of a solitary subject, detached from its surroundings. Meanwhile the surroundings, in their turn, are transformed to fit the needs (as well as the wishes and whimsies) of this newly liberated subject, further suppressing the ‘otherness’ of the object. After all, the subject only becomes liberated through newly advanced techniques of control and ‘repression’: methods and techniques that are the direct result (and expression) of the distancing of the subject. It is important to recall in this respect, that every transformative act – that engages the subject – is in fact a creative act, and, as such, one of artistry. Which is why, as we will see, religion more fully absorbs and reflects its immediate surroundings, its locality, than modernity does – to which it is a precursor. The reason for this is that during this ‘intermediate phase’ of development, man has not yet gained the upper hand. He is still unable to fundamentally transform and control his surroundings. So that, in order to make them more hospitable to human endeavors, he can only hope to ‘bribe the gods’ and ‘meet them halfway’. Religion therefore, represents the first colossal effort by man to come to terms (and grips) with his environment, and to establish some kind of relationship or ‘rapport’ with it, if only to make sense of it all – or to orient himself. All this, of course, by hopelessly inadequate means, and driven in large part by fear. Yet, in an important sense, the values thus created are thoroughly informed by their circumstances and more expressive of man’s needs. Basically it is this ‘respect for the object’ or “attitude to objectivity” (AT, p.3) that Adorno thinks is crucial for us to retain, or re-attain. Not simply to affirm a new or better state of affairs, since by definition “suffering is objectivity that weighs upon the subject.” Quite the contrary: its aim is to “let suffering speak” for it “is a condition of all truth.” (Negative Dialectics, 1966, p.17-18) In other words, “the primacy of the object” functions both as a whetstone for the mind, in that it keeps us sharp, critical of our conditions – i.e. reflexive – and free. And as a marker, providing us with directions. Thereby protecting us from a potentially devastating blindness. For as we have seen, with the arrival of modernity everything has become extremely malleable and cloaked in our (self-)image, due to technological advances. Slowly turning modernity into a ‘singularity’, or a place where – because of the resultant loss of resistance – things start to lose their meaning and bearing, and eventually run the risk of collapsing in upon themselves. Similar to the tragic myth of Oedipus therefore, ‘Reason’s’ ascendancy or its ‘coming of age’, was only possible at the high prize of self-immolation: i.e. a loss of critical reflection due to a repudiation of its origins. For more information, see footnote 12 on the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” where this Freudian aspect – the hidden cost of self-preservation – is explained in detail. The prescient writings on exoticism by the French poet, surgeon, and interpreter Victor Segalen (1878-1919), may shed additional light on the complexities surrounding modernity and the magnitude of its impact.

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