domingo, 9 de dezembro de 2012

The Decline of Modernism by Peter Bürger (1)

 “There is no protection against the misuse of dialectical considerations for restorative ends.” Adorno

For some time sociologists and philosophers have tended to label present- day society “post-industrial” or “post-modern.” (2) Understandable as the wish is to set off the present from the age of advanced capitalism, the terms selected are no less problematic. A new epoch is introduced before the question is even asked, let alone answered, as to how decisive current social changes are, and whether they require that a new epochal boundary be set. The term “post-modern,” moreover, has the additional disadvantage of only naming the new period abstractly. There is an even more drastic disadvantage. Of course, deep economic, technical and social changes can be observed when compared with the second half of the nineteenth century, but the dominant mode of production has remained the same: private appropriation of collectively produced surplus value. Social democratic governments in Western Europe have learned only too clearly that, despite the increasing significance of governmental intervention in economic matters, the maximization of profit remains the driving force of social reproduction. We should therefore be cautious about interpreting the current changes and not evaluate them prematurely as signs of an epoch-making transformation.

Even in art, talk of the “post-modern” shares the defects of the sociological concept of the “post-modern.” From a few quite accurate observations, it prematurely postulates an epochal threshold which, however, can be indicated only abstractly, since a concrete definition obviously fails. Despite this general objection to the concept of the “post-modern,” it is difficult to deny that in the last 20 years have taken place in the aesthetic sensitivity of those strata which were and are the carriers of high culture: a positive stance toward the architecture of the fin de siècle and hence an essentially more critical judgment of modern architecture; (3)
the softening of the rigid dichotomy between higher and lower art, which Adorno still considered to be irreconcilably opposed; (4) a re-evaluation of the figurative painting of the 1920s (e.g., in the great Berlin exposition of 1977); a return to the traditional novel even by representatives of the experimental novel. These examples (they could be multiplied) indicate changes that must be dealt with. Is it a question of cultural phenomena that accompany political neo-conservatism and therefore should be criticized from a consistent modern standpoint? Or can so unambiguous a political classification not be ascertained, and do the aforementioned changes compel us to draw a more complex picture of artistic modernity than even Adorno did?

If, starting from the post-modern problematic, one returns to Adorno’s writings on aesthetics, and especially music, one discovers, not without surprise, that he was very much preoccupied with the problem of the decline of the modern age at least since World War II. (5) Adorno first encountered this problem in the early 1920s in his first composition teacher who, as an opponent of atonal music, sought to lead his pupils back to tonality by portraying the former as old-fashioned. Adorno tells of this in his Minima Moralia: “The ultra-modern, so his argument went, is already no longer modern, the stimuli which I was seeking had already become dull, the expressive figures which excited me belonged to an old-fashioned sentimentality, and the new youth had more red blood corpuscles, to use his favorite phrase” (MM, 291). The idea, which strikes us as a little absurd, that modern art was already at an end by the early 1920s, could at that time have claimed a certain plausibility.
As early as 1917 Picasso had abruptly broken off his cubist phase with his portrait of his wife (“Olga in the Reclining Chair”) that smacked of Ingres. In subsequent years, he alternately painted cubist and “realistic” pictures. In 1919, Stravinsky, who just two years earlier had written the avantgarde Histoire du soldat, returned to 18th century music with the ballet Pulcinella. And in 1922 Paul Valéry, with his collection of poems Charmes, sought to re-establish the ideal of a strict, formal classicism. Not only second-rate artists rejecting their own age oriented themselves by the classical model, but with Picasso and Stravinsky (Valéry’s case is somewhat different) it came to include precisely those who had contributed decisively to the development of modern art. That makes the problem of neo-classicism a touchstone for every interpretation of artistic modernity.

Adorno did not avoid the problem but — as he so often did — he advanced two contradictory interpretations of it. The first, which could be called polemical, can be found in the above-quoted text of Minima Moralia: “Neo-classicism, that type of reaction which does not admit being so but presents even the reactionary element itself as advanced, was the vanguard of a vast trend, which under fascism and in mass culture quickly learned to do without delicate consideration for the all-too-sensitive artists and to combine the spirit of Courths-Mahler with technical progress. The modern age has actually become unmodern” (MM, 291 f.). Sharply opposed to the modern spirit, neo-classicism is at the same time denounced as politically reactionary. Undoubtedly, this interpretation can be documented: Chirico’s turn to fascism corresponds to his rejection of so-called mythical painting. (6) But such individual cases are hardly sufficient to support so far-reaching an interpretation as Adorno’s, which excludes neo-classicism as a whole from the modern.

Adorno himself could hardly have missed the problematic character of so summary a viewpoint. At any rate, in his late essay on Stravinsky, where he corrects his portrayal of the Schönberg-antipode in the Philosophy of Modem Music, he proposed a completely different interpretation of neo-classicism: Stravinsky’s music is not the reconstruction of a binding musical language but an artist’s sovereign play with pre-given forms of the past.
Winckelmann’s classicism was not being set up as a norm, but it “appeared as in dreams, plaster statues on clothes-cabinets of his parents’ apartment, scattered odds and ends and old paraphernalia, not a genre-concept. The scheme was shattered by this individuation of the formerly schematic into a scarecrow; it was damaged and disempowered by a patched-up arrangement of dreams” (MS, 391 f.). By explicitly locating Stravinsky’s as well as Picasso’s neo-classicism in the vicinity of surrealism, Adorno now assigns the latter a place within modern art. That the two interpretations are incompatible is obvious, and so is the superiority of the latter interpretation. Whereas the polemical interpretation proceeds in a globalizing fashion, understanding neo-classicism as a unitary movement, the second interpretation seeks differentiation. It leaves open at least the possibility of seeing more in neo-classical works than a sheer relapse into a reactionary thinking of order.

As for Adorno’s evaluation of neo-classicism, however, one must not be deceived by the allusion to a common ground with surrealism. He compares even the montage-procedure of Histoire du soldat with the “surrealists’ dream- montages made of everyday remnants” (PMM, 183), without thereby at all mitigating the negative judgment of this work. With an argument which he will take up in his dispute with Hindemith, he interprets the element of protest in the Histoire as regressive, as the expression of the ambivalent stance of a man who remains attached to the authority against which he rebels (PMM, 183 f.). “Close behind the wild behavior lurks identification with that against which one is rebelling; excess itself, as it were, proclaims the necessity of moderation and order so that such a thing may at last cease.” (7) Adorno sees a connection between Stravinsky’s turning to so-called neo-classicism and the previous questioning of traditional musical language by reference to trivial forms and their consistent shattering in the Histoire du soldat; but he devalues both as “music about music” (PMM, 182).

By taking up and disintegrating pre-given forms such as march music and ragtime, Stravinsky seizes “(literally) existing musical materials” and changes them (Stravinsky’s neo-classical music uses the very same approach). Such a procedure runs counter to the principle postulated by Adorno of a complete pervasiveness ofform. Just as the surrealistic collage first takes up the wood-cut, with its depiction of the fin-de-siecle bourgeois interior as a retrospective fragment of reality, so Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat takes up the tango or the waltz. And as Max Ernst alienates the interior by giving his humans beast-of-prey heads, so Stravinsky alienates the forms of entertainment music. This quite avantgardistic treatment of the pre-given, which does not settle just for the parody of these forms (as Adorno suggests in one passage; PMM, 186), but through it aims at a questioning of art, resists Adorno’s concept of art. Holding firmly to the idea that artistic material reflects the state of total social development without the consciousness of the producer being able to see this connection, he can recognize only one material in a given epoch.
Indeed he goes so far as to challenge the use of the concept of material for Stravinsky: “The concept, central for Schönberg’s school, of a musical material innate in the work itself is, strictly speaking, hardly applicable to Stravinsky. His music is constantly looking at other music, which it consumes by overexposing its rigid and mechanistic traits” (PMM, 184). The concept of ‘materiell’ applied here, which eliminates the element of givenness from the materiell, absorbing it completely within the work and attaching it to the principle of the all-pervasiveness of form, is revealing because it stands at odds with the avantgardist principle of montage. Here we encounter what I have called Adorno’s anti-avantgardism. (8) It is only apparently paradoxical that this anti-avantgardism lies at the basis of his rejection not only of the (in his own term) infantile Stravinsky, but also of the neo-classical one.

Here it is not a question of saving neo-classicism as a whole; this would be just a repetition of the mistake of the polemical interpretation from Minima Moralia under a different valency. Whether the recourse to past formal schemata merely reproduces them or they are made into a convincing means of expression for a current expressive need cannot be decided by theory, but only by meticulous, detailed analysis of individual works. (9) Adorno’s magnificent one-sidedness consists in having demanded this decision of theory. Of course, increasing historical distance is also highlighting more and more its negative consequences which restrict the field of possible artistic activity. This is true especially of the thesis of the single-strandedness of the artistic material. But it also applies to the principle of the totally constructed character of the work, which assigns an eccentric place to the concept of montage within the system of Adorno’s aesthetics; for this concept can be assimilated by Adorno only by absorbing Benjaminian motifs into his own thinking.

The abandonment of Adorno’s thesis (ultimately based on the history of philosophy) of the most ‘advanced artistic material,’ does not merely allow the juxtaposition of different stocks of material to come into view (e.g., the painting of the “new objectivity” along with Picasso’s or that of the surrealists), whereby theory no longer presumes to explain one material as the indicator of the historical moment. It also facilitates the insight that the later development of an artistic material can run into internal limits. This can be observed in cubism. The consistency with which Braque and Picasso draw certain conclusions from Cézanne’s late work and carry them further has often been admired. Yet, it is not hard to observe in Picasso’s paintings from 1914a certain arbitrariness, whose most striking feature is the recourse to pointillistically shaped surfaces.
This pointillism will then return in a few of the traditional figurative pictures of 1917 — a technical idea whose necessity is lacking in both cases. The idea that the possibility of a consistent continuation of the cubist material could have been exhausted is not far-fetched. It could probably also be supported by including the further development of the painting of Braque and Gris. If this is admitted, then the recourse to a different material which Picasso undertakes in “Olga in the Reclining Chair” is given a consequentiality which Adorno’s aesthetics does not allow us to recognize. Neither the recourse to a neo-classical material is thereby aesthetically justified (for this, the quotation-character of the recourse would have to be cogently proven, which I consider impossible), nor is it adequately interpreted historically (for this, various possibilities of interpretation would have to be weighed against one another). But the necessity to break out of one type of material would be made evident as precisely the attitude which the modern artist feels compelled to adopt.

The free disposition over various stocks of materials seems at first sight to broaden creative possibilities immeasurably. This is indeed true in a certain sense, but at the same time it no less drastically restricts the chances of success. Here lies the moment of truth in the normative restrictions which Adorno and Lukács adopt (though in opposite directions). Valéry saw this correctly: the restriction of the field of productive possibilities can increase the chances of artistic success, because it compels concentration. But — and Valéry overlooked this — the restriction must not be an arbitrarily postulated one, but must be experienced by the producer as necessary. Because Valéry’s poetic activity submits to coercions that are set only externally, it comes close to craftsmanship on more than a few occasions. Only where the free availability of various stocks of materials is not simply accepted as a given wealth, but is reflected in the work itself, can the producer hope to escape the illusion of unlimited possibilities.

Adorno’s first composition teacher had falsely posed the problem of the waning of the modern age, namely, in terms of the obsolescence of the modern as a result of neo-classical anti-modernism. At least in the text of Minima Moralia, Adorno lets the statement of the problem be prescribed to him by the opponent when he condemns neo-classicism en bloc as reactionary. But not even in the Philosophy of Modern Music does he proceed much differently; only here he includes Stravinsky in his avant-garde phase in his negative judgment. Radical avantgardism and neo-classicism remain equally outside Adorno’s concept of the modern.

Only with the essay published in 1954 on the “Decline of the New Music” does he pose the problem which we have already cited with reference to cubism: the immanent boundaries in the development of the new music. “Decline” here does not mean the gradual process of adaptation on the part of at least certain strata of listeners to this music and the resulting dulling of the shock effect; it is rather a question of the central categories of the thing itself.

What bothers Adorno could be called modernist conformism. It is first characterized by the works’ loss of tension, (10) their lack of expression. The phenomenon is not limited to music. Who has not seen those abstract paintings, which are ideally suited to decorate managerial offices? All that can be said about such works is: they disturb nothing. As such, they betray the modern; as abstract, however, they also claim to belong to it.

Adorno does not blame the works’ manifest loss of vigor on the subjective failure of the producers, but to an objective developmental tendency of modern art. This could be summed up in the statement that the modern primacy of artistic material turns into “material fetishism” (Diss., 8). This goes right to the central category of Adorno’s aesthetic: the artistic material, which is at the center of his historico-philosophical interpretation of the development of art. As sedimented content, it corresponds subterraneanly to the totality of the epoch. Hence, its transformation coincides with that of society; both belong to the principle of progressive rationalization:

“The core-concept which set recent musical history in motion is that of rationality, immediately united with that of the social domination of extra- and intra-human nature” (Diss.,123). This formulation is very radical, but precisely because of this, it casts a harsh light on a constant of Adorno’s aesthetic: the refusal “(to isolate) from the process of enlightenment, art as a protected natural part of the unchangingly human and well-protected immediacy” (Diss., 150). (11) This means an uncompromising advocacy of rationality in the artistic production process. Adorno must now recognize precisely these “tendencies toward total rationalization,” combined with the “widespread allergy to all expression” (Diss.,148) as the cause of all waning of the modern. Even “the emancipation from the pregiven formal categories and structures” (Diss., 145), which he identifies as the ineluctable accomplishment of the artistic revolution at the beginning of our century, owes its expressive content not least to the traditional material from which it distances itself.
Modernism, by not admitting that it is obligated to tradition by its very negation of it, succumbs to the “superstition of significant original elements, which in fact stem from history and whose very meaning is historical” (Diss, .,146).

Adorno’s judgment is hard: not only does the technicized stance of the producers, their “infatuation with the material” (ibid.), associate them involuntarily with the art industry, but even their rationality becomes a superstition of the direct symbolism of colors and tones. Yet, the expectation that Adorno would draw the consequences from this radical critique of modernism, more precisely from his concept of modernity, is frustrated. He even sees himself compelled to rehabilitate the categories of expression and the subject. But this by no means goes so far that he would revise his own earlier statements.

In the Philosophy of Modem Music, he says of Webern: “He saw the derivative, exhausted, irrelevant nature of all subjectivity, which music here and now would like to fulfill: the insufficiency of the subject itself’; and a little later: “the subject’s right to expression itself succumbed” (PMM). No less categorical, however, are the statements in “The Decline of the New Music”: “All aesthetic objectivity is mediated by the power of the subject, which brings a thing completely to itself” (Diss., 157). Hence, “the symptoms of the waning of the new music” can be interpreted as symptoms “of the disintegration of individuality” (ibid.). The contradiction is surely not just one of theory; rather, theory captures something of the aporetic position of the modern artist. The artist is pledged to a subjectivity under conditions which are ever more unfavorable to the development of individuality.

The insights into the waning of the new music have, as far as I can see, evoked no thorough revision in Adorno’s aesthetics. The closest to this would be the category of mimesis which in his Aesthetic Theory assumes an important position as a counterpoint to aesthetic rationality. It remains, however, unclear how mimesis becomes effective in the production process. This in turn depends on the fact that a theory of mimesis in the strict sense is impossible, since Adorno defines this as “archaic behavior,” “a stance toward reality this side of the rigid opposition of subject and object” (AT, 162). Indeed, some formulations of Aesthetic Theory go so far as to subordinate aesthetic rationality to mimesis, so that the concept of rationality hardly has anything to do with Max Weber’s employment of it, but means merely the artist’s intervention: “With blindfolded eyes, aesthetic rationality must plunge itself into the process of formation, instead of steering it from the outside, as a reflection on the work of art” (AT, 168).
But even this strong relativization of the concept of aesthetic rationality (Adorno speaks in one place only of a “quasi rational tendency of art”; AT, 98) does not call into question the construction of the development of art in bourgeois society based on the Weberian concept of rationality. Neither the theorem of the most advanced artistic material nor what could be called Adorno’s purism (his refusal to consider the possibility of a recourse to trivial material) are revised. (12) The presence of a modernist conformism is, for Adorno, no reason to permit recourse to past stocks of material:
“However, that radically abstract pictures can be displayed in exposition halls without annoyance does notjustify any restoration of objectivism, which comforts a priori, even though for the sake of reconciliation one selects Che Guevara as object” (AT, 315 f.). One can ask whether the (unnecessary) jab at the student movement does not merely conceal a weakness of the argument. Today, at any rate, it should no longer be clear why neo-realism should be rejected simply because it uses an objective material, or Peter Weiss’ Aesthetic of Resistance because it uses narrative techniques of the realistic novel.

If one seeks the reasons that prevent Adorno from drawing conclusions for his aesthetic theory from his insights into the decline of the modern, it makes sense to consider his belonging to the Schönberg school. In fact, in his 1960 essay Music and New Music, he tried to solve the problem with virtuosity: Here the waning of the new music is reinterpreted in the sense of the ascendancy of a new epochal style (MS, 484). “Its concept wanes because next to it the production of others becomes impossible, becomes Kitsch” [ibid., 492).
The restriction of the music of the present to “the variety which has a place in the Schönberg school” (MS, 17 7) must nonetheless not be explained just from the fact that Adorno’s aesthetics is production-oriented. Such an interpretation would take too lightly Adorno’s claim to have formulated the aesthetic theory of the modern. There is more behind this undeniable aesthetic decisionism than the dogmatism of a school. With it Adorno seeks to banish the danger of historicism, “the chaotic juxtaposition of music-festival authors, who in the same era embody historically different positions and whose syncretic coexistence merely continues the stylistic jumble of the nineteenth century” (ibid.).

Now it is easy to see that aesthetic decisionism and historical juxtaposition are just two sides of the same historical situation as long as there is failure to legitimate the decision for a specific material tradition. Adorno does this by associating artistic development in bourgeois society with the modernization process (in his terminology: with enlightenment). Art should by no means become the refuge of the irrational within a rationalized world. Only when art corresponds technically to the state of development of the forces of production can it be simultaneously an instrument of knowledge and a potential for contradiction.
“But if art really would want to revoke the mastery of nature; if it applies to a state in which men no longer exercised mastery through the mind, then it reaches this point solely by virtue of the mastery of nature” (MS, 537). One is tempted to reproach Adorno with a mysticism of the dialectical reversal. In fact, he does not draw from the dialectic of enlightenment the consequence that it is a matter of slowing up the process of modernization. Rather, he holds firmly to the idea of the dialectical reversal: “in a rationally organized society, together with scarcity, the necessity of repression through organization [would disappear)” (ibid.). Such hopes (seldom expressed by Adorno) of an ultimately achieved rationalization might be difficult to share today.

Fear of regression remains the central motif for Adorno’s aesthetic decisionism. It determines both his rejection of the avantgardist Stravinsky as well as of neo-classicism. This fear, understandable because of the experience of fascism which knew how to channel and legitimize the regressive wishes of the masses, however, strips modernism of one of its essential modes of expression. Diderot had realized this when he wrote: “Poetry wants something monstrous, barbaric and savage.” (13) The longing for regression is an eminently modern phenomenon, a reaction to the advancing rationalization process. It should not be tabooed, but worked out. Bloch’s warning not to leave irrationalism to right-wingers has today reacquired an urgency which can hardly be overestimated.

Adorno’s thoughts on the waning of modernism are formulated from the perspective of production; they should therefore be complemented by a remark on changes in the area of reception. Among younger persons today one can often notice a way of dealing with literary works that can only be characterized as low-brow from Adorno’s standpoint. I mean the widespread renunciation of any discussion of aesthetic form in favor of a discussion of the norms and patterns of behavior which are the basis of the actions of the characters portrayed. The questions which are asked of the work then do not read: How are the aesthetic form and content of the work communicated? But: Did this or that character act correctly in this situation?
How would I have behaved in a comparable situation? Such an attitude of reception can be dismissed as inadequate to works of art and can be judged as a sign of a cultural decline. But one can also ask whether the reading of a realistic novel that is interested mainly in procedures of narrative technique does not miss precisely its specific achievement. One can even go further and ask whether the novel does not become primarily an autonomous work of art detached from the living practice of individuals by the fact that a particular discourse marks it as such. What first seemed to be only a lack of culture could prove to be the starting point of a new way of dealing with works of art that overcomes the one-sided fixation on form and at the same time places the work back in relation to the experiences of the recipients.

Do these observations justify the characterization of the art of the present as one of post-modernism, and what implications does this have? To answer these questions, I would like to distinguish three different readings.

1. The anti-modem reading: It could use Adorno’s theorem that there is in every epoch just one advanced stock of material, and turn it against Adorno. The signs of a waning of the new music which he noted, turned, it could be argued, away from twelve-tone music and returned to tonality. Since comparable processes of decline can be seen in abstract painting and modern literature, a return to objectivity or to realistic forms of narration is suggested here too.
Of course, metaphysical validity could no longer be attributed to the traditionally normative genres, but they had their place as artistic means. As Valéry repeatedly showed, artificially posed difficulties (for instance, the fulfillment of a complicated verse scheme) acted as stimulants to artistic achievement. In brief, one could formulate a theory of post-modernism as a pleading for the new academicism and in so doing appeal once again to Adorno who has regretted the loss of the “pedagogical virtues of academicism” (Diss, ., 155).

That Adorno was as far from thinking of a return to academicism as he was from any call for moderation (he calls “the ideal of moderate modernism” disgusting; Diss, ., 156) is not adequate to refute the above argument. Its strength consists precisely in that it — rightly, it would seem — raises the claim of drawing from Adorno’s reflections the conclusions which he evaded. Also the argument drawn from Adorno’s critique of Lukács that realistic forms are as such affirmative, has become unconvincing, since non-objective paintings have become the decor of managerial suites and are used as montages for magazine covers.
If one does not want to settle for a political critique of aesthetic restoration, then one will have to try to show its weakness by way of immanent critique. It lies in an aporia that is otherwise typical of neo-conservatism. For it can attain its own standpoint (here: the return to tonality, to objectivity and to traditional literary forms) only by the abstract negation of modernism. But this approach contradicts its own conservative self- understanding, which values not new beginnings, but preservation and development. Since the anti-modern version of the post-modern theorem can preserve nothing of modernism, it comes to contradict its conservative self- understanding. That unmasks it as a badly secured polemical position which has nothing to contribute to the comprehension of the possibility of art today.

2. The pluralistic reading: It could be formulated approximately as follows: Theorists of the modernism have held the objectively illegitimate thesis that only modern art has attained the heights of the epoch. They thereby devalued implicitly or explicitly all rival artistic movements. The decline of modernism shows the onesidedness of a concept of tradition which recognizes in music only the Schönberg school, and in narrative literature only a few authors such a Proust, Kafka, Joyce and Beckett. The music and literature of the 20th century were, however, much richer. The consequence of this position for the present reads: there is no advanced material, all historical stocks of material are equally available to the artist. What counts is the individual work.

This position has a series of arguments in its favor. There can be no doubt that a construction of tradition such as Adorno’s is onesided. We should, however, not forget that it owes to this onesidedness its capacity of making connections recognizable. That today, however, no particular material can still be regarded as the historically most progressive is indicated not only by the motley array of different things, so confusing for the outsider, which every local fine arts exhibit documents.
It is demonstrated mainly by the intensity with which some of the most conscious artists explore the use of the most varied stocks of materials. A few of Pit Morell’s etchings contain reminiscences of Renaissance drawings along with the expressive directness of the paintings of children and the insane. And Werner Hilsing paints at the same time surrealist, expressionist and cubist miniatures, thus reflecting the possibility of a multiplicity of material. If one wanted to try to draw any conclusion from this, it would be that aesthetic valuation today must detach itself from any link with a particular material. Less than ever does the material guarantee in advance the success of the work. The fascination which correctly emanates from periods of consistent development of material (say, in early cubism) must not mislead one into making it the supratemporal criterion of aesthetic valuation.

The insight into the free availability of different stocks of material which exists today must neither blind us to the resulting artistic difficulties nor to the problematic of the position which is here called pluralist. Whereas Adorno would single out almost all of current artistic production as worthless, the “pluralist” runs the danger of recognizing everything equally and falling prey to an eclecticism which likes everything indiscriminately. Art thus threatens to become an insipid complement to everyday life, i.e., what it always was to the popularizations of idealist aesthetics.

Instead of drawing from the questioning of the theorem of the most advanced material the false conclusion that today everything is possible, one would have to insist on the difficulties which confront works today. If reliance on the correspondence between the artistic material and the epoch has vanished, a reliance which is the historico-philosophical basis of Adorno’s aesthetics, then for the productive artist too the abundance of possibilities can appear as arbitrariness. He cannot counter it by surrendering to it, but only by reflecting upon it. That can be done in many different ways: by radical restriction to one material, but also by the attempt to use the multiplicity of possibilities. The decison is always legitimated only afterwards, in the product.

3. Toward a contemporary aesthetic: I would explicitly not like to place this third reading under the auspices of post-modernism, because the concept suggests an end to the modern era, which there is no reason whatever to assume. One could instead claim that all relevant art today defines itself in relation to modernism. If this is so, then a theory of contemporary aesthetics has the task of conceptualizing a dialectical continuation of modernism. It will strive to affirm essential categories of modernism, but at the same time to free them from their modernist rigidity and bring them back to life.

The category of artistic modernism par excellence is form. Sub-categories such as artistic means, procedures and techniques converge in that category. In modernism, form is not something pre-given which the artist must fulfill and whose fulfillment the critics and the educated public could check more or less closely against a canon of fixed rules. It is always an individual result, which the work represents. And form is not something external to the content; it stands in relation to it (this is the basis of interpretation).
This modern conception of artistic form, which originates in the modern age with the victory of aesthetic nominalism, ought to be irreplaceable for us. Though we can imagine a work of art in which individual elements are interchangeable (from a picture of Pollock’s one can cut off a part without essentially changing it, and in a paratactically constructed narrative individual parts arranged in succession can be interchanged or even left out); but we cannot imagine a work in which the form as such would be arbitrary. Irreplaceability means that in the act of reception we apply a concept of form that grasps the form of the work as particular, necessary within certain limits, and semantically interpretable.

But irreplaceability must not be confused with unchangeability. The aesthetics of idealism grasps the work of art as a form/content unity. “True works of art are such, precisely by the fact that their content and form prove to be completely identical,” says Hegel in his Encyclopedia (§ 133; Supplement). But in this positing of a unity of subject (form) and object (content) history did not come to a stop. Rather, the development of art in bourgeois society burst asunder the idealistically fused elements of the classical type of work. The concept of the work held by idealistic aesthetics was itself already an answer to the modern phenomenon of the alienation of individuals from themselves and the world.
In the organic work of art, the really unresolved contradictions are supposed to appear as reconciled. Hence, the demand of a form-content unity that alone can generate the appearance of reconciliation. Now, to the extent that bourgeois society develops into a system that is subject to crises, but none the less closed, the individual increasingly feels impotent vis-à-vis the social whole. The artist reacts to this by attempting to prove, at least in his own field, the primacy of the subject over against the given. This means the primacy of the subjectively set form, the primacy of material development. The result is achieved first in aestheticist poetry: the striving for purity of form, which has characterized the idealist conception of art since its earliest formulations, threatens to annihilate that which makes producing a work worthwhile, i.e., the content. The novel, which can absorb the fullness of reality, for a long time proves to be resistant to the coercion to formalization. Only with Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman is the aestheticist project of a “book about nothing” realized also in this genre. Here too the emancipation from the matter as something given and withdrawn from the control of the subject leads to emptiness.

The earliest answer — unmatched to this day despite all contradictions — to the developmental tendencies of art in bourgeois society is given by the historical avantgarde-movements. The demand for a return of art to life, the abolition of the autonomy of art, marks the counterpole to that tendency which extrapolated the status of autonomy right into the work. The aestheticizing primacy of form is now replaced by the primacy of expression. The artist-subject revolts against form, which now confronts him as something alien. What should master the facticity of the given, proves to be a coercion which the subject inflicts on himself. He rebels against it.

And where do we stand, we who are both the heirs of aestheticist formalism and of the avantgarde protest agsinst it? The answer to the question is made more difficult by the fact that we have had to confirm both the decline of the modern (in Adorno’s sense) and the failure of the avantgarde attack on the institution of art. (14) Neither anti-modernism nor historical eclecticism can be considered adequate designs for the aesthetic theory of the present. But merely clinging to the theory of aesthetic modernity,as Adorno has formulated it, also fails to see relevant phenomena of contemporary artistic production, e.g., the Aesthetic of Resistance, in which Peter Weiss uses the narrative techniques of the realistic novel throughout. Instead of propagating a break with modernism under the banner of the post-modern, I count on its dialectical continuity. That means that aesthetic modernism must also recognize as its own much that it has until now rejected. That is, no more tabooing of tonality, objectivity, and traditional literary forms; but at the same time distrust of this material and of the appearance of substantiality which emanates from it. The recourse to past stocks of material must be recognized as a modern procedure, but also as an extremely precarious one (Picasso’s Olga in the Reclining Chair is not a successful picture).
The modern is richer, more variegated, more contradictory than Adorno depicts it in the parts of his work where he sets up boundaries out of fear of regression, as in the Stravinsky- chapter of Philosophy of New Music. The artist can rely on what seems to him to be immediacy of expression which yet is always mediated. Since the expressive strength of the painting of children and of the insane is recognized, there can no longer be any taboo against regression. But it would be mistaken to believe that it is enough to imitate the clumsy drawings of first-graders to produce good paintings. The dialectics of form and expression must be executed as something irreducibly particular, whereby the latter no longer means individual situation but social experience refracted through the subject.

Already Hegel prognosticated the free disposition over forms and objects for art after the “end of art.” This prospect becomes cogent at the moment when there is no longer any generally binding system of symbols. To the question of a criterion for putting a stop to the bad wealth of historical eclecticism, first a distinction would have to be made between an arbitrary toying with past forms and their necessary actualization. Secondly, after the attack of the historical avantgarde movements on the autonomy of art, the reflection on this status ought to be an important trait of important art. To the extent that this reflection is translated into artistic conduct, it encounters the historico-philosophical place of art in the present. If this is plausible, then Brecht’s work should have a place within the literature of our century which Adorno does not concede to it.

On the side of reception, the dialectical continuation of modernity means the striving to combine the above-mentioned reception stance oriented to living practice with sensitivity for the specific achievement of forms, which modern art has taught us since impressionism and aestheticism. With the risk of being misunderstood, what is meant can be characterized as the re-semanticization of art. This term is misleading because it does not appeal to the formal a priori of art. What Adorno criticizes as “material fetishism” in a modernism consistent in its rational tendencies has as its complement on the side of reception — the readiness to celebrate even the monochromatically painted canvass as an extraordinary artistic event. Against this, the semantic dimension of the work of art must be emphasized.

In closing, let me return to the concept of “post-modernism.” Perhaps, the problematic of the concept can be most readily delineated if one says that it is both too broad and too narrow. Too broad, because it relegates to the past the modern concept of form, which is irreplaceable for us. Too narrow, because it restricts the question of contemporary art to the question of a material decision. But that is not permissible because the changes which are currently taking shape are also precisely changes in the way of dealing with art. If the claim formulated by avantgarde movements to abolish the separation of art and life, although it failed, continues as before to define the situation of today’s art, then this is paradoxical in the strictest sense of the word: If the avantgardist demand for abolition turns out to be realizable, that is the end of art. If it is erased, i.e., if the separation of art and life are accepted as matter-of-course, that is also the end of art.


Translated by David J. Parent. Originally published in J. Habermas and L. von Friedeburg, eds., Adorno-Konferenz (Frankfurt, 1983). 11. 1 cannot in this context go into inaccuracies in Adorno’s concept of aesthetic rationality.
1. Since the historical avantgarde-movements have undermined confidence in art as a sphere of pure aesthetic experience, the question of how to deal with art has benn a disputed one. I have attempted to deal with it systematically in my book Zur kritik der idealistischen Ästhetik (Frankfurt, 1983).
2. A, Touraine. La Societé post-industrielle (Paris, 1969), German translation by Evan Moldenhauer: Die postindustrielle Gesellschaft (Frankfurt, 1972). Also J. F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis, 1984).
3. Cf. e.g. P. Gorsen “Zur Dialektik des Funktionalismus heute“ in J.Habermas eds., `Stichworte zur ‘Geistige Situation der Zeit’ (Frankfurt, 1979), p. 688 ff.
4. Cf. e.g. the critique of Adorno inj. Schulte-Sasse and F. Jameson, Zur Dichotomisierung von hoher und niederer Literatur (Frankfurt, 1982) p. 62 ff. and 114 ff.
5. For Adorno’s following works I use the abbreviations: AT — Aesthetic Theory, Christian Lenhardt, trans. (London, 1984). Diss — Dissonanzen. Musik in der verwalteten Welt (Göttingen, 1969). MM — Minima Moralia. Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben (Frankfurt, 1969). The citations have been drawn from the appendix of the German edition, which was not included in the English translation. MS — Musikalische Schriften I-III, ed. R. Tiedemann, Ges. Schriften Vol. 16 (Frankfurt, 1978). PMM — Philosophy of Modem Music (New York, 1973).
6. That Chirico in his metaphysical phase must be understood as a modern painter has been convincingly shown by W. Rubin: “De Chirico et la modernité,” in Giorgio de Chirico [exposition catalogue] (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1983) p. 9-37; German Edition (Munich, 1982).
7. Th. W. Adorno, Impromptus (Frankfurt, 1970) p. 77.
8. Cf. P. Bürger Zur Kritik der idealistischen Ästhetik, op. cit., pp. 128-135.
9. But the possibility will also have to be taken into account that the content of such a recourse cannot be understood from the individual work but only from a series of pictures. This is the case, for example, for the works of the Berlin painter Werner Hilsing, whose virtuoso readoption of the material stocks of the past, alienated by minature format, (precisely from the circle of “classical modernism”) accompanies the perpetuation of art after its termination with a merrily ironical commentarv. Cf. T.W. Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music (New York: 1976).
10. Cf. T.W. Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music (New York, 1976).
11. I cannot in this context go into inaccuracies in Adorno’s concept of aesthetic rationality.
12. However, especially in his studies on Mahler and Zemlinsky he tried to remove some of its dogmatic rigidity from the theory of the most advanced material. “At times the flight of the most progressive in art is the relic of the past which it drags along with it,” he says of the anachronistic element in Mahler (MS 339). And in the Zemlinsky essay he finds that from later perspectives aspects “in what was once left behind” can be found that [prove to be] “more lasting than in the advanced [art] of the past” (MS 367). — He also rcognized in Mahler the quotation of the banal (MS 328).
13. D. Diderot Oeuvres Esthétiques, ed. P. Verniere (Paris, 1959) p. 261.
14. Cf. On this and prior topics, my book Theory of the Avantgarde (Minneapolis, 1984).

In: Telos December 21, 1984 vol. 1984 no. 62, pp. 117-130.

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