The Fleeting Promise of Art: Adorno's Aesthetic Theory Revisited
Peter Uwe Hohendahl
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
A discussion of Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is bound to look significantly different today than it would have looked when the book was first published in 1970, or when it first appeared in English translation in the 1980s. In The Fleeting Promise of Art, Peter Uwe Hohendahl reexamines Aesthetic Theory along with Adorno’s other writings on aesthetics in light of the unexpected return of the aesthetic to today’s cultural debates.
Is Adorno’s aesthetic theory still relevant today? Hohendahl answers this question with an emphatic yes. As he shows, a careful reading of the work exposes different questions and arguments today than it did in the past. Over the years Adorno’s concern over the fate of art in a late capitalist society has met with everything from suspicion to indifference. In part this could be explained by relative unfamiliarity with the German dialectical tradition in North America. Today’s debate is better informed, more multifaceted, and further removed from the immediate aftermath of the Cold War and of the shadow of postmodernism.
Adorno’s insistence on the radical autonomy of the artwork has much to offer contemporary discussions of art and the aesthetic in search of new responses to the pervasive effects of a neoliberal art market and culture industry. Focusing specifically on Adorno’s engagement with literary works, Hohendahl shows how radically transformative Adorno’s ideas have been and how thoroughly they have shaped current discussions in aesthetics. Among the topics he considers are the role of art in modernism and postmodernism, the truth claims of artworks, the function of the ugly in modern artworks, the precarious value of the literary tradition, and the surprising significance of realism for Adorno.
intellectual environment requires a new set of hermeneutic rules. The least interesting approach would be to attempt to rescue his theory dogmatically, i.e. in terms of its explicitly stated opinions and positions. The result would be of mere historical interest. Of considerably greater interest would be an attempt to reconstruct Adorno’s questions—to understand the reasons why he positioned himself vis-à-vis the philosophical tradition (Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Marx) the way he did and why he
Scarry’s position, then, Adorno’s aesthetic theory looks problematic at best, since he rejects the notion of beauty as a transcendent value and insists instead on the significance of the ugly in the context of modern art. His credo that contemporary art is defined by the color black would hardly be accepted by Scarry. In the case of de Bolla the gap is not as wide because, like Adorno, he is concerned with artworks and specifically contemporary artworks. His defense of the aesthetic is focused
discussion stands the concept of the sacrifice. The need to sacrifice a preselected member of the collective for the good of the same collective is described by Adorno as “a state of archaic deficiency, in which it is hardly possible to make any distinction between human sacrifice and cannibalism.”15 For Adorno magic thought, which legitimizes and rationalizes human sacrifice, is irrational in its support of nonfreedom. As Adorno writes, “The magic collective interpretation of sacrifice, which
representation, as in the case of Kafka when Adorno claims: “Kafka’s epic style is, in its archaism, mimesis of reification” (AT 230).12 Similar is the suggestion that twentieth-century constructivism is closer to the modern social world than an attempt to engage the same reality with the means of realism. Thus in his examples Adorno tries to demonstrate that the method of realism can at best be seen as a historically limited approach and not a general aesthetic norm to engage social reality.
1:241–275. 16. Wellmer, Persistence of Modernity, 23. 17. Ibid., 29. 18. Menke, Sovereignty of Art, xi. 19. Ibid. 20. In a later essay Menke posits in stronger terms not only the compatibility of Adorno and Derrida but also their methodological proximity, since in both instances the certainty of the subject and the conditions of transcendental knowledge are subverted, leading to a pattern of aporetic thought. This shift implicitly underlines the difference between Adorno and the second