Art, Immanence, and Critique: A Dialogue between Alain Badiou and Theodor Adorno
Alain Badiou and Theodor Adorno explore the critical power of art and its capacity to delegitimize existing restraints in society, economy, culture, and politics.
Of course, art can reinforce, perpetuate, or propagate these restraints as well. Therefore, perhaps the most affirmative exploration of art lies in its negative potential: that is, its capacity to explore its critical relationship with society and to illuminate what it is about art that can emancipate, reveal truth, and inspire new ways of being which previously appeared impossible.
Art, Theory, and Philosophy
In order to consider the role of new art in critiquing society and revealing truth, both social and artistic, it is particularly relevant to examine the frameworks that form the bases of the theoretical and philosophical approaches of Adorno and Badiou. Badiou’s analysis of the Didactic, Romantic, and Classical schemata of art will be examined first, followed by Adorno’s exploration of the dialectical relationship between the autonomy and heteronomy of artworks.
Badiou—Schemata of Art and Philosophy
Badiou opens his Handbook of Inaesthetics (2005) by outlining the historical relationship between art and philosophy. He examines the philosophical schemata of art as didactic and incapable of truth production, the romantic defense of art as the only producer of truth, and the classical scheme in which art mediates between the philosophical and romantic views.
In Plato, the didactic view of art holds that the truth of art is a false truth and that it is merely mimetic; that is, it provides only the semblance of truth (2005:2). Actual truth belongs to the philosopher alone, which leaves art to be judged according to its social or public effects and not according to aesthetic or other qualities of the art works as such (2005:3). It follows that art, with its propensity to mislead or tempt others into a false truth, must be managed carefully in order that only the desired public effect is achieved. Long after Plato, Rousseau commented that “’the spectacle is made for the people, and it is only by its effects upon the people that its absolute qualities can be determined’.” In contrast, Badiou endorses Brecht’s Marxist conception in which the epic “exhibits… the courage of truth” and art acts as “a therapy against cowardice” (2005:6).
Romanticism opposes didacticism in its claim that “art alone is capable of the truth” (2005:3). In contrast to the philosopher as the sole producer of truth, or for whom truth is external to art in the more general sense, romanticism holds that “it is art that educates, because it teaches of the power of infinity held within the tormented cohesion of a form,” delivering “us from the subjective barrenness of the concept” (2005:3). Badiou sees Heidegger’s hermeneutics as evoking romanticism in as much as “it exposes an indiscernible entanglement between the saying of the poet and the thought of the thinker. Nevertheless, the advantage is still with the poet, because the thinker is nothing but the announcement of a reversal” (2005:6). What is important here is the position of truth: while the philosopher and the artist are dealing in the same truth, it is only the artist who actualizes that truth in expression.
The classical schema, from Aristotle on, presupposes that there is only the appearance of conflict. In regard to this, Badiou agrees with the didactic view that truth is external to art, but he says “this is because the purpose of art is not in the least truth. Of course, art is not truth, but it also does not claim to be truth and is therefore innocent” (2005:4). This emasculation of art means that it is subject to a criterion of ‘liking,’ where “art must be liked because ‘liking’ signals the effectiveness of catharsis” (2005:4). In this sense, any resemblance to truth (or truth content, for that matter) is irrelevant as long as a work is liked (2005:4). Now far from the didactic schema in which “art is a public service” and from the romantic schema in which art need not contain even a trace of truth, we find a new schema easily adopted by the state; here you find the “’vassalization’ of art and artists by absolutism, as well as in the modern vicissitudes of funding” (2005:5).
In Badiou’s view all three of these schemata were exhausted by the end of the 20th century. For didacticism, art is “saturated by the state-bound and historical exercise of art in the service of the people” (2005:7). For Romanticism, it is “saturated by the element of pure promise—always brought back to the supposition of a return of the gods—in Heidegger’s rhetorical equipment” (2005:7), and for Classicism, it is distorted by its aim, “by the self-consciousness conferred upon it by the complete deployment of a theory of desire” (2005:7).
Adorno—Autonomy and Heteronomy
Adorno’s untangling of the dialectics of the autonomy and heteronomy of art in late capitalism, essentially holds that the emergence of capitalism and the dominance of bourgeois ideology emancipated art from previous structures of domination by the church, the aristocracy, and the feudal court (Hamilton 2009:254). In so far as it ever truly existed, the liberation of the subjective in art was short-lived as the imperatives of exchange-value and commodification presented new forms of domination resistant to previous emancipatory movements. What follows is an elaboration on those processes and analyses.
Early in the “Society” section of Aesthetic Theory (1997), Adorno claims that “art becomes social by its opposition to society, and it occupies this position only as autonomous art” (1997:225):
“What is social in art is its immanent movement against society, not its manifest opinions. Its historical gesture repels empirical reality, of which artworks are nevertheless part in that they are things. Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness”.
Here then is yet another challenge to explore the concept of “autonomous art” and the oppositional “heteronomous art.”
The notion of autonomous art implies the fetishization of a “pure, exclusively self-sufficient artwork” as witnessed in ‘l’art pour l’art’ [‘art for art’s sake’] following the French Revolution (1997:227), in which art is freed from the theological domination of earlier periods. This era of autonomy was not to last (if it ever truly existed, as bourgeois domination became increasingly realized through the commodification of art. Adorno tracks the “autonomy” of Paradise Lost by Milton: whereas Marx had criticized how little Milton was compensated for the work, Adorno takes as evidence that it was autonomous (as much as it could be) in that it was viewed as functionless by the market (1997:227). In this way, for Adorno, “the truth content of artworks, which is indeed their social truth, is predicated on their fetish character” (1997:227).
On the other hand, it is clear that the idea of autonomy was never tenable. For, even as Milton’s small payment for a now-canonical work is evidence of a degree of autonomy, the work was none-the-less rendered a commodity and continues to be an object of market exchange today. Bourgeois art, therefore, cannot escape domination and heteronomy any more than it could in previous eras dominated by political or theological authority. To the extent that it can be liberated from these restraints, at some point the artist still needs to earn a living, and if the market views the artwork as having absolutely no exchange value, then it is incumbent upon the artist to produce works which can be translated as commodities. In the event of a benefactor, it becomes difficult to discern whether the art produced is the artist’s alone or influenced by the demands or expectations of such a benefactor, so that even if autonomy is possible to some degree, it is inevitably compromised.
This exploration of autonomy and heteronomy reveals the dialectical character of artworks or, as Adorno often says, the “double character of art” (1997). The contradiction is that art’s truth lies in its autonomy, functionlessness, and fetish-character while its social reality lies in its heteronomy, commodification, and domination. As he writes in Aesthetic Theory, “The double character of art—something that severs itself from empirical reality and thereby from society’s functional context and yet is at the same time part of empirical reality and society’s functional context—is directly apparent in the aesthetic phenomena, which are both aesthetic and faits sociaux” (1997:252).
When considering what in art is new or can be discovered, for Badiou, it is important first to explore his concept of an “event.” An event is a philosophical tool frequently utilized by Badiou to conceptualize the dynamic nature of the world, as well as to render a truth into being (Hallward 2003). For a truth to be revealed in an event, a number of things are required. First, there must exist a status quo where all things and subjects can be understood as belonging in their setting (evental site). Then, a subject must move to a position previously denied by the status quo of the setting. Finally, the new position is indeed one to which the moved subject either belongs or can belong, thus revealing a new truth. The moving of the subject can then be identified as an event, while the new subject-position relationship becomes part of a status quo.
Hallward briefly utilizes the example of Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle to exemplify the concept (2003). For an evental site belonging to natural science or biology, there was no credible conception of natural selection to explain the evolution and variation of species. As Darwin developed his thesis and then published it for extensive review, it eventually became clear that a new truth had been revealed and an event had taken place during the voyage.
In order to clarify how art relates to the event, Badiou offers another view of the event. In his philosophical examination of Beckett’s Worstward Ho, Badiou refers to the “void” and the “dim” of an evental site (2005). The void is that which frames an evental site as a negation of existence (although it is still a condition of being, or “there is”), while the dim is a condition of unattained, yet explorable reality. In the status quo aspect of the situation of an evental site, the void and the dim may appear as one and the same; but the event appears is when there is a dissolving of the dim into the situation. While the void is infinite in its negation of the situation, it is none-the-less effectively diminished by the event having revealed the dim to exist as opposed to its being of the void.
As Badiou considered Beckett to have illustrated, perhaps even formulated this conception of the event, for him the event is the specific power or capacity of art. It can shine a lantern on the dim and reveal it to be part of the situation, which it truly always was, thus revealing a truth. However, it is important to consider the assumption that the art in question cannot be from the traditional, as the traditional exists within the already exposed situation. There is no truth revealed in traditional art, as it does not venture toward the void, into the dim. The example of Darwin’s voyage and other events show that reality is not revealed solely by a movement towards the void. It must be shown to have breached the dim without entering the void (which is non-truth). In this way, the event does reveal an actuality during the event itself; only with examination after the fact can the situation be analyzed to have been an event where a truth has been revealed, and thus described as such. The challenge is how to identify, concretely, or theoretically, and to recognize, describe, and name a situation as a truth-yielding event. In this way, art (and the event) is to be taken in its wholeness as well as in its universality, for it is only the entirety of the situation, dim and void, that a truth can be revealed and become useful.
In a separate (though undoubtedly related) conception of new art, Badiou speaks of the immanence and singularity of art, and, in particular, how they relate to the three aforementioned artistic schemata. In essence, he feels that the three have fallen short of illuminating the imperatives in art of simultaneously manifesting immanence and singularity. Unless these conditions are met, art cannot be conceived of as fulfilling its promise of truth production.
By immanence, Badiou means an “art that is rigorously coextensive with the truths that it generates” (2005:9; and cf. Brown, 2015:379). He expands this by three additional conditions of artistic validity: that “truth (is) really internal to the artistic effect of works of art,” that “art itself is a truth procedure,” and that “art is a thought in which artworks are the Real (and not the effect)” (2005:9). If these conditions are met, then the art and its truth can be said to be reciprocally immanent.
By singularity, Badiou means that “these truths are given nowhere else than in art” (2005:9). Singularity raises the question: “Does the truth testified by art belong to it absolutely?” Furthermore, “this thought, or rather the truths it activates, are irreducible to other truths – be they scientific, political, or amorous” (2005:9). If all these conditions are met, we can conclude that “art, as a singular regime of thought, is irreducible to philosophy” (2005:9).
For Badiou, immanence and singularity do not exist simultaneously in the three schemata: where romantic art is immanent, it is not singular; didactic art is singular, but not immanent; and classical art is neither immanent nor singular. As noted previously, the truth-content of art in the romantic schemata is the same truth-content of the thinker, and thus, not singular. Likewise, in the didactic schema, the quasi-truth of semblance is art’s alone, giving it singularity, but as truth applies to the realm of the idea, art does not have immanence. And with classicism, art is granted neither truth-content nor a truth-procedure, merely a space in which catharsis can occur.
Badiou’s call is for a new art that is simultaneously immanent and singular. For this, the truth-content of the art must not lie in a work or an artist, rather in a set of artworks which compose the event (2005:10). In this way, an artistic truth-procedure or event is like a social movement. As much as we may try to define it as such, a revolution or a movement is not a person or an act, but rather a multiple of at least one or the other, and more likely both. To this end Badiou states that “a truth is an infinite multiplicity” but “a work of art is essentially finite” (2005:10). Thus, if art’s truth is seen as a multiple of works and artists, its truth will retain its singularity as it is not contingent upon the thought. Meanwhile, the task of the philosopher is not to produce or reveal truth, but rather to recognize and name truths. “Just as beauty is to be found in the woman encountered, but is in no way required of the procuress, so it is that truths are artistic, scientific, amorous, or political, and not philosophical” (2005:10).
Adorno—Autonomy and the Particular
New art in Adorno’s writings should fundamentally maintain a stance against the heteronomous trappings of capitalism and tradition. To fail to do so will inevitably result in a failure to discover any of the truth content which is art’s potential.
Capitalism has introduced new modes of domination in art forms that differ from those found in the king’s courts or the demands of theologians. Previous forms of resistance and declarations of autonomy have been rendered impotent by capitalism’s commodification of art. Previously subjected to conventions of taste or programs of social order, art now must answer to the markets and the corresponding dominance of exchange value. Likewise, any art having any claim to autonomy which reaches a level of popularity has to come to terms with the demands of the culture industry in order to repeat its ‘success.’ One need look only to numerous examples of the ‘sophomore slump’ in music or literature to witness the effect of market expectations on the artist: change too little, and the artist is out of ideas; change too much, the calibrated audience is disinterested and sales plummet; become formulaic, and the artist is a sell-out; lean toward the avant-garde and the artist is trying too hard. To create one meaningful work of art is to be lost, as there are so many missed opportunities to – in the neoliberal jargon – ‘monetize,’ which requires at the least a repetition that diminishes art or displays the probability of repetition, say, in branding, collections, or, in music, albums of “greatest hits.” Clearly part of monetization, bourgeoisification results in an ever-increasing concentration and monopolization at the top of the power hierarchies of communications, media, and commercial distributors of artworks.
It is against this absorbent morass of art-advertising-propaganda machinery that Adorno conceives frameworks of opposition to the domination of art under the conditions of late capitalism. Martin (2000) argues that Adorno’s ideas fit within the concept of anti-art (and cf. Willener 1970). Despite his insistence that autonomy is the locus of art’s truth content, Adorno nevertheless regularly qualifies this stance by doubting the possibility of such ‘pure’ autonomy. Martin’s argument proceeds from this point, illustrating Adorno’s views that the new offers “the promissory, even utopian impulse of something different irrupting out of the present” and provides “the site of the constitution of art’s autonomy through the determinate negation of tradition” (2000:198).
While anti-art is typically considered oppositional to both heteronomy and autonomy, Martin argues that it is still at home within Adorno’s concepts. Martin lists three basic principles of anti-art: the affirmation of non-art, anti-art as politics, and anti-art as anti-tradition (2000:199). With these, anti-art affirms life and the real, while adopting a political scheme aimed at maximizing its social project and rejecting co-optation into the fold of tradition (Martin 2000). While a move to the political appears to signal a loss of autonomy, it is not a politics of, or for, but rather politics against society, tradition, formal rationality, etc. As Hamilton explains, Adorno “holds that it is only through becoming socially autonomous, that art becomes self-conscious and socially critical” (2009:256).
Given Adorno’s reluctance to affirm the existence of autonomous art in its pure form, along with other conceptions of art oppositional to capitalism’s heteronomy, including mass production, standardization commodification, and reification, Martin’s argument seems sound. In regard to its rejection of tradition, Adorno writes, “modern art is questionable not when it goes too far — as the cliché runs — but when it does not go far enough… Only works that expose themselves to every risk have the chance of living on, not those that out of fear of the ephemeral cast their lot with the past” (1997:34). In regard to its resistance to capitalist rationalization, he says that “The necessity of going to the extreme is the necessity for this particular rationality in relation to the material, and not the result of a pseudoscientific competition with the rationalization of the de-mystified world” (1997:35). For Adorno, anti-art is integrated into the idea of autonomous art as a necessity and not merely a preference, once its mechanisms for negating traditionalism are threatened by capitalist domination (Martin 2000:203).
Yet, he finds another mode of resistance and another demand for autonomy in an emphasis, more or less successful, on particularity. Beyond just a declaration of autonomy, emphasis on the particular provides a locus of truth: “artworks are alive in that they speak in a fashion that is denied to natural objects and the subjects who make them. They speak by virtue of the communication of everything particular in them,” while “they also communicate with the empirical experience that they reject and from which they draw their content” (1997:5).
Since Weber’s classic argument, extended by the Frankfurt School, it has been clear that formal rationality is one of the key forms of domination in modern society. Speaking about the critical power of the particular in the context of Dada, I have argued that
To delegitimate the ideology of rationality, then, is to deny the fundamental opposition between that ideology: the distinction and the subordination of the particular to the universal. Thus the attack on rationality is to particularize, and the dialectic of the attack is to turn the tables. Particularizing is the negation of rationality (Halley 1991:234-235).
Particularization resists formal rationality via its ability to undermine taken-for-granted meaning, and is coupled with the delegitimation of conceptions of linear time, attacks on means-ends relationships through the use of chance artistic practices, and the undermining of fixed subject-object relationships (Halley 1991:233-240). Thus, some art can threaten and even shatter the standardization and rationalization of the modern world by accentuating the subject and the particular. Adorno illustrates this point by saying “every artwork is an instant; every successful work is a cessation, a suspended moment of the process, as which it reveals itself to the unwavering eye” (1997:6).
In a parallel fashion, the composer Pierre Boulez – who met Adorno at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music from the early 1950s to the early 1960s – writes of the use of the musical fragment by Webern, Berg, and even Stravinsky. He notes that Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is a succession of twenty-one fragments, linked, but all independent from one another (Boulez 2005:676-677). Yet the immediacy might be short lived, of course, because there is a likelihood that the work(s) will be denied a societally critical function, become integrated into tradition, or end by standardizing itself. Adorno illustrates the latter:
…now that American hotels are decorated with abstract paintings… and aesthetic radicalism has shown itself to be socially affordable, radicalism itself must pay the price that is no longer radical. Among the dangers faced by new art, the worst is the absence of danger” (1997:29).
If adapted to tradition, art must itself be self-critical by challenging the very things it puts forth against the status quo. Thus, the need for new art always exists and must be rigorously pursued.
For Badiou the avant-garde represents a search for a more satisfying answer to the didactic-romantic-classical problem. “The avant-gardes were above all anticlassical” (2005:8). At the same time, they were “didactic in their desire to put an end to art, in their condemnation of its alienated and inauthentic character” and “romantic in their conviction that art must be reborn immediately as absolute—as the undivided awareness of its operations or as its own immediately legible truth” (2005:8). The problem is to decide whether they incorporate both attitudes in a unity that preserves the contradiction as a motivating tension, or are destined to intensify and expand upon the negative aspect of their anti-classicism. Badiou identifies their project with the first possibility, but only as a moment of a dialectic in which there are no guarantees.
In this regard, Badiou writes in The Century that the avant-gardes were a “spark in search of a powder keg,” a phrase borrowed from surrealist writer Andre Breton (2007:138). Here, Badiou means that they sought to explode all that had come to represent art by violating, in the name of what they intended to demolish, prevailing standards of “beauty” and the sedimented norms of “taste” (2007:132-133).
Like the spark, the avant-gardes were of the present (2007:135), and therefore could only know themselves as a concretization of a moment of rupture (2007:135-136). To gesture toward the past would be to affirm tradition, a primary target of their project, and to invoke a future would be false in principle since nothing can be anticipated beyond rupture. Yet, it remains puzzling that they published manifestos as if declaring the possibility of some future if not a particular one – as if that would be a sufficient testament to the truth particular to a rupture (2007:139-140).
Despite all their efforts, “the avant-gardes did not achieve their conscious objective: to lead a united front against classicism,” as didactics condemned their romantic elements, romanticism condemned their didactic elements, and much of their program was largely adopted into classicism (2005:8).
Adorno, and others through Adorno’s conceptual lens, identified avant-garde art as empirical crystallizations of his concepts of autonomy and the particular, both of which sustain the originality and critical disposition of the avant-garde. From this point of view, the aim of the avant-garde was to emancipate art from its domination by the incessant rationalization characteristic of modern society. One of the main weapons deployed against rationalization to combat this domination was a focus on the particular, the moment of an encounter without the pretension of didacticism, the regressive nostalgia of classicism, and the reification of art by romanticism. As autonomy and the particular are intertwined in the history of avant-garde art, they will be treated together in what follows.
Hamilton argues that the avant-garde displays its autonomy while retaining social meaning in that “modernist art, though presented to an audience, is uninterested in their reaction—which is discomforting for them” (2009:258). Elsewhere I have presented the Dada movement as a primary example of the exploration of the particular in resistance to modern forms of rationalization (Halley 1991). Adorno explicates this aspect of the avant-garde: “Art is thrown back on the dimensionless point of pure subjectivity, strictly on its particular and thus abstract subjectivity. This tendency was passionately anticipated by the radical wing of expressionism up to and including dada” (1997:29).
As for autonomy, according to Adorno, “The more art expels the pre-established, the more it is thrown back on what purports to get by, as it were, without borrowing from what has become distant and foreign” (1997:29). In turn, the drive toward autonomy provided the avant-garde with a space for critical expression aimed at the reification of art and society and the impulse to commodify every aspect of life. The negative aspect of this critique nevertheless links the avant-garde to its overarching object, society. In this respect, Martin argues that the avant-garde is both anti-art and political. But since, as I have shown, Dada sprang from the critical resistance to formal rationality in general, and World War I more specifically (Halley 1991:228), the politics in the Dada program – in artworks, soirees, and manifestos – was always mediated. This appears to contradict Badiou’s account of the avant-garde, in which he interprets the manifestos as political declarations, unmediated by what is presupposed in their artful or anti-artful forms of expression.
Martin’s claim that the autonomy of art includes a type of anti-art discloses something of a paradox. In so far as the avant-garde was autonomous, many in the art establishment, including critics, tastemakers, curators, and patrons, rejected a role for the avant-garde role in art. In other words, so long as avant-garde art was generally viewed as ‘not art,’ it retained its measure of autonomy and, therefore, its critical stance. However, as they and their exhibitions became more celebrated, the avant-garde artists and their art were increasingly adopted into the tradition, and even, occasionally, the canon, thereby reducing the emancipatory impact their autonomy once promised. Today, remnants of late 19th and early 20th century modern art, including what had been rejected as anti-art, can be seen permeating the otherwise conventional realms of popular culture, including advertisements, mainstream films, and the halls of office buildings. However, this is not entirely true; elsewhere I have argued that the specificity of shock means that what is shocking can never be completely coopted to or absorbed by convention (Halley 2003), suggesting that no matter how what once shocked is re-presented, there is always a trace of that originally subversive tension, perhaps felt as vague discomfort at the moment of its being encountered again.
Contemporary Art and Society
Badiou—Fifteen Theses on Art
In 2003, Badiou delivered a talk in which he posited fifteen theses that can stand as a guide for the analysis of contemporary artworks. At stake in the theses are the relationship of art to truth, the problem posed by the opposition of the particular the universal, the specificity of art and art forms, and art’s relationship to Empire (2003). While utilizing the theses as a guide for production seems at least somewhat antithetical to Badiou’s project, he points toward a direction in which art should go and the project it should pursue. Perhaps the theses can be read can be read as a manifesto, something previously discussed within the avant-gardes and which Badiou refers to repeatedly in his own works. I will discuss a few of the theses as they pertain to the issues raised above and in order to consider and clarify, on Badiou’s own terms, the imperatives of art moving forward.
In his first thesis, Badiou again claims, against Romanticism, that art is an infinite multiple, and that truth is not to be found in an artwork, but in a series of art production (104). In the second and third theses (105-107), he maintains that art must not focus on the particular at the expense of the universal, but that to reach any truth it must expose new universalities. Insofar as truth is universal, art should express universal truths. However, this need not reject expressions of particularity in an artwork, or from the artist, since universals are realized in particulars. Moreover, since art’s truth does not originate from a particular artwork or from the artist, Badiou’s formulation amounts to saying that since the truth of art is not found in the particular artwork or its subject matter, it is not established and contained merely in thought.
Badiou’s ideas concerning forms develop these notions further (107-112). Consider again his conception of the event: in a situation, there is an illumination of something new, a novel perspective on the status quo, or a sudden emancipatory possibility. He posits that a new art form is an artistic event in this respect, but that this illumination should not be the sole focus of artists. While new forms are always necessary, much more of art’s history lies in the working in and through existing forms than the creation of new forms. In fact, he argues that “in art there is not exactly pure creation of forms… but there is something like progressive purification, and complexification of forms in sequence” (108): what seem to be new forms come from the working out of existing forms, or by chance, circumstance, or momentary necessity. Furthermore, as an event is at least partially chance or impossible to plan, it would be impossible for an artist actively to seek new forms, for one cannot plan to create the impossible.
And yet, the event implies another of art’s imperatives. Against Empire, with the limitations imposed by and the domination inherent in the imperial project, art must illuminate that which Empire claims does not exist (109-112). With this in mind, Badiou relates art to markets where there are “not really laws which are about what is possible, what is not possible, so everything is possible. Yet… “everything is impossible, because there is nothing else to have, the Empire is the only possible existence” (110). In this statement Badiou echoes the pessimism of Adorno. Therefore, the move for art, insofar as it opposes Empire, is to expose the possibilities in the impossible, which can be taken as a shorthand definition for the concept of the event. In his final theses, Badiou considers what this means for art production. Art is to be abstract, so as to illuminate universal truths and as such it can resist imperial domination, which always abstracts its universals from concrete particulars (112-119). Resistance, then, does not come from the prospect of absolute emancipation, but rather, from self-censorship, as the Empire (capitalist markets) accepts all and rejects none; it is totalizing in the interest of its own fantasy of totality. Similarly, there should not be a move to totalize forms into multimedia in an effort to maximize effect, reach, and content. Given this, art must be as formal as a mathematical demonstration, surprising, as anything impossible is, as an ambush, and “marvelous… like a new light” (a new star, planet, world for our knowledge) – if art is to be properly situated in truth and against Empire (112).
How can we move from the specificity of an artwork to universal truth? Heidegger and Sartre, respectively, address this question. Heidegger, speaking of Holderlin’s elegy “Bread and Wine” asks “. . . and what are poets for in a destitute time?” (1971:88). He raises the question of how can we recover from our present bad situation in the context in which, after the de‐Nazification trials, he was banned from teaching for his involvement with the Nazi regime. For him, the poet’s writing is universal, since it responds to the world, concretizes it, and finally, makes language problematic (1971). Sartre, by contrast, speaks of totalization as a process in which subjectivity, or lived experience, comes up against the constraint of institutions, what he calls the practico-inert (1968; 1991; 2016).
Badiou’s own concept of universal truth is not clear here. If, as Badiou says (above), the artist cannot succeed in intentionally seeking new forms, the truth of art cannot lie in particular works. If, however, the artist is enjoined to favor the sort of formality that offers the prospect of illumination or discovery, the prospect of an event, the truth can only appear after a work has been done and it cannot otherwise make its appearance (insofar as it is the truth of art), but to know that truth, is, then, not a possibility for the artist while at work, and so it seems that the truth of art lies in a universal that is actualized, made “concrete” and therefore reflexive in a work that is only true inasmuch it is distinctly art, subject to “art” as a certain ideal among the realm of ideals. Perhaps Badiou means that the truth of art is the collective product, the collectivity of all artwork, and that truth can only be known by the collective consciousness – and in that respect through a lived dialectic of universal and particular as that appears in a totalizing dialectic of, as Sartre says, praxis and the inert (1968; 1991; 2016). In other words, the truth of art is society conceived of as what the Enlightenment called an “association” in which each allows us to conclude, with Foucault, that in art, society indicts itself as an active totalization of self-critical awareness (Foucault 1965; cf. Brown 2014).
Adorno and Pessimism – from The Culture Industry to Beckett’s Endgame
There is in Badiou’s theses an undeniable sense of optimism; for him, new art is admittedly impossible, yet inevitable. In contrast, for Horkheimer and Adorno’s account of the culture industry (1989; 2003), written in a context of Fascism and war, the situation seems to imply the opposite. One encounters, all around, a semblance of the new, outside of rational, calculable, standardized, commodified culture. However, upon further scrutiny, one finds that it is either already the product of the culture industry or the possibility it provides for an authentic experience, or feeling, will soon be bought, distributed, and sold. ‘New and improved’ is by now the leading device in advertising since Adorno studied radio for Paul Lazersfeld in the late 1930s with the Princeton Radio Project (Adorno 1941). The conformism and trivialization evident in the uses of music is also reflexively found in the design of the mainstream study of culture – reduced to how broadcasters can target listeners. As he notes in his commentary on this kind of administrative research, where listeners are asked to press a button to register if they liked or disliked the music played, “I reflected that culture was simply the condition that precluded a mentality that tried to measure it.” (Adorno 1998:219) Later, in Dialectic of Enlightenment (Horkheimer and Adorno 1989), this becomes our daily encounter with ‘culture,’ now even more magnified in today’s globalized neo-liberal world and with the accelerating and monetized uses of social media.
The relationship of art to bourgeois society, was, at first, emancipatory for art. In the decline of religious domination, and prior to the industrial revolution and the subsequent emphasis on mass production, art enjoyed new levels of autonomy. On one hand, this autonomy permitted art the freedom of non-rational and individualized expression. On the other hand, under late capitalism, totalizing mass markets and technologies ushered in the means to align cultural production with mass consumption. Radio, television, film, and now the internet have at one point faced the same opportunities and limitations that other large industries had to confront and who found their answers in economies of scale. Each was capable of delivering cultural material to millions, provided the millions were able to access the content. Since the 1990’s neoliberalism has accelerated and intensified this trend.
The artistic content available via broadcast, digital, or analog mediums and the hardware necessary to access this content became inseparable. In other words, art, artist, technological device, and the mass production of each were essentially identical, operating under the same imperatives of standardization, calculation, repetition, and efficiency that were the hallmarks of all other industries. Thus, the Culture Industry represents a final state in the transformation of culture under modern forms of domination where culture is reduced to rationalization and consumption, subject to the same principles as modern industrial production, modern warfare, and modern politics. To wit:
The basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself. Automobiles, bombs, and movies keep the whole thing together until their leveling element shows its strength in the very wrong which it furthered” (121).
It was indeed more than a bit prophetic that Adorno and Horkheimer linked, in 1944, no less, the destructive capabilities of automobiles, advertising, and film to those of propaganda and bombs.
The propaganda at stake is fascist, which, from this point of view, is not hyperbole but a matter of fact. We have access to art, primarily, via powerful organizations (political, economic, or military) dedicated first and foremost to the modern imperatives of rationalization. This is more a matter of power than influence, and it aims to control the intersection of all values to quantifiable options and the sort of mass society in which individuals and groups are defined by their functions. This is the context in which the autonomy of art is either an illusion or a disguise that makes obscure its contribution to the master’s dream of a one-dimensional society based on fidelity rather than social justice and progress. For the vision that authorizes this authoritarian project, the very idea of the autonomy of art is subversive, and its emancipatory power is, at most, a lost cause. Very little hope was conveyed by their writings on the culture industry, regarding how or where art, culture, or society might break free of this corporate state and the mechanical solidarity it encouraged in the epoch of Stalinist, Fascist, and Western capitalist domination.
Adorno’s writing on Beckett’s Endgame dramatizes this rejection of critique in his endorsement of Beckett for refusing to take a position of simple opposition:
“Beckett shrugs his shoulders at the possibility of philosophy today, at the very possibility of theory. The irrationality of bourgeois society in its late phase rebels at letting itself be understood; those were the good old days, when a critique of the political economy of this society could be written that judged it in terms of its own ratio. For since then the society has thrown its ratio on the scrap heap and replaced it with virtually unmediated control. Hence interpretation inevitably lags behind Beckett.” (Adorno 1992:244)
For Adorno the absence of hope in Beckett makes it a more vital contemporary play, in contrast with the plays of Brecht or Hochhuth who take “a stand with an intent to expose” (Adorno 1992:249). Beckett embodies the specificity of art, versus philosophy, as critique; in our age, philosophy can no longer understand or interpret. Rather, it now seems that the role of art is to diagnose our time. As Marx criticized Eugène Sue for tendentiousness in literature, Adorno in “Commitment” criticizes Sartre and Brecht for their didacticism: “Sartre’s theatre of ideas sabotages the aim of his categories… It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads” (Adorno 1977:180). Against this, Adorno contrasts the starkness of Endgame, a play about the demise of the subject. Like the Dada artwork, Beckett dramatizes the absence of sense or meaning by the examples of living within incomprehensibility. The play itself expresses meaninglessness rather than having the actors espouse a philosophy of meaninglessness.
To critique Horkheimer and Adorno for an absence of positive, testable, or hypothetical answers to what should be done would misunderstand the very project of Dialectic of Enlightenment, from which the concept of the Culture Industry is laid out in the chapter, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception.” It is also to misunderstand their consistent use, following Hegel and Marx, of immanent criticism, determinate negation (cf. Hegel 1977:3; Adorno 2008: 25-27). In this sense it appears that, not only will they not tell us what to do or what will happen, but will instead tell us who we are, that is, what is our culture, what is our art, what is our society, and leave the how of approaching that to us. Art can only foreshadow a possible non-repressive future. Its contribution to society “is not communication with it but rather something extremely mediated: It is resistance… radical modernity preserves art’s immanence by admitting society only in an obscured form, as in the dreams in which artworks have been compared” (Adorno 1997:226).
In this case, Breton’s “spark in search of a powder keg” appears to apply to Adorno, as well as Badiou. Horkheimer and Adorno call for artists to be sparks (in whatever sense that means to an artist), but they say nothing about how to predict the explosion.
When one considers the philosophical and sociological implications of art, truth, and production in society outlined here, certain programs are evident. First, drawing from the historical and philosophical dimensions of art, that of autonomy versus heteronomy in Adorno and Badiou’s three schemata of art, it seems inevitable that art cannot find its truth-content in stances external or transcendent to society (autonomous or romantic art) or from society itself (heteronomous or didactic art). The former is impossible in its ‘purity’ and the latter reinforces the status quo. Therefore, it is imperative that art work against the existing social condition. In this way, it can operate with as much autonomy, and therefore purity, as is possible while rejecting and possibly undermining the institutions implicit in the economic, political, or cultural imperatives of domination. Working immanently against the social condition, or status quo, gives artworks space to reveal truths, the possibilities immanent to impossibility. Like politics, the way forward is not from tradition or theory, but rather from revolutionary actions toward emancipation. [Like politics, the way forward is not from tradition or theory, but rather from critical engagement toward emancipation. Like politics, the way forward is not from tradition or theory, but rather from critical engagement toward emancipatory forms and conditions. With every yoke thrown off a new one is donned which requires a new stance, a new approach, a new act, and a new art.
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Jeffrey A. Halley is Professor of Sociology at The University of Texas at San Antonio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .This article is based on a talk given to the Research Committee on Sociology of Arts Colloquium, International Sociological Association, Bolzano, Italy, July 13, 2016.