Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why is the new art so hard to understand?

The above is the title of a marvelous short lecture delivered by Theodor Adorno in 1931 (published in English for the first time in 2001 in Richard Leppert's (ed.) huge collection of all of Adorno's writings on music). Its striking how much is packed into this short piece. It is also very refreshing to read someone as erudite (and also, not accidentally, very challenging to read) as Adorno trying to answer this seemingly straight-forward question before a very wide audience. What's interesting is that Adorno's talk is not ostensibly addressed to philosophers, theorists, academics or artists. Rather, he addresses the general public who is confronted by artworks. Think of the 'average' person wandering through a museum.

The first thing he does is delimit the scope of the talk to a specific sense of the question ('why is the new art so hard to understand?'). After all, what is "the new art' and what does he mean by 'hard to understand?'. Adorno has in mind art that is specifically modern in the "sense that it is accompanied by the shock of its strangeness and enigmatic form, the shock that is actually the basis of all the talk about its being hard to understand."

Whatever we might say about 13th and 14th century European painting, for example, the content and formal characteristics of such works are, more or less, readily intelligible to a modern Western audience. A straight-forward representational painting, or even better a painting trying to achieve perfect mimesis, would hardly strike the average viewer as shocking, strange, enigmatic or confusing.
We wouldn't expect any person on the street to say of a painting by Michelangelo or even Monet, for example, 'that's not art'. In contrast, it would not be difficult to imagine this same 'average' person on the street standing before a Pollock, or a Richter, or Rothko, Stella, etc. in a confused (or, perhaps indignant and resentful) fashion, perhaps even wondering whether there is anything of value about such works (if they are even to be considered 'art' in any meaningful sense at all). I'm reminded of numerous times when I stood before works of this sort in a state of confusion: what is this about? what is going on here?
In other words, "older art", as Adorno points out, "possesses a certain immediacy of effect that makes it understandable, while this immediacy is no longer present in the new art, and hence some kind of helping operations are required in order to penetrate its center."

For Adorno, this experience of difficulty derives from the fact that the production of art, artistic material, the demands and tasks that confront the artists as they work, etc. have all become divorced from consumption. That is, artistic production has been divorced from "the presumptions, claims and possibilities of comprehension that the reader, viewer or listener brings to the works of art." Another way to put this would be to point out that artistic production in modern capitalist society (in contrast to other eras in which artistic production was explicitly embedded in other life-activities), art is removed from all immediate use and thus from all immediate comprehensibility. After all, "art for art's sake" is not a call to make art conform to the demands of daily life activities (e.g. to force works of art, on pain of dismissal as 'useless', to have some immediate purpose such as getting stains out of clothing).

Hostility to 'modern' works of art (be they paintings, music, etc.) takes many forms, but one common reaction I've observed is the impulse to point to the past as an era (before things took a 'wrong turn') which must be recovered. I am reminded here of certain types of conservatory-student musicians, totally hostile to Webern or Berg, who might instead recommend a recovery of tonality or a return to the 'beautiful' music of earlier (Romantic, in particular) periods. Schoenberg's music is 'bad', for example, to the extent that "the chords, which are built in many layers and do not have a given function within a given key, cannot be repeated as arbitrarily as the old ones, or because the rhythms cannot be combined into regular, symmetrical forms".

Another way to characterize this attitude would be to posit the history of Western music as a continuous, internally coherent progression which made sense until the isolated aberration of artists associated with 'modernism'.

Adorno points out, however, that the relevant consideration here is not the psyche of modern artists (as deviant individuals, or as having orchestrated this 'wrong turn' into smug incomprehensibility), but rather the socio-economic situation of contemporary society itself. The difficult, challenging character of modern artworks, for Adorno, is "the result of a socio-economic development that transforms all goods into consumer goods, makes them abstractly exchangeable, and has therefore torn them asunder from the immediacy of use." In modern art's struggle to maintain its own autonomy from the demands of 9:00-5:00, from the banality of mass markets, it has generally endeavored to abjure the dictates of 'use' altogether. In earlier societies, art was bound up with ceremonial and religious functions; this is no longer the case in contemporary culture. Whereas most all consumer products (themselves a strange development: 'products made for the purpose of consumption') retain some inkling of use-value, art is purportedly exceptional precisely to the extent that denounces all considerations of 'use' in this sense.

Why is modern art alienated from use? Adorno rightly points out that to "describe how this alienation came about would be nothing less than to sketch the history of our society". But what is it about contemporary society, then, that accounts for this divestment from use and this struggle to preserve art's particularity? As suggested earlier, For Adorno it has to do with the separation of production from consumption. Production tends to behave in a way that expresses the tensions and contradictions of existing social relations prevailing in a certain society. Production, through being directly subjected to these forces often becomes the site of calls for change. Consumption, in contrast, tends to "lag behind in unchanging existence, because it does not posses the force of production, which would point beyond what is unchanging; socially consumption is merely produced without itself seriously helping to produce -and only mirrors relations whose primary need is to maintain themselves". In other words, the methods/trajectories/goals of producing tend to be a site of change more so than the tendencies of consumption. Consumption is in important respects more conservative and passive (think of someone sitting in front of a TV) whereas production tends to play a more active role in shaping/changing current consuming habits (think of the production of the TV shows in question). The interaction between the two, however, is not a one-way street. Without getting into too much detail here, the relationship is dialectical (they mutually interact with each other and causation does not proceed linearly from production to consumption). Nonetheless, 'dialectical relationship' does not mean that production and consumption are equally efficacious with respect to the other. Moreover, we must not only consider the dialectical interplay between production and consumption, but also the internal dialectic between different modes of production throughout history (i.e. the ways in which certain productive activities are influenced by/reactions to/caused by earlier productive activities).

I've taken this discussion astray a bit, so let me try to bring it back to Adorno's point about the separation of consumption and production and its consequences for art. In impressionist art, or the music of Wagner, for example, the "lines between consumption and production had not yet been cut... but were merely wired in a more complicated way... in Wagner the preexisting schema of a harmony, which always grows out of a tension and resolution, did not emerge from the work itself but was still carried by social tradition." The shock that accompanied cubism and futurism, in contrast, was qualitatively different from the "agitation over Wagner's supposedly wrong notes, or the supposed daubings of the Impressionists". The radical break between consumption and production as it regards modern art of the early 20th century, for example, was such that art no longer "had the task of representing a reality that is preexisting for everyone in common, but rather of revealing, in its isolation, the very cracks that reality would like to cover over in order to exist in safety; and that, in so doing, it repels reality". [my emphasis]

But must art be divorced from use? Why can't art continue to be embedded in the life-activities of contemporary society and take a form that is both useful and immediately comprehensible? The answer is that it can and in many cases it does; but what are the political stakes in doing so? The "really useful art, which serves the purpose of distraction -entertainment reading and kitsch prints, blockbuster films and hit dance tunes - is historically innocent and, despite all apparent timeliness of content, formally on a technical level this material is long out of date." Thus, even as certain cultural artifacts have an immediacy that seems to suggest how timely they are, they are 'historically innocent' in that they recycle old forms and endlessly re-issue slightly modified and repackaged forms as new and exciting. This repetition, banality, etc. is a feature of our current social/economic order. So,also, is this 'historical innocence' (a mode of repression, of forgetting) in which knowledge of the processes (read: political and economic struggles) by which 'we arrived at the present situation' is omitted.

Thus, rather than opting for complicity and unreflective (i.e. conservative) affirmation of the current state of society, progressive and avant-garde artistic movements of the 20th century have sought to resist the current order. Its another issue entirely how successful their strategies have been. But perhaps we could relate this question to the issue of the 'difficulty of the new art'. Consider the following objection. If art is so difficult, obscure, inaccessible, challenging and so on, that it is in many ways "secluded, off by itself", how could it play a politically progressive role if so few people can be affected by it? Adorno is worried about this problem and he notes that the "separation of art from reality endangers art itself... [this seclusion] threatens to become ideological -to be self-satisfied in a muffled, petit-bourgeois way, to forget its supportive human function, ultimately to become petrified into bad guildmanship." The danger here, in part, is that contemporary art could become all of the things that its philistine detractors love to say about it. But clearly this danger cannot be remedied by "arbitrary adaptation to the state of social consciousness... by reversion to older, outlived and outmoded way of proceeding" for in so doing art would sacrifice consciousness of itself, a sacrifice no critical art can afford to make. Moreover, we should not assume that the political solution to this problem can be solved by art alone, for it cannot. The economic/social conditions would themselves have to be changed as well; thus it is hardly a progressive position to simply chastise art for failing to 'reach out to all people as they are'. For the material, economic and political conditions would have to be different for such a widespread 'reaching out' to be a progressive move at all: it would require that the stark work/life (work versus leisure) divide of modern capitalism be abolished, that people "independent of privilege, be able to spend their leisure time occupied substantively and extensively with artistic matters." For things to be different, there would have to be an abolishment of the "demonically precise mechanism of advertising and anesthetization that -in every moment of people's leisure time- prevents them from occupying themselves with actual art".

Art alone cannot secure such a change in material conditions, but this is not to say that such conditions cannot be changed by any means. Recognizing the role that the social/economic structure of society plays in circumscribing the efficacy of art as political resistance requires also recognizing that many consumption-related 'needs' and desires are themselves the congealed effects of social/economic order on people's consciousness.

For Adorno, the argument that "the public wants kitsch" is dishonest. The need for "bad, illusory, deceptive things is generated by the all-powerful propaganda apparatus", to put the point in slightly overstated terms. In addition, the need for relaxation (instead of seeking out, during leisure time, cognitively challenging/demanding activities) is justifiable, but only because so many people are forced into "circumstances that absorb their strength and time in such a fashion that they are no longer capable of other things."

He ends the lecture with an imperative: "Let no one come back with a rejoinder about the slothful nature of human beings. For the suspicion is not so easily allayed that the consciousness of the person who responds in this way is more slothful than those on whose behalf he is responding."

1 comment:

D said...

Great post. I’d like to expand the scope of your summary by adding an additional dialectical lens to the excellent Marxist analysis you provide with respect to the socio-economic conditions of modern art within late capitalist society. One reading of the rise of modern art you describe is a cog in the previously “continuous, internally coherent progression” (progress in what sense?), which creates a rift between the new and difficult, and the old. This rift, or the modernist discovery, if you will, deserves elaboration of perhaps a Hegelian bent, as the modernist enterprise is not exhausted by an account of conditions of production and consumption within late capitalist society, but requires additional insights into the nature of the reconciliation between art and its function in earlier times. If I can add a Horowitzian perspective, Kant discovered the modernist condition, and it’s through his genius theory of the artist that the internal, self-defeating nature of an art that is easy and conceptualizable is exposed. Easy art glorifies disciplinary culture, insofar as the artist copies the letter, rather than the spirit of the law of his mentor, which is to say previous artists from our history, and those upon whom our dialectical inheritance of this (artistic) history is necessarily contingent. This entails of course, that art engage history; artists are, rather than ahistorical agents, perhaps merely historical, or nothing more than historical. The work of genius, for Kant, establishes a meta-rule (which is to establish, in turn, its own new rule), which paradoxically entails the follower to obey the original by ignoring its command. This is quite relevant to Adorno, whose description of the fetish character of regressive listening addresses popular jazz tunes which are borrowed almost verbatim through arrangements. This easy type of music gives us a quick, catchy tune we can enjoy, and much like having fun, as Adorno describes, is, within late-capitalism, simply being in the presence of others having fun, which translates to simply being in the presence of others, the absurdity of the outmoded judgment of taste is such that to say we “like” these songs in an aesthetic way is incoherent; what we really mean is that we recognize them. This culture of fetishized recognition is a nightmarish threat to my interpretation of Kant’s causality of freedom, but it also calls into question whether the unification of art with social use was EVER the pre-capitalist utopia you suggest. Interestingly, criticisms against the supposed apolitical nature of GH’s work claim that his narrative of the unity between art and social function as ALWAYS false reconciliation (at every point in human history) does not account for the impact late capitalism had in broadening the rift therein. Was modernism simply a Hegelian discovery of the pre-modern’s false reconciliation of nature and Geist? Or, how can a genealogical narrative that accounts for history’s dialectical self-recognition be more thoroughly integrated into Adorno’s contributions regarding the conditions of late capitalism? There’s a lot of great material here, and in addition to these broader questions, I’ll try to address more directly some of the points you make.