On Aesthetic Theory

Aesthetic theories seem to fail insofar as they forgo their obligation to accept themselves as subjective. Kant seems least to attempt to disguise this fact. Judgment as a word retains its true subjective uncertainty. As used in court (and at court, perhaps?) to judge is to weigh the basic facts and come to some conclusion, a conclusion which context gives the weight of some specific set of ethical standards. But if aesthetic judgment is to avoid populism (as it ever seems so determined to do), it must take on a belief in some true standard of objectivity while simultaneously and steadfastly refusing to subject its conclusions to testing.

Kant exposes this. He knows that no matter what conclusion is drawn by another regarding beauty, we are always inclined to a personal experience. The desire to test for ourselves. In this way, social conceptions of beauty, which characterize much of the interest in popular culture, act as aesthetic conduits. And so any totalizing aesthetic theory acts as nothing less or more, in any logical sense, than a preference for the movies of François Truffaut over those of Jean-Claude Vann Damme. It seems to me, then, that the denigration of the opposite opinion must necessarily be based on ethical grounds. According, that is, to some idea of the ‘right’ or ‘just’ way, to some act of judgment. To do so in the name of aesthetic theory, then, looks like just the type of political aestheticism which Benjamin warns us so vehemently against. From here my concern regarding Adorno arises. By drawing such a large part of human artistic production under a single net, and then condemning it outright, Adorno draws a most personal line between himself and any concept of mass. Mass is the medium with which Benjamin (and Marx) were so fascinated. Mass is the medium of the revolution, and yet for Adorno, the masses have been massively mislead, and his aesthetic theory attempts single-handedly to ‘right’ their course. I am lead by Benjamin to suspect such a presumption. For Benjamin, the masses which arose as a result of the industrial revolution will necessarily lead to their redemption. He mostly avoids any attempt to make judgments regarding the objects of consumption, except to acknowledge them as significant, and to acknowledge in technological change an infinite capacity to shock us. His love for movies stems for their capability to appropriate masses. He understands that mass reaction contains something qualitatively different than that found in individual contemplation. He may well lament the relative scarcity of human contemplation (many like him still exist, Adorno), but he understood the potential for change to reside not in an individual understanding, but as the result of mass (re)action.

Adorno’s aesthetic, because it positions itself in opposition to the entire realm of popular arts, because it qualifies every potential artwork in relationship to its status as a commodity, leaves literally no object to judge but the viewers own mind. We might justify this in the music industry by some concept of ‘selling out.’ Such and such a band were so dope, man, until they sold out. Now they just make music for the masses. But not only does this justification seem to suggest its own two-dimensional quality, it also does not help us with regards to other artists, nor in the ever-growing complexity of other media. For example, what do we make of a film which gets maid by a major motion picture company, under a descent but not unreasonable budget, for an all but non-existent audience. If the film is sophisticated (say for example, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), it might merit Adorno’s classification as art. Here it is, it has navigated (as it must) the evil, collusive complex of the culture industry, and it has retained some aspect of its resistance to commodification. It represents itself as a hero to the cause of the worker. It represents itself as art by denying itself. So far so good; until such a movie gains a wider audience. Friends tell friends, and in true Gladwellian style, the fashion tips, and suddenly everyone is watching it. Now the film seems to defy the nature of Adorno’s aesthetic. It seems that it is not nearly so difficult as everyone supposed, and so perhaps does not resist in the way that we thought it might it’s own easy consumption by the masses. What are we to make of this? Adorno’s aesthetic again seems reduced to no more than some petty and conflicted notion of ‘selling out’.

This tendency is seen on a broader (read: more massive) scale in the social tendency to deny the quality of a film that has been made based on a favorite book. While there my be a relatively small number of people who lament the fall of literature from Franz Kafka to Dan Brown, there are many more who might lament the shift from page to film for works such as The Lord of the Rings (or even more democratically, for Harry Potter). Here we have a much broader group of people making what is ostensibly the same judgment that Adorno makes, but in order to distinguish between a group of aesthetic objects all of which might be classified by him as pure commodity. I can hardly see Adorno granting Harry Potter the status of art object. (If he might perhaps for Sorcerer’s Stone, than certainly not by the release of The Chamber of Secrets–obvious as the product of an industrial complex.) However, someone who decries the movie versions of these books invariably does so by recourse to some notion of difficulty as related to mass appeal. It doesn’t allow for your imagination. It changed some of the best parts. The movie just got Voldemort all wrong. A fan of the book pre-film-adaptation qualifies himself as such through his reaction to the film as much as through his reaction to the book. To say nothing of the millions of new readers who flock to the book as a result of the movie. Adorno may well point to the conspiracy between J. K. Rowling, Scholastic, and Warner Brothers, it would be harder to explain away had the original book qualified for him as art. Suddenly, with a million new readers and a revived printing cycle, the book doesn’t seem so steadfastly to refuse its commodity status.

Equally relevant to this problem might be the Oprah effect, which, while initially reserving for itself books that might fall well short of Adorno’s critical gaze, more recently has adopted some titles which before might have found their way onto his list (2005: The Sound and the Fury; 2007: The Road, Love in the Time of Cholera). Adorno might only explain this extreme commodification by making some claim to his own ‘correct’ reading of the texts, as opposed to the message of subjugation which is inevitably inscribed upon the texts by the culture industry. But to do so is either to call into question any immanent critique which may have lay dormant in the work while it was still difficult and unpopular–while it still seemed to resist its own commodification–or to admit Oprah Winfrey (the culture industry might find no one better qualified for its own embodiment) as a potential disseminator of objects of true aesthetic quality. Either of these options seems to undermine Adorno’s entire point of view.

Benjamin celebrates the transition from the primacy of the page to the seduction of the screen, not because he understands film to be in any way a better medium (I think he still might hold the opposite opinion), but because he understands in the transition to mass-media an entire revolution in the patterns of human thought. He glimpses the fact that, in a mass-media environment, recourse to any single medium, or the patterns of thought required in the processing of single media (of which he mentions contemplation) might seem antiquated, quaint, and tirelessly ideological.

This is the trap into which Adorno seems to fall. He fails to recognize, to inhabit, the shift in consciousness which is afforded–insisted upon–by the advent of mass-media. He insists upon a hierarchy of art which is grounded equally–and no more innocently–in ritual and its power structures as is the body of work which he casts aside with a grimace by employing his epithet, “the culture industry.” And so he comes across sounding like a crotchety grandpa lamenting the music of ‘kids these days!’, with no more grounding for his disparagement of Weezer than they have in their distaste for Glen Miller.

However, I find myself to be sympathetic to Adorno, if only because I perceive as well as he the capacity for Capitalism to produce ever larger amounts of self-fulfilling, self-actualizing, internally-promotional bullshit. I might even be inclined to associate my own ethical views with his, had they not lead him to so undemocratic a conclusion. As an attempt to recuperate what seems useful in Adorno’s theory, it might prove fruitful to consider artwork in general, even (perhaps especially) that class of artwork which seems most conducive to consumption, as containing within it something akin to Adorno’s immanent critique. This, to me, seems more dialectical: to wonder how a multi-million dollar blockbuster might contain within it the suggestion of its own denial. To tease out the ways that Spiderman 2 expresses a refusal to allow an identity between the universal and the particular, and especially the ways that it does this without recourse to pre-mass patterns of thought, through a Benjaminian reception in distraction. Capitalism, according to Marx, contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. If we take him at his word, it seems unlikely that these seeds would not be germinating in the symbol-rich soil of the culture industry.

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About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
This entry was posted in 6820, Aesthetics, Benjamin and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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