Risk, Miscarriage, and Exile: The Critical Hazards of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory

According to Theodor W. Adorno, the success or failure of artwork depends on a set of indefinable criteria. His final, unfinished work, Aesthetic Theory,1 sets out all the same to define the indefinable. Instead of a how-to manual that instructs the reader/artist that “if you do X, you will get Y,” the book concerns itself critically with certain modalities of art that can be conceptualized and others that cannot. Adorno strictly limits his concepts and gestures toward the dark places where art goes beyond them. What he wants to talk about—the successful, “authentic” artwork—remains an object of peripheral vision, like a faint star that can be seen only by looking slightly away from it. He often admits the paradoxical nature of his project, which tries to pin down an evanescent form, and suggests that art constitutes precisely that part of present-day life that resists definition. Keeping a space open for art in modern society by blasting away everything that it is not art, he sets up a negative dialectic that continuously threatens to consume his own standpoint as critic.

I will examine three modalities of art discussed by Adorno: first, the element of risk involved in the artistic endeavor, which alludes in part to the work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard; second, the specific language that he uses for success and failure, which draws on Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and conjures up images of pregnancy; and third, the paradigm of exile and its relationship to Adorno’s biography. Closely related to each other, these modalities together present the reader of Aesthetic Theory with a paradox: in blurring the distinctions between aesthetic subject, empirical subject, and critical subject, Adorno revives the traditional notion of aesthetics while at the same time challenging both the sovereignty of that aesthetics and the specificity of art itself.


Risk Management?

Risk management is a familiar idea in our current world, where talking infants on E*TRADE commercials propagate the imperative to invest. In a climate of economic uncertainty, everyone must protect his or her investments. The financial connotation of risk as something negative, quantifiable, and subject to limitation appears inverted in Adorno’s aesthetic theory: for him, risk is advantageous and qualitatively essential to artworks. New artworks that resist commodification pose a danger to corporate-minded and art-minded people alike. What the former view as “irresponsible” or useless, the latter revere as “daring.” Adorno implies that art is not art unless it pushes the limits of safety and acceptability. Danger pervades the modern artistic endeavor so much that it too turns into a fetish—the risqué. Adorno wants to convince us, however, that beneath the superficial shock effect of art lies a profound existential threat to both artist and artwork.

For Adorno, the artist undertakes her work without any guarantee that it will succeed. The blindness of the artist to the results of her labor recalls Søren Kierkegaard’s idea of the qualitative leap necessary to move between what he considered the three spheres of human existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Kierkegaard’s aesthetic sphere encompassed the tactile realm of material self-interest, while the ethical represented the universal realm of Kantian morality and the religious the particular or “exceptional” realm of faith. In Fear and Trembling (1843), Kierkegaard illustrated the so-called “leap of faith” into the religious sphere with the biblical example of Abraham, who was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22). Abraham trusted in God and decided to obey him even though he knew that killing his beloved son was ethically reprehensible. The leap of faith from the universal sphere into the particular sphere of faith leaves behind ethical considerations and any utilitarian calculation of cost and benefit. Abraham obeyed God, but neither because he believed that to disobey would cause worse consequences than the death of his son nor because he suspected that God was testing him and that only a show of faith, not the deed itself, was necessary. There was no guarantee that God would stay Abraham’s hand, as he ultimately did through an angel, or that any good whatsoever would come of the sacrifice. In fact, there was no guarantee that the god that Abraham obeyed was the true god, or that the true god was a good god (it may very well have been a deceiver). In short, Abraham’s decision was utterly particular, personal, and “existential.” That it was also “absurd” hints at the deeper relevance of Kierkegaard to Adorno, who held in high esteem absurdist art like the stories of Franz Kafka or the plays of Samuel Beckett. The leap of “infinite resignation” described by Kierkegaard mirrors the blindness and complete surrender to the material demanded of the artist by Adorno.2

Putting faith in the aesthetic material means devotion to rigorous technique. Only the completely “articulated” or formed work of art can hope for success. Technical precision turns “the most minute displacement into a new constellation” (132); “the qualitative leap of art is a smallest transition” (52). Adorno draws a very thin line between successful and unsuccessful artworks. It is her reliance on the material that exposes the artist to “the whippoorwill of objectivity immanent to it” (38). Leaping into the unknown, the artist knows that her work cannot be whole, that perfection is impossible. And yet Adorno presents us with a paradox, one of many in his book: the successful artwork cannot hope for perfection, but neither is its success a matter of degrees. For Adorno, the artwork is never “good enough.” The decisive factor is that no artwork lies entirely within the control of its creator. Aside from the obvious fact that the meaning of artworks depends in part on their social reception, even the materials used for their construction are already social products. Art has a “double character” insofar as it exists simultaneously as a product of subjective intention and as a fait social.

Experimental art plays explicitly with risk. Adorno notes that art borrows the concept of the “experimental” from the sciences insofar as it involves “the conscious control over materials” and, oddly enough, as it benefits from governmental patronage (e.g. the National Endowment for the Arts) (37). But aesthetic experiment differs from scientific experiment in several ways. First, art recognizes no constants: all elements of the form or genre will inevitably change. Second, experiments in art are not designed to be repeated or “verified.” Copies and reproductions do exist, but they lack the strength of the original work, or what Walter Benjamin called the “aura of authenticity.”3 In fact, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which declares that we alter unpredictably the objects that we measure, suggests that even scientific experiment cannot be repeated or verified so reliably. In his 1958 piece “The Essay as Form,” Adorno extended his theory of risk in art to the ostensibly non-artistic essay form: in “the word Versuch, attempt or essay [or experiment] . . . thought’s utopian vision of hitting the bullseye is united with the consciousness of its own fallibility and provisional character.”4 Unlike the essay, however, art embraces what science and scholarship deem an undesirable—if unavoidable—margin of error.

Along with risk and the uncertainty of results, art accepts no small degree of danger. “Among the dangers faced by new art,” writes Adorno in a Rooseveltian turn of phrase, “the worst is the absence of danger” (29). No attempt at art that seeks comfort in the tried-and-true can possibly succeed. The successful artwork, on the contrary, must abandon all familiar confines and set out on paths less traveled by. But Frostian allusions might trivialize something that Adorno takes quite seriously: “Only works that expose themselves to every risk [die einmal sich exponieren] have the chance of living on, not those that out of fear of the ephemeral cast their lot with the past” (34, 58). Facing an unknown future, artworks survive only by exposing themselves to the untried and ever-new. The category of the new is “akin to death” and associated with the monstrous (21-22). Absolutely modern art is anti-art; it partakes of modernity’s “murderous historical force” that disintegrates all tradition.

This “necessity of going to the extreme” (35) is historically conditioned. Contemporary art is particularly vulnerable because of what Adorno, like his colleagues in the Frankfurt School, saw as the advance of late capitalism and the growing domination by exchange value. In this context, failure means complicity with or assimilation by commodified exchange value: regardless of whether they sell, failed artworks are merely commodities of mass culture and nothing more. He sometimes makes the analogy between artworks and society explicit:

The dubiousness of the ideal of a closed society applies equally to that of the closed artwork. . . . The transition from this security [of social embeddedness] into the open has become, for [artworks], a horror vacui. . . . Every new artwork, if it is to be one, is exposed to the danger of complete failure. [158]

According to Adorno, Immanuel Kant had anticipated this desperate state of affairs. The latter’s subjective understanding of art was preoccupied with “the intellective movement of his object, a movement that effectively closed its eyes to the object,” but in doing so Kant “brought into thought the deepest impulses of an art that only developed in the one hundred fifty years after his death: an art that probed after its objectivity openly, without protection of any kind” (343). Modern art opens itself freely and nakedly to its object.

Adorno admires much in Kant’s aesthetics—not least his theory of the sublime and emphasis on the irresolvable non-identity of subject and object—but one element in particular caught Adorno’s attention: Kant’s critique of classicism. “To call a work classical,” Adorno’s writes, “refers to its immanent success”; “even a romantic artwork, successfully brought off, is by dint of its success classical” (162). In the classical ideal, the artwork figures as a coherent, balanced, and internally consistent whole. Its “success” lies in the ordered arrangement of its parts and their proper orientation to the self-contained whole of the work. Accordingly, modern art, “with its vulnerability, blemishes, and fallibility”—exposed to the uncertainties of the outside world—“is the critique of traditional works, which in so many ways are stronger and more successful: It is the critique of success” (160). Adorno thus presents the reader of Aesthetic Theory with yet another paradox: modern art eschews the classical heritage, but it implicitly invokes the classical whenever it strives toward success.


Language of Success and Failure

Adorno does not clarify exactly what he means by success and failure. Nor does he specify, in fact, whether an “artwork” for him is only a successful artwork (is bad art not art at all?). This ambiguity diminishes somewhat through an examination of two philosophical works central to Adorno’s understanding: Gottfried Leibniz’ Monadology (1714) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoön (1766).

The first work famously popularized the idea of the “monad” as the fundamental unit of existence. In contrast to atomist theories that sought to reduce the complexity of the world to an aggregation of infinitesimal parts that are fundamentally similar and exchangeable, Leibniz wanted to preserve in the world the greatest degree of variety and difference. Monads resemble atoms insofar as they share common properties but, unlike atoms, each monad is also unique and particular. One cannot easily summarize the Monadology with any precision because Leibniz meant the text itself to serve as a rather hasty summary of his entire philosophy. In any case, he characterized monads as each representing the whole of the universe within its own particularity; each being “windowless” insofar as it operates independently from external forces and from other monads; each, through “appetition” (rather like a desire or craving), knowing its immediate purpose and acting accordingly; and each always changing, always becoming, and always in a state of flux.5

For Leibniz, the universe is governed by the principle of sufficient reason: everything happens for a reason and only God can behold the infinite chain of reasons that determine every single event. In order to preserve the greatest amount of variety and diversity in the world (this “best of all possible worlds,” a notion panned so viciously by Voltaire in Candide), Leibniz had to account for causality with a logic immanent to each monad. Even though it may appear that the ceiling tile causes the person whose head it falls on to feel pain, for example, the person qua monad feels pain for internal reasons only coincidental with the external circumstances. To put it crudely, God caused that person to feel pain at precisely the same moment that he caused the tile to fall on his head. But Leibniz did not believe in miracles or divine caprice: at the time of creation, God determined the entelechy of every monad, and one must understand the subsequent progression of worldly time as much and as little as the working out of the infinitely complex divine machine.

Needless to say, Leibniz’s theory of monads contained many ambiguities and contradictions. He did not specify in the Monadology, for example, how a complex body, such as a human being, could consist of an infinite number of monads while at the same time itself constituting a monad. Even more importantly, he left unresolved the problem of free will. It would seem that all things are predetermined, but he insisted that human freedom lies in our inability to know the complete chain of reasons for any given event. Freedom arises not from full knowledge of and mastery over nature, but rather counterintuitively from humans’ limited knowledge and subjection to an inscrutable divine plan. In other words, freedom is either a happy illusion or, depending on your mood, a practical joke.

Adorno finds most compelling in Leibniz his theory of the immanent logic and resolute particularity of the monad. Echoing Leibniz, he repeatedly refers to artworks as “windowless monads” and emphasizes their dynamic, processual character:

The interpretation of an artwork as an immanent, crystallized process at a standstill approximates the concept of the monad. The thesis of the monadological character of artworks is as true as it is problematic. [180]

Instead of the working out of the divine plan, however, Adorno views what “transpires in artworks and is brought to a standstill in them” as a social process (236). He further clarifies the artwork’s processual character:

The artwork is both the result of the process and the process itself at a standstill. It is what at its apogee rationalist metaphysics [i.e. Leibniz] proclaimed as the principle of the universe, a monad: at once a force field and a thing. Artworks are closed to one another, blind, and yet in their hermeticism they represent what is external. [179]

The notion of art’s processual character has a noteworthy lineage: on the one hand, Walter Benjamin, whose idea of a “dialectic at a standstill” Adorno freely appropriates; and on the other hand, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who introduced the idea of the “pregnant moment” to describe the spatial representation of time in the plastic arts and the temporal representation of space in the literary arts.

In his 1766 work Laocoön, Lessing set out to correct some prevalent misunderstandings about the relationship between the plastic and the literary arts. He adopted the role of critic, which he distinguished from the “amateur,” who found that painting and poetry both deal in pleasing illusions, and from the “philosopher,” who uncovers the origin of this pleasure in beauty, which works according to universal laws. The critic, on the other hand, reflects “upon the value and distribution of these universal laws” and determines that painting and poetry each emphasize different aspects of beauty and cannot therefore be judged equally.6 Lessing wanted to relativize art media and to seek greater critical precision through an examination of the specificity of different art forms. His eponymous case study, the Greek sculpture Laocoön and His Sons, was subject to much debate in the mid-eighteenth century as to its date of origin and the purported influence on the Rhodesian sculptors of Virgil’s Aeneid. Did poetry inspire the sculpture, rendering the latter derivative and alienated from the original object? Lessing answered that “painting” (his default term for the plastic arts) and poetry can indeed inspire each other, but one must presume that all authentic artworks orient themselves directly toward their historical, dramatic, or natural objects. Also, why did the sculptors “exercise moderation in the expression of bodily pain” while Virgil related the story in all its gory details? He explained that differences in the degree of pain depicted by the sculpture versus the poem owed to the fact that the plastic arts imitate nature through space while the literary arts imitate it through time.

The image depicted in a painting or a scene in sculpture represents spatially one transient temporal moment. Terrible images, like the shrieks and agony of Laocoön and his sons as giant serpents devour them, cannot linger on the eye for too long before becoming vile, ugly, and disgusting. Plastic arts lack the ability to provide temporal context, which could have an ameliorating effect. In literary art, by contrast, we “see” the terrible event, but we also see what precedes and what follows it: “the poet leads us through a whole gallery of pictures, as it were, up to the last one, which is alone portrayed in the material painting.”7 Lessing concluded, however, that poetry too proves unable to show the whole picture at any one time:

painting can only make use of a single moment [einzigen Augenblick] in the course of an action, and must therefore choose the one which is most suggestive [den prägnantesten] and which serves most clearly to explain what has preceded and what follows. . . In like manner, poetry, in its progressive imitations, can only make use of a single property of bodies, and must, therefore, choose that which awakens the most sensible image of the body in question, in that aspect in which it is to be regarded.8

The “single moment” that both painters and poets choose must be “pregnant” with the maximum potential for contextualization—i.e. it must serve as the particular moment that best suggests the whole. Like Leibniz’s monad, Lessing’s moment orients itself toward the full realization of the particular within the context of totality.

For Lessing, art seeks to “imitate the whole of visible nature, whereof the beautiful forms but a small part.”9 Because each artwork is limited, it can only access totality through the imagination of the viewer or reader. In an ethical language, Lessing reminded the artist that he must take great care in choosing the correct moment:

that alone is a happy [fruchtbar] choice which allows free play to the imagination. The more we gaze [sehen], the more must our imagination add; and the more our imagination adds, the more we must believe that we see. Now in the whole course of an emotion there is no moment which offers this to so little advantage as its climax [höchste Staffel]. There is nothing higher beyond this, and to present the extreme to the eye, is to clip the wings of fancy, and to compel her, since she cannot get beyond the impression of the senses, to seek lower and weaker images wherewith to occupy herself, shunning, as her limit, the visible fulness [sic] of expression.10

Only where it maximizes the imaginative faculty of the observer does an artwork find the most “pregnant” moment. For painters, the moment refers to the chosen dramatic scene and the visual perspective on it; for poets, it means the particular object chosen for description at any one time. Lessing’s emphasis on choice evokes artworks produced by a series of critical decisions, ones involving great uncertainty and—Adorno would have us believe—great danger.

Adorno adopted the metaphor “pregnant moment” [fruchtbare Moment] from Lessing’s Laocoön. Lessing never used this precise term himself, but he did refer frequently to the “single moment” [einzige Augenblick] of both painting and poetry that the artist/poet must choose according to how “pregnant” [prägnant] it is with contextual suggestiveness; the successful choice is a “fruitful” [fruchtbar] one. In the sections of Aesthetic Theory that allude to Lessing (often by way of Benjamin and the “dialectic at a standstill”), the words for “moment”—Moment and Augenblick—occur synonymously.11 Adorno does imply that Lessing’s language hinted at a certain maternal connotation. “The instant [Augenblick] of expression in artworks,” he writes,

is however not their reduction to the level of their materials as to something unmediated; rather, this instant is fully mediated. Artworks become appearances, in the pregnant sense of the term [im prägnanten Verstand]—that is, as the appearance of an other—when the accent falls on the unreality of their own reality. Artworks have the immanent character of being an act, even if they are carved in stone [the Laocoön?], and this endows them with the quality of being something momentary and sudden. [79, 123]

This “appearance of an other” alludes to the uncanny feeling of birthing a child—a being both familiar and foreign. While the proper German adjective for pregnant in the maternal sense is schwanger, not prägnant, the Latin roots of the latter clearly imply maternity. Artworks carry within themselves the “other”: “Art possesses its other immanently because, like the subject, immanence is socially mediated in itself. It must make its latent social content eloquent: It must go within in order to go beyond itself” (260). If this Other is art’s fait social, then a successful artwork “gives birth” to its social truth content. For a critic like Adorno, social truth translates into historical suffering. There can be no happy art.

More evidence for the maternal connotation lies in Adorno’s language of success and failure. Rather than the usual Erfolg for “success,” Adorno instead uses Gelingen, the gerund of a verb that means colloquially to work out, to come off, or to pull off a difficult feat, as in “I can’t believe he pulled it off.” The verb has the connotation that the outcome of the given action is not guaranteed. Often the action that gelingt involves the investment of some degree of effort by the actor, so that success feels rewarding and fruitful. For “failure,” Adorno uses the related gerund Mißlingen and not the more common Scheitern. The verb related to Mißlingen means colloquially to miscarry or to drop the ball, so that failure feels particularly disappointing. One detects a certain playfulness in these words and could imagine hearing them in a crowd of spectators watching a sporting event. An English connotation of “to miscarry,” as a serendipitous mistranslation, again associates Adorno’s language of success (Gelingen) and particularly failure (Mißlingen) with pregnancy.

With a failed birth (Fehlgeburt), no child comes into existence; likewise, a failed or “bad” artwork is not an artwork at all. Adorno’s usage fluctuates on this point, which might sound rather like a trivial caveat of logical positivism. But still, he writes that the question “of what is and what is not an artwork cannot in any way be separated from the faculty of judging, that is, from the question of quality, of good and bad.” He continues:

The idea of a bad artwork has something nonsensical about it: If it miscarries, if it fails [mißlingt] to achieve its immanent constitution, it fails [verfehlt] its own concept and sinks beneath the apriori of art. In art, judgments of relative merit, appeals to fairness and toleration of the half-finished, all commonsense excuses and even that of humanity, are false; their indulgence damages the artwork by implicitly liquidating its claim to truth. As long as the boundary that art sets up against reality has not been washed away, tolerance for bad works—borrowed from reality—is a violation of art. [164-65]

But does Adorno confound the criteria of good/bad with the logic of success/failure?12 “Failed artworks are not art: Relative success is alien to art; the average is already the bad. . . .” (188)—such statements seem to confirm his rather narrow delimitation of artwork’s sphere. On the other hand, his emphases on the uncertainty of outcomes and on aesthetic risk indicate that he recognized the Derridean différance: the successful artwork contains within it the ever-present possibility for failure that, in a sense, defines negatively what it means to be a success.

One final dimension of Adorno’s language of success and failure pertains to the dialectic of construction and expression.13 To what extent does the artist’s technique, or her “construction,” succeed in expressing a work’s truth content? As mentioned earlier in the context of aesthetic risk, technique refers to the artist’s interaction with material. For Adorno, this technical zone of interaction mediates between the subject and the object, the particular and the universal, human and nature. Aesthetic Theory constantly revolves around the problem how artists work subjectively on material that is objectively given. Adorno wants to dispel both the classical myth of objective formalism and the Romantic myth of purely subjective genius. Neither ideal forms nor individual intention alone determine the artwork. As Adorno wrote in his 1961 essay “Parataxis,” “[t]he more completely the artist’s intention is taken up into what he makes and disappears in it without a trace, the more successful the work is.”14 Intention—the subjective making of art, how it is formed and articulated—means something only insofar as it dissolves into its material. The successful artwork crystallizes as a seemingly natural object. Because of this phenomenon Adorno points to places in Kant’s Critique of Judgment that suggest how human artifice might also partake of the sublime, which Kant had defined formally as the sole province of nature.

Subjective intention, as the impetus behind technique, dissolves into its material also in another way. Adorno demonstrated in his 1958 essay “On Lyric Poetry and Society” that the subjective “I” appearing in poetry masks the true face of a collective “We” speaking in the name of history and the social totality.15 Through language, the accumulated weight of history and human culture comes to bear: “Without externalizing itself in language, subjective intention would not exist at all. The subject becomes a subject only through language.”16 Every resolute individual, every misanthropic loner, and every tortured genius is determined in opposition to society and therefore bears on him the mark of that society. While in the essays “On Lyric Poetry and Society” and “Parataxis” Adorno considered the lyric poem and in “The Essay as Form” the essay itself the privileged genre of art, in Aesthetic Theory he synthesizes these literary examples with his other work on music and painting to form a general theory of the social character of subjective intention. The dissolution of the aesthetic subject into the material object mirrors an equally compelling dissolution of the aesthetic subject into the empirical subject. Does the artist then become an avatar of her artwork? Was Wilde right when he quipped, “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life”?17


Exile as Paradigmatic of Modern Art

Through a strange displacement, artworks in Aesthetic Theory take on the characteristics of persecuted people. The artwork functions as a metonym for the refugee, that phenomenon first encountered en masse during the brutality of the short twentieth century. The danger, risk, and uncertainty that Adorno deems necessary for the artwork’s success disclose his own experience of exile. Tied intimately to his biographical circumstances—an émigré intellectual of Jewish descent who thought that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”18—his theory of art breaks down the boundaries between the aesthetic, empirical, and critical subjects.

He quickly points out, however, that these three subjects did not always blend so seamlessly into one another. “The demolition of the difference between the artist as aesthetic subject and the artist as empirical person,” he writes, “also attests to the abolition of the distance of the artwork from the empirical world, without however art’s thereby returning to a realm of freedom, which in any case does not exist” (253). A difference had once existed between the aesthetic and empirical subjects, but now it is gone. Due to the developments of late capitalism, he would argue, every person and every object—not least the artwork—falls under the spell of commodity exchange. While the romantic and Hegelian ideal of the world-historical artwork gave positive value to art that entered the empirical world and sought to change it, Adorno argues that this is no longer possible. Present social conditions no longer allow the realization of the realm of freedom. Only artworks that go beyond what exists have emancipatory potential. Artists find themselves stuck in the present just like the rest of us, but they have an even harder lot “not only because of their always uncertain fate in the world but because through their own efforts they necessarily work against the aesthetic truth to which they devote themselves” (169). Because they are not “useful” to existing society, artists struggle to maintain an authentic place in today’s world; they are “membra disjecta,” displaced persons, unproductive citizens, abjected others. The “aesthetic truth” that they subvert through their own efforts to survive bears witness to historical suffering, victimhood, and death.

The final line of Aesthetic Theory’s main text reads as follows: “But then what would art be, as the writing of history, if it shook off the memory of accumulated suffering” (261). The lack of a question mark makes the rhetorical device fall flat. Adorno knows all too well what art would be if it were to abandon its task: a token of denial and complicity with the dominant powers. Through objective expression artworks “reveal themselves as the wounds of society” (237); they are “the unconscious writing of history, as anamnesis of the vanquished, of the repressed, and perhaps of what is possible” (259). Even works devoted explicitly to themes of suffering, like Picasso’s Guernica (1937), share with non-occasional art the necessity of articulating materials that are socially mediated: every canvas, every smudge of oil, and indeed the artist’s whole technique bear like scars the injustices of history, exploitation, and the labor process. In this sense, all artworks are occasional. Successful art reveals unconsciously the social process behind each brush stroke. The revelation can be shocking and painful:

The socially critical zones of artworks are those where it hurts; where in their expression, historically determined, the untruth of the social situation comes to light. It is actually this against which the rage at art reacts. [237]

Those who fetishize new art, who gleefully label it “controversial” or “provocative,” are just as blind as those offended by it. Neither see that art not only expresses suffering but participates in it. Although language provides the medium for this methexis, it is a characteristically non-conceptual language: “suffering conceptualized remains mute and inconsequential, as is obvious in post-Hitler Germany” (18).19

Related to the mass suffering of the mid-twentieth century and to the non-conceptual (but not quite irrational) character of art is Adorno’s notion of modern art’s “radical darkness.” He explains:

The darkening of the world makes the irrationality of art rational: radically darkened art. . . . That art enunciates the disaster by identifying with it anticipates its enervation; this, not any photograph of the disaster or false happiness, defines the attitude of authentic contemporary art to a radically darkened objectivity; the sweetness of any other gives itself the lie. [19]

In further methexis with its object, art assumes the suffering, injustice, and darkness of the contemporary world. This mimesis necessarily blurs the distinction between the critical artwork and the event to which it implicitly and even unconsciously refers. Echoing his earlier observations on how to read Hegel, Adorno associates the seemingly impenetrable darkness of art with the ambiguity of all meaning: this darkness is to be interpreted, “not replaced by the clarity of meaning” (27).20 The darkness both reflects present injustices and anticipates some unknown future, perhaps where these injustices will be redeemed. Essential to the utopian function of art and literature, as was well known to Adorno’s friend Ernst Bloch, is an “anticipatory illumination” of what does not yet exist. Adorno gives the idea his own gloss:

The tenebrous has become the plenipotentiary of that utopia. But because for art, utopia—the yet-to-exist—is draped in black, it remains in all its mediations recollection; recollection of the possible in opposition to the actual that suppresses it; it is the imaginary reparation of the catastrophe of world history; it is freedom, which under the spell of necessity did not—and may not ever—come to pass. Art’s methexis in the tenebrous, its negativity, is implicit in its tense relation to permanent catastrophe. (135)

The dual temporality of the artwork—going forward while looking back—as well as its blindness to a future toward which it is nevertheless drawn recalls both Leibniz’s monads and Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history.”21 The more Adorno describes art in the present age, the less it appears “windowless” and unaffected by its surroundings.

His 1951 work Minima Moralia bears the subtitle “Reflections from Damaged Life,” and he seems to recall his own damaged life when he writes in Aesthetic Theory that the aesthetic subject makes use of mimesis, “the plenipotentiary of an undamaged life in the midst of a mutilated life” (117). Artists and intellectuals share a common fate in modern society: “Hardly last among the aporia of the age is that no thought holds true that does not do damage to the interests, even the objective interests, of those who foster it” (256). The critical subject stands in for the aesthetic subject and both succumb to the suffering of the empirical subject. As he wrote in “The Essay as Form,”

The person who interprets instead of accepting what is given and classifying it is marked with the yellow star of one who squanders his intelligence in impotent speculation, reading things in where there is nothing to interpret. A man with his feet on the ground or a man with his head in the clouds—those are the alternatives.22

Whether by “degenerate” art or unseasonable thinking, the critical subject must flee from the catastrophe if he hopes to survive. The critical mind is “mobile,” “exposed,” insecure, and vulnerable: independent thought requires this sad condition in a totally administered world.23 But there is a power of the powerless, as Vaclav Havel might have put it: the very distance, uselessness, and naked quality of exile gives the settled world a bad conscience. This bad conscience could motivate progressive change, though it just as easily could provoke even more violent repression. Is exile then paradigmatic for modern art? If so, does art settle in exile like Aeneas or like Odysseus does it long to return home into the warm embrace of a society that expelled it?



Adorno did of course return home to Germany after the war, but in many respects he remained an émigré at heart. In Aesthetic Theory and his other late writings, he firmly established the role of critique (and thus his own role) in the actual development of artworks: “if finished works only become what they are because their being is a process of becoming, they are in turn dependent on forms in which their process crystallizes: interpretation, commentary and critique” (194). As critique becomes wrapped up in the aesthetic process, which threatens to fall ever deeper under the spell of empirical reality, the distinctions essential to traditional aesthetics begin to dissolve. No longer does it make sense to speak about subject, object, expression, representation, intention, reception, form, content, beauty, the sublime, etc., when present circumstances force art into non-conceptual darkness. Ironically, then, Adorno titles his work “Aesthetic Theory” when the effect of his critique is to destroy the very possibility of a self-sufficient aesthetics. Art, too, loses its specificity when defined according to its negative function of merely “keeping space open” for alternatives to total domination. We need art for this reason: to show us that the present is contingent on past suffering, that domination is incomplete, that a different future may still be possible. But does not art lose something of itself when it plays the role that society has imposed on it? At the very least—and perhaps because of its critical hazards of risk, miscarriage, and exile—art today will always remind us of its imperative: “The requirement that everything be required” (156).


  1. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. and ed. R. Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1997). All page references will appear parenthetically in the text. Page references to the German edition, Ästhetische Theorie (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1970), are in italics.  (back)
  2. See especially the sections “Confinien” and “Leap” in Ch. 5, “On the Logic of the Spheres,” of Theodor W. Adorno, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, trans. and ed. R. Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1989).  (back)
  3. See famously Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” [1936], Selected Writings, Vol. 3, eds. H. Eiland and M. W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002), 101-33.  (back)
  4. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form” [1958], Notes to Literature, Vol. 1, ed. R. Tiedemann (New York: Columbia UP, 1991), 3-23 (16).  (back)
  5. G. W. Leibniz, “The Principles of Philosophy, or, the Monadology” [1714], Discourse on Metaphysics, and Other Essays, trans. D. Garber and R. Ariew (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), 68-81.  (back)
  6. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, The Laocoon, and Other Prose, ed. and trans. W. B. Rönnfeldt (London: W. Scott, 1895?), 3-4.  (back)
  7. Lessing, Laocoon, 83.  (back)
  8. Lessing, Laocoon, 91. The German is from Lessing, “Laokoon oder über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie,” Projekt Gutenberg-DE, online at http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/1176/1.  (back)
  9. Lessing, Laocoon, 20.  (back)
  10. Lessing, Laocoon, 21.  (back)
  11. Hullot-Kentor often translates Augenblick as “instant,” but not consistently.  (back)
  12. Incidentally, that was the basis of Jacques Derrida’s main critique of J. L. Austin’s philosophy of language. See Derrida, Limited Inc (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988).  (back)
  13. Here again Kierkegaard had served as Adorno’s theoretical interlocutor. See Adorno, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, op. cit.  (back)
  14. Theodor W. Adorno, “Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry” [1961], Notes to Literature, Vol. 3, ed. R. Tiedemann (New York: Columbia UP, 1992), 109-49 (110).  (back)
  15. Theodor W. Adorno, “On Lyric Poetry and Society” [1958], Notes to Literature, Vol. 1, ed. R. Tiedemann (New York: Columbia UP, 1991), 37-54.  (back)
  16. Adorno, “Parataxis,” 136-37.  (back)
  17. Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying: An Observation” (1889/91), online at http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1307/. If Wilde’s character Vivian is right, then the quote is a self-fulfilling prophecy: life imitates art because Oscar Wilde, the poet, tells us so.  (back)
  18. Theodor W. Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society” [1951], Prisms, trans. S. and S. Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), 17-34 (34).  (back)
  19. Here Adorno refers to various efforts by Germans particularly in the West to “master” the Nazi past [die Vergangenheit zu bewältigen] by making rational sense of it and conceptualizing its trauma. See A. Dirk Moses, German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past (New York; Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007).  (back)
  20. Theodor W. Adorno, “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel,” Hegel: Three Studies, trans. S. W. Nicholsen (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993), 89-148.  (back)
  21. See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” [1940], Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1968), 253-64 (257-58).  (back)
  22. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” 4.  (back)
  23. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” 13, 20.  (back)