Saturday, February 09, 2019

Jacques Ellul on Adorno's Aesthetic Theory and its connection to art in technocracy in The Empire of Non-Sense

... The absolute artwork converges with the absolute commodity. ...
Theodore Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (page 21)

Jacques Ellul
Copyright (c) 2014 by Papadakis Publisher
translated by Michael Johnson and David Lovekin
ISBN 978-1-906506-40-7

page 45 ... Our project is to show that modern art reflects and reveals technical society and is, thereby, fundamentally torn apart in all of its tendencies, which is a characteristic of the society itself. Even in its opposition to society, for example in its refusal to be technical, in its longing for the unrefined, for the material, for the spontaneous, for the unelaborated, for anti-art, etc., art exactly reflects this society. This art of refusal does not escape the process of reification; in its efforts for integrity it mimics those characteristics of the society it claims to oppose. 


page 58

... Adorno has summed up the situation especially well in his Aesthetisch Theorie by showing that modern art is placed between two contradictory orientations without being able to choose either one. Every work that seeks to change is revolutionary, but it is, as such, immediately vitiated. If one protests complicity one is reduced to silence, which is another form of complicity. We have already encountered the double-edged impossibility. Indeed, art that is truly innovative would be disorder and perturbation. To the degree that society is totalizing, the perturbation must also be total. Art becomes simply chaos, as we have seen. Authentic art must undermine and then be challenged and rejected; it cannot be understood, at least by the sadomasochists who are the post bourgeois, and, in this case, it no longer has any value as art any more than the mirrors and ornaments of "brothels." The continuity of art serves this society and its suppression would serve it even more, but f this I am not certain.

Art is in permanent complicity with this society, which is totalitarian and absolute because it is technical.  And, it is all the more in complicity to the degree that it mocks and to the degree it embraces the extreme. Mockery is the means of making acceptable what one would otherwise fundamentally challenge. The bourgeoisie is charmed by Endgame or Godot, because, by all evidence, what is presented does not affect them. Mockery allows the side stepping of the tragic dimension of calling reality into question. Thus, when art intends to expose everything with mockery, then it is reduced to a circus, a theater, or to, "... taking someone for a ride." Painting, for example, stops saying anything without knowing it; mockery and outrage--showing a pile of cagerette butts as a work of art--cease to shock. It is nothing more than the artist's wink, unconsciously directed toward the spectator, saying, "Don't take me seriously." Thus, modern art, which reaches the heights of tragedy, is trivialized by the very form it adopts. Here, Adorno's two extremes come together: an "uncompromising" art meets a "conciliatory" art. "Uncompromising music recognizes that, despite everything, society has a right to music, even if it is an inauthentic society, because society also reproduces its in-authenticity, and thus, by its survival, creates the objective elements of its own truth." Such is the true dilemma, the insoluble contradiction that Adorno perfectly brings to light, and which is only resolved by the absence of a serious element in art that has been pushed to the extreme limit of seriousness. Thus, the environment of the technical society reduces art to a more desperate situation than it has ever experienced at the very moment when the means of this society have multiplied, with the result that art is led to pursuing divergent chimeras. Francastel is right to emphasize that modern architecture produces, simultaneously, the "cellular style" and the "open style," with the elimination of walls. We are witnessing contradictory applications of comparable means.
What both Adorno and Ellul wrote about at some length was the extent to which modern technocratic cultures dehumanize the humans who live within these cultures. The paradox of the arts was that the realm of the humanities that, in earlier pre-technocratic epochs would have been thought of as having a humanizing effect has had the opposite effect.  Adorno regarded the culture industry as that which ensured people were fully assimilated into and participating in societies he regarded as brutal, totalitarian and dehumanizing.  Popular music was one of any number of ways this came about.  Adorno had little affection for either American mass culture or the not-even-art of Soviet cultures.  What was left was, well, that's another topic for another time.

What Jacques Ellul observed was that Adorno had identified a problem inherent in the arts in the modern age.  Either art was going to be overtly and unabashedly working at the level of propaganda or it was going to move into such a hermetically sealed off domain of technocratic exploration for its own sake that communication and symbolism stopped being goals.  Ellul went on to explicate this in his own way, which is quite a bit more readable than Adorno's way as far as I'm concerned.  For the moment some relatively short excerpts will get Ellul's comments across:

page 98
Art with a message is still, when all is said and done, propaganda. 

page 111
The other major direction of modern art, opposed to what we have already described while still dependent on the technical system, is characterized by formalism and theory. This art without content, without message, without meaning sometimes mimics technique either directly or indirectly to produce a hermetic and academic type of art that plays at play but is merely a play for specialists. It is no longer play for the people or for children drawing on walls or setting off fireworks. It is like a game of Go or chess. It is an art that is more and more refined, following the technical model; more and more difficult and strange to the unschooled populace, but it is thrust upon the people who only understand it superficially without appreciating its amazing subtlety. Only the specialist can interpret it correctly. This presentation to the public is of least interest to the artist, only the process itself is of importance, where one can admire the artist's mastery of the most outlandish means of expression. ... 

I know that for people who bring up Adorno and his advocacy of twelve-tone music there's an eagerness to hold him responsible for advocating twelve-tone which led to integral serialism and so on.  This isn't entirely a canard but it has become a kind of trope.  If you actually read Adorno you find out, at length, he had pretty damning things to say about total serialism and aleatoric music but that's worth an entirely new post to get into that stuff.

What Ellul said Adorno correctly diagnosed was, in essence, the conundrum of art in technocratic societies.  Either art became so hermetic and alienating only elites could perceive it to be art or art geared specifically to mass audiences was more or less propaganda and product; the very autonomy to which art would supposedly aspire in the hands of artists would paradoxically converge with consumption.  In Adorno's phrasing, the absolute artwork converged with the absolute commodity.  Art for the sake of art had nowhere else to go in a technocracy, whether that technocracy was formally capitalist or communist.  

The trouble is that simply correctly identifying the nature of a problem is not the same as coming up with an actual solution.  Adorno advocated for twelve-tone music because, for want of a clearer way to put this, art that resisted commodification was the art to be championed and art that resisted late Romantic conventions of beauty was the art to champion. 

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