Friday, August 30, 2019

criticism of genre fiction, How It Should Have Ended and the luxury of assuming spoilers as a starting point for criticism

My personal philosophy regarding the art of film criticism is that if you don't spoil the film you haven't done your job.  There's nothing worth saying about a film that can be said when you're trying to "avoid spoilers".  If you're trying to keep  some final act plot twist a surprise, like not mentioning that it's the doppleganger who has replaced Adelaide in Jordan Peele's film Us, you've done nothing worthwhile for your readers in writing about the film.  If you don't mention the secret experiment to clone a ton of people that is said to go awry because the clones are tethered to their originals, because the clones themselves don't have souls, then the motivations for the jumpsuit wearers with golden shears "could" remain opaque, but the original Adelaide foments a revolution in which the dopplegangers seek to take what their originals have enjoyed for years is the catalyst for the plot of the film.  The antagonist of the film turns out to have been Adelaide, the original Adelaide, the whole time ... which is ... pretty Candy Man in its way.

A film review or a discussion of Us that fails to mention any of those things isn't worth your time to read in terms of preparing you for what happens in the film.  I am not the sort of person who thinks that spoilers spoil a movie.  A well-written story survives any and all spoilers.

When people write criticism about genre stories, however, it helps if they know the conventions to the point where they can offer criticism of conventions adhered to or subverted.  Once you've seen a few brain-switching films a film like Jordan Peele's Get Out might not seem like it's first through second act set-ups warrant a brain-transplant plot twist, but you could grant the plot twist being what it is.  It doesn't particularly create any continuity whiplash issues the way the plot twists for Us did.

A science fiction based horror film that asserts that souls can't be created or replicated falls apart for me. The artificial sentience of the Puppeteer in Oshii's first Ghost in the Shell and the giant illegal undersea prison in which the souls of children are basically photocopied by a corporate juggernaut selling sex robots to upper crust men in the a bit too archly ironic Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, in both cases we're discussing films in which the capacity to artificially create or replicate a human soul is assumed.  In the first Oshii film artificial sentience is an accident of data accumulation on the part of ransomware designed by a political/corporate collaboration.  In the second film attempts to create souls for machines on purpose fails and so a corporation kidnaps children and hides them in an underwater facility to copy their souls for production lines of sex robots, mentioned above.

Now the first is overhyped by anime fans and the second is a pretty tedious slog, even more so than the first one.  My point in bringing up these films is not just to muse upon how much more tedious Oshii's films have gotten in the last twenty-eight years, it's to point out that in a truly international conception of cinema Jordan Peele's films are fun while I'm watching them but he's been overhyped in terms of his scripting.  His pacing and direction are strong and he inspires great performances from great casts.

But ... the plot twist issues in Peele's film are ultimately no less absurd than the plot twist issues in Spiderman: Far From Home.

How it Should Have Ended has sent up the scripting of the film as follows:

If Spiderman just blasted the fire monster with water he would have seen the water go through the illusion.  He also should have noticed there was not exactly strong sensations of heat.  Now for film critics who lambasted Far From Home as cinematic trickery perpetrated by a supervillain director, as Richard Brody put it so indignantly, But then Brody claimed that Lady Susan Vernon didn't break any of the important, life-giving rules in the way she handled things in Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship.  Brody's also negatively impressed me with his arguments for why he'll keep watching Woody Allen films even though he believes the allegations about Allen are true because Allen makes art;  art and pop are somehow incommensurate.

Now there's a case to be made for a difference between art and pulp across genre and one distinction for such a difference is the extent to which a story plays with tropes or is anchored to them.  As David Sims put it at The Atlantic, if we're talking about a juggernaut of superhero films there's a difference between Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan and the Russo brothers.  The former made superhero films that, whether you liked them or not, were at least thematically of a piece with the non-superhero films and themes Raimi and Nolan are known for.  You could see how the director of Spider-man 2 also directed A Simple Plan, for instance and, of course, Evil Dead.  Nolan's exploration of men who lie to themselves and others because they believe they're doing the best, most honorable thing is a theme that threads through his entire filmography, and not necessarily by way of implying that these men are the heroes of the stories.  Bruce Wayne differs from Cobb and other Nolan male protagonists for being able to see more clearly that he's been deceived and, more crucially, deceived himself and others as to what the right thing to do was.  The Russo brothers ... I liked the Cap films okay ... but the Avengers films were ... just sorta there.

I enjoyed the new Spiderman films while I was watching them but they're films that are beholden to genre elements ... not always in a good way.  In a way not unlike Peele's films, the Tom Holland films have inspired casts that make more of the scripted material than is necessarily always there.  That's not a bad thing ... but thanks to Peele being regarded as an up and coming director whose films, however often comedic, are played straight, his work is taken more seriously than superhero films are, even though having seen and enjoyed Peele's films and a few superhero films, the scripting issues are not necessarily that different.  Peele is preaching in his films and if people enjoy the sermon they'll dig the film.

But if Peele were to do a remake of Friday the 13th how long would the good will last regarding genre at its pulpiest in his work?

Now as spoof channels go How it Should Have Ended is reliably funny, and it's reliably funny for needling films on the ways in which the storytelling leverages plot points and plot twists that can't be defended on the basis of the world-building in the film.  Take Far From Home, HISHE has a goofy moment where Parker wants to hand the EDITH glasses over to Quentin Beck and EDITH notifies Peter that Beck is a fired ex-Stark employee who developed holographic technology.  Just like that, Beck's cover is blown and the movie is over.  That's not what happened in the film but what makes the spoof funny is pointing out just how early on in the script the story should have ended if Stark had done what any sensible tech tycoon would have done in having a database of banned ex-employees who are not allowed access to Stark tech.

That the countless who died when Thanos did the "snap" in Infinity War would come back five years later exactly where they died would mean, as the HISHE teenage boy points out, that anyone who died in an airplane five years ago would come back ... in midair and fall to death.  Or anyone who was on a boat five years ago would be brought back by Tony Stark's "snap" right where they died ... above water where there might not be any ships for miles.  Of course with the Infinity Gauntlet Stark could wish everyone back and also put them in places where they wouldn't die, so that HISHE punchline is not quite airtight.

A stronger joke is when Spiderman blasts water at the fire monster and the water blasts through the hologram with no effect on its "fire".  The spoofing works at its best when it runs along these lines, pointing out how if the characters did anything that a normal person would do to fight a fire, for instance, they'd do things that would highlight immediately that Beck the illusionist was just an illusionist.

To implicitly complain cinema for being deceptive when it's a superhero film like Far From Home, as Richard Brody did, without spoiling the film is dissembling.  If a Jordan Peele film or a Spiderman film works right up to the point where some obvious problems with a real world cause-and-effect behavioral matter is brought up, then I'd say that Far From Home and Us both fail as stories; both films are committed to visual extravaganze and gotcha plot twists that frankly don't make sense if the world-building were consistent.  The idea that Peter Parker couldn't sense that he was dealing with illusions takes a lot of suspension of disbelief, but no more suspension of disbelief than it takes to believe that people who lived for twenty or thirty years on raw rabbit wouldn't succumb to food poisoning.  A whole lot of people were willing to watch Game of Thrones who would never be caught dead watching, say, Thundercats, or He-Man.

This is a point that actors seem to be more comfortable with than film critics, genre participation doesn't indicate that an artist is serious or frivolous simply on the basis of a genre.  Peter Dinklage did his Tyrion Lannister thing for eight seasons and also played a character who forges a new weapon for Thor in Infinity War.  Hailee Steinfeld did the True Grit adaptation with the Coens, and also took on parts in Bumblebee and Into the Spider-verse.  For that matter, John Hurt could be in The Elephant Man and then decades later be in the Hellboy movies.  Willem Dafoe wasn't planning on doing more superhero films and yet ... he was in Aquaman. Where today film critics scorn superhero films I scorn westerns, because I didn't see all that many cowboy and indian films in my youthful days where the Indians weren't depicted in a very unflattering light.  I never got the patience to deal with that genre enough to see the better-made westerns.  Westerns have been for me, always, what superhero films have been for the film critics who hate them.  There's some writing I've come across in the last five to eight years that has suggested that the Hollywood era westerns were more reflections of the racism of their era than an accurate depiction of racial relations in the American West during the actual period.

Which is another way to say that Hollywood probably lies most when its people think they're sharing the truth.

I've written about how Batman: the animated series and Nolan's films riff on the idea that Bruce Wayne is elite but not an elitist.  Black Panther is a fantasy about a noble king who rules over a powerful technocratic empire.  In an era in which economic disparity seems to keep growing and those who have power have more and more power than those who don't the prevalence of superhero films does not seem to me a sign that film is escaping or evading reality now any more than before.  If I weren't going through Jacques Ellul's The Humiliation of the Word I might have more to add about his claim that the entire art of cinema is in a sense a propagandist's art.  The idea that film can tell us the truth is itself most likely a lie.  Films are designed to make us feel something and then, perhaps, act on those feelings.  As a friend has put it, films are sermons, if sometimes sermons for those people who have a need for preaching but don't want it to be officially recognized as preaching.

When it comes to superhero stories there's a way to assess the successes and failures within the genre's terms that can be readily translated by non-specialists, and the term for this would be continuity errors.  The stories that work may have small continuity errors but they won't have big continuity issues that wreck the story in the last act.  Cumulatively it's hard to believe Adrian Veidt could keep a decades-long conspiracy secret in Watchmen but since he was a tycoon who kept his circle small and kept people in the dark it's at least plausible that he kept his plan secret from all but the most inquisitive sorts (i.e. Walter Kovacs).  Jeph Loeb's Dark Victory failed as soon as it was revealed Sofia Falcone didn't die at the end of The Long Halloween.  Chekov's gun tells us that if the author highlights something it has significance, ergo, Sofia not being dead after TLH meant she was the perpetrator in DV, which was lame, really lame.  I might go so far as to say that there's a rule of thumb with badly written Batman stories, if Bruce shakes hands with a character you've never heard of before at a swanky party then by 24 to 48 pages into the narrative that's the supervillain of the season.

I'm not even going to digress into my complaint, as a superhero fan, of the ways in which too many stories make characters reader surrogates.  This gets done in other genres, The Oatmeal highlighted how this was done in the Twilight novels, but the ... discipline was refined in other genres.

I enjoyed Far From Home and Us but they both have some significant flaws in terms of scripting in connection to the gap between world-building and plot twists. Decades ago I think I was reading a Raymond Chandler commentary on detective stories and plot holes.  His comment was there will always be plot holes, serious plot holes, in even the best detective fiction.  You do your best but recognize there will be problems.  The questions at hand for the writer are, did you make characters interesting enough that a reader can forgive the plot holes, and did you write a story compelling enough in its core conflicts that a reader can safely ignore the plot holes?

By that standard both Far From Home and Us were failures when I stopped to actually think about their plotting. Richard Donner's Superman films and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films hold up on repeated viewings. They have issues, like every artistic work has issues, but I happen to be willing to forgive the absurd powers of trap prep the Joker has and the astonishing level of verbal eloquence Harvey Dent manages to have after having half his face burned off.  That kind of genre forgiveness doesn't just happen in genre film.  It happens in film watching.  A generation ago people could watch When Harry Met Sally and forgive all sorts of things as "it's a fantasy", which was Nora Ephron's defense of the script.  Now we live in an era in which Ephron's fantasy about a man and a woman and the way they pontificate about men and women no longer seems to be innocent escapism to those who are concerned about how film mediates our notions of reality and relationships.

When horror films speak to the anxieties people struggle with, those films become classics to those fans.  But if a horror film isn't speaking to something you're genuinely afraid could happen to you then the genre film is just, well, genre film. I've seen horror films that stuck with me, like The Descent or The Babadook, but in both cases it was clear that the horror was about the moral evil lurking inside the heroine and not about whether or not the monsters "outside" were "real".  I don't tend to worry that a doll named Chucky is going to come after me, whereas the risk of hurting people I care about in some way can happen without my knowing it.  Or, as a chronically underemployed guy watching the Marshall film, I relate to being afraid of being in cramped conditions with hardly any light and not being able to see where I'm going.  For people with superb night vision ... eh ... no worries.  Horror stories predicated on bad dating relationships don't speak to me at all.  I also have no patience for most horror films about the dread of parenting a bad kid a la The Omen or The Bad Seed.

If low gothic horror tends to go for the bigger and uglier monster, higher gothic tends to explore what is more terrifying, the capacity for moral evil that lurks within us--on the whole I'm having a hard time remembering classics of the horror genre that are monster-specific.  Okay, let's get Godzilla out of the way, we know what Godzilla represents and that's why Godzilla works.  Monsters that don't have such an iconic and over symbolism tend to be less memorable.  Who remembers the big deadly mantis?  Some, I suppose.  Mystery Science Theater 3000 made most of its reputation on the also-ran and shouldn't-have-bothered bids at monster movie horror.  The scary stories that keep scaring us scare us because of us, as Peele's perhaps too aptly titled film insists upon. :)  Adelaide turns out to be the real "villain" because she wants to get back to the life her doppleganger took from her, and so it's an extended cinematic riff on imposter syndrome which, if you struggle with imposter syndrome, that can really speak to you.  I can't say it is something I've really struggled with so Us was a fun movie that fell apart once I started thinking about the plot mechanics.  Far From Home began to fall apart when I thought about the plot mechanics, too.

The assessment of one compared to the other can be thought of as an assessment of prestige, rather than the skill of the plot mechanics or even world-building.  Yet there's a How it Should Have Ended send up of the scripting issues in Spiderman: Far From Home, and while Armond White can insist Jordan Peele is a charlatan that's not really the same as addressing any issues of scripting and world-building.  Peele is attempting to make serious films that people take seriously and Armond White isn't having it ... but then maybe I can address what I'm thinking in a roundabout genre-anchored way.

My brother has read online discussions where people who are fans of Thor were happy with Infinity War because it finally treated Thor seriously as a character.  I found this baffling.  My brother and I saw Thor: Ragnarok and thought it was funny a la Adam West Batman style Thor.  My brother pointed out that Hemsworth plays Thor exactly the same way in Infinity War as he does in Ragnarok but the other characters are written and acted in such a way as to reverence Thor as a god.  THAT is the only difference.  When Tony Stark dubs fat drunkard Thor "Lebowski" in Endgame we know that Stark regards Thor as one of those buddies you have to be patient with sometimes, i.e. not a god.

It's been an interesting year for me to consider the ways in which film criticism can show attention to the prestige bracket of what's being reviewed in ways that forgive scripting shortfalls in one case and not another depending on ... the prestige bracket. On the whole I regard Brody's approach as an intellectual and even a moral failure because he won't spoil the movies when he discusses them, but he will functionally moralize as to whether or not you should regard the pulp films as art or not.  In that respect I take How it Should Have Ended more seriously as film criticism, even if it's more often playful spoof, homage, and intra-genre hat-tipping 90 percent of the time.  The reason why I take it more seriously is because they are closer to my convictions about film criticism which is, as I wrote at the start, based on the conviction that if you haven't spoiled the film you haven't really done your job writing film criticism. 

The Atlantic has a feature on the photography of Margaret Bourke-White, one of my favorite photojournalists

One of my favorite photographers, Bourke-White was ... if you've never seen her work before, not the least bit afraid of heights.  She also had a stomach for some gore.  One of her more iconic photographs isn't featured in the survey at The Atlantic but if you've seen a lot of her work the head-carrying shot wasn't going to likely make it into a feature at The Atlantic.

Since the magazine went to the trouble of highlighting some of the work of one of my journalism student day heroines, I figured I'd link to the piece. 

The other folks I became a fan of in my college days were pre-novelist Tom Wolfe (I don't like his novels at all, basically) and, of course, Joan Didion. 

Bourke-White had a remarkable eye for things, certainly more remarkable eyes than I have.  I hope you go over and look at her work and that, perhaps, you'll enjoy her work as much as I do. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

Adorno in Philosophy of New Music, "... music must emancipate itself as well from twelve-tone technique." comparing that to Ellul's observations on art in technocratic societies

Theodore Adorno
Copyright (c)2006 by the Regents of the Univesrity of Minnesota
translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor
ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-3666-2
ISBN-10: 0-8166-3666-4

page 45

... This is the origin of twelve-tone technique. It culminates in the will to abolish the fundamental contradiction in occidental music, that between the polyphonic fugue and the homophonic sonata.

We'll come back to this when I discuss, briefly, August Halm.

page 47

[on the subject of twelve-tone technique] Nothing unthematic remains, nothing that is not to be understood as having derived from what is identical in however latent a fashion.
Leonard B. Meyer might have had a comment about how this was late late Romanticism as an articulation of the ideology of organicism as a paradigm of musical development.

page 53

... The arithmetical play of twelve-tone technique and the constraint that it exercises is reminiscent of astrology, and it is no mere fad that many of its adepts fall pretty to it.  As a system closed in on itself and at the same time self-opaque, twelve-tone rationality--in which the constellation of means is immediately hypostatized as goal and law--verges on superstition. The legality in which it is executed is at the same time simply inflicted on the material that it determines without, however, this determination serving any meaning. Exactitude, as mathematical calculation, is substituted  for what traditional art knew as idea, which in late romanticism itself unquestionably degenerated into ideology as the affirmation of a metaphysical ...

page 54
... The question that twelve-tone composition poses to the composer is not how musical meaning can be organized but rather how organization can become meaningful. What Schoenberg has produced over the past twenty-five years are progressive attempts at an answer to this question. ... What is domineering in these late gestures, however, responds to what is tyrannical in the origin of the system itself. Twelve-tone exactitude, which banishes all meaning as if it were an illusion claiming to exist in itself in the musical object, treats music according to the schema of fate. 

... Twelve-tone technique is truly its fate. It subjugates music by setting it free. The subject rules over the music by means of a rational system in order to succumb to this rational system itself. ...

page 89
... In other words, if it is to hope to make it through the winter, music must emancipate itself as well from twelve-tone technique. This emancipation , however, is not to be accomplished by a return to the irrationality that preceded it and that is now thwarted at every turn by the postulates of exact composition that twelve-tone technique itself cultivated; rather, it can be accomplished through the absorption of twelve-tone technique by free composition and of its rules by the critical ear. Only from twelve-tone technique can music learn to remain master of itself, but only if it does not become its slave. [emphases added]

page 102

... today the alienation inherent in the consistency of artistic technique itself forms the content of the artwork. [emphasis added] The shocks of the incomprehensible--which artistic technique in the age of its meaninglessness dispenses--reverse. They illuminate the meaningless world. New music sacrifices itself to this. It has taken all of the darkness and guilt of the world on itself. All its happiness is in the knowledge of unhappiness; all its beauty is in denial of the semblance of the beautiful. No one, neither individuals nor groups, wants to have anything to do with it. It dies away unheard, without an echo.

That last part sure seems emo.

Adorno's assertion that there is a fundamental contradiction in occidental music between the polyphonic fugue and the homophonic sonata is an idea that I think is a mere assertion.  It's not even really Adorno's idea, and he didn't make much secret that this juxtaposition or opposition was developed by August Halm.  Halm juxtaposed contrasting principles of development by way of fugue and sonata and thought that ... Bruckner ... represented a compositional approach that could effectively synthesize the two contrasting approaches.  Not being much of a Bruckner fan I'm afraid I can't comment too much on that particular aspect of Halm's writing.

But I will say that I just don't take seriously the idea that there is a contradiction in occidental music between the polyphonic fugue and the homophonic sonata and, even if there were one, there's no reason that the hyper-thematicism of twelve-tone technique would provide a solution to a theoretical impasse.  Ben Johnston, I think, was right to regard twelve-tone technique as an impressive stop-gap effort to find new sounds that did not seem beholden to Romantic era harmonic and melodic cliches, but it was a technique that ensured a whole new era of aural cliches were developed that, unlike those of earlier eras, do not even fasten themselves to our memories.

Adorno could insist that we can't go back to "irrationality", which could be construed to mean that now that newer more technocratic post-tonal methods of composition exist there's no going back to the "intuitive" approach of composing tonal music in the older styles.  The problem is that he's never come up with a coherent or compelling reason why tonality was "used up".  As I have suggested in the case of film critics lamenting the lack of ideas in contemporary cinema, the problem with the perception of cliches may not be with production altogether, it may be over-consumption.  Adorno listened to too much music and in the process of listening to too much music was dismayed to hear so many things that sounded like cliches, even more so than Richard Wagner claiming to hear the clattering of the kitchen work in some music by Mozart.

But what is it supposed to mean that Adorno claims that music has to be emancipated from twelve-tone technique?  Music, which is spectacularly reified in the passage I'm alluding to, must absorb twelve-tone technique into free composition.  Only from twelve-tone technique can music learn to master itself but only if it does not become enslaved to twelve-tone technique.

I'd say that we could just use twelve-tone methods as a way to play with how blues and ragtime riffs can be run forwards, backwards, upside down and then upside down and also backwards over jazz harmonies and still have something that sounds fun ... which is clearly not what Adorno would want any of us to think.  But he was vague in the passage quoted above as to how one could absorb twelve-tone technique into free composition and remain mastery over it.

How about Adorno's claim that "the alienation inherent in the consistency of artistic technique itself forms the content of the artwork." The alienation inherent in the consistency of artistic technique itself forms the content of the artwork?  What does that mean?  Well ... at this point I think it might be fun to cross reference Adorno's ideas with the ideas of Jacques Ellul, who wrote an awful lot considering the nature of technique as an ideology unto itself and the way it suffuses what we could call technocratic societies and what Adorno at times called the administrated society.  Perhaps by way of a paradox the inhumane inhumanity of technique in the arts as a subject unto itself was supposed to provide a meta-commentary on the inhumane humanity of contemporary society.

Well, let's see what Ellul had to say on a few things:

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

page 52
... Thus, all art is trapped between the desire for revolutionary protests and the technicality of all of its operations, including those that expressed artistic tradition and unique, individual virtuosity. [emphasis added]... Someone claims to be a painter or a musician as an identity and is then recognized as such by a group. This mutual recognition is an intentional awareness that enables the differentiation of a piece of metal in a museum from that which the garage mechanic throws in the trash because it is broken or defective. But the claim of someone who uses the most modern techniques becomes particularly harmful when the message is reactionary; they fight against an art, an aesthetic, and a society that dates from the nineteenth century. They are unaware that using the techniques of the technical system only entrench them more deeply in that system, transforming them into pillars of the current society and not in the one they imagine and fight against. Don Quixotes no longer exist; neither the folly nor the wisdom of Quixote informs. Instead, only a pretentiousness supported by blind ignorance prevails. 

page 53
... Literature and art communicate with ideology because everything has become political. The variations on this formula are endless, but they all say the same thing. They warn against disguised propaganda (for the benefit, of course, of an explicit propaganda although not declared as such); they call for involvement with the ideology of the masses, and they rail against economic constraint, and so on. In its totality, we see here art with a message, which, behind its facade of many Marxist explanations, amounts to little more than an art desperately aligned with a society devoid of signifying power, one of the effects of the technical system.

But, in contrast to committed art, we find a counter current: the technicization of society leads to a disengagement from all forms of message, even that of abstraction, and this absence of message leads to a veritable hypertrophy of technical formalism. [emphasis added] (Moreover, in this current of thought, there are at least two possible positions: for some, art must express the ineffable; for others, it must exclusively create forms. In one case, one could say that abstract art, "neither, in its means or goals, evokes visible manifestations of the world." The inner man is, thus, freed to produce reality as he feels it. The artist reveals the concealed world within himself. But, in the other case, artistic creation becomes its own end. We need only concern ourselves with the production of a text, a color, or a musical score.) One no longer creates anything; rather, one creates a form that has not yet existed. That is all. Artists of the committed stripe will argue that other artists are anti-revolutionary and are running dogs of the bourgeois order. Those of the abstract stripe will condemn their committed brethren as retarded and retrograde and mired down in past delusions, because there is no longer the possibility of any message in the technical realm. Here we find the major schism in the art of our time, which, in all its expressions, is torn asunder.  [emphasis added] There is no single style. ...

page 75
... All creativity is concentrated in technique, and the millions of technical objects attest to this creativity that is so much more dazzling than all that painters or musicians have produced.  ... It is as if this artist were placed in the impossible position of creating on the fringe of society, as if he were standing on the bank of a giant technical current. In society as a whole, this will translate into a movement of intellectual activity to a second degree, to that of reflexivity. We will see a contemplation that, at first, explains but then finally duplicates itself indefinitely. 79
... The artist has entered into the game and translates in his work the essence of technique. He paints, he writes, not on the subject of technique, but rather his work is the profound expression of technique to the extent he is conscious of what he is doing. He does not know technique. The barometer does not discourse on atmospheric pressure; it knows nothing about this. It simply translates it--that is all, just like the truly modern artist. He cannot do otherwise because technique is basically the world in which he lives. [emphasis added] ...

page 112
Now, the decisive importance of theory is found in all the arts.  In music, we have serial music, which at first glance is simply theoretical, especially since its extension, beginning with Arnold Schoenberg and Milton Babbitt, among others, to the domain of measure and dynamics. It becomes a type of mathematical composition. But, from another point of view, the systematic search for analogies between visual symbols and sonorous symbols is also theoretical. The same can be said when one undertakes to reintroduce freedom into musical play: here again this is the result of taking a theoretical stance (John Cage). At any rate, we now have a non-figurative music without reference to either history or to the existing body of sounds.  The influence of theory is, one could say, greater 
in music because it is nonrepresentational and better reflects the forms of thought. A perceptible order of pure theory emerges from the random improvisations of Andrei Markov or in the use of statistical law in certain works of Iannis Xenakis. It becomes a matter of assembling sonorous objects according to a rule or a group of rules that one has set down. Types of experimental music are also 
formed on a theoretical basis because the composers create their experiment on the basis of precise ideas. This experimental music is also divided into schools as a function of theoretical differences: concrete music, electronic music, music for tape (Vladimir Ussachevsky). In all cases, it is a matter of creating new sonorous objects, of not taking account of natural sounds or of customary 
compositions. Music becomes a procedure for organizing new sounds that are totally abstract. Ultimately one could say that theoretical validity is what makes music.  It goes without saying that architecture, like music, lends itself particularly well to this triumph of theory. 
page 118
... We stand in the presence of art of elites for elites. A moderately competent intellectual who does not have the "key" is left out in the cold.  ...

As different as Adorno and Ellul were with respect to metaphysics and, likely, politics, and particularly theology, they did seem, from what we've seen here, agree that there was a core problem in modern art--they both wrote against what they regarded as the emergence of technocratic art in technocratic or "administrative" societies in which the sheer power of formula or technique as a self-sustaining and subject-eradicating system dominates.

Adorno insisted that "today the alienation inherent in the consistency of artistic technique itself forms the content of the artwork." yet he simply asserted this.  Perhaps we can grant he attempted to explain why this was the case in Aesthetic Theory, in which he expounded at some length on the ways in which art devolved into insular technique as technique or unabashed and unadorned propaganda.  But in some ways it seems that Adorno was, for all his writing against capitalism and bourgeois philistinism, was ultimately out to defend what was simply another form of Matthew Arnold style art-religion but with a distinctly high modernist bent.  At length Adorno regarded so much of the new music of the Boulez and Stockhausen variety as basically inhuman, as we've observed elsewhere.

If Adorno regarded serialism and aleatory as ultimately inhuman and inhumane ways of making music was he right to say that?  Those who are fans of Cage or Feldman are apt to say "No."  Those who enjoy the music of Boulez or Carter are apt to say "No."  That Adorno had praise for Varese and Ligeti tells us a little bit about whose work he did actually admire in the mid-twentieth century and I happen to enjoy some works by Varese and quite a few by Ligeti, and it was Ligeti who made a point of remarking on how confining much modernist ideology was.  But what was the core critique Adorno was trying to make?  It would appear to be that, particularly if we cross-reference Adorno's polemics to those of Jacques Ellul, that Adorno was warning that popular culture was mind-destroying non-art that would be wielded be totalitarians (whether formal and explicit fascists or spiritual fascists of the sort Adorno saw emerging in what is now known as new left movements).  On the other hand, high art had devolved into insular technocratic exploration of technique for its own sake.  In both cases, in both extremes Adorno saw what Ellul would call the triumph of technique as ideology over any and every humanistic impulse.  The paradox is that we cannot just ignore that we live in technocratic societies and that technical means are essential for developing any mastery of any art.  At the risk of dating myself a bit ... the paradoxical challenge would be how someone with the training of a Milton Babbitt could have a sense of social engagement that might be of a Fred Rogers variety.  

Adorno seemed to believe that the arts were devolving into blunt propaganda and technocratic isolation. Ellul stated he believed Adorno had best understood and articulated the problems in the arts in technocratic societies.  Ellul was not exactly a Marxist, though, and so his critique of technocratic societies and technocratic praxis and ethos in the arts was not confined to capitalist societies.  He pointed out that if we look at the evolution of avant garde movements on either side of the Iron Curtain that we see similar technical revolutions.  German expressionism in music and early atonality extending the possibilities thought to be latent in the German Romantic style or in French music had counterparts in the post-Scriabin generation of Russian and Soviet composers who were breaking down the octave into smaller-than-half-step intervals, such as Wyschnegradsky, for instance.  In that sense, we can't un-split the atom--now that composers in the East and West have demonstrated how readily we can divide the octave into anywhere between 24 to 78 or more tones equal temperament is not something we're obliged to keep working with in music.  But, and this is where I just make an assertion, Adorno was always wrong to say tonality was "used up".  In saying so he wrote himself into a corner, into a place where tonalilty couldn't be reinvigorated but twelve-tone technique was already devolving into serialist inhumanity.  And, of course, popular musical styles, especially from the United States, were basically off the table.

We don't really have a lot of reason to expect that writers like Adorno or Ellul will have a "solution" to what they regarded as the problems of the arts.  Neither of them even claimed they exactly had solutions.  On the other hand, I've been struck by the ways in which secular Marxist/leftist thought and religious conservatives have dug into their respective trenches in their bodies of literature in the last, well, century--the way to put this in Marxist jargon would be to say that the left has cut itself off and made itself insufficiently dialectical by interacting with itself in a way similar to the ways in which religious conservative writers and conservative writers more generally can engage aesthetic issues and debate the arts in such a way that we have a Roger Scruton who is more or less just recycling the kinds of highbrow arguments Adorno made half a century ago.

It seems that we can do better, where ever we are on the political or religious spectrum, than "just' rehashing arguments that have been made before.  Maybe some of the ways in which we can do better is to restore some kind of synergistic interaction across schools of thought.  I doubt I can play any substantial role of any kind toward that end, but it's something I've been thinking about.