The Fleeting Promise of Art: Adorno's Aesthetic Theory Revisited
Peter Uwe Hohendahl
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A discussion of Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is bound to look significantly different today than it would have looked when the book was first published in 1970, or when it first appeared in English translation in the 1980s. In The Fleeting Promise of Art, Peter Uwe Hohendahl reexamines Aesthetic Theory along with Adorno’s other writings on aesthetics in light of the unexpected return of the aesthetic to today’s cultural debates.
Is Adorno’s aesthetic theory still relevant today? Hohendahl answers this question with an emphatic yes. As he shows, a careful reading of the work exposes different questions and arguments today than it did in the past. Over the years Adorno’s concern over the fate of art in a late capitalist society has met with everything from suspicion to indifference. In part this could be explained by relative unfamiliarity with the German dialectical tradition in North America. Today’s debate is better informed, more multifaceted, and further removed from the immediate aftermath of the Cold War and of the shadow of postmodernism.
Adorno’s insistence on the radical autonomy of the artwork has much to offer contemporary discussions of art and the aesthetic in search of new responses to the pervasive effects of a neoliberal art market and culture industry. Focusing specifically on Adorno’s engagement with literary works, Hohendahl shows how radically transformative Adorno’s ideas have been and how thoroughly they have shaped current discussions in aesthetics. Among the topics he considers are the role of art in modernism and postmodernism, the truth claims of artworks, the function of the ugly in modern artworks, the precarious value of the literary tradition, and the surprising significance of realism for Adorno.
form of critique that is both intrinsic and extrinsic, that works immanently through the text and accepts the challenges coming from the new intellectual environment. In light of what I have argued above, this book can be seen as a defense of Adorno’s aesthetic theory, but it is not an apology. The notion of critique, which is at the core of Adorno’s thought, defines also the direction of this rereading. This mode of reading implies that the horizon of Adorno’s theory cannot determine the
it difficult, if not impossible, to lift ideas and concepts from Aesthetic Theory to use them in a different context. For this reason my study works within the boundaries of Adorno’s theory, at least initially. I do not, however, offer an overview of Adorno’s theory, which, given the existing critical literature, is no longer necessary.21 Instead, I focus on specific issues within Adorno’s theory and probe their direction and consistency in close contact with the text, keeping in mind that the
Yet even this crucial moment is read as a consequence of the social dialectic in which the vulnerability of the artwork is due to the threat of a commodity-driven society. In his ensuing discussion of the concept of truth content, Bernstein returns to his main theme, i.e. the centrality of reason for aesthetic theory, by contrasting instrumental reason (“the villain of the piece”) and art.10 In this binary opposition the truth of art is determined by its resistance to the process of
essays that focus on individual novelists. Adorno’s resistance to the notion of realism is grounded in his concept of the artwork, in particular its emphatic distance from empirical reality.1 This aspect is forcefully articulated in his understanding of poetry. In his seminal essay “On Lyric Poetry and Society” (1957; NL 1:37–54) Adorno attempts to persuade an audience of educated German listeners that poetry, while first and foremost determined by the formal organization of its language, is
recognized that the moment of reification is no less pronounced in institutionalized high culture than it is in the sphere of popular culture.14 Therefore Adorno’s aesthetic theory has to mark its distance from all forms of cultural production and dissemination that are mediated by the capitalist market. At the same time, there is for Adorno the realization that there is no space outside the market sphere in an advanced capitalist society, which in his opinion was still better than the cultural