The Fleeting Promise of Art: Adorno's Aesthetic Theory Revisited
Peter Uwe Hohendahl
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
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.
this is the occasion to demonstrate at least three things at the same time: the function of the review in the novel as the turning point in the career of the young writer; the analysis of Lucien’s small piece, now seen as an early example of the new critical form of the feuilleton in the Paris press; and finally, quite self-consciously, his own essay as a feuilleton, written without the conceptual apparatus of his more serious essays. The piece, titled “On an Imaginary Feuilleton” (NL 2:32–39),
though appointed and dispensed by an unknown author, as though we had awaited them in this very place and no other; . . . perhaps divided up into several figures, they cross our paths again and again” (NL 1:176). In brief, through its narrative construction, including its complex constellation of characters, Proust’s novel offers a truthful paradigm for understanding social relations, which means that for Adorno social and aesthetic truth cannot be separated. So far one might argue that Adorno’s
articles of Staiger and Henkel, Adorno’s essay is not limited to a close reading of Iphigenia. Rather, the question of Goethe’s classicism is put into a larger context on a number of different levels, including that of German literary history and German culture. But most important, at each level Adorno reexamines the cultural tradition, using Goethe and his work as a crucial reference point. And it is no accident that Adorno chooses Goethe as his reference point. This particular author and this
is the affinity to Gnosis. For this reason she interprets as process what can be read as a fundamental pattern that determines the understanding of empirical reality and the process of history in general. In Gnostic thought the end of history (and by extension art) is already found in its origin. The depravity of the material world can be shown but does not have to be proved in empirical terms. 18. See Pauen, Dithyrambiker des Untergangs, 383. 19. Frederic Jameson, Late Marxism Adorno; or, the
recent readings of Aesthetic Theory have attempted to separate this link, it is essential to reiterate the dialectic of Adorno’s aesthetic and social critique. The more Adorno became convinced that social movements were no longer able to carry out meaningful social change, the more art became the placeholder for such aspirations. The ultimate perspective of aesthetic criticism is a (weak) utopian force that transcends the given social reality, considered by mainstream social science as