Devouring Art

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, 1916
"Certainly Kafka does not awaken the power of desire" (12).

The Representationality of Form

Hans Memling, "Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation," c. 1485

"Tracing aesthetic forms back to contents, such as the Warburg Institute undertook to do by following the afterlife of classical antiquity, deserves to be more broadly undertaken." (5)

Art's Origins

The caves as Lascaux, 15,000 BCE.
"The belief that the first artworks are the highest and purest is warmed-over romanticism; with no less justification it could be claimed that the earliest artistic works are dull and impure in that they are not yet separated from magic, historical documentation, and such pragmatic aims as communicating over great distances by means of horn sounds" (Adorno, 2)


Précis: Theodor Derrida or Jacques Adorno?

Adorno dismantles the conventional artistic aesthetics of yesteryear in his attempt to ruin the connotation of aesthetics to "the sensuously pleasing" (15). He argues that the "equivalents in the visual arts [...] gives access to the alluringly sensuous by transfiguring it into its antithesis, pain: an aesthetic archetype of ambivalence." (15). This method of thinking turns the head of ancient aesthetics, defining the aesthetics of art not to be confined, but having a seemingly unlimited reach, from ecstacy to torment and beyond. This reading of Adorno's text might not seem to completely coincide, but undoubtably calls upon Derrida's deconstructionist theory. In this way, art becomes imbedded in the Derrida texture/web of interpretation as well as literature.

Presentation Images

What is the difference in these pieces of art?

Phrase-"It is self evident that that nothing concerning art is self evident anymore"

Adorno writes that, "It is self evident that that nothing concerning art is self evident anymore" (Adorno 1). This idea supports the notion that there is no concrete "thing" called art. Thus there is no "true" or "pure" art. Art is something that, like other readings have pointed out, has no concrete foundation. One cannot look at something and say, "that is not art" or "that follows the exact specifications of x form of art". Looking at art is a process of blindness that unifies what we see.


According to Adorno, "The concept of art is located in a historically changing constellation of elements; it refuses definition" (2). However, the OED defines "art" in definition 8b as "The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting, drawing, or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Also: such works themselves considered collectively." In Adorno's eyes, this definition is simply not enough. He argues that art is constantly changing and opposing concepts that have once been considered fundamental; therefore, Adorno believes that art inherently cannot be defined. He says, "Art must turn against itself, in opposition to its own concept, and thus become uncertain of itself right into its innermost fiber...By attacking what seemed to be its foundation throughout the whole of its tradition, art has been qualitatively transformed; it itself becomes qualitatively other. It can do this because through the ages by means of its form, art has turned against the status quo..." (2).
I thought that it would be interesting, and useful, to test Adorno's argument by looking at how the word "art" has been used since the 1600's using the OED online. In 1694, Dryden in his To Sir G. Kneller in Ann. Misc. 89 wrote "From hence the Rudiments of Art began; A Coal, or Chalk, first imitated Man." In other words, "art" was defined in 1694 as being highly imitational. Moreover, one could presume that "art" was characterized by an attempt to be as realistic as possible, in order to imitate human form. Later in 1927, R.H. Wilenski in Mod. Movement in Art 30 wrote that "Nineteenth-century romantics deliberately left out all the features which the admirers of classical painting were accustomed to regard as indispensable to art." This proves that over time "art" began to lose distinct characteristics that could be used to define it since 19th century romantics opposed "indespinsable" classical painting techniques and forms.

One paints a painting...

Adorno states that "One paints a painting, not what it represents" (3). A painting is more than just its aesthetic layer of pretty colors and strokes. One cannot fully understand a painting just by looking at the top layer. He also says, "The Hegelian vision of the possible death of art accords with the fact that art is a product of history" (3). Art is also "a product of history," as he states, and its meaning and 'bottom layer' become less discernible as a piece get older; what it represents fades with time. Eventually, it could become just the painting, only good for its aesthetic values.

Phrase: The happiness gained from artworks is that of having suddenly escaped...

From page 15, "The happiness gained from artworks is that of having suddenly escaped, not a morsel of that from which art has escaped; it is accidental and less essential to art than the happiness in its knowledge; the concept of aesthetic pleasure as constitutive of art is to be superceded."

This quote from Adorno addresses art's transcendent nature, not from the point of view that an idiosyncratic aesthetic can be beheld by any audience in any time, but from the idea that the knowledge of one's relish is transcendent.

PRECIS: Art as a Living Thing

The central idea of Adorno's "Aesthetic Theory" has to be the personification of art. Adorno speaks of art as if it were a living being, constantly moving and of no origin. Art has no "definition" (2) and did not come from any one thing--it is and always has been. It's twisting and turning against itself at the same time, both reflecting and rejecting the world. It is what it is because it isn't--any one thing, that is. It's only real defining quality is that it moves and never stays the same. What society would consider art in one era is redifined in another, so it is not up to our culture to say what is classified as art or not (we only know what is occurring now to be truth, 3, and that type of art may change in the course of history). "Artworks are alive," says Adorno, "in that they speak in a fashion that is denied to natural objects and the subjects who make them" (5). Art tells about society and culture in a way that no one person can, and it can often be traced back to motion among life itself (ex. dance, rituals).

This text also seems to ridicule the idea of art as being for only the high class, or one piece of art being better than another.

WORD: aesthetics

Aesthetics, as defined by the OED, has multiple definitions:
1. Of or pertaining to sensuous perception, received by the senses
2. Of or pertaining to the appreciation or criticism of the beautiful
3. Of or pertaining to a late nineteenth-century movement in England of artists and writers who advocated a doctrine of ‘art for art's sake’

Adorno uses the word "aesthetics" quite frequently within his writings. It would seem that he finds aesthetics to define art; in that what you find appealing aesthetically is what you define as your art. This broad definition leaves a lot of room for what "art" could be. Adorno does warn that while one might like something because of its aesthetics, "Art perceived strictly aesthetically is art aesthetically misperceived" (5). So while you should appreciate something because it appeals to your senses you should also view the piece in its entirety, deciphering meanings out of each artwork. One should look at art and realize that artwork has unconcious "forces" (6), which are just as material to the piece.

Bend me shape me anyway you want me.

In what way is art a mirror? Previously, we examined “the mirror stage” and the crucial moment when a child is able to create a whole image from the fragments of his body. This realization impacts greatly the way in which we as humans regard not only ourselves but also others. What, then, does this have to do with art? In Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, it is established that “art is what it has become” and that “it […] refers to what it does not contain” (3). In some ways, our sense of self is what we in fact become, and not what we truly contain. Viewing ourselves in a mirror, we see what we see, whereas others, outside our scope, might see something entirely different. This distinction is important because art, in its many forms, is easily manipulated to tell whatever story of life the artist desires. How can we manipulate ourselves to tell our stories? In which ways must the mirror of our own presentation mimic art?

I've included the link because I think it's a pretty interesting point to consider as it sort of causes one to revert to their fragmented state. And presented art, it forces us to come to terms with a period in our lives that is familiar, yet hard to grasp (uncanny anyone?).


It's Not Aesthetically Pleasing

Adorno does not believe that art can clearly be defined by any one definition.  Yet, the dictionary does give us a definition of art.  Dictionary.com defines art as:

1.  the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

Such a simple definition surely does not satisfy Adorno’s need to flush out what it truly means to be a work of art.  He says, “all efforts to restore art by giving it a social function-of which itself uncertain and by which it expresses its own uncertainty-are doomed.”  Everything about art is uncertain.  Society has a need to define and place everything it encounters into certain categories.  The uncertainty of what actually defines art and what its purpose is makes art impossible to place into any sort of category.  Unlike most other definitions art cannot be defined by its history.  The first work of art does not give a basis for what all other works of should be compared to. “The concept of art is located in a historically changing constellation of elements; it refuses definition.  Its essence cannot be deduced from its origin as if the first work were a foundation on which everything that followed were constructed and would collapse if shaken.”

I am comparing the essay with Duchamp’s 1917 work of art called “Fountain”.  It was created during the Dada movement in which artists mocked and ignored artistic and social conventions of what was thought to make art, art.   “Fountain” is essentially a men’s urinal turned sideways and signed with an alias of R. Mutt.  He didn’t use his own name when he sent it in for an exhibit because he wanted to see if it would still be considered art if it didn’t have his already famous name on it.  

The "Fountain" is not aesthetically pleasing to the eye.  It is obviously, and clearly a urinal. What makes this urinal art? Is it art simply because we call it art? I read up on some information about Adorno as well and wikipedia said that he also held interest in social conventions and culture.  He thinks of culture as an industry.  The urinal is a great example of how the industry of culture would lead us to believe the urinal to be art.  We are told through culture and mass media that the urinal is art so therefore it is. 

-Also, we have/had one of the urinals here at IU in the Art Museum.  I tried to look up if we still have it or not but could not find it posted online anywhere.

Word: Kitsch

Kitsch, as defined by Merriam-Webster Online, means something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality.

Adorno uses the term when pointing out the murkiness of Kant's use of the phrase, "representation of the existence of an object," in his explanation of disinterested liking. For Adorno, it is unclear as to whether the phrase is referring to content, thematic material, or the artwork itself. He states, "the pretty nude model or the sweet resonance of a musical tone can be kitsch or it can be an integral element of artistic quality" (10).

Word: Self-evident

I'm going to have to argue that the most important word is not art, but that it is only one of the most important. The word, or combined words of "self-evident" prove to be incredibly significant in Adorno's essay. His introductory sentence "It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore..." not only sets the tone for the rest of the essay, being one of artistic open-minded expression, but also proposes a seeming paradox which encompasses the very idea of art itself. 
Adorno defines art as being "at every point indicated by what art once was" in one of his several definitions, yet though art "can be understood by it's laws of movement," his opening statement seems to contradict that fact that it could ever be defined.  The the movement of the piece may be "self-evident," the entire meaning of the piece itself may not be, just as the definition of art varies from definer to definer. 

Word: Art

Word: Art (n) -

1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

2. the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; works of art collectively, as paintings, sculptures, or drawings: a museum of art; an art collection.

Art indoubtedly is the most important word throughout the essay. Adorno argues about what art is and how it should be viewed. "It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not is relation to the world, not even its right to exist" (1).

Back For The First Time

Theodor Ardono is calling for the liberation of the arts in his essay, "Aesthetic Theory." Why? Because it's about time we start deciding what is sublime and what is not. And it won't have anything to do with what we've been taught. "Art's essence cannot be deduced from its origin as if the first work were a foundation on which everything that followed were constructed and would collapse if shaken." (2) Origins do not penetrate art the way that origins do with learning. Art does not follow objective didactic rules (or shouldn't), nor should it be governed by those. "One paints a painting, not what it represents."(qtd. Shoenberg, p 4) Adorno argues against empiricism, suggesting that art must have its own identity. The truth's truth is self-identity, not a fictitious objectivity. "Truth exists exclusively as that which has become." (3)

Precis: “Art Without Circumstance”

Adorno takes to defining art through its autonomy. “Because art is what it has become, its concept refers to what it does not contain” (Adorno; p.3). Eventually art is not a reflection of its unique culture, but rather an identity within itself. As time passes, the reason in which an object was created becomes less evident to the contemporary viewer. Adorno seems hostile in his view of art that in unsustainable without context. The only way in which art can be properly viewed is through this level of existence or self-identity. “Only by virtue of separation from empirical reality, which sanctions art to model the relation of the whole and the part according to the works own need, does the artwork achieve a heightened order of existence” (Adorno; p.4) Our understanding of a piece needs to be taken no further than the piece itself.



Empirical (OED): based on observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.

Adorno begins to use this word in the first paragraph of his essay, saying "Artworks detach themselves from the empirical world and bring forth another world, one opposed to the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity," in his attempt to define art. He uses the word a great number of times throughout his essay. He begins the essay by talking about what is "self-evident" in relation to art. Since those things which are empirical are literally those things which are self evident, by definition, it is important to explore the importance of this word. Adorno claims of modern art, (that is, art created after the "emancipation" of art, during the period in which it became autonomous) "art sanctions the primacy of reality, by virtue of its rejection of the empirical world." It seems an interesting contradiction that art's "rejection of the empirical world" somehow brings it closer to describing reality, since reality, in its most rudimentary sense, can be define as that which is in fact, empirical, that which is self-evident, that which we can see. This apparent contradiction brings us to one of the most alluring arguments in Adorno's essay. Adorno criticizes romanticized art as presenting something nonexistent as existing. "The fictions are modifications of empirical reality." So, the artist who creates this type of art, shows us something which is a romanticized version of reality, thus a rejection of empirical reality, whereas modern art attempts to bring to the surface, actual reality, without the guild of 'poetic glimmer.'