In this essay I would like to focus on the critical potentialities of art, especially in music, under conditions of the Culture Industry as described by Adorno. Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment is a comprehensive critique of the Culture Industry, one of the dark sides of the Enlightenment project, that pretends to be a process of rationalization, but really results in irrationality by means of repression and dominance. In a way, Culture Industry can be interpreted as the opposite of spontaneity within mass culture, where ‘industry’ should not be taken too literally, as it ultimately refers to the systematic and manipulative tendencies of making everything fitting into ‘the system’. The central characteristic of the Culture Industry’s products is that they reproduce the same elements, or sentiments, in slightly varying forms in order to make sure the masses buy its ‘new’ products.
“The whole world is made to pass through the filter of culture industry (…) anyone who resists can only survive by fitting in”
Culture Industry produces needs and satisfies them as well and precisely this is the reason Adorno thinks the system is irrational; real needs go unsatisfied which results in unhappiness as a consequence. Although people claim to know themselves, they do not know what real happiness is Adorno says, because the Culture Industry systematically hinders individuals to think for themselves. The task at hand for Critical Theory is to acknowledge this false consciousness in order to get rid of it.
Now all this is of course especially relevant to capitalist societies like ours, since we live in ‘exchange societies’ where everything is mediated by the ‘exchange value’. As a result, everything becomes more or less quantifiable, which causes the general to dominate over the individual, who is rendered more or less defenseless, since the particular must conform to the standards of the universal. ‘The result is a constant reproduction of the same thing’
If Adorno and Horkheimer were right, and this radical ‘evil’ has something to do with the dominance of instrumental reason, a number of consequences follow for art, because art too becomes a commodity in the Culture Industry and thereby loses everything that is distinctive about it, especially its idiosyncrasy. Here too qualitative differences become quantitative for both object and subject. Because the Culture Industry is an omnipresent phenomenon, the autonomy artworks had before, or the value as a result of its own specific content and harmonious formation, is no longer present in the products that ‘are governed by the principle of their realization of value’. Because of this, cultural objects as products of the Culture Industry become mere commodities and thereby lack the minimal distance towards society to be regarded as anything other than its reinforcement and certainly not its critical potential.
Just like Hegel, Adorno believed that art was bound to truth. In other words, art was considered as a medium of truth. This has a significant purpose here; because when we speak about truth we necessarily speak about appearance. After all,
“Truth would not be truth if it did not show itself and appear, if it were not truth for someone and for itself, as well as for the spirit in general too”
Yet, for Hegel art was far from being mere appearance, he ascribed a higher existence to the phenomena of art in comparison with those of ordinary reality, because if art is bound to the sphere of senses, then how is art able to give us an understanding of our abstract times? Therefore, Hegel believed that art needed philosophy to understand what was going on within art itself. Hence, truth in Hegel is a movement between two opposing statements, and that is why truth ultimately represents wholeness; it is the self-dissolution of these oppositions.
Art in its highest vocation is a competitor to philosophy and religion according to Hegel. It has the potential of reconciling humans to their society as a whole by telling them the truth about that society and this renders them to see their world and the lives they are able to lead within it as valuable and ‘good’. It makes us affirm our world as a fundamentally worthwhile place to live in so to say.
For Adorno on the other hand, art is true if it represents society. But since our social world is evil which has everything to do with the dominance of the so-called ‘instrumental reason’ – or the most ‘efficient’ reason – in the Culture Industry, any form of art that contributed to trying to make people affirm this world or think that life in it was worthwhile would be misleading. Therefore, in a radically evil society one task of art must be to make people aware of the threats of instrumental rationality. So Adorno agrees with Hegel in that art has a higher vocation than just providing entertainment, but in Adorno’s view, that vocation is to be radically critical and negative and for art to be (socially) critical it must struggle against its own tendency to ‘affirmation’. This notion of being ‘formally negative’ ultimately means that the work of art must undermine traditional aesthetic forms.
So in ‘true art’ for Adorno it is all about form, as this way, it is able to react to society. Works of art therefore, must be so formalized that you ‘hear’ or ‘see’ the meaning indirectly and autonomy is the necessary condition for expressing this truth, the critical potential of art. Only then it becomes possible to look what’s going on without being influenced from outside. The question is, what would such kind of art look, or better in this case, sound like?
THE CRITICAL POTENTIALITIES OF MUSIC
When Adorno claims that art should be critical or negative it does not mean that it should have a propagandist or manipulative nature, precisely because art would then stop being autonomous. Therefore, works of art according to Adorno are objects that present an ‘image’ of a kind of meaningfulness and freedom which Culture Industry promises its members but does not provide. A detailed account of the way in which a work of art can be said to present such an image is to be found in Adorno’s discussion of the freedom of the compositional subject in music. However, when Adorno speaks about music, he really means Central European music from the period between 1770 and 1955.
To my mind this is quite problematic, as he did not exhibit much interest in ‘modern’ kinds of art, except the recent art of Central Europe – in particular the 12-tone music by Schönberg and Webern –, so the first problem is that this theory seems to be a generalization, based on a highly abstract and individual art form, which shows that Adorno’s criterion is, to say the least, ambiguous.
Moreover, what certainly comes to attention is Adorno’s active hostile attitude towards any non-European forms of art, everything outside the musical and literary tradition he grew up with. Especially manifest was his aversion to improvisational music such as Gypsy music (e.g. Django Reinhardt), Flamenco (e.g. Paco de Lucia) and of course Jazz. In Dialectic of Enlightenment he writes (in quite a comical way):
A jazz musician who is playing a piece of serious music, one of Beethoven's simplest minuets, syncopates it involuntarily and will smile superciliously when asked to follow the normal divisions of the beat. This is the “nature” which, complicated by the ever-present and extravagant demands of the specific medium, constitutes the new style and is a “system of non-culture, to which one might even concede a certain ‘unity of style’ if it really made any sense to speak of stylized barbarity”
Only twelve-tone music seems to provide a dialectical resolution for the problems of Western music according to Adorno, by its complete negation of dominant conventions of production and consumption. To appreciate the critical force of Schönberg’s music, one has to know the musical tradition and hear it as part of that history. Capable listeners will then be able to recapitulate the freedom of which the music is an ‘image’ according to Adorno. However, early audiences – such as the ones in Vienna – definitely did not understand Schönberg’s music as evident by its bad reception, but according to Adorno this had to do with what contemporary people are prevented systematically from developing, because the general structure of society discourages any form of spontaneity. As far as Schönberg’s music is concerned this sounds very plausible to me. Listening to his music definitely requires some dedication and adjustability, but can be an extraordinary and beautiful experience as well, such as listening to Verklärte Nacht (1899 – 1917) in the Concertgebouw was for me recently.
THE BIRTH OF THE COOL
But when it comes to Jazz, Adorno can and has been thoroughly criticized, not in the last place because he called it Negerplastik. But I think the master thinker was wrong in undermining the art of genuine improvisation as well; precisely because of the unambiguous presence of spontaneity in Jazz improvisation he believed the Culture Industry hindered us to express. And last, he seemed to overlook all the important new technical means into music brought by artists of Miles Davis’ caliber for instance.
In his Philosophie der neuen Musik, Adorno claims that such forms as the ‘regular’ 4/4 beat, syncopation, vibrato, etc., are images of totalitarian control, collective oppression, mass culture, authoritarianism, from which all dialectical relations have been drained. However, I think it was quite problematic for Adorno to make such statements, as again, he never appeared to thoroughly studied the cultural context of rehearsal and performance, of talent, creativity and skill, developments in the ‘scene’, of relations among Jazz musicians, of venues and so on. These elements are crucial to what improvisation and Jazz essentially are, not only as a form of making music but as a culture as well. Defenders of Adorno in this respect will claim that his critique fundamentally rested on his understanding of music’s formal properties. Therefore, it is wrong to dismiss Adorno as having not understood Jazz, not heard enough of it, and so on, because his reading of Jazz is done at the level of form. Consequently, Adorno wants to explore the ways that the formal structure of Jazz gives expression to the various ways in which the production of culture within the context of capitalist society hinders the individual's capacity to experience a rationality which itself would simultaneously enable a critical awareness of society. Furthermore, Adorno insisted on the integrity and autonomy of the work of art that serves for staying out of the hands of the Culture Industry. He argues that musical form such as in Jazz becomes distorted through the pressures of the Culture Industry and thereby regresses the capacity of listeners.
Although it is understandable to think the musical form in Jazz breeds conformity – because some of it’s basic elements such as the typical ‘walking bass’, the 32 bars choruses, etc. – it would be oversimplified to put all Jazz away like this. Precisely Artists such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and their bands, but certainly more recent ones as well, such as Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and Kurt Rosenwinkel, were and are all departing from conformity, all the time. They all prove(d) to be master musicians in both composing, performing, developing new sounds, and most importantly for Adorno, playing in innovative, atonal, rhythmically complex, responsive and utterly free ways. The problem with Adorno to my mind therefore is, that he over-emphasized the 12-tonal and serialism culture too much, since today, these movements seemed to have passed away quietly. On the other hand, Jazz really started to develop and depart from all standards quite some years after Adorno wrote his main critique about Jazz in the 1930s. So putting his critique away as mere elitism or simply misunderstanding is not my intention.
Nevertheless, the answer to the question of how art can tell truth, create awareness, and be critical is that a work of art is by its nature stimulating and requires for its correct understanding and appreciation a process of interpretation. As Raymond Guess puts it:
“This interpretation will start from an account of the way in which the work internally exhibits ‘freedom’ while at the same time radically negating various traditional practices, and then move on eventually to a historically based critical theory on our society.”
And this is what I believe Schönberg’s music does, but Jazz in a way too, particularly thanks to its form because this form is the center of a kind of rationality, a rationality that is sufficiently distanced from instrumental reason to allow, and actually encourage, radical criticism of the social world, especially by negating traditional practices as evident by Miles Davis second quintet for example (1964 – 1969), or early Ornette Coleman quartets, which are both widely respected groups that broke with all traditions and formed the cornerstone for contemporary forms of Jazz and even other kinds of music.
- Adorno, T.W. (1991) Culture Industry Reconsidered. In: The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, Routledge, London
- Adorno, T.W. & Horkheimer, M. (2010) Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso, London
- Guess, R. (1998), Art and Criticism in Adorno’s Aesthetics, Blackwell, Oxford 297-317
- Hegel, G.W.F. (1975), Hegel’s Aesthetics, Oxford university press, NY
- Thompson, M.J. (2010), Th. W. Adorno Defended against His Critics, and Admirers: A Defense of the Critique of Jazz. In: International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 41, No. 1, 37-49
- Witkin, R.W. (2000), Why did Adorno "Hate" Jazz? In: Sociological Theory, Vol. 18, No. 1, 145-170
 Adorno & Horkheimer (2010), 126-32
 Ibid., 134
 Adorno (1991), 99
 Hegel (1975), 8
 Adorno & Horkheimer (2010), 128
 Guess (1998), 308