Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Aesthetic Illusion in Total Illusion
Adorno asks that the play of illusion (Schein) in art be understood in the social “context of total Schein”:
What is social in art is its immanent movement against society, not its manifest opinions. Its historical gesture repels empirical reality, of which artworks are nevertheless part in that they are things. Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness. Through their difference from a bewitched reality, they embody negatively a position in which what is would find its rightful place, its own. Their enchantment is disenchantment. (Aesthetic Theory 227)
Although it's very hard to paraphrase Adorno's argument about the function of Schein, since it takes up most of Aesthetic Theory, it goes something like this: By coming into being as art, art works necessarily take on an illusory character, in that their fiction and semblance present themselves with the authority of facts; yet artworks incorporate an index that invites queries about their own status and that of facts in general. As artworks incite the question “What is it?” (AT 121), they may also raise the question “whether the power of being thus-and-not-otherwise” is “the index of . . . truth” (AT 245). By having form and becoming social fact, art stakes a claim to reality that amounts to “art’s Schein of being-in-itself,” and which always needs to be corrected and self-corrected; yet that claim, in the “context of total Schein . . . is the mask of truth” (AT 227).
The energy created in the implosive moment—a “moment” obsessively repeated—when Adorno asserts that art works entail a self-contradiction the awareness of which is also what they have to contribute, generates most of Aesthetic Theory and its 30+ years of commentary. Adorno’s aesthetics is a micrological cosmos that opens inside the infinite space of art’s self-contradiction, its vacillation between Schein and the forces (forces within illusion itself) that break its authority. The contradictory quality of artworks is the horizon for everything that can be imagined about art in the text. Adorno points out that the contradiction isn't just art’s own, that “irritation with Schein has its locus in the object itself” (AT 101). Modern art can’t cease to be contradictory before social reality itself ceases to be contradictory (which is perfectly logical, that's no problem), and art becomes a part of social reality as soon as it comes into being (which is where there starts to be a problem). It’s right here that pressure can be applied to Adorno’s economy. It's not a simple matter, as he knows, to say when art comes into being, since to answer that question we need to know what art is, and who knows what it is? The answer that Adorno gives is meant to be as general as possible: art comes into being as soon as it has form (AT 144).
Adorno’s evidence for the assertion that art exists wherever an artwork has form—and not where it doesn’t, since “art has precisely the same chance of survival as does form” (AT 141)—is axiomatic. Without form, the artwork wouldn't exist as art; there'd be nothing to distinguish it from everything else, everything that it repels through its form. His descriptions of what limits art are famously normative: art is not merely or mainly “involuntary” (AT 69); nor is it the unbinding of sounds and colors from context (AT 90) or “the grouping of color that is simply factual” (AT 144); art maintains a relation to meaning and interpretation, even when its enigma cannot be interpreted. If it didn’t, that “would erase the demarcation line between art and nonart” (AT 128). The many "when" and “if” clauses in the text indicate the places where possibilities are stirring and being stilled:
As soon as the artwork fears for its purity so fanatically that it loses faith in its possibility and begins to display outwardly what cannot become art—canvas and mere tones—it becomes its own enemy, the direct and false continuation of purposeful rationality. This tendency culminates in the happening . . . . The difference of artworks from the empirical world, their Schein character, is constituted out of the empirical world and in opposition to it. If for the sake of their own concept artworks wanted absolutely to destroy this reference back to the empirical world, they would wipe out their own premise. (AT 103)
Granted that the artwork that seems to exist as a unity generates a Schein effect and also partly negates its own Schein effect, why, finally, does art ever have to be positive at all—that is, why does art have to come to being? The justification for art's taking a falsely positive form seems to be the assumption that only "form" constitutes itself “out of the empirical world and in opposition to it.” But the example of the happening suggests that it's not only aesthetic form that opposes the form of the given fact. There are also experiences and perceptions that never crystallize a form, such as the phenomena Kant excludes from the aesthetic as “charms” (Reiz). Flashing up as mere appearance, they don’t hold still even for a moment for our contemplation. They don't, like aesthetic forms, give off the illusion that they couldn't be otherwise. They barely are what they are. They touch, then fall away from the threshold of “what is,” as though coming into being were no great prize. An artistic happening is infinitely more formal than this kind of mere phenomenality, and it possesses the second-tier Schein of the authoritative rejection of authority that Adorno describes in aesthetic examples throughout the book. Still, in contrast with Adorno’s notion of the artwork, it does have a distinguishing feature in common with mere appearance, over against the given fact: its willingness to stop happening, and soon. (This quality is mostly wiped out when artists record their happenings.) As he criticizes the happening for letting itself be just another part of the world, Adorno criticizes Webern for "dodg[ing]" the problems of form and negation by writing such tiny, fleeting musical pieces. Here, he doesn't completely explore what takes art’s place when art isn't compelled to exist, and whether that unknown category--the relief of art's lifted weight--might be better than “art” at that same rejection of "what is" for which he loves art.
Image: Marco Breuer, cameraless photograph; thank you to The Art of Memory