The injustice committed by all cheerful art, especially by entertainment, is probably an injustice to the dead; to accumulated, speechless pain. Still, black art bears features that would, if they were definitive, set their seal on historical despair; to the extent that change is always still possible they too may be ephemeral. The radically darkened art — established by the surrealists as black humor — which the aesthetic hedonism that survived the catastrophes defamed for the perversity of expecting that the dark should give something like pleasure, is in essence nothing but the postulate that art and a true consciousness of it can today find happiness only in the capacity of standing firm. This happiness illuminates the artwork’s sensuous appearance from within. Just as in internally consistent artworks spirit is communicated even to the most recalcitrant phenomenon, effectively rescuing it sensuously, ever since Baudelaire the dark has also offered sensuous enticement as the antithesis of the fraudulent sensuality of culture’s facade. There is more joy in dissonance than in consonance: This metes out justice, eye for eye, to hedonism. The caustic discordant moment, dynamically honed, is differentiated in itself as well as from the affirmative and becomes alluring; and this allure, scarcely less than revulsion of the imbecility of positive thinking[,] draws modern art into a no-man’s-land that is the plenipotentiary of a livable world. Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, that crystalline unity of imaginary essence and a totality of dissonance, was the first to achieve this aspect of the modern. Negation may reverse into pleasure, not into affirmation.
Aesthetic Theory (40)
Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor
The continuing, even growing, relevance of Critical Theory to contemporary art is exemplified in the new MA in Critical Theory and the Arts program at the School of Visual Arts here in New York, which will launch in September 2012. The program is being chaired by the translator of the above excerpt and one of Adorno’s most incisive and imaginative American critics, Robert Hullot-Kentor, who spoke with artist Paul Chan at length about Adorno in the March 2007 issue of the Brooklyn Rail. The interview is excellent reading, and even ends with a bit of salutary and rather lovely advice from Adorno (via Hullot-Kentor) himself:
Rail: What you’re saying, I don’t know if radical is the right word, anachronism may not be the right word, but really the idea of this seemingly innumerable, inextricable, connection that comes from everywhere and anything, from media coming at you, from the cell phone, the e-mail, to your landline, to text messaging; it really feels like everything around you is saying you should connect.
Hullot-Kentor: That’s exactly the point; I’m glad you put it that way. Adorno gave a set of lectures on moral philosophy in 1957—it’s not the series on moral philosophy that was recently published. But, anyway, Adorno ended that seminar acknowledging the disproportion between what an individual can do and what the combined social powers are. He thought that the disproportion of forces is absolute. If a single person could locate the mythical lever that would change everything, that person could not budge that lever. This is plain fact in the US right this minute where even a considerable majority has so far been unable to budge that lever and isolate a president who represents forces that have done incalculable harm and still mean to do lots more of the same.
So what’s a person to do who has few illusions about the situation? Adorno recommended something modest, but it would be half utopian right this moment: “You,” he was talking to his students, and I’m just half remembering this ‘you don’t have to play along completely; you can do things a little differently.’ That word “difference” took a considerable beating over the last few decades. But, Paul, you indicated what would make a difference, if a modest one: instead of functioning as the point where all those connections you were talking about a second ago are made; instead of being the synaptic co-ordination for the sales brigade; instead of eagerly handing the baton along—it can be intercepted and set quietly on the ground. You can not make the connection. You can cause a Bermuda triangle to settle over the scene of industrial entertainment. It’s a pleasure listening for the engines to conk out, where the conversation folds up and pitches into the waves. You might not know what that movie was about, and are indifferent anyway; maybe you can’t recognize the punch line to that advertisement; maybe you don’t know which team plays which sport; or maybe you couldn’t escape knowing the ad lines, or the movie plot, but you do as if. It’s a possibility. One can save the capacity of familiarity for what might be genuinely familiar. I wish people would. Let the big ship leave by itself, one rider less.