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Durham University

The Department of Philosophy


Publication details for Professor Andy Hamilton

Hamilton, Andy (2007). Aesthetics and Music. London: Continuum.

Author(s) from Durham





Ch. 3 THE AESTHETIC OF FORM, THE AESTHETIC OF EXPRESSION, AND "ABSOLUTE MUSIC": aesthetics of music in the late 18th and 19th centuries
Ch. 6: ADORNO AND MODERNISM: music as autonomous and "social fact"

Ch. 1 - Tonality
Ch. 2 - Muzak
Ch. 3 - Aestheticism or Art for Art's Sake
Ch. 7 - Classical Music


Ch. 6: ADORNO AND MODERNISM: music as autonomous and "social fact"

Any contemporary aesthetics must take modernism seriously. Theodor Adorno (1903-69) was a totally committed modernist and avantgardist, who eulogised Schoenberg but found post-1945 developments problematic. He held that modernism's admission of the ugly and dissonant shows art's increasing capacity for self-interrogation. For him, the most authentic art is modernist art which reflects in its own fragmentation the fragmentation of society. Adorno is the most important writer on aesthetics of music in the 20th century. The central concern of this chapter is the possibility of autonomous music, which according to Adorno stands in a dialectical relation to commodification. It is the task of this chapter to assess his view that as the artist became free, their work entered the market-place. Adorno wants us to be struck by how such an extraordinary phenomenon as autonomous music, and autonomous art, in general, could arise. It really is quite an exotic phenomenon, in which artworks become autonomous even of their creators, and Adorno sees its implications as no other writer has done. This central concern with music's autonomy is accompanied by other central issues in Adorno's very rich treatment, such as the language-like character of music, and the nature of artistic material.

1. The advent of modernism

Some of the implications of modernity – its associated system of the arts and the growing aesthetic and social autonomy of music – were traced in Ch. 3. "Modernity" is a general term for social and cultural developments arising with the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century– a sociological and historical phenomenon. Modernism, in contrast, is primarily an artistic phenomenon, a sharpening and intensifying of modernity, or a response to it – some writers describe it as a reaction. Modernity and modernism should not simply be equated, therefore. The fact that that German and other languages have no separate term "modernism" may create some confusion, though in context it is clear that "modern" or "Die Moderne", when used for instance by Adorno, refers to modernism.

Modernism is a problematic and highly contested concept. The consensus is that artistic modernism arose in the later 19th century, flourished in the first three decades of the 20th, and still persists in the face of postmodernism. Many authorities date it from the 1880s, but Adorno claimed a slightly earlier date, arguing that "the category of 'the modern'…emerges for the first time with Baudelaire". It may be that modernism did not appear in all the arts simultaneously – arguably literary modernism began in the 1860s with Baudelaire, followed by painting with Impressionism, and finally, in the 1890s, music – Debussy's "Prélude a l'après-midi d'un faune", inspired by a poem by Mallarmé, is often cited as the first fully modernist work. Any listing is contestable, but principal modernist artists from the early decades include painters Cézanne, Kandinsky, Picasso, and Matisse; architects Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright; composers Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinksy and Varèse; and writers and poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Valéry, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Conrad, Kafka and Proust. Maverick avantgardists such as Satie, Ives and Duchamp enjoy a problematic relationship with modernism, and may be better regarded as proto-postmodernists.

Modernism saw itself as progressive, and in both the visual arts and music, modernists rebelled against classical standards imposed by the academy. In contrast to classicism's scepticism towards the new, "modern" became a positive description of revolutionary avantgardism – the French poet Baudelaire, who defended Wagner against his critics, used it in this sense in 1863. Wagner regarded the history of music as progressive – art should disrupt conservative tastes to reveal hidden truths and make prophetic criticism – and his successors Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg and Debussy engaged in a self-conscious search for a new musical language. But it is impossible to give any account of modernism without taking sides on the question of how radical the break with past tradition really was – that is part of its essential contestability. Even if one accepts the idea of a radical break, there are opposed accounts of what the modernist movement represented. This second issue will be addressed at the end of the chapter.

Concerning the first issue, I must own up to being a card-carrying supporter of modernism, someone who regards the movement's products as revolutionary and immensely rewarding. Modernist Herbert Read was right when in 1933 he referred to "an abrupt break with all tradition...The aim of five centuries of European effort is openly abandoned". A defining feature of modernism is its self-conscious attention to the artistic medium itself. If "medium" is taken to be genre – "string quartet" in music, "still life" in painting – then music was as self-conscious as the other arts; for instance, Stravinsky's "Three Pieces for String Quartet" radically questions the traditional medium in this sense. But taking medium in a larger sense as sound itself, a concern is apparent in music in the work of Edgard Varèse from the 1920s, and earlier if more crudely in the work of the Italian futurists, while it could be argued that painters became self-conscious about the activity of placing marks on surfaces rather earlier. In the words of modernist art critic Clement Greenberg, "Modernism used art to call attention to art" – the movement's persistent experimentalism put into question the very concept of what art is. Critics of modernism would regard such claims as exaggerated, but for its proponents, modernist art is self-conscious, self-reflective, and self-critical, rejecting aesthetic norms.

Modernists were eager to break down barriers between the arts; as we saw in Ch. 3, they especially took the growing abstraction of music during the 19th century as a model for painting – Kandinsky's Concerning The Spiritual In Art is a manifesto for this ideal. There are interesting congruences between the different arts in the heroic early decades of modernism, in their overturning of traditional aesthetic norms. In architecture, modernism is expressed in the dictum "form follows function" and the rejection of decoration. In literature, linear narrative was supplanted by non-traditional forms such as stream of consciousness writing, and realism and naturalism were attacked; in poetry, conventional metrical and rhyming patterns were abandoned, and all that remained was the line. But the most interesting congruence is between visual art and music, which abandoned post-Renaissance perspective and tonality respectively. On an influential modernist view, painting and picturing became separated – abstract paintings were those which no longer depicted, and at most represented conceptual or emotional content. (However, realism is also a strand and so not all modernist painting is abstract.) In music, the 18th and 19th century "era of common practice", based on the tonal system of major and minor keys, came to an end.

For Schoenberg, and later theorists, the music of Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and Mahler showed the breakdown of tonality. From the first decade of the 20th century, with fellow modernists he fragmented the common era syntax, replacing the tonal system with various strategies, most radically through what became known as atonality, further discussed below. In his 1941 essay "Composition with Twelve Tones", Schoenberg explained how his "new style", after1908, emancipated dissonance: "The term emancipation of the dissonance refers to its comprehensibility, which is considered equivalent to the consonance's comprehensibility. A style based on this premise treats dissonances like consonances and renounces a tonal centre". Stultification of the tonal system made this "emancipation" necessary and inevitable, Schoenberg believed. However, to talk of the collapse of tonality and emancipation of the dissonance is itself to subscribe to a Schoenbergian version of modernist history. An alternative view refers instead to the evolution of tonality, citing many modernist composers, notably Stravinsky and Bartók, who continued using key signatures.

Many of its proponents regarded modern art as a necessary response to the contemporary world of industrialisation and mass culture, and the artistic movement was spurred by technological revolution. Russian abstract pioneer Kazimir Malevich commented extravagantly in 1916 that "The new life of iron and the machine, the roar of automobiles, the glitter of electric lights, the whirring of propellers, have awoken the soul, which was stifling in the catacombs of ancient reason and has emerged on the roads woven between earth and sky. If all artists could see the crossroads of these celestial paths… then they would not paint chrysanthemums." The shock and devastation of World War I, and economic instability of the postwar years, deepened the modernist impulse among composers, particularly in France and Germany; in conservative England, Frank Bridge, teacher of Benjamin Britten, was drawn to European modernism as a result. But this was also the era of neoclassicism, which reacted against Romantic expressionism by offering a pastiche of classical ideals – both Stravinsky and Schoenberg went through neoclassical phases, and lesser figures such as Hindemith and Poulenc were largely identified with it. After World War II, modernism persisted through composers Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono and Carter, and painters such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. The 1960s are often described as the crisis of modernism – with its subversion by Cage and later the American minimalists, and in visual art, Pop Art, Op Art and sculptural minimalism. Through the era of postmodernism from the 1970s onwards, high modernists such as Lachenmann, Harvey and Ferneyhough, or in visual art, Noland and Caro, continue to define themselves in opposition to postmodern fragmentation and eclecticism.

Modernism was never embraced by more than a minority of artists, critics or the public, and an aura of difficulty still surrounds the work of leading exponents such as Schoenberg, Eliot and Joyce. The immediate success his opera Wozzeck paradoxically undermined the confidence of Schoenberg's pupil Alban Berg. Adorno, who was involved with the première, reported Berg's feeling that "if a piece of music nowadays won over the public so immediately, there must be something wrong with it. Modernism deepened the rupture between art music and popular music, well underway at the time of Wagner; understanding modernist art seemed to require a specialised language. The poet Philip Larkin – ironically himself a representative of modernism – condemned the "life-denying" modernist trilogy of Charlie Parker, Ezra Pound and Picasso: "How glibly I had talked of modern jazz, without realizing the force of the adjective.... I went back to my books: 'After Parker, you had to be something of a musician to follow the best jazz of the day'. Of course! After Picasso! After Pound! There could hardly have been a conciser summary of what I don't believe about art".

Many commentators argue that not only does modernist art deepen the rupture between high and popular culture, it actively sets itself against popular culture. Thus in his classic article Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg argued that "In turning his attention away from subject matter of common experience, the poet or artist turns it in upon the medium of his own craft". And Ortega y Gasset commented in 1925 that "Modern art will always have the masses against it. It is essentially unpopular; moreover, it is anti-popular". The truth of this assertion depends on the artform in question, however. The impact of modernist painting and architecture on commercial design and the media still endures – Bauhaus products would not be out of in place in a store like Habitat or Ikea. Kandinsky and Rothko reproductions can be found on café walls, but never Webern or Morton Feldman as piped music. Modernism in music did not fundamentally affect the tastes and practices of 20th century mass culture, though its effect on film music and, less directly, popular music has been significant. The rift between modernist art music and popular music is therefore a salient feature of Western musical life. It is a key issue in the work of Theodor Adorno, one of the most important philosophers of music and a product of the modernist movement, whose aesthetics is the focus of this chapter. A high art standpoint often led to aestheticism, and critics of the central modernist narrative argue that it neglects the social context of art. As we will now see, this charge cannot be levelled at Adorno's version of the modernist narrative – though it appears in various forms as a criticism of his work and will have to be addressed more than once.

2. Adorno's aesthetics of modernism

"The fundamental problem addressed by Adorno's aesthetics is how to philosophize about art in the absence of aesthetic norms", writes Max Paddison. In the era of modernism, on this view, prescriptive maxims either for the production of, or critical response to, artworks, are no longer available. As we saw in Ch. 3, Kant denied that such norms, either for artists or audiences, could ever exist – there are no a priori principles of taste, and though rules can be derived from the creations of geniuses, genius itself follows no rules. However, countless critical authorities in the immediate pre-modernist era remained in ignorance of Kant's dictum, codified the era of common practice through rules for harmony and counterpoint which expressed the solidification of bourgeois culture. While pre-modernist autonomous artworks accepted existing criteria for genre and form, and for harmony, unity and integration, modernist works subverted such specifications, and thus became incommensurable with what went before.

Adorno was a precocious adherent of the ideals of the modernist avantgarde. Brought up in a rarefied artistic milieu, from the age of 15 Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, together with the work of Hegel and Marx, was his primary philosophical influence. He studied at Frankfurt University, and 1925-28 was a composition student of Alban Berg. He eulogised Berg's teacher Schoenberg as the paradigm modernist, though the puzzled composer did not return the compliment. Teaching Philosophy at Frankfurt University, he also became associated with the Institute for Social Research, but after the Nazi rise to power in 1933 he became exiled in England then the USA, where he continued sociological research on popular music. In 1949 Adorno returned as co-director of the re-established Institute for Social Research, becoming a leading member of the so-called Frankfurt School of contemporary Marxist philosophy. Philosophy of Modern Music (1949), the book that made him famous, presented Schoenberg and Stravinsky as opposed poles of modernism, with Stravinsky the reactionary. During the 1950s and 60s he was a regular contributor at Darmstadt summer schools, focus of modernist musical activity, debating the music of Stockhausen, Boulez, Ligeti and Cage. Adorno died in 1969; his classic work Aesthetic Theory was published posthumously in 1970.

Paddison describes Adorno's work as a critical sociological aesthetics of music. He was almost exclusively concerned with Western art music of the 18th to 20th centuries, and within that the Austro-German tradition – Classical and Romantic – and its avantgarde wing, the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. His elitist rejection of popular culture discomforts his natural philosophical allies on the left. But for someone whose musical world-view was so narrowly focussed, Adorno's influence has been surprisingly broad. There tends to be an insider quality to discussion of Adorno which I hope to avoid, and his work poses intractable problems for those from other traditions, such as those like the present writer who come from the Analytic Tradition. As Paddison puts it, "Adorno's work is interdisciplinary, densely formulated, deeply paradoxical, anti-systematic and fragmented". His articles and correspondence exhibit less of the involuted dialectical extravagance that characterises his major works. He is an impressive stylist nonetheless, for all the complexity of his writing, though perhaps, in contrast to his sometime literary model Nietzsche, when he strains for effect, the substance does not always justify the rhetoric. The rich and subtle Aesthetic Theory demonstrates Adorno's uncompromising commitment to the union of philosophical aesthetics and the criticism and history of art – a union which, I argued in the Introduction, is essential to aesthetics. As Jarvis writes, "The unique significance of Adorno's work on art lies in the unparalleled determination with which it dashes itself against [the] apparently natural and irresistible opposition [of art history and philosophical aesthetics]". Hence the quote from Schlegel which Adorno intended as the epigraph for Aesthetic Theory, and which I have appropriated for the present book: "Philosophy of art usually lacks one of two things: either the philosophy or the art".

3. Adorno and Kant: art as autonomous and purposeless

As with other philosophical works of great complexity and difficulty, Adorno's Aesthetic Theory is best considered in relation to the writers that its author draws on and opposes. This strategy is particularly appropriate in the case of Adorno, since his "Negative Dialectics" – an interpretation of Hegelian dialectics in which opposites remain unreconciled – operates through a critique of existing systems, in aesthetics those of Kant and Hegel. But although Adorno criticises Kant's aesthetics as "transcendentally abstract", in ways that will be outlined shortly, he regards its core achievements as irreversible. One cannot return to rationalist ideas of timeless rules of taste, while pure subjectivism in aesthetic judgment is equally unacceptable, he maintains. Adorno takes from Kant the fundamental idea that aesthetics is concerned with appearance or semblance (Schein) – it is the domain of the unreal, of images. Kant's concept of purposiveness without a purpose, discussed in Ch. 3, is a key concept for Adorno also, but radicalised. Adorno holds the view, often wrongly imputed to Kant, that artworks – the great artworks of the bourgeois era, at least – are functionless: "Insofar as a social function may be predicated of works of art, it is the function of having no function". This feature, he holds, defines autonomous art, which has as its "purpose" the creation of something without direct purpose or function – in contrast, pre-bourgeois art, in the form for instance of religious or theatre music, does have a direct social function. According to Adorno, autonomous artworks have a social situation but no direct social function. This is a key theme of his aesthetics to which we will repeatedly return.

Although his aesthetics shares profound affinities with Kant's, therefore, Adorno criticises Kantian aesthetics, first on the broadly Hegelian grounds that it neglects the specificity of artworks, and rarely discusses particular cases in detail. Adorno, in contrast, aims to unify aesthetics and artistic criticism. For him, aesthetic appearance or semblance does not arise from a Kantian aesthetic attitude, nor from an item's membership of the artworld; it is a concrete particular that presents itself with each individual work. Relatedly, and also a criticism from Hegel, he holds that Kantian aesthetics fails to address the historicity of art, and wrongly assumes absolute aesthetic norms independent of history. Thirdly, Adorno develops from Marx – as well as Hegel – the criticism that Kantian aesthetics ignores the socially conditioned character of autonomous art. Finally, in place of Kant's allegedly aesthetic conception of art, with the judgment of taste based on disinterested pleasure, Adorno emphasises the Hegelian notion of truth-content. His view is that the value of modernist artworks lies in their truth, and not in any pleasure that they may occasion. As a response to "the real fear triggered by [Kafka's] Metamorphosis or The Penal Colony, that shock of revulsion and disgust", he writes, "disinterestedness would be crudely inadequate… Ultimately disinterestedness debases art to what Hegel mocked, a pleasant or useful plaything".

This final criticism of Kantian aesthetics is unfair, and Adorno's elitist and puritan tendencies come together in further dubious characterisations of Kant's so-called "taste" aesthetic: "Only once it is done with tasteful savouring does artistic experience become autonomous. The route to aesthetic autonomy proceeds by way of disinterestedness; the emancipation of art from cuisine or pornography is irrevocable. Yet art does not come to rest in disinterestedness". And also: "Whoever concretely enjoys artworks is a philistine; he is convicted by expressions like 'a feast for the ears'...What opened up to, and overpowered, the beholder was their truth, which as in works of Kafka's type outweighs every other element. They were not a higher order of amusement". These criticisms are dubious because, like a surprising number of commentators, Adorno treats the theory of aesthetic judgment in the early part of the Critique of Judgment (the Four Moments) as if that were the sum total of Kant's treatment of art, ignoring the later discussion of artworks' cognitive as well as purely aesthetic appeal – or rather, the arguments that aesthetic embraces the cognitive as well as the sensuously pleasurable. For instance, Kant argues that the invention of aesthetic ideas belongs to genius, while their expression in beautiful forms depends on the faculty of taste. The demands of Negative Dialectics – the need to present Kant in a certain argumentative light – lead Adorno to ignore or suppress these aspects of his discussion.

Adorno is in any case mistaken – in this context at least – in assuming that modernist artworks afford no pleasure, or that to gain pleasure from art is to regard it as amusement. Indeed his phrase "Whoever concretely enjoys" shows that he is aware of this – "concretely" is a vague qualification. In continuing to read Kafka, or go to performances of Alban Berg's harrowing operas, one does gain pleasure – even though it would be crass to say, after reading "In the Penal Colony" or seeing Wozzeck, "I enjoyed that". A great performance of Wozzeck will be a shattering experience which one might well want to repeat eventually, but not often. There are experiences which one desires to repeat, such as visiting a parent's grave, which are not pleasurable; however, most artistic examples are not in this category. There is stimulation, and pleasure despite the disturbing nature of the experience – hence the paradox of tragedy, which shows that although the desire to shock is important in modernist art, it is not unique to it. One could respond similarly to Adorno's rejection of beauty in modern art, "all of [whose] beauty consists in denying itself the illusion of beauty" – there is beauty in the sounds and structure of Wozzeck, and the words and structure of Kafka. Here Adorno exaggerates – though he does not fabricate – the distinctive aesthetic problems arising from modernism. Those problems remain challenging enough.

4. Adorno and Hegel: dialectic, historicism and truth-content

We have seen that Adorno's critique of Kantian aesthetics – in which he is nonetheless immersed – is conditioned by the philosophies of Hegel and Marx. Indeed, Adorno's theoretical works are profoundly indebted both to Hegel's dialectical method and to his historicism. However, in contrast to Hegel's "Positive Dialectics", he denies the reconciliation of contradictions, stressing instead their irreconcilable antagonism. In titling his major work Negative Dialectics Adorno is saying that in the historical process, opposites negate each other yet refuse reconcilement or synthesis in a concept of the whole. Hence Adorno's pessimism is as pervasive as his elitism and puritanism, and of a piece with them, while his historicism is also pervasive. It is shown in the concept of immanent critique, which says that an artwork must be interpreted in its own terms, and not by applying external philosophical categories; and in his aesthetics of music, in the discussion of artistic material. It is a truism at least of post-Romantic thought that the artist must remain "true" to the requirements of the material, but Adorno interprets this truism to mean that material is not an inert substance to be transformed by the artist, but is ineliminably historical: "material is what artists manipulate: everything from words, colours and sounds through to connections of any kind…Forms, then, can also become material". That is, the material that the composer addresses is historically "pre-formed". (This issue arose in connection with the discussion of "tone" in Ch. 2.) Genres are passed down, forms and gestures show their historical derivation, but within the structure of the autonomous artwork, this material is "re-formed".

These claims are developed by Adorno in an important correspondence in 1929-32 with modernist Austrian composer Ernst Krenek (1900-91). Krenek saw the composer as an autonomous creator with absolute freedom to select material, but Adorno responded that their choice was restricted by historical possibilities: "When I maintain that atonality is the only possible manner of composing today, it is not because I consider it ahistorically to be 'better', a handier referential system than tonality. It is rather because I think that tonality has collapsed, that every tonal chord has a meaning that we can no longer grasp…" In the early 21st century it is impossible to write without irony in the style of Mahler, let alone Mozart; tonality, for instance, no longer has the meaning it had for them. For Adorno, music of the past is understood from the avantgarde's position, and progressive composers respond to the objective demands of the material. A "tonal conservative" composer, in contrast – one who rejects modernism and in particular Schoenbergian serialism – believes that they can reject these demands, and continue using tonal or classical forms and language without irony. Examples would be Britten, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Robert Simpson, and less convincingly Penderecki (in his Brucknerian incarnation). But Adorno dismissed such conservatism as inauthentic, and allows re-use of tonal material only in the form of what he calls "surrealist music", or neo-classical pastiche, as it is by Weill, Stravinsky and Krenek. Such music understands that "original meaning cannot be restored", and creates a new unity from historical fragments: "…surrealist composing makes use of devalued means…as devalued means, and wins its form from the 'scandal' produced when the dead suddenly spring up among the living…a montage of the debris of that which once was".

This technique of pastiche has become an essential strategy of postmodernism, found in present-day composers from Ligeti to Thomas Adès, and most strikingly in avantgarde visual artist Joseph Beuys. Again, however, the uniqueness of modernism should not be overstated – there is pastiche in Mozart, though such imitations as the "Turkish Rondo" are not ironic. And quotation from a language regarded as dead, in the sense of Adorno's "surrealist music" is hard to find before modernism – Bruckner refers to Beethoven, but as a living inspiration. More important, Adorno, in stressing the extremes of avantgarde and reaction, neglects the possibility of "tonal radicalism". Although he discusses Weill and "surrealist music", he does not recognise the enduring possibilities of this approach, demonstrated in the later 20th and 21st centuries by such composers as Tippett, George Rochberg, Kagel, Finnissy, Rihm and Saariaho.

We have been talking of "valid" artistic procedures and authentic art. For Adorno, validity and authenticity crucially depend on what he terms "truth-content". This concept, originating in Hegel's cognitivist conception of art discussed in Ch. 3, is captured in the quotation from the latter which heads the introduction to Adorno's Philosophy of Modern Music (1949): "In art we have to do not with any agreeable or useful child's play, but with an unfolding of the truth". Adorno believes that there is a suppressed cognitive element in mimesis – the ancient conception of art as imitation of nature. While he takes the concept of truth-content from Hegel, he takes from Marx as well as Hegel the idea that it is a social truth – and from modernism that it is a fragmented and not a unitary one. But what exactly is truth-content? It may seem that while artistic truth in imaginative literature is comprehensible, in music it is obscure. The "untruthful" crime fiction of Agatha Christie, with its wooden characterisation and clichéd social settings, contrasts with the psychologically compelling characterisation and social realism – the well-observed social, class and political distinctions – found in the novels of Joseph Conrad. However, Adorno holds that all artworks, and not just those whose medium is language, possess a "language-character", which he links with truth-content.

By this he means that elements which are not meaningful in themselves are organised into a meaningful structure: "Music resembles language in that it is a temporal sequence of articulated sounds which are more than just sounds. They say something, often something human. The better the music, the more forcefully they say it. The succession of sounds is like logic: it can be right or wrong. But what has been said cannot be detached from the music. Music creates no semiotic system". The truth-content of a Mahler symphony is not captured by the metaphysical pronouncements favoured by programmatic interpretations; nor are Wagner's music-dramas decoded by a process of literal motif-identification. In contrast, Adorno gives the example of musical affirmation, "the judicious, even judging affirmation of something that is, however, not expressly stated", such as the first movement recapitulation in Beethoven's 9th Symphony. On the strength of its similarity to language, Adorno believes, music constantly poses a riddle, which it never answers – but he insists that this is true of all art. Even when its medium is linguistic, what the artwork says is not what its words say, and so the cases of music and literature are not so distinct: "No art can be pinned down as to what it says, and yet it speaks".

In speaking of truth-content, Adorno often compares composers to philosophers, and describes their work in philosophical terms – for instance, he links Beethoven's dialectical treatment of sonata form with Hegel's dialectical method. He compares Hegel's emphasis on the "labour of the concept" with the way that, in the history of music, motivic or thematic material must increasingly be worked on, not just recapitulated. Thus Beethoven carries out development even in his recapitulation sections – it is no longer sufficient simply to repeat material, it must be altered or transformed. The hard-to-grasp notion of truth-content will be pursued further in the context of Adorno's individual brand of Marxism.

5. Adorno and Marx: art as commodity or social fact

Adorno's work arises from the Idealist tradition of Kant and Hegel, but also from Marx's materialist critique of that tradition. Classical Marxism, commonly taken to derive from the later Marx, is a materialist theory of society and history according to which the economic circumstances under which people produce and consume conditions their culture. Like the core ideas of Darwin and Freud, this theory has entered the life-blood of 20th century Western thought. Economic determinism is a rigid form of this view, but Marx himself usually allowed an interaction between economic base and political, social and cultural superstructure, such that cultural conditions exercise some reciprocal influence on economic ones. The Frankfurt School – under the influence of Hungarian Marxist philosopher György Lukács – cited the younger Marx in favouring historical rather than scientific, deterministic materialism, and stressed the importance of culture. Thus Adorno is a heterodox Marxist who questions what he regards as the "vulgar Marxist" privileging of production and rejects the linear evolutionary scheme of classical Marxism. This position has become known as Western Marxism, as a contrast to the traditional Soviet version; it questions whether proletarian revolution is any longer possible, since the working-class has ceased to be a vehicle for social change. It is against this sceptical background that Adorno's notorious ambivalence towards student revolt in 1968 should be judged: "I had set up a theoretical model, but I could not suspect people would want to put it into action with Molotov cocktails".

Adorno's sociological critique treats art in the context of its use in industrialized societies, and holds that while it lacks the direct social function of pre-autonomous art, it functions as a commodity; at the same time its apparent autonomy is not mere bourgeois ideology but has an essential critical function. Progressive art embodies and exists within bourgeois culture whilst denying by its truth-content that very culture; it demythologises late capitalism as a false totality. As Adorno puts it, "truth-content [is] the task of critique". So he develops or qualifies Kant's pure autonomy aesthetic through the Hegel-inspired concept of truth-content and the historical conditioning of artworks, and through the Marxist concept of art's social determination. His Marxism is filtered also through Freud, and Marxist thinkers Lukács and Walter Benjamin.

This leads us to the central dichotomy in Adorno's aesthetic theory, between art as autonomous (from Kant) and art as commodity (from Marx): "Art's double character as both autonomous and fait social [social fact]" is a contradiction in the Hegelian or Marxist sense. This dichotomy bears on the central concern of this chapter, the possibility of autonomous music. Adorno's key claim is that although there autonomy and commodity status are in tension, yet each requires the other – the paradigm of dialectical opposition. In order to explain how art has this "double character" as autonomous and commodified, we need first to understand exactly what Adorno means by "autonomous art". As we saw in Ch. 3, art in the pre-Enlightenment era had been in the service of a social function arising from court, aristocracy or church. On the modernist picture, music loses its direct function in society with the ascendancy of bourgeois culture from the late 18th century; aristocratic and church patronage declined, and a non-functional "art music" developed. It was no longer the primary role of composers to write for religious services, military bands or the theatre, or to produce Tafelmusik – literally "table-music" – played during meals. If an artist stops working for a specific patron such as a church or a court, and offers their work for sale to patrons whose identities are not fully specified in advance – that is, once they begin to function within the market – it becomes easier for them to produce works that embody their own values rather than those of their patrons, thus increasing their autonomy. Growing autonomy goes hand-in-hand with the commodification of artworks. As Jacques Attali pithily put it, "The artist was born at the same time as his work went on sale".

This growing autonomisation of art is a central theme of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory. For him, its key representative was Beethoven. Adorno believes that it is only because art became socially autonomous, that it could become self-conscious and socially critical. He links the critical role of music with the focus on form which also arises with autonomy. As an heir to the tradition of absolute music discussed in Ch. 3, Adorno argues that the autonomous art-work creates its own inner logic, without referring to anything external to its form. In its consistency and total integration, form and content are identical; the work is its idea. In contrast, heteronomous art imitates, represents, or expresses something outside itself. Adorno does not say that works of art "ought" to become autonomous; the autonomization of the work of art is an inevitable historical process. At the same time, though they may embrace the fact, reject it, or appear unaware of it, socially autonomous works have no choice but also to be commodities. According to Adorno, high art's claims of autonomy – the implicit claim of artworks to be more than a mere thing, to have a non-exchangeable dignity – strictly illusory The concept of autonomous art has probably always been "ideological" in Marx's sense, necessary in order for art to take on a critical function towards society, but it is not thereby false: "Artworks are plenipotentiaries of things that are no longer distorted by exchange, profit, and the false needs of a degraded humanity". There is a dialectical relation between the aspiration to autonomy, and the reality – whether an artwork recognises it or not – of commodification.

I have defined autonomy as lack of direct social function, since in his formulation of art as social fact, Adorno absolutely recognises that all art has a social function in some sense. The point that he is making about autonomous art is that its social function arises precisely because of its apparent functionlessness – hence the importance to him of Kant's concept of "purposiveness without a purpose". The most obvious function of functionless art is as a badge of conspicuous consumption, and a statement of prestige – as in corporate hospitality events hosted at the Tate Modern or Royal Festival Hall. Indeed, a "false reconciliation" with society has "paved the way in the sphere of radically abstract art: Nonrepresentational art is suitable for decorating the homes of the newly prosperous". But the principal social function of autonomous art in the era of modernism and after, Adorno believes, remains social critique – in virtue of form not content. But "Art…is social not only because of its mode of production…nor simply because of the social derivation of its thematic material. Much more importantly, art becomes social by its opposition to society, and it occupies this position only as autonomous art. By crystallising in itself as something unique to itself, rather than complying with existing social norms and qualifying as 'socially useful', it criticises society by merely existing…through its refusal of society, which is equivalent to sublimation through the law of form, autonomous art makes itself a vehicle of ideology". We return to the question of the critical role of autonomous art, and its reciprocal or dialectical relation to commodification, in the final section of the chapter.

We have just seen Adorno comment on the "social derivation" of musical material. For him, art is "concentrated social substance" and so contains within itself the contradictions of social reality. Its material is a sediment of social relations, and is "historical through and through". Again Adorno's profound historicism is evident: "If art opposes the empirical through the element of form…the mediation [of form and content] is to be sought in the recognition of aesthetic form as sedimented content. What are taken to be the purest forms (e.g. traditional musical forms) can be traced back even in the smallest idiomatic detail to content such as dance". Adorno has in mind the way, for example, that trumpet flourishes in a classical symphony are derived from music for military bands, and that movements such as minuet and scherzo originated in dance forms – recent research suggests direct allusions to French revolutionary songs in the finale of the Beethoven's Fifth symphony. The historical progress of mediated musical material is for Adorno an aspect of what he calls the Dialectic of the Enlightenment – the progressive domination of nature and the rationalisation of all aspects of social life. Adorno regards sociology of art as embracing all elements of the relationship between art and society, and treats it dialectically in a sense to be explained shortly: "It is impossible to restrict it to any simple aspect, such as the social effects of works of art. This effect is in itself only a moment in the totality of that relationship". Hence his claim that "Art perceived strictly aesthetically is art aesthetically misperceived" – the result would be "aestheticism" in the bad sense of "art for art's sake", a socially irresponsible misunderstanding. Even a retreat from the market is a symptom of the latter's dominance. The amateur composer or Sunday afternoon painter, apparently working in isolation, has to confront social forces from within the material itself – musical themes and forms, visual subjects such as bourgeois leisure activities. Artistic material is social sediment and for Adorno, individual artistic intentions are not enough to overcome this fact. Adorno's sociology of art permeates all levels of his aesthetics.

Adorno's picture is that as composers and artists gained independent social status and precarious economic power in a developing capitalist market during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the liberal, "bourgeois" art of Beethoven celebrated the class it represented, and epitomised the socially and artistically progressive. In his time, the utopian notions of the French Revolution did not seem hopelessly idealistic: "If [Beethoven] is the musical prototype of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, he is at the same time the prototype of a music that has escaped from its social tutelage and is aesthetically fully autonomous…His work explodes the schema of a complaisant adequacy of music and society". Adorno stresses that through its organic form – the relentless development of thematic material, most famously in the opening movement of the 5th Symphony – Beethoven's music epitomises socially progressive forces. He explains how it contains truth-content, and how through its dynamic form not its content is critical of society: "The kinship with that bourgeois libertarianism which rings all through Beethoven's music is a kinship of the dynamically unfolding totality. It is in fitting together under their own law…that his themes come to resemble the world whose forces move them; they do not do it by imitating that world". In the decades after the failed revolutions of 1848, however, the bourgeoisie ceased to be the revolutionary class, and commodification became a prison rather than a liberation for the artist. With "art for art's sake" in the later 19th century, art withdrew from political action; in the modernist era which followed, progressive art lost the self-confidence it possessed with Beethoven, and turned against the bourgeois culture which produced it. During the 20th century, Adorno argues, there is a growing split between the music of the culture industry which embraces its commodity status, and a high or avantgarde art which rejects it.

6. The culture industry

The most influential concept from Adorno's sociology of art was taken up by the Frankfurt School as a whole – the culture industry, which diverts the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. Adorno first used the term in a chapter-title from the Dialectic of Enlightenment of 1944, co-authored with Horkheimer, to denote a filtering mechanism, which pre-selects music and artworks and standardises public taste according to the demands of the capitalist market. It constantly promises the new, and "perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises". Adorno prefers the term "culture industry" to "mass culture" because it is not a culture that arises spontaneously from the masses, but is administered from above: "The culture industry piously claims to be guided by its customers and to supply them with what they ask for. But while assiduously dismissing any thought of its own autonomy and proclaiming its victims its judges, it outdoes in its veiled autocracy, all the excesses of autonomous art…It drills them in their attitudes as if it were itself a customer."

Adorno seems to hold the elitist belief that nothing can be both popular and artistically valuable; his critique of mass culture is unusual in being left-wing elitist rather than right-wing elitist. During their debate in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin took the opposed view that film and radio have a politically progressive impact in politicising the masses, and that mechanical reproduction has the salutary effect of undermining the traditional aesthetic "aura". Adorno questioned both moves. Concerning the second, he confesses his disquiet "that you now casually transfer the concept of magical aura to the 'autonomous work of art' and flatly assign to the latter a counter-revolutionary function…it seems to me that…within itself [the autonomous artwork] juxtaposes the magical and the mark of freedom". Concerning the first, Adorno's "On The Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening" (1938) argued that the mass arts resist musical innovation. "The composition hears for the listener" is his memorable verdict on popular music – no listening effort is required – and he draws implausibly dark, totalitarian conclusions from the mass crazes and infatuations of contemporary popular culture. His long essay "On Popular Music" (1941) diagnoses the standardisation of popular musical material – he was very struck by Abner Silver and Robert Bruce's How To Write and Sell a Song Hit (1939), with its ten cardinal rules for successful songwriters.

The culture industry is often assumed to embrace only popular music and arts, but this is a misinterpretation of Adorno's concept. It also includes art music of the past that has been transformed into "museum-art", as well as "moderate", non-modernist music of the present time that makes compromises in order to be accessible. For instance, Mozart's Symphony No. 40 and Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" have become popular classics and hence commodified – Adorno would have marvelled at, and been appalled by, their appropriation by the mobile ring-tone industry. But unlike commodified pop music, the work of Vivaldi and Mozart was not originally a product of the culture industry. Thus the same work might in one era be autonomous, and in a later era entirely commodified; its aesthetic value can change over time, or maybe one should say that the identity of the work changes: "Works are usually critical in the era in which they appear; later they are neutralised, not least because of changed social relations. Neutralisation is the social price of aesthetic autonomy". Paddison comments that for Adorno the split is not so much between serious and popular music as such – a division which has become, in his view, increasingly meaningless due to the almost inescapable commodity character of all cultural products in the 20th century: "The split is much more between…music which accepts its character as commodity, thus becoming identical with the machinations of the culture industry itself, and…self-reflective music which critically opposes its fate as commodity, and thus ends up by alienating itself from present society by becoming unacceptable to it".

Adorno's elitist assault on popular culture has long been an embarrassment to his adherents on the left. In his notorious polemic "On Jazz" (1936), written under the pseudonym Hektor Rottweiler – Adorno's sense of humour was no laughing matter – he confused commercial danceband music and improvised jazz. This is rather like writing an essay "On Rock" focussing on the Spice Girls and Pop Idol winners, or "On Cinema" on the basis of having seen a few "Carry On" films – or indeed writing "On Classical Music" and looking at Manuel and His Music of the Mountains or Mantovani. "Farewell to Jazz" (1933) implausibly claims that classical music anticipated jazz syncopation, but its criticism of jazz's rather predictable use of standard, 32-bar song forms has some validity. Moreover, Adorno deserves credit for taking dance music seriously as a social fact, rather than dismissing it as harmless entertainment. He was not the first philosopher to draw insightful conclusions about an area of artistic endeavour that he only imperfectly understood, and his grudging conclusion is not completely without foundation: "What it was possible to learn from jazz is the emancipation of the rhythmic emphasis from metrical time; a decent, if very limited and specialized thing, with which composers had long been familiar, but which, through jazz, may have achieved a certain breadth in reproductive practice". [ref] (This question is taken up in Ch. 7 on Improvisation.) The lofty high art standpoint from which Adorno delivers this verdict is echoed in his rejection of arthouse cinema: "all intentions to ennoble films artistically do indeed look awry, falsely elevated, out of keeping with the form – imports for the connoisseur. The more pretensions a film has to art, the more bogus it becomes".

PICTURE: Adorno sang and played the blues for relaxation.

The later Frankfurt School writer Jürgen Habermas must be almost alone in maintaining that "by all notable standards, Adorno remained anti-elitist", though he did concede that "it was denied him, in a clearly painful way, ever to be trivial". Lukács added the charge of "champagne socialism" to that of elitism, arguing that the Frankfurt School took a pessimistic view of capitalism while enjoying its benefits – taking up residence in Grand Hotel Abgrund ("Grand Hotel Abyss"), a luxury hotel on the edge of the Abyss from where they contemplate the void "between excellent meals or artistic entertainments". It should however be noted that according to his philosophical stance, only the extremes embody historical truth – Negative Dialectics focusses on extreme autonomy and extreme commodity. The fracturing of the social totality – the disintegration of late capitalist society – is reflected in the split between the avant-garde and popular culture, the autonomous work and work as commodity: "Both bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change (but never, of course, the middle-term between Schoenberg and the American film). Both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up". Hindemith's attempt to create Gebrauchsmusik ("useful music") for amateur performers is futile – there is no middle way between the avantgarde's rejection of an audience (Schoenberg) and the purely commercial product (Hollywood).

The poignancy of Adorno's pessimistic vision should not blind one to the possibility that such middle terms do exist. Popular culture is not as cohesive as he claims, and embraces both "opiate", and autonomous expression in forms such as jazz, arthouse cinema and experimental rock. The reification of extremes – austere, audience-alienating modernism and commodified pop music – is a misconception at the heart of Negative Dialectics. The present extremes of commodification are, however, as shocking as anything conceived by Adorno. It is unlikely that in his worst nightmares he could have envisaged such paeans to inanity and imbecility as reality TV's Big Brother and the manufactured democracy of Pop Idol. He may even have underestimated the disastrous cultural consequences of late capitalist affluence, as the fabulous wealth of consumer society cascades in ever more fatuous directions, while so-called high art thrives only at the service of the culture industry. In face of such developments, an Adorno-like pessimism and despair is the only sane reaction.

7. Music of the avant-garde: Adorno's limited grounds for optimism

We have seen that through his theory of the culture industry, Adorno diagnoses a divide in 20th-century music between on the one hand, a progressive, self-reflective and critical music which resists commodification in the market-place, while alienating itself from its public – and on the other hand, a regressive, assimilated music that uncritically accepts its commodity character as entertainment. In the earlier 19th century, when art music and popular music were less divided, Stendhal could begin his Life of Rossini as follows:

Napoleon is dead; but a new conqueror has already shown himself to the world; and from Moscow to Naples, from London to Vienna, from Paris to Calcutta, his name is constantly on every tongue. The fame of this hero knows no bounds save those of civilisation itself.

No biography of a contemporary composer could make such grandiose claims – we have no Rossini, only all-conquering Andrew Lloyd Webber. (Though on reflection, maybe the difference is not so great.)

In the modern divide, Adorno believes, only authentic avantgarde art, which resists its social commodification, could be both socially conditioned and aesthetically autonomous. Avantgarde music ultimately alienates itself from its audience, which is bourgeois; Schoenberg and his followers most radically, but also Stravinsky, Bartók and Hindemith. The extent of their alienation is shown in the way that, after World War I, modernist composers sought refuge in organisations, such as the Society for Private Musical Performances, and fought against the domination of the arts by business interests.

For Adorno, Schoenberg remained the exemplar of authentic art, especially the freely atonal works of 1907-14, with their remarkable structural freedom which raised expression to a new level. The expressionist monodrama "Erwartung", written in a stream of consciousness style, seemingly avoids thematic recurrence in its fragmented form. This genuinely "new music," Adorno wrote, "breaks from the continuity of musical development. It is shockingly alienated from [normal] musical speech, and it declares war upon the dispassionate, hedonistic popular taste". During the 1920s, unable to sustain the intensity of creative effort, Schoenberg codified atonality in the serial or 12-tone system – almost a replacement for the tonal system which he had destroyed. Adorno was at best ambivalent towards this development, regarding it as a neo-classical prison and "spurious harmony" – it was no coincidence, he felt, that Schoenberg turned to baroque forms and simple binary structures at this time.

As Paddison notes, Analytic aestheticians have not been attracted by the concept of authenticity implicit in Adorno's notion of autonomous art, who instead emphasise authentic performance in the sense of original instruments, composers' intentions and expression, and the issue of originals, fakes and copies. However, it is arguably the most important sense of "authenticity". Authentic art of the avantgarde is distinctive in both social and aesthetic terms. We have seen how, according to Adorno, the conflict between autonomy and commodity results in music's "alienation": "Through the total absorption of both musical production and consumption by the capitalist process, the alienation of music from man has become complete". The result is music into which no social function falls – indeed, which even severs the last communication with the listener. The Philosophy of Modern Music describes authentic modern music which rejects its audience as like the messages of bottles thrown into the sea by shipwrecked sailors. Milton Babbitt, a serialist successor of Schoenberg, made this aim explicit in a notorious article published in 1958 under the title "Who cares if you listen?" The difficulties of grasping contemporary music – and indeed of composing it – in the absence of the comprehension-inducing language of tonality, haunted Adorno throughout his career.

Authentic avantgarde art is distinctive also in more narrowly aesthetic terms. An influential post-Romantic view of artistic creation holds that artworks set up conflicts which are resolved within the frame of the work. But for Adorno, the modernist work sets up conflicts which cannot be resolved, thus rupturing the form of the work – and reflecting the impossibility of reconciliation within society. This fracturing process can be traced back as far as Beethoven's late string quartets and piano sonatas, whose disintegration of form created bafflement in their own time: "The utmost integration is utmost semblance [illusion] and this causes the former's reversal: Ever since Beethoven's last works those artists who pushed integration to an extreme have mobilised disintegration. The truth content of art, whose organon was integration, turns against art". According to Adorno's Negative Dialectics, "A successful work is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradiction, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure". "Success" is relative; even the authentic works will fail, but the effort must be made. For Adorno, indeed, "the authentic works are the failures" – late Beethoven, Schoenberg, Samuel Beckett – and he would have appreciated the line from Beckett's Worstward Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." Adorno asserts so often that Art may no longer be possible – most famously in his remark about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz – that his aesthetics of music provides very limited grounds for optimism.

His defence of art as socially critical separates Adorno's position from "art for art's sake", but it is essential to understand that this socially critical role does not imply a defence of "political art". Here is another dialectical opposition: "It was plausible that socially progressive critics should have accused the programme of l'art pour l'art, which has often been in league with political reaction, of promoting a fetish with the concept of a pure, exclusively self-sufficient artwork'", he writes. However, this sympathy with progressive critics of art for art's sake does not mean accepting political art: "What is social in art is its immanent movement against society, not its manifest opinions". Though he praises the playwright Bertold Brecht, Adorno has little time for the politically committed art which Brecht represents, and he was highly critical of Hanns Eisler, a student of Schoenberg who wrote "songs for the masses" in the 1930s and became an "official" composer of post-war East Germany. Adorno argues that Eisler's enterprise risks degenerating into mere propaganda, which like the banal products of Socialist Realism or Nazi art betrays its own "law of form", the demands of its material. Art should oppose capitalist coercion indirectly through form, not directly through content, Adorno believes: "It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men's heads". The way things are constricts the imagination; it is the role of art to resist this.

This critique of politically committed art is a political one – Adorno's point is that the result may end up as bad art without becoming good politics either. The autonomous modernist artwork is, he maintains, at least as valid politically as committed art. Kafka's work represents for Adorno an ideal of this politically-engaged art which resists capitalism by its form alone, and not by stirring proclamations: "In [it] monopoly capitalism appears only in the background; yet it codifies in the flotsam of the administered world what human beings have experienced under the total social spell, more faithfully and more powerfully than novels about corrupt industrial trusts". Although it would be absurd to regard Adorno, as some writers have, as an "apolitical aesthete", Martin Jay's description of a "political deficit" in Adorno's theorising is to the point; his interest was in culture, society and the human psyche rather than the political realm. Understandably for one who lived through the Weimar Republic and the Nazi and Stalinist eras, he was pessimistic about the emancipatory potential of modern liberal societies.

Adorno's critique of political art is, I believe, a persuasive one. Political art can be regarded as a development of the traditional, pre-Romantic category of didactic art. Art has a meaning, even a message that the artist wishes the audience to grasp, but according to the post-Romantic conception of art this is not a didactic one – the audience must be free to recognise and perhaps accept it in their own way. Thus the greatest art is not prescriptive, but allows for freedom of response – though such freedom does not rule out the possibility of misinterpretation. In contrast, political or propaganda art – Michael Moore's film documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11 are a striking recent example – tells the audience what to think. It is authoritarian art that leaves little room for freedom of response. (Religious art may not be explicitly didactic – more like a shared assumption of a religious world-view.)

It might be thought that so-called absolute music could hardly be political. But debates within the school of John Cage with his student Christian Wolff, and disciple Christopher Cardew – who we encountered in Ch. 5 discussing "X for Henry Flynt" – show that this assumption is mistaken. Wolff has said that he does not think that music should be manipulative, in contrast to Cardew's proselytising streak: "For me, the aim is not to say 'This is what you must think', but to get people to look at things and think about them. Basically people have to do that for themselves". He continues: "Anything to do with culture or art, which by necessity has some public character to it, is political…The performance of music always has a social setting where it's part of some kind of establishment or power centre – a concert for some kind of community, elite or variously interested parties." Wolff explains the variety of responses to that situation. One is "political music" of the kind Eisler wrote. "Another way is to think of the music as a kind of model, say of cooperation," he continues, "the interaction, both free and contingent, of performers…there's the possibility of having the music such that in its performance it doesn't simply convey some simple message: get rid of all nuclear technology, for instance. The point's really more to help people focus certain energies." This is the freedom of response specified by the post-Romantic conception of art.

8. Dialectics and the autonomy of art

It is necessary to evaluate Adorno's claim as well as interpret them, and this final section addresses his core claim that the art of modernity is both autonomous and commodified. We saw how, from the social perspective, the autonomy of music is for Adorno a kind of illusion, and vice versa – each position is false from the terms of the other. They are not two sides of one coin, but are irreconcilable. To understand these central claims we must backtrack to the pre-dialectical opposition between classical Marxism