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Arts & Letters
Can Art Fight Fascism?
Justin Kaushall considers Adorno’s argument that radical art radically changes consciousness.
At a time when populist movements are on the march throughout the world, why should we pay attention to art? Isn’t it self-indulgent to concern oneself with art, music, or literature when the foundations of society and of the international order are being shaken? Or can art itself really change the world?
Let’s look at what art can and can’t do in terms of politics. An example: in 2016, the artists Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Joan Jonas, and Julie Mehretu argued that it was appropriate to protest President Trump’s inauguration by symbolically closing art museums and galleries across the United States. The artists stated that the protest would not be “a strike against art, theater or any other cultural form. It is an invitation to motivate these activities anew, to reimagine these spaces as places where resistant forms of thinking, seeing, feeling and acting can be produced.” The proposition caused controversy. In the Guardian newspaper (9th January 2017), Jonathan Jones argued that the protest merely demonstrated “shallow radical posturing by some very well-heeled and comfortable members of a cultural elite.” In other words, since the artists are not taking a personal risk, their political protest fails. Jones continues: “Let’s face it: art and serious culture are completely marginal to American life. Closing museums is not likely to have any effect on those who support [Trump].” Jones ends by stating: “The real reason art strikes and fine words at the Golden Globes are futile is that they cannot do justice to the danger the world is in.” According to Jones, then, art cannot express the horrors of the world adequately. He implies that any artwork that claims to be radical merely sidesteps the concrete danger faced for instance by those who protest on the streets against nuclear war, social prejudice, or police violence, risking arrest, prison time, harassment, or death. At worst, artists face immaterial danger – for instance, by creating artworks that experiment with colour or line; or a work that inspires an emotional response but little else; or by developing new artistic techniques that may challenge audiences, but which only a tiny minority actually experience. In light of all this, why don’t we just accept that art is powerless in the social and political sphere? Why don’t artists just accept that they will always remain on the sidelines of radical politics?
The German critical theorist (and music critic) Theodor W. Adorno would have rejected Jones’ argument. Adorno (1903-1969) defended art’s capacity to make us aware of violence (as it appeared in capitalism and fascism), and its power to express suffering and hope which cannot be fully communicated in language. Art may resist injustice; not through directly achieving practical change, but by forcing the audience to become aware of the violence that governs their own history and the social order within which they and we are trapped. Art’s unique mode of resistance involves provoking thought rather than action. For Adorno, modernist artists such as James Joyce, Arnold Schoenberg, Samuel Beckett, Paul Celan and Pablo Picasso were able to indirectly resist society’s unethical practices through reconfiguring the individual’s experience, and showing us how our capacity for rational thought has been subverted by society into irrationality. He argued that commercial art (pop music, Hollywood films, TV shows, popular novels, etc.) fails to challenge social and historical norms because it merely follows public demand. It is often infantile and formulaic. It fails to articulate any distance from society, and so is incapable of changing individual consciousness. For example, popular folk music strives to reinforce national and cultural identity through repeating narratives with which most listeners already identify (In America, for instance, these narratives might involve strength, independence, freedom, self-reliance: generally speaking, individualism).
Radical art must resist assimilation into the status quo. According to Adorno, its purpose is to incite an experience of otherness – of that which falls outside the audience’s social-cultural norms. While living in exile from the Nazis in the 1940s, Adorno wrote: “there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better” (Minima Moralia, 1951, p.25). He meant that the traditional idea of beauty should no longer govern artists’ production of artworks. Such beauty claims to promote peace and harmony and to allow transcendence from the everyday. In reality, however, it passes over the violence that circulates beneath the surface of polite society. One might think here of those airbrushed ads on billboards that seek to cover over the reality of institutionalized misogyny or sexual violence. Instead, true art should attempt to (nonviolently) imitate the violence of society in order to express it. Such an attempt can be seen in the dissonance of Schoenberg’s music. Schoenberg, in order to express historical violence through aesthetic form, produces a new formal technique for composing music: the twelve-tone system. This system works by rejecting harmony. Instead, dissonant works express the difference – the qualitative uniqueness – of their constituent tones. The opposition between the particular tones expresses social violence. For Adorno, true artworks – those that do not shy away from expressing suffering – are dissonant, enigmatic and difficult to understand. When we reflect on a Beckett play, for example, we realize that what ordinarily passes for rationality in capitalist society (the practical desire to gain as much as possible for as little effort as possible, for instance) is but a distorted version of true rationality, which is not governed by practical-instrumental imperatives, but which instead enables philosophical reflection and the experience of otherness and difference.
George Orwell, who literally fought fascism as a volunteer in the Spanish civil war before writing Animal Farm and 1984.
© Woodrow Cowher 2018. Please visit woodrawspictures.com
So how can art fight fascism?
First, although radical, challenging art is somewhat marginal to Western life, it does not need a large audience in order to have some destabilizing effect. In his article doubting art’s political usefulness, Jones implied that the only experiences that count culturally or politically are ones that can be measured on a mass scale. Yet even if a single individual feels shock and horror when looking at, say, Picasso’s Guernica, the painting can be said to have achieved its effect.
Adorno’s philosophy is explicitly formulated to resist pragmatism. Rather, “only what does not fit into this world is true” (Aesthetic Theory, 1970, p.76). Adorno is saying that truth is in fact a moral category. This allows a true artwork to avoid conformity and express individuality, difference, or possibility. When it adheres blindly to social categories, the work may achieve a measure of apparent popularity, but it loses something too. Adorno argues that ethical action requires independence of mind and critical thought as well as the experience of particularity (that is, of a thing’s qualitative or material uniqueness). How is art able to reach or enable this concept of moral truth?
This brings me to the second reason why art is capable of resistance: artworks do not communicate ideas through concepts that have already become the well-worn currency of everyday speech. Rather, artworks express truth through poetic or artistic language which must keep a distance from ideology or from conventions that have been simply accepted rather than critically examined. So Adorno thinks that the best modern artworks express dissonance: that is, horror and suffering. As he observes: “Celan’s poems want to speak of the most extreme horror through silence. Their truth content itself becomes negative” (Aesthetic Theory p.405). In this way art may indeed ‘do justice’ to the damaged state of the world.
Adorno would further argue that since capitalism strongly compels individuals to value objects in monetary terms regardless of their intrinsic value or usefulness, true works of modern art should construct objects that are useless, and yet which have intrinsic (and non-quantifiable) value. So he argues against making artworks explicitly political because that would mean that they’ve become instruments instead of autonomous constructions. For instance, although Percy Bysshe Shelley is a great poet, some of his best known works (England in 1819, Masque of Anarchy …) to some extent use poetry to communicate a political point of view. By contrast, John Keats’ work uses themes that are part of tradition in order to criticize tradition without turning the artwork into a political tool (see for instance, To Autumn, and the famous Ode to a Grecian Urn). For the same reasons, Bob Dylan is less effective an artist than Beethoven. The latter challenges our experience more than the former because he is less overtly political.
This argument may appear elitist, yet for Adorno that’s beside the point. An artwork’s autonomy from society enables it to critique society – specifically, through allowing a subject to realize what an object not determined by instrumental reason (or hegemonic exchange-value) would look like. Thus any work that is not sufficiently autonomous – for instance, commercial TV shows, which rely on corporate sponsors and formulaic storylines, or most popular music, which again uses melodies that can be easily digested and recalled without much effort – must fail as art. Similarily, overtly political art tells the subject what to think, through providing a blueprint to which her experience must conform. Autonomous art, on the contrary, allows the subject to experience otherness on its own terms. It opens, rather than closes, critical thought.
Méret Oppenheim’s Object 1936
A universal concept is incapable of completely encompassing all the particular features of an actual object. Adorno calls this the non-identity of concept and object (Minima Moralia p.127). We encounter this when we realize that our experience has certain conceptual blind spots – that for example, we cannot always adequately describe the material features of objects in language. Similarly, certain artworks have a significance that may be experienced but which cannot be described conceptually. Concepts obscure particularity rather than expressing it.
Art can open us up to experiences of otherness. But such experiences are precisely what fascism wants to shut down and deny. How does non-identity appear aesthetically? It might show up in the art gallery when we stand baffled before an apparently impossible, strange, or puzzling work – such as Meret Oppenheim’s Object, constructed in 1936: a teacup, saucer, and spoon, all covered in fur.
Modern art provides an experience of otherness that cannot be determined by conventional categories. For another example, take the first stanza of the well-known poem Death Fugue by Paul Celan (probably written in 1945):
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he whistles his hounds to stay close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us play up for the dance.
Can this poem be easily put in an aesthetic category such as beautiful, sublime, ugly, nasty, nice, weird, or cute? First, let me note that since all of those categories are very highly specified in normal cultural use, they must be revised so that they are not mere cultural fantasies or projections. Second, on Adorno’s account, aesthetic categories should not be considered to be subjective emotional responses. Instead they must be considered to be features of the object itself. Only from this perspective may we progress towards an understanding of the artwork’s inner constitution, its capacity for expression and truth-production, and its illusory surface.
Now let us move on to the fourth way that art may resist fascism. Artworks may inspire us to experience hope and possibility at a time when despair and hopelessness seem inevitable.
Adorno provides a rare glimpse of positivity when he writes: “Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars” (Minima Moralia p.156). Fascism and capitalism both attempt to control nature (‘the conquest of strange stars’) – to harness otherness so that it may be easily identified, assimilated, and controlled. Through its radical form, art pushes back against this drive to dominate the world. For example, Paul Celan’s work breaks many of the rules that govern traditional poetry: he sometimes coins new words, and rather than giving us a straightforward message, he challenges us to manufacture a message to take away from the poem. His poetry resembles a code more than a narrative – moreover, it’s a code that cannot be broken. As Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory (unfinished at his death in 1969): “A cryptogram of the new is the image of collapse; only by virtue of the absolute negativity of the collapse does art enunciate the unspeakable: utopia” (p.41). Art may indicate utopia – that is, the possibility of another world in which there is no longer a need for radical social critique – through developing new forms or techniques that individuals have never experienced before. Only by negating the existing forms – through art, for instance – might utopia begin to be visible.
Wait a second, you might reply: Why should I care about utopia? Well, Adorno’s concept of utopia is strictly negative: it is a limiting concept which reminds us that every act of criticism logically entails a case in which the negated elements do not exist. In other words, the possibility of criticism implies the possibility of progress.
This brings me to the final reason why art may resist fascism. Art is able to critically think about society, and so indicate a better one, because it is partially autonomous from society and history. Artworks potentially provide a means of or refuge for independent social critique. Such a critique may not bring about practical change – for instance, it cannot reverse a President’s executive orders. However, a critique involves thinking, which pushes against the blind acceptance of pervasive values. So although they may seem impotent compared to mass protest movements, radical works of art are important precisely because they do not use the same power or force that rules society. The fact that artworks cannot bring about change is in fact one of their virtues, because it means that they lie outside the logic of society. Instead certain artworks may help us see beyond the utilitarian structures that govern everyday experience. “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime,” mused Adorno (Minima Moralia p.111). In other words, an artwork is potentially an act of sabotage against an intolerable social order. Yet since such an artwork is autonomous from those rules and norms that govern the social order, it cannot change reality. The work’s truth is expressed aesthetically, not practically.
For Adorno, thinking is implicitly a form of resistance, and all practical activity requires thought and judgment if it is to avoid blindness. Of course, not all artworks are progressive or part of the avant-garde. Adorno argues that many Soviet realist paintings remain mere propaganda: they fail to develop a formal technique that remains autonomous from society. Some Surrealist paintings or poems remain sexist or misogynist because they objectify the female body, or repress the undeniable influence of women artists, writers, and intellectuals. And remember that the genius Richard Wagner was also a notorious anti-Semite, and his operas express the fascist desire to return to a mythical Aryan past.
Human beings, like artworks, inhabit two worlds at the same time: the actual and the possible. What compass should we use to direct our course in such turbulent times? Samuel Beckett indicates a directionless direction:
“You must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
(Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, 1959, p.418)
© Justin Neville Kaushall 2018
Justin Neville Kaushall is completing his PhD at the University of Warwick. He lives in Edinburgh.