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Theodor Adorno's Concept of Art as Lighthearted and Liberatory Theodor Adorno's Concept of Art as Lighthearted and Liberatory
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-11-24 09:10:17
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“The prologue to Shiller’s Wallenstein ends with the line, “Ernst ist das Leben, heiter ist die Kunst”—life is serious, art is lighthearted. It is modeled on a line from Ovid’s Tristia: "Vita verecunda est, Musa jocosa mihi” (II, 354), or “My life is modest and sober, my muse is happy.” Perhaps one may impute an intent to Ovid, the charming and artful classical writer. He whose life was so lighthearted that the Augustian Roman establishment could not tolerate it, was winking at his patrons, composing his lightheartedness back into the literary gaiety of the Ars amandi and repentantly letting it be seen that he personally was concerned with the serious conduct of life…The art that moves ahead into the unknown, the only art now possible, is neither lighthearted nor serious; the third possibility, however, is cloaked in obscurity, as though embedded in a void the figures of which are traced by advanced works of art.” --Theodor Adorno (in “Is Art Lighthearted?”)

As is well known, Theodore Adorno (1903-1969) was a member of the famous Frankfurt School, a group of Marxist philosophers which included Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. All three were concerned with the concept of liberation from oppressive social forces. Echoing Marx, they believed that capitalism is not a mere economic system largely based on the exploitation of the workers, but also a social and cultural system that usurps human freedom. Nowhere did Adorno elaborate this view more vehemently than in his wide ranging and subtle philosophy of art.

This philosophy of art proclaims that art is one of the few domains where the human being is able to attain “something like freedom in the midst of unfreedom.”  In other words, art can bring to consciousness the aspiration for freedom even in those societies which systematically deny it. It takes place in the midst of totalitarian regimes, of both the right and the left, governed by an inflexible political ideology, in its very jails and chambers of torture. What Adorno emphasizes is art’s presentation of the contradiction between the possibility of reconciliation, that is to say, transcendence of conflict, and the society in which such reconciliation is not only absent but unattainable. He gives as an example (in section three of his brilliant essay “Is Art Lighthearted?”) the music of Mozart. When we listen to Mozart’s music we are not simply aware of its sublime harmonies or, as Adorno would put it, of its presentation of reconciliation, but we also compare this awareness with the social cacophonous blasphemous world in which we live, a world in which the bully rules by rhetorical or even physical intimidation and arrogance, wherein there isn’t even an attempt at the common good and the meeting of the needs of all. What art does is to let us see both what is possible and how far that possibility is at present.

Adorno is extremely conscious of the fact that art is not immune to the influence of the capitalist market economy, what he calls “the culture industry” which, in his opinion, subverts the liberatory possibilities of art in favor of entertainments aiming at merely assuaging the exhaustion of those who labor under capitalist exploitation. This is a far cry from Aristotle’s “art as catharsis” or Freud’s “art as sublimation” or Vico’s “art as transcendence.” It is the kind of perverted art which in no way honors the aspiration for freedom and reconciliation of the human heart. It portrays unfreedom as inevitable and determined, even desirable in a deterministic view of reality governed by an immanentistic science allowing no transcendence beyond the empirical and material. Gone are in that kind of world the intimations of immortality and transcendence found in the poetry of a Coleridge or Wordsworth.

In the above mentioned essay Adorno structures the discussion of art through the opposition seriousness/lightheartedness. Because art arouses pleasure it is connected to the concept of the lighthearted. It is as if its very presence is a reproach to the seriousness and reality of the existential situation of man. It is almost a hint of something that transcends that situation. And yet, Adorno insists, paradoxically, art is also serious in as much as it attempts to represent the contradiction between reality and the desire for freedom. Art, in other words, has to be serious and lighthearted at the same time; it must embody both features to remain genuine art. This is the accusation that Adorno hurls against “the culture industry,” its failure to maintain seriousness. Under the domination of the culture industry the message of art becomes: enjoy and acquiesce, everything is art, all you need to do is to declare it so. Art has a value and it is measured with money.

For Adorno, the need to challenge the culture industry’s domination of art is made all the more urgent and pressing by the Holocaust which threatens to make genuine art and its commitment to the incorporation of lightheartedness, a profanity of sort. How could one tolerate jesting on the graves of those millions of innocent victims? So Adorno calls for a new type of art one that transcends the lighthearted/serious dichotomy. He finds that kind of art exemplifies in the theater of Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s plays mark a form of art beyond the duality tragedy/comedy, thus allowing art to survive the cultural crassness, philistinism and devastations of the 20th century.

    
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anonymous2011-02-08 19:04:26
Mr. Emanuel L. Paparella, you plagarized a work of Prof. Thomas Wartenberg.


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