Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory

“Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is currently the object of considerable interest in this country [USA]. This is a good thing, but puzzling as well. And it is this puzzle that I want to address. The book is more distant from us than might be indicated by the immediate response its new translation has engendered. It, along with Adorno’s philosophy as a whole, involves a way of making distinctions, types of distinctions, and experiences that are inimical to us; in our heart of hearts, down home, they rub us the wrong way. If Adorno’s pronouncements on jazz have notoriously aggravated many, by the power of hearsay alone, without almost anyone having read the relevant essays or wondered what exactly he was criticizing, this is only the barest indication of his capacity to bother us. Of the musical compositions that might spontaneously occur to the inner ear of the overwhelming majority of the American readers of this essay – themselves an educated elite – there might not be a single song that would not have resounded in Adorno’s own ear as 'trash' and so stereotypical in its construction that the puzzle for him would have been how anyone could parse one such tune from another. To our minds, this must represent some special grudge Adorno held against all things popular.

Yet this was not at all the case. For neither did Adorno like Dvorak, Hindemith, Elgar, Debussy, Stravinsky, or Sibelius, among many, many others. And there was much he found wanting in Schoenberg as well. Adorno may have been as dissatisfied with each and every composition – of whatever art form – as anyone has ever been. This dissatisfaction has an implication that is so remote from us that it is hardly to be intuited this side of the Atlantic: For if Adorno was dissatisfied with all existing art, it was because he was intent on finding the one right artwork, the one that would be the artwork. In other words – and this is the thought that more than any other in all of aesthetics has the ability to grasp the mind of our commercial tribe between thumb and forefinger and squeeze – Adorno thought not just that one artwork may be liked better than another but that this one work would be, in itself, better than another. This was not momentary bad manners that slipped into an otherwise distinguished philosophy, any more than St. Augustine absentmindedly lost track of the main point of his theology when he admonishes us that one can love the wrong thing. Adorno’s philosophy conceived as a whole seeks the primacy of the object. His critique of the judgment of taste is inextricable from this central philosophical intention, not as a part that had to conform to an overriding thesis but as the originating impulse of that thesis. His philosophy of the primacy of the object has its source in the experience of one artwork as superior to another. It could not be otherwise. There is no other basis, this side of the moon, on which to understand or sympathize with the intensity of his thought. And without an ear for emphatic music, for music that means to be the music, every line Adorno wrote echoes hollowly convoluted or blindly exaggerated. The philosophy of the primacy of the object itself derives from the audibly urgent primacy of one artwork over another in a mind that is prepared to hear it. [...]”

— Right Listening and a New Type of Human Being. By Robert Hullot-Kentor :: The Cambridge Companion to Adorno

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