Adorno: World of Art and What is at Stake

by Moya K. Mason

Aristotle argued that there is one end that seems to be the end of all our activities, and that is happiness.


Modernism in literature, art, and music was a movement on a quest for new kinds of expression; its proponents used constant experimentation to express new realities. The spirit of autonomous art could still be seen in the Modernists, who strove not to succumb to commodification, taking a stance against modern culture to give the world a new direction, with a hope for the liberation of the human spirit. Novelists developed innovative techniques and moved their attention away from society to the single individual, focusing on their irrational complexities. Like modern writers, artists rejected old values and forms, endeavoring to put forth an emotional view of reality which was to some degree influenced by Freudian psychology. For example, Dadaism delighted in depicting outrageous objects and attacking standardized genres of the art world. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were great artists who painted wild worlds of overwhelming intensity, while they "retained a mistrust of style."(1) Composers, like Schoenberg, no longer presented the typical unity of notes and harmonies, but rather, musical sounds that were independent and unorganized.

Guggenheim Knights

For many people, these sounds and visions were disturbing, unnatural, and perhaps even morbid, but an innovative artist cannot have the audience in mind when he or she creates. For others, these were signs that all was not lost and that there was some cause for celebration. The philosopher, Nietzsche believed Western civilization had decayed into mediocrity and had lost its drive for creativity. Modernists were a sign that independent and original thinkers still existed in society, and could form a coalition of resistance against despair. For instance, Beethoven wrote in reaction to what he saw taking place in society and in rebellion of the marketplace. It was these autonomous men and women who Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School heralded as members of a group they put in direct opposition to the culture of mass society, with its corporate, rather than, aesthetic ideology.

Picasso's Guernica
Picasso's Guernica

World Fear, Domination, and the Culture Industry

In Germany, Adolf Hitler turned to Leni Riefenstahl to make a documentary aimed at mass society. The Triumph of the Will was a great piece of propaganda on Nazism and was immensely successful. Those film images were etched on the minds of Adorno and Horkheimer as they left Germany for California in search of a haven away from Jewish persecution. They were shocked to find a cultural industry in the land of freedom and democracy that seemed so intensely related to the right wing politics of the Führer; it horrified them to see artistic pursuits being directed by an industry which transformed them into producers of a commodity system.

These distinguished German intellectuals lived through a period of great anxiety in the world, exacerbated by their fear that autonomous thought and creativity were lost. It was exactly what Marx was describing in the alienation from species being - a separation from our human essence, the part of us that is continually reshaping and constantly creating the world. It is what distinguishes us from animals. Art, in its purest form, is a crucial element because it allows a conception of a different world and communicates the possibility that reason can penetrate existing barriers.

Adorno and Horkheimer saw the culture industry as one which no longer tolerated autonomous thought or deviation to any degree because of the economic necessity for rapid return of capital investment. Immanuel Kant said art was a "finality without an end,"(2) believing aestheticism was an end in itself, making us feel more fully human. The introduction of commodification brought about a reversal of means and ends, and made aesthetic activities, money making propositions. More than that, mass culture does not question the society it exists in and instead, continually "confirms the validity of the system."(3) In other words, art is no longer an end in itself and primarily affirms society. The arts and philosophy had once been places of negation, but Adorno and Horkheimer saw how acceptance and reaction were permeating more and more spheres of life.

Their critique of mass culture is quite complex and was based on the belief that culture had become a form of domination. For them, the industry was selling a package of ideas and beliefs. People no longer had to think since "the product prescribes every reaction by signals."(4) It is characterized by a pervasive manipulation of the consumer, whose intellectual capacity is continually underestimated. There is simply a profusion of sameness and repetition by using sets of interchangeable details, sweeping away all particularity and flattening out anything distinct. The reification of the art world causes its autonomous parts to lose both their qualitative distinctiveness and their immanent intrinsic properties.

Overall, the biggest concern Adorno and Horkheimer had was with the fusion between the culture industry and mindless entertainment. Amusement is specific to the twentieth century mass cultural industry and is simply another part of the cycle of routinization. They believed mass art was based on "a medicinal bath"(5) of amusement and laughter, rather than on transcendence or happiness. The great perversion had taken place: people were amused and liberated from the need to think and their laughter affirmed existing society.

The logic of commodification takes over the world of art and does not realize its utopian potential, only promising transcendence. Art of the culture industry ceased to have the ability to act as a vehicle for utopianistic visions, projecting real life instead; for Adorno and Horkheimer, that was a nightmare. They believed the decay of great artistic works and the mass production of high culture were elements of cultural stagnation and decline. Many others believed their pessimism was unnecessarily extreme and their outlook on high or modernist art as too elitist.

Marx had stood at the flood gates of sociological thought and all who came after him responded to his ideas in some way. Adorno and Horkheimer built upon his work and they, in turn, were considered worthy of accolades and criticisms by many intellectuals, one of whom was Fredrick Jameson.

Fredrick Jameson's Critique

Fredrick Jameson was critical of the Frankfurt School's assertion that an oppositional framework exists between high and mass culture, and disagreed with the wholly positive value which they gave to high art. He found it to be an extremely unrealistic and elitist approach to a sociological study and questioned their contention that high culture is an autonomous phenomenon that arose out of and exists in a kind of artistic vacuum. While undergoing their analysis, Adorno and Horkheimer coupled great classical artists like Balzac with members of the modernist movement, using the combination in opposition to mass culture. Jameson finds this senseless and inaccurate, contending mass culture must be studied contemporaneously with modernism alone because they both evolved under the capitalistic mode of production. Similarly, mass culture should not be equated with the popular folk art of small pre-capitalistic communities, since capitalism has dissolved and fragmented these groups - "it has torn them asunder."(6) Both high and mass culture undergo a dissociation "from group praxis."(7)

Jameson proposes it is more realistic to study high and mass culture with a view to their historical and structural differences, making the process an objective rather than a subjective one. Adorno and Horkheimer's "valorization of traditional modernist high art"(8) gives it an illusory quality and an independent life force, unaffected or impeded by the logic of commodification. The Frankfurt School set modernism apart and insisted it was not affected by commodification at all, that it somehow escaped it. For Jameson, that was absurd since "any and every economic phenomenon is at the same time always a social phenomenon."(9) By the very fact that modernism strives to be perpetually revolutionary and takes a vigorous stance against commodification, demonstrates it also has its roots in capitalistic economics. Modernism does not subsist exclusive of commodification and is actually reactive and symptomatic of cultural upheaval: "the commodity is the prior form."(10)

Jameson believed the Frankfurt School did not fully comprehend the magnitude of commodification's domination and how art changes as a result of it. Art means different things in different times because it is historically-specific, changing its structure depending upon the prevailing economic system it exists under. When art becomes commodified, its structure conforms to it, and makes the means more important than the ends. The end becomes suspended. The conception existed that art was intrinsically complete, but the theory of commodification allows us to see how differences in history and structure change everything. When the market takes over, nothing is an end in itself anymore. High and mass culture are both historically and structurally related as well as being dialectically interdependent, "as twin and inseparable forms of the fission of aesthetic production under capitalism."(11) They depend upon one another for their individual identity and do not rise up autonomously. Significantly, they do share a number of structural features which point to the confusion of establishing values, and the significance of how opposing reactions of mass culture and modernistic art respond to commodification.

For one, the process of materialization or reification give both a historical basis, and illustrates how an object loses its qualitative distinctiveness; it is quite evident they also react to repetition. Adorno and Horkheimer saw repetition as an integral quality of mass culture, but did not integrate it into the ideology of high art. Seemingly, they did not understand the complexities of it and overlooked the role it plays in all areas of art. Mass cultural producers have their own problems with ceaseless duplications which lie "in our 'set' towards repetition."(12) It hampers the work of mass cultural artisans by the insistence upon particular structural genres and the rejection of socially-transcending productions; however, Jameson argues that high art is equally swayed by repetition and has been forced to respond to it. High culture has the obligatory pressure to always produce something new that resists the forces of repetition. As Jameson writes in Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture:

Modernisms have been forced, in spite of themselves, and in the very flesh and bone of their form, to respond to the objective reality of repetition itself.(13)

This can be seen in the use of disconnecting sentences and fragmentary writing, or in the incorporation of repetition into the body of work, which has a neutralizing effect on it. But, high and mass culture are different because an original exists in high art that provides an important guide for research; whereas, in mass art, "repetition effectively volatizes the original object so that the student of mass culture has no primary object of study."(14)

Jameson fundamentally disagrees with Adorno and Horkheimer in two other areas: the utopian impulses of mass and high culture, and the process of consumption under capitalism. Advocates of the Frankfurt School contend that high culture immanently embodies a utopianism that can assist humanity in making the world a better place to live. Their views on mass culture were definitive; they saw it as base and exempt from any sort of utopian possibility. Jameson vehemently disagrees with the assumption and contends that the whole of the art world deals with social repression and anxieties in different ways. Mass culture uses movies like The Godfather to project solutions for cultural chaos, as well as functioning as a vehicle for utopian ideology. Similarly, Jaws can be seen as a utopian production which restores order and fights evil.

Jameson sees mass culture as doing important work in the transformation of social problems by "deflecting the deepest and most fundamental hopes and fantasies of the collective and giving them a voice."(15) It is connected to the reality of manipulation in mass culture, which must offer valid content to fulfill its message. Mass culture creates illusions of social harmonies to eradicate the deep-seated feelings of anxiety and despair evident in humanity. Jameson agrees that high art has a strong utopian element flowing from compensatory impulses found in various structures. For example, the structure of stream of consciousness novels revolutionized language and separated it from daily life.

He believes everything is commodified, including high art, and that it fundamentally affects the actual consumption of art work. Art has been converted from an end in itself to a means of making money, but more than that, it "has been reduced to a means for its own consumption."(16) In other words, objects in the world of art cease to have any intrinsic worth in their own right and have value only as instruments of commodity gratification. The commodification of the object world affects what is produced and also how we consume the product. The products and the activity become a means-oriented process. In pre-capitalistic societies, the reading of a work of literature was an end in itself, with its verses and pages reflecting immanent qualities. In capitalistic economies, commodification enters the world of consumption and affects how movies and television are watched and even how books are read. The pages are seen primarily as a means of getting to the end of the book, no longer as an end in themselves. Jameson says this was another oversight by the Frankfurt School, based on their inability to see how pervasive capitalism really is.



If Adorno and Horkheimer needed a defense it might go like this: it is easier to reflect on matters of history in retrospect. The German intellectuals were living in an extremely volatile world and matters of life and death were realities. Their primary concern was the transformation of society, for the continuance of civilized humanity. They envisioned democracy and freedom to choose diverging paths, but they found that "freedom to choose an ideology proved only to be freedom to choose what is always the same."(17)

I would contend that a visit to the art-filled city of Aphrodisias or a walk through the Parthenon or the Louvre Museum, provides us with a sense of history and a connection with the past, giving us hope for the interconnectedness of humanity - the feeling we can conquer anything. To see Egypt's pyramids or Trajan's Column in Rome are not illusory visions providing a facade, they are real. Jameson has the luxury of time on his side and his work builds greatly on the Frankfurt School, but I will take the concrete Coliseum before the fantastical illusions of empty distractions and false consciousness any day.

Related Papers

Theodor Adorno's Theory of Music and its Social Implications
Herbert Marcuse: Evolution and Transformation of Individuality and Reason
Thoughts on Adorno and the Internet


1. Adorno and Horkheimer, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, p. 130.

2. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement. The words used by Kant are Zweckmassigkeit (finality) and Zweck (end).

3. Adorno, p. 129.

4. Ibid., p. 137.

5. Ibid.

6. Karl Marx, Communist Manifest.

7. Fredrick Jameson, Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture, p. 23.

8. Adorno, p. 133.

9. Karl Marx, Early Writings.

10. Jameson, p. 25.

11. Ibid., p. 14.

12. Ibid., p. 19.

13. Ibid., p. 17.

14. Ibid., p. 20.

15. Ibid., p. 29.

16. Ibid., p. 11.

17. Adorno, p. 167.

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