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Summary Article: Adorno, Theodor W(iesengrund) (1903–1969)
From Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Aesthetics

German philosopher; leading figure in the Frankfurt school of critical theory. Born into a wealthy family in Frankfurt am Main, Adorno received his PhD in philosophy in that city in 1924, but spent the following year in Vienna studying composition with Alban Berg. While remaining involved in the music world, he taught philosophy at Frankfurt University until Hitler's advent to power drove him to the US in 1938, where he joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in exile, working in New York and southern California. He returned to a professorship in Frankfurt in 1953, and succeeded his close collaborator Max Horkheimer as director of the institute, also reinstalled in that city, in 1964. His work, which greatly influenced the German student movement of the 1960s, has since the 1980s become an international touchstone for criticism, especially in the visual arts. The majority of Adorno's works are concerned with aesthetic questions. There are studies of Berg, Mahler, and Wagner; essays on literary and musical matters; an Introduction to the Sociology of Music (1962); and two central theoretical works: Philosophy of Modern Music (1948) and Aesthetic Theory (1970). His aphoristic style reaches a high point in the wide-ranging Minima Moralia (1951), one of the great books of the postwar period.

Adorno's primary aesthetic interest is in the “autonomous” art that emerged from earlier functional contexts at the end of the eighteenth century. This autonomy “was a function of the bourgeois consciousness of freedom that was itself bound up with the social structure” (1997: 225); thus art expressed the autonomy of the individual subject vis–à–vis society. Art's autonomy means a development of its own structures of meaning, independent of direct reference to the social world; hence Adorno suggests that the concept of art is strictly applicable only to music, since literature and painting always include “an element of subject-matter transcending aesthetic confines, undissolved in the autonomy of form” (1974: 223). Paradoxically, it is the very tendency toward the elaboration of its own formal nature that constitutes art's social meaning. As the expression of a subjectivity engaged dialectically with a social reality at once repressive of its desires and defining its conditions of existence, art represents the demand for freedom from repression. Its autonomy, its functionlessness, allow it to stand as a critique of a society dedicated to the domination of nature in the interests of commercial profit, As an element of the modern society to which it stands in this critical relation, aesthetic form is “sedimented” social content, because “artistic labour is social labour” (1997: 5, 236). Its history follows the pattern of social development generally: that of the progressive mastery of nature by humankind, described by Adorno (following Max Weber) as a process of rationalization. Nature is represented in music by what Adorno calls the musical “material” confronting composers at any given time: sound as organized by historically evolved musical form. The drive to control this material led first to the elaboration of the tonal system by the masters of Viennese classicism and then to the total control over the material achieved by Schoenberg. With the second Viennese school, no conventions force the composer “to acquiesce to traditionally universal principles. With the liberation of musical material, there arose the possibility of mastering it technically ... The composer has emancipated himself along with his sounds” (1973: 52).

The emancipation achieved by modern art through its denial of earlier conventions must be paid for. “In the process of pursuing its own inner logic, music is transformed more and more from something significant into something obscure – even to itself” (1973: 19). From the artist's point of view, “the progress in technique that brought them ever greater freedom and independence of anything heterogeneous, has resulted in a kind of reification, technification of the inward as such” (1974: 214). For the listener, music has lost its transparent meaningfulness and the satisfaction it once gave. To grasp its meaning – what Adorno calls its truth content – now requires, beyond “sensory listening,” aesthetic theory, which alone makes possible “the conceptually mediated perception of the elements and their configuration which assures the social substance of great music” (1973: 130) – its resistance to the ideological demand that experience be depicted as the achievement of harmonious totality.

Art that does not confront society in this way is condemned by Adorno as regressive, both in the realm of high art, as with Stravinsky's primitivism and neoclassicism, and in that of the popular music mass produced by the “culture industry.” Both are adaptations to social reality: in the former by formally modeling the submission of the individual to social irrationality, in the latter by accepting completely the consequences of the commodity form for musical production. “Classical” music as a whole is drawn into the system of commercialization, as its presentation is adapted to a mass listenership no longer capable of “structural listening” but able only to wait for the appearance of beautiful melodies and exciting rhythms. In this, too, music bears a social meaning – that of the increasing domination of individual experience by the needs of industrial capitalism.

It follows from Adorno's conception of artworks as “concentrated social substance” that a critical aesthetics must seek social significance in the formal properties of individual works. This is a difficult prescription to follow, and Adorno's studies of artworks are typically less persuasive than his theoretical generalizations. Attempts at combining formal analysis with sociological decoding, such as the comparison of serial technique to bureaucratization, or of the relation between theme and harmony in sonata form to the dialectic of individual and society, are too often “merely verbal analogies which have no basis in fact but owe their origin and a semblance of plausibility to a generously ambivalent use of words like ...‘general and particular’” (Dahlhaus 1987: 243). In addition, Adorno does not hesitate on occasion to subordinate matters of fact to his philosophical purposes (see Dahlhaus 1970). His clearly inadequate dismissal of Stravinsky and his inexpert and unsubtle treatment of popular music have also come under much (not un-appreciative) criticism. Nevertheless, his work remains important as an aesthetics of modernism, both for its general program, the discovery of social meanings in artistic form, and for its many powerful observations and suggestions.

See also nineteenth– and twentieth-century continental aesthetics; art history; marxism and art.

Primary sources
  • [1948] 1976. Philosophy of Modern Music. Mitchell, A. G.; Blomster, W. V. (trans.). New York: Continuum.
  • [1951] 1974. Minima Moralia. Jephcott, E. F. N. (trans.). London: Verso.
  • [1962] 1973. Introduction to the Sociology of Music. Ashton, E. B. (trans.). New York: Continuum.
  • [1970] 1997. Aesthetic Theory. Hullot-Kentor, R. (trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • 2002. Essays on Music. Leppert, R. (ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Secondary sources
  • Dahlhaus, Carl. 1970. “Soziologische Dechiffrierung von Musik. Zu Theodor W. Adorno's Wagnerkritik” [Sociological deciphering of music: on Theodor Adorno's critique of Wagner]International Review of Music Aesthetics and Sociology 1 137-47.
  • Dahlhaus, Carl. 1987. Schoenberg and the New Music. Puffett, D.; Clayton, A. (trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gendron, Bernard. 1986. “Theodor Adorno meets the Cadillacs”. InStudies in Entertainment. Modleski, T. (ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press18-36.
  • Mattick, Paul. 2007. “The Dialectic of Disappointment: Adorno and Art Criticism since the 1980s”. InValue: Art: Politics. Criticism, Meaning and Interpretation after Postmodernism. Harris, J. (ed.). Liverpool: Liverpool University Press347-66.
  • Paddison, Max. 1993. Adorno's Aesthetics of Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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