Theodor W. Adorno, “Why Is The New Art So Hard To Understand?”

The shock that accompanied the new artistic movements immediately before [The First World War] is the expression of the fact that the break between production and consumption became radical; that for this reason art no longer has the task of representing a reality that is preexisting for everyone in common, but rather of revealing, in its isolation, the very cracks that reality would like to cover over in order to exist in safety; and that, in so doing, it repels reality – Adorno, “Why Is The New Art So Hard To Understand?”, in Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.131

Last winter, after reading a history of 20th century classical music, I posted the above video for Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” on Facebook.  The result was confusion and the general opinion that I was nuts to like something like this.  Where for me the long slow sense of building toward something, without moving around a harmonic or rhythmic center, captures something about how we humans move through life, for others it was just formless, aimless noise.

Which, of course, it what makes it so beautiful.

In this essay, Adorno attempts to explain to a popular audience what is still perceived as the intrinsic difficulty of what Adorno still called “the new music” in 1931, when this address was given.  For Adorno, the answer is simple enough: the radical break between production and consumption, the collapse of this heart of late capitalism – soon to use Fascism to attempt to shore it back up, a use that failed both art and humanity brilliantly and horrifically – is precisely mirrored in the gulf between the art being produced and the audience for whom it is intended.

Adorno is extremely polite, never once stooping to any claims that the audience is stupid, puerile, or worst of all Philistine in its desire for an art that is grasped without the need for thought.  On the contrary, while insisting the problem lies not with the art or artists but with a society so radically estranged that it cannot or will not see or hear how that estrangement is mirrored in this “difficult” art, Adorno never once stoops to say, in essence, “The problem is yours.”  For Adorno, it is rather a structural matter of the society that is producing the art.

Noting that it is impossible to produce – or re-produce – so-called folk arts (he uses the failed attempts in early Stalinist Russia as an example) without reducing the art itself to meaninglessness and the audience to a kind of reactionary nostalgia for what can never be again, Adorno warns his listeners/readers that the “difficulty” is at heart sociological rather than aesthetic.  In an attempt to create art that both reflects and transcends (as much as it can) the contemporary age, the artists end up demonstrating the radical break between production and consumption.  This radical break is the heart of the “difficulty” of the art, rather than anything intrinsic to the art.

To use an example from a completely different time and genre, consider the radical break – musically, socially – presented by Norwegian Black Metal.  Below is a clip of Emperor performing a song from their first full-length release (I am using a live clip because the production values on that album are horrible):

Not just a radical break with rock music, or popular music, or even the sub-genre of heavy metal, black metal offers little in the way of traditional rhythms; its harmonic structure is odd even for a style of music use to strange modes and chords; its vocal style is unrelenting, difficult to grasp, and unapologetic.  These, however, are all deliberate artistic choices, not least because of the subject matter of the music as well as the “ideology” (for lack of a better word; not in the sense Adorno would have understood it, certainly) that lies behind it.  This music is not supposed to be easy to listen to; it represents as radical a break from bourgeois entertainment as did Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern a century ago.

Yet, it is also beautiful, haunting in its offer both of danger and its unapologetic demands upon the listener.  As one commentator notes, this is not easy music to play, taking both technical knowledge and a skill that is rooted in native talent.  All designed around an unrelenting sense of doom.  Offering up a radical break with the comforting, perhaps even smothering, state-sponsored comforts of Norway and Norwegian life, Black Metal at its best offers up a far easier to grasp demonstration of that “break” of which Adorno speaks.  Yet, if you have the ear to listen, you can appreciate Black Metal on its own terms as an art form born of resistance against a cloying mediocrity and nominal Christianity that had all but died.  Only when we are willing to allow ourselves to be confronted by what this art is telling us does the difficulty disappear.