Theodor W. Adorno, “What National Socialism Has Done To The Arts”

[A]rt does not fulfill its function in society by acting as a social functionary. – Theodor W. Adorno, “What National Socialism Has Done To The Arts”, in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music: p.385

Now we enter the third section of Leppert’s anthology, entitled “Music And Mass Culture”.  How better to begin an examination of these two phenomena than what those devilish aesthetisizers of politics, the Nazis, did to the arts, to music in particular?  It should go without saying, and Adorno begins his essay, that the toll in human lives wrought by and because of the Nazis is far more terrible than any cultural damage, at least in the immediate aftermath of the war.  His fear, however, is there exists a predilection, a set of circumstances, that not only helped bring about Fascism in Germany; those conditions continue in a different guise and under different names not only in a Europe left broken by total war, but especially in the United States, both flush with victory and already in the grip of a vast, autocratic Culture Industry.  In this sense, it is precisely the danger posed by the cultural side of Fascist and Nazi ideology that will linger long after the last of the criminals is dead and buried.

Part of the cultural background against which National Socialism arose in Germany was not only Wagner – although Adorno cautions readers not to overrate the place of Wagner within the cultural life of Germany outside a circle of devotees – but also what he calls “decultivation”:

During the nineteenth century there existed certain groups which without being professional musicians or artists, were in real contact with music and the arts, were moved by the ideas expressed by the music, and were capable of a subtle and discriminating understanding.  The attitude of writers such as Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard or Nietzsche toward music was not understandable without the existence of such a nucleus of musically truly cultured non-musicians.  This nucleus has disappeared.  Musical knowledge and understanding has become the privilege of experts and professionals . . .

We should be quite clear with regard to what we mean by this process of decultivation.  It is not simply lack of knowledge of erudition, although the processes in question tend also to lower all acquaintance with the manifestations of culture in a most elementary sense.  Nor is it the ever-increasing aloofness of artistic products from the empirical life of society, a process that can be dated back to the time when art lost its locus with the order of the all-embracing Catholic Church.  I refer to something much more specific.  It may be called the neutralization of culture in general and of the arts in particular. . . .

There is no longer any unifying common focus between knowledge or science on the on hand and art on the other, as there is no common focus between science and philosophy or religion. . . . What has been called the “idea” of arts during the age of great speculative philosophy has come to be regarded as an obsolescent metaphysical prejudice.  Instead of being a decisive means to express fundamentals about human existence and human society, art has assumed the function of a realm of consumer goods among others, measured only according to what people “can get out of it,” the amount of gratification or pleasure it provides them with or, to a certain extent, its historical or educational value. (pp.376-377)

In the aftermath of the combination of this historical process that both antedated and prefigured the Fascist destruction of the arts, the physical destruction of Europe and the rise of rival totalitarianisms vying for hegemony – the state socialism of Stalinist Russia and American high capitalism – there existed two threats to the arts, particularly music, both reducible to an understanding of what Adorno calls above its “functional”, or use-value.  Particularly in the wake of the way propaganda functions in totalitarian societies, there is the danger that music, particularly popular or folk-styled music, will be co-opted for purely ideological purposes.  Not only Radio Free Europe, but the Congress for Cultural Freedom were both tools used by the state power in America, co-opting music for propaganda purposes.  The Soviets did much the same, which only proved Adorno prescient in his understanding of how totalizing systems make use of every tool available.

The other danger is what can best be described as making of the music of Western Europe a kind of museum, frozen in time, presenting a now-dead culture to the world as the remains after the cataclysm.  This is both another form of commercialization, the functionalizing of art; it will also be a force against musical progress in the present and future, as the guardians of “culture” insist that everything that matters has already been said.

Adorno concludes his essay:

An artist who still deserves the name should proclaim nothing, not even humanism.  He should not yiel to any pressure of the ever more overwhelming social organizations of our time but should express, in full command of meaning and potentialities of today’s processes of rationalization, that human existence led under its command is not a human one.  The human survives today only where it is ready to challenge, by its very appearance and its determined irreconcilability, the dictate of the present man-made but merciless world.(p.387)

Adorno’s model of the true artist remains what it was prior to the war – resistance in the form of confrontation.  An aesthetics of ugliness, of the mechanical, of a radical distance between what the people claim they want and that with which they are presented, using the very tools of technology against the totalitarian claims of the Culture Industry, is the only art that can continue to be art.  Thus it is that I began this post with a song from Edgar Varese.  No better example of an artist proclaiming nothing is imaginable.  Varese gave the listener the post-World War II world as it was.  His rejection proves Adorno’s point more than anything else could.

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