Theodor W. Adorno, “On The Social Situation of Music”

In contrast to the nineteenth century, the decisive change experienced by contemporary musical reproduction is the destruction of the balance of individualistic society and individualistic production; the freedom of reproduction has therewith grown highly problematic, and nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the transition from competitive to monopoly capitalism.  To be sure, the “interpretive personality” continue with musical life and might well be socially more effective than ever before: its function, however, has changed totally, and the sovereignty with which it asserts authority over both works and audience conceals in dictatorial fashion the abyss between free interpreter and work. – Theodor W. Adorno, “On The Social Situation Of Music”, in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.413

It’s taken a couple days to think through this long, complex essay, in order to present my reflections on it in a form that isn’t confusing, is accessible, and does justice to Adorno’s work.  It is made up of two sections.  Section I is titled “Outline, Production”.  Section II is “Reproduction, Consumption”.  Unlike other essays read so far, this is an explicitly Marxist view of music in the modern era, under the conditions of monopoly capitalism.  This long piece can actually be boiled down thus: Part I describes the way music, as all art, confronts the social, political, and economic realities in which it exists; Part II describes the reactions of the public, who exist in part under the limited freedom imposed by monopoly capitalism to make decisions free from ideological constraints.

Themes we have encountered in a far more sketchier outline are here fleshed out.  Descriptions of the ideological context of music are offered in more detail, with more examples.  The struggle of the public both to understand the music with which they are presented, and to come to terms both with it and the context in which they find themselves is offered as an extreme example of a view of Marxist ideology, a position from which Adorno does back away toward the end.  All the same, it is clear at this point in time – 1932 – Adorno understood the arts, and music in particular, as wholly within the market economy of monopoly capitalism, either in rejection of it, overt accommodation to it, or in nonchalant apathy about it.  In the same way, the public’s attempts to come to terms with these general categories of music with which they’re presented offer them choices, but choices dictated by the ideological Weltanschauung, as well as the dictates of the market that preemptively limit real choice.

Adorno signals his overall view in his very first paragraph:

No matter where music is heard today, it sketches in the clearest possible lines the contradictions and flaws which cut through present-day society; at the same time, music is separated from this same society by the deepest of all flaws produced by this society itself.  And yet, society is unable to absorb more of this music than its ruins and external remains.  The role of music in the social process is exclusively that of a commodity; its value that determined by the market.  Music no longer serves direct needs nor benefits from direct application, but rather adjusts to the pressures of the exchange of abstract units.  Its value – wherever such value still exists at all – is determined by use: it subordinates itself to the process of exchange.  The islands of pre-capitalistic “music making” – such as the nineteenth century could still tolerate – have been washed away: the techniques of radio and sound film, in the hands of powerful monopolies and in unlimited control over the total capitalistic propaganda machine have taken possession of even the innermost cell of musical practices of domestic music making. . . .  Through the total absorption of both musical production and consumption by the capitalistic process, the alienation of music from man has become complete.(p.391)

While continuing to hold Schoenberg and those who followed him in highest regard, as artists who confront the realities of contemporary society, producing works that are not beautiful but present without any masks the ugliness of the society.  Thus, he claims, their rejection is rooted in the very truth they present.

On the other hand, understanding the realities of contemporary society, Igor Stravinsky decides to attempt to leap backward – much as Heidegger does in philosophy; Jung in psychology; Fascism in politics – to a pre-capitalist world, presenting both the violence and beauty of this alleged “primitive” world.  For Adorno, the music of Stravinsky – and to a lesser extent Hindemith who began as a followed of Schoenberg but acquiesced to the new reality – is little more than a negation of the demand that art present the contradictions of society.  Instead, Stravinsky ignores them, offering sensual delights in vision and dance, the overt sexuality not only of the ballet but of the music itself, with its rhythms and pulses.

Finally, there are the purveyors of what Adorno calls “light” music.  Not just popular song, but music for film scores and jazz, totally beholden to the market, not caring a whit about the social situation but wholly owned and distributed by the producers of mass market goods for the sole purpose of profit.  It should be noted that, according to Leppert in his introductory “Commentary” article, when Adorno writes about jazz, he is not writing about Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, or even Duke Ellington.  Rather, with the exception of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra (which did have the great Bix Beiderbeck on trumpet), the jazz with which Adorno was familiar was a wholly European product; Europe was crazy about jazz and dance bands and “hot” bands dotted the landscape.  His view and understanding of jazz both as a musical and social phenomenon, was hindered by a refusal to understand its roots in African-American life, African-American musics of resistance and protest, and was as blind and ignorant of jazz’s innovations then underway as was most of the rest of the (white) world.

In any event, there is little prescriptive in this essay.  Bound wholly to a description of the two-sided coin of production and consumption, as dictated by monopoly capitalism, Adorno sees little reason to believe that music can ever be more than one more product, mass produced for public consumption, offering them nothing, not even pleasure precisely because the conditions of capitalism are such that the moment of “ownership” and consumption destroys the very pleasure desire in the product anticipated.

He ends his essay with a question, rather than a statement:

The social interpretation of light and, in the final analysis, of all music is faced  by the one central question: what method is it to employ to avoid, still further presumption in methodology of the ambiguity of the static state of nature – in the components of drives – and of dynamic historical quality – in its social function.  If music, as it has done up to the present, is to escape the schematism of individual psychology, if the most elementary of its effects presupposes a concrete social condition of which it offers a tendentious indication, and if nature itself does not appear in music other than in historic images, then the material character of music might offer an indication that dialectical materialism might not answer the “question” about the relation of nature and history, but that it might rather contribute to the elimination of this question both in theory and praxis.(p.433)

Whether or not music can be what it can and should be is left to the possible future in which dialectical materialism offers a way to cut through the impositions of monopoly capitalism, the individualizing of understanding through a psychology that ignores the social situation, that is a question that cannot – yet – be answered.  The social situation is such that it will be the future that determines how successfully music can escape the chains of production and consumption in order to perform its aesthetic role. It is up to the future to determine if humanity will be ready to hear what music has to say, and understand the antinomies it presents as reflective of the contradictions within which all persons live.