apexart :: New York City Fellow :: John Roberts
Fellowship Program
John Roberts
writer, London
February 15 - March 14, 2000
John Roberts delivered this paper at apexart on March 8, 2000   After Adorno: Art, Autonomy, and Critique
by John Roberts
In conversation with two artist friends recently they both declared that Adorno was a far more serious and productive guide to their practices than any other philosopher or aesthetician. Given their work and histories as artists - one had lived through the period of conceptual art and had been won over briefly to its arguments, the other emerged out of its ruins - this was a surprise. Like many artists in the late seventies and early eighties both had fallen under the sway of Walter Benjamin, and were convinced, in their respective ways, that the dissolution of the category of Art into the forms of modern technology and everyday life was a good thing. Indeed both artists were proselytisers for photography and its powers of social reference and communality. Discussions of art's autonomy were not on their check list of priorities. In fact, if autonomy was discussed or thought of at all it was denounced as a bourgeois category. Autonomy was what Clement Greenberg and modernist painters believed in, and the bane of all materialist art criticism. It was not what serious post-conceptualist artists, armed with the 'critique of representation' and theories of the social production of art, should be worrying about.
Today, however, the confidence of their admonitions has diminished considerably. Where there was a commitment to the possibility of a non-specialist audience for art, and a consideration of artÕs social role in their thinking, now there is a turn to the space and time and immanent problems of the artwork itself. The question of autonomy, accordingly, has resurfaced, only now in a setting which is far more sympathetic to its claims.
Why is this so? It is of course highly dubious to credit the work of one author with effecting this kind of change. Yet, since the publication of Aesthetic Theory in English in 1984,1 Adorno's writing has had an extensive influence on the rethinking of the question of autonomy in Anglophone art theory and philosophical aesthetics. Indeed, the views of my two anonymous artists are not that unusual; Adorno's work has undergone a widespread revival of interest, generating by the late 1990s a minor academic industry in Europe and North America. This is because there is an increasing recognition that both the critique and the defence of autonomy have been undertheorized since the seventies; and this being so, Adorno's work is well-placed to give a number of powerful reasons why.
The return to Adorno, needs to be seen, therefore, as part of a deeper response to what is perceived as the wider crisis in art and theory in the wake of the institutional demise of American modernism and the successful rise of postmodernism prior to, and out of the ruins of, the collapse of European communism and the current crisis of the left. In fact it is the struggle over the ideological legitimation of postmodernism that has allowed Adorno to find a new critical readership today. For amongst anti-postmodernists Adorno is being read not so much as an elitist defender of high modernism - although of course some do read him in this way - but primarily as the scourge of the false or premature democracy of postmodernism. Despite postmodernism's purported attack on elitism its critique of autonomy is judged as having produced little in the way of actual transformative social institutions and collective cultural practice. Since the late seventies the dominant form of postmodernism - critical postmodernism - has become linked with the cultural aspirations of the new middle class, as it reinvents the basis of artistic professionalism out of the struggles of feminism and anti-racism, post-colonial theory and queer theory. The outcome is a convergence in art between the critique of the mass media, social identity, representation and the institutions of art, and new forms of bourgeois social and academic administration.
This influence of this liberal-left agenda within some of the major cultural and academic institutions of our time is seen by many as a progressive historical achievement. Modernism's dedifferentiated, socially abstract subject has been decisively challenged by the cultural impact of subaltern and marginalized subjectivities, irredeemably damaging the case against familiar conservative accusations of the 'lowering of standards'. But, if postmodernism is in a position of some strength against the critics of multiculturalism and 'anti-aestheticism', it is extremely vulnerable when its claims to cultural emancipation are examined in the light of the narrow class composition of its social base. Just as postmodernism's critique of the avant-garde presents insuperable problems once art's negation of tradition is abandoned for the moral authority of social and political intervention.
Indeed, it is the dissolution of the normative basis of modern art's negation of tradition that has generated the renewed interest in Adorno. For Adorno's defence of autonomy is based on the fundamental premise that art's continued critical potential rests on its resistance to the authority of tradition, whether or not this tradition speaks in the name of social emancipation and enlightenment. Without this process of renewal the transmission of value and meaning in art becomes subject to the positivity of an external, self-legitimating authority and the pieties of 'commitment'. In short, art defines itself through its received codes and protocols, denying the demands of the present in the name of the securities of the past.
Given this, Adorno's defence of autonomy is not to be confused with the transcendental separation of art from its social base or traditional aesthetic conservativism. Rather, autonomy is the name given to the process of formal and cognitive self-criticism which art must undergo in order to constitute the conditions of its very possibility and emergence. In a world which continually reduces the discursive and non-discursive complexities of art to the reconciliations of entertainment, fashion and (recently) social theory, this self-criticism is an ethical necessity.
The postmodern critique of autonomy, then, confuses the process of self-criticism with simplistic modernist claims of formal development or advance in art. Accordingly, it fails to scrutinise its own academic and idealist conditions of production and reception, insisting that the technological dissolution of art into everyday life claimed by much contemporary practice makes the intimacy between formal values and ethics historically redundant. But this misunderstanding of autonomy is not confined to Adorno's postmodern critics. A number of Adorno's defenders are themselves guilty of traducing its dialectical content. The move 'back to' to Adorno has also generated a proto-conservative reading of autonomy, in which postmodernism is attacked without any proper critical consideration of the expanded social base of the bourgeois institutions of art in the 1980s and 1990s and the critical content of the art since conceptualism.
As such, fifteen years after the publication of Aesthetic Theory, Adorno new readership stands at the centre of a number of competing critiques of postmodernism. In the following I examine the claims of these positions in the ongoing debate on postmodernism and art, as the basis for an assessment of the possibility of Adorno's continuing relevance for philosophical aesthetics and art theory.
It is possible to divide contemporary Adornian studies into five main categories. 1) The dialogic critics of Adorno, as in the school of post-60s German Critical Theory, specifically, JŸrgen Habermas and Albrecht Wellmer;2 2) Peter Bürger's Brechtian critique of Adorno's aesthetic autonomy as a retreat from social praxis;3 3) the philosophical defenders of Adorno as a radical aesthete, as in the writing of philosophers JM Bernstein, Andrew Bowie, and the recent translator of the new edition of Aesthetic Theory, Robert Hullot-Kentor;4 4) the anti-Habermasian interpretation of Adorno as the great theorist of 'totality' and 'reification', as in Fredric Jameson;5 and 5) the defenders of Adorno as the dialectical theorist of autonomy, as in the philosophical aesthetics of Lambert Zuidervaart and Peter Osborne.6
Category (1) has affinities with the postmodern critique of Adorno and autonomy, despite its antipathy to postmodernism as a cultural category and philosophical phenomenon.
Both Habermas and Wellmer argue that Adorno's defence of autonomy is falsely opposed to instrumental rationality, and therefore judge that the work of art is overdetermined as a model of truth. By insisting on autonomy as the basis of artistic value, Adorno opens up an irreconcilable gap between the artwork and socially shared knowledge and social transformation. In sum, Adorno's aesthetic theory for Habermas and Wellmer lacks any proper or reasonable dialogic content. This is because AdornoÕs hieratic model of reification reduces the conversational and communicative potential of the artwork to a bare minimum. In fact, Adorno always opposes the 'expressive' truth of the artwork to its socially communicative function. The upshot of this being that Adorno has no interest in how people actually experience and use works of art, how their content is mediated in everyday life. Art, insist Habermas and Wellmer, does not signify by virtue of its 'intrinsic' expressiveness, but through the intersubjective agency of a given discursive community of reception.
For Bürger, in category (2), this objection to Adorno's would-be indifference to art's discursive functions, forms an explicit political defence of art as social praxis. Whereas Habermas and Wellmer reclaim the notion of art's autonomy under a quasi-Kantian transcendental reason, Bürger dispenses with the dialectics of autonomy altogether. This is based on what Bürger sees as Adorno's wilful historical misrepresentation of the role and function of the avant-garde. By subsuming the post-autonomous artistic claims of the original revolutionary Soviet and German avant-garde under the critical model of the modern neo-avant-garde, Adorno fails to recognise the qualitatively distinctive moment of the original: namely, that it broke with the high-cultural institutions of art. Adorno's model of autonomy simply continues the death-throes of art's aesthetic and esoteric specialization.
Wellmer's and Habermas's model has a certain amount of influence, particularly within feminist cultural criticism, which sees Adorno's theory of autonomy as modelled on the repression of bodily pleasures and women's everyday experience. By insisting on modernism as the dissonant negation of sensual pleasure Adorno inherits the iconophobic rationalization of art in post-Platonic philosophy. The Kantian and Hegelian skepticism about sensible form becomes the fear of sensuality as a loss of intellectual control, and as such an unconscious fear of bodily pleasure. However, as Sabine Wilke and Heidi Schlipphacke, argue, this is not because Adorno's modernism allows no place for sensuality and non-disaffirmative pleasures (Adorno is keen on the somatic playfulness of the circus for instance), but that bodily pleasures and sexual difference are left behind "on the trajectory towards aesthetic autonomy".7 Wilke and Schlipphacke note that this repression is there at the very beginning of Aesthetic Theory, when Adorno defines autonomy in emphatic Hegelian terms as a parting of the ways from bodily determination.With Romanticism "art emancipated itself from cuisine and pornography, an emancipation that has become irrevocable".8
In contrast to categories (1) and (2), Bernstein and Bowie in category, (3), defend Adorno's dialectic of enlightenment against what is judged to be the sanguine and conciliatory critique of modernity in the dialogic model of art and the premature dissolution of art into everyday life in Bürger.
In this respect this position sets out to redefine the redemptive content of Adorno's claim for art's autonomy. In Adorno the defence of autonomy is construed ontologically as first and foremost a defence of aesthetic semblance or illusion. By this Adorno means that it is the artefactual character of the artwork that secures its autonomy, because it is the artefectual character of art which establishes the possibility of aesthetic rationality overcoming instrumental rationality. As socialised, non-coercieve labour, or purposeless purposiveness in the language of Kant, the artwork's fabricated uselessness is able to recall for the viewer the human, non-instrumental purpose of production. Famously this notion of aesthetic form as a redemption of alienated labour becomes a defence of what Adorno calls the process of mimesis internal to the autonomous artwork: its capacity to sustain a relationship of non-instrumental affinity between subject and object. Autonomous artworks, in this sense, both preserve and present the possibility of other kinds of experience. As Bernstein puts it:
" the question of aesthetic semblance is the question of the possibility of possibility, of a conception of possible experience that transcends what is now taken to be the parameters of possible experience".9
From this perspective, Bernstein, Bowie and other radical aesthetes draw two significant conclusions from the notion of art as the enactment of a promise, which set them off sharply from the dialogic critics of Adorno. The promise of happiness is separate from the mere satisfaction of desire or bodily pleasure - hence the criticisms of the kind made by Wilke and Schlipphacke are misplaced; and that particular things can be unsubsummable under conceptual categories and yet remain sources of meaning. As a consequence it is the transcendent promise of the reconciliation between sensuality and spirituality in the autonomous artwork, which grounds the truth-claims of art.
Category (4) is similarly preoccupied with the transcendent promise of the artwork. But for Fredric Jameson what is of general concern is how this promise has come into its own again in an historical period of continued stalled social and political transformation. Whereas in the 1970s in the age of national liberation, high-levels of class struggle, and radical cultural transformation, AdornoÕs promise was seen as an "encumbrance" and "embarrassment",10 today it keeps alive the untruth of capitalist rationality and freedom. This is because the very historical possibility of the autonomous artwork is what exposes the false totality of capitalist production. Through a deeper commitment to aesthetic truth as the non-negotiable source of dereification and disalienation, Adorno demonstrates that aesthetic theory is never merely aesthetic. What is of paramount significance in Adorno for Jameson, therefore, is that all aesthetic questions are taken to be fundamentally historical ones. But, as a consequence of this, Jameson refrains from making actual judgements about modernist works themselves; this is because it is not so much the specific content of Adorno's defence of various kinds of modernist art that counts, but the implications of aesthetic praxis as redemption as a whole. The outcome is a reticence and, even, guardedness about what constitutes the content and boundaries of autonomous art today. Indeed, there is a clear tendency in both the philosophical aesthetics of category (3), and Jameson's position, to evacuate the problems and contradictions of contemporary art practice for the promise of the promise itself. This is the result in Jameson, as in Bernstein and Bowie, of an undialectical interpretation of the social content of AdornoÕs concept of autonomy.
What distinguishes Adorno's theory of autonomy from the early Romantics, the neo-conservative New Criticism of the1950s, and Greenbergian modernists, is that art is seen simultaneously as socially determined and autonomous. Or rather, the autonomy of the art object is something which is produced out of the social relations which constitute the institution of art itself. It is not something which is produced immanently out of the object and therefore transmittable as a particular 'style' or 'look'. This means that autonomy is the practical and theoretical outcome of the contradiction between the artwork's exchange value and use-value. Because of the perpetual threat of the loss of the artwork's use-value, art is continually propelled by its own conditions of alienation to find aesthetic strategies which might resist or obviate this process of critical and aesthetic dissolution - the history of the 'new' in modernism derives from the resistance of art to its exchange value. But, at the same time, under capitalism art derives its social identity and value from this process. Thus authentic modern art acquires identity and value in a double movement of negation and self-negation: art achieves visibility through positioning itself in relation to the prevailing norms, interests and protocols of the market and intellectual academy. But once the work achieves institutional and market visibility, the artist is forced to resist the work's own subsumption under a new set of norms if he or she values the thing that defined the workÕs initial moment of production: its critical difference or aesthetic 'otherness'. For once the value of the new work is institutionally established, the work finds itself part of a new set of prevailing norms and protocols. The exchange value of the artwork, therefore, operates as a kind of 'fiction': artists seek to transform the normative values of the market and the critical academy in their own image, but in the interests of escaping from these values and self-image. That is, the 'fiction' of autonomy has to be dismantled by the artist if the pursuit of autonomy is to be able to continue to prosecute art's failure to realise its freedom from social dependency. Art's autonomy is necessarily dependent, on the alienated conditions of its realization, because it is through artÕs connection to the 'unresolved antagonisms' of reality that the social content of autonomy is generated. Commodification, then, locks art into an impossible logic: art can only renew itself through undermining or disrupting those qualities that bring it into being. Yet if this logic is impossible, for Adorno it is necessary and inescapable under current relations of production, because, paradoxically, it is this logic which sustains the possibility of art's (and human) freedom. In this sense the possibility of art's autonomy is socially driven.
This expansive notion of autonomy is something that is explored in detail in the dialectical theory of autonomy in category (5), particularly in the work of Lambert Zuidervaart and Peter Osborne.
What these writers insist on - which I concur with - is the need for a sharper reintegration of the truth of autonomy into the cultural and social experience of recent art and postmodernism. That is, they call for a development of autonomy away from its grounding in modernist painting and sculpture into the area of new media and their interconnections. For if the value of autonomy rests on its commitment to finding new materials and forms of attention for the 'unresolved antagonisms' of social experience, then this must of necessity be expanded into an analysis of the problems which confront the art of the present, without recourse to nostalgia or moralism. Without the establishment of the link between the expanded means and materials of the art of the last thirty years and the problem of autonomy, aesthetic value is forced back into a conservative reading of the modern. In this way Adorno's dialectics must be brought to bear on Adorno's categories themselves, as a recognition of the historicity of autonomy itself.
Importantly, this means transforming the relationship between high-art and popular culture in Adorno's aesthetic theory. For it is the would-be fixture of this binary opposition between 'high' and 'low' that identifies the current historical limits of Adorno's defence of autonomy and that of his contemporary philosophical defenders, who tend to see the art of the last thirty years as a falling away from the sensual achievements of modernism.11 The failure to acknowledge the expanded social content of autonomy on the part of these defenders is invariably the result of their condescension, or outright hostility, towards mass culture and popular culture. Yet the expanded content of the art of the last thirty years is incomprehensible without a recognition of how the 'low' has challenged and reconfigured the 'high'. But, breaking with this condescension towards the popular is not an invitation to dissolve the 'high' into the 'low', as in the populist tendencies of postmodernism. Rather, it allows the possibility of a dialectics of 'high' and 'low': that is, it reestablishes the opposition between 'high' and 'low' in the light of the contradictions inherent in both of its terms. And this, of course, is something that Adorno himself was highly sensitive to, and which first preoccupied him in the 1930s, even if his judgement on the 'low' was essentially skeptical.
Adorno's antipathy to mass culture is notorious and much criticised. This is based on his view that although high-art or autonomous art, and mass culture or dependent art, are both commodities, dependent artworks are incapable of generating sustainable critical reflection on the part of the spectator and reader. Rather, mass culture offers compensatory forms of libidinal gratification, and as such, functions overall as a form of social repression. The pleasures of mass culture negate the promise of happiness of autonomous art. Yet when Adorno actually talks about the 'high' and the 'low' in Aesthetic Theory the 'high' refers to the interrelations between autonomy and dependency, of which autonomy is the dominant term. Similarly Adorno is well aware that in mass culture there are moments of autonomy. As he was to say in his letter to Benjamin on March 18, 1936, "If you defend the kitsch film against the 'quality' film, no one can be more in agreement with you than I am; but l'art pour l'art is just as much in need of a defence".12 As such it is important to stress that Adorno does not identify mass culture with the culture industry; the culture industry is what capitalism does to mass culture. But two things interconnect to make his judgements about modern mass culture utterly marginal in his aesthetic theory: his totalizing view of the reification of mass experience; and as such his overwhelming commitment to analyzing mass culture from the standpoint of autonomous art. Thus, no popular art quite meets the highest standards of the best autonomous art, and the best of autonomous art is always compelled to preserve its boundaries against the encroachments of aesthetic dependency.
In this respect, like categories (2), category (5) distances itself from autonomy as a precondition of the evaluation of all art. As with BŸrger - and Habermas and Wellmer - the dialectical theory of autonomy accepts that the truth of autonomy is not the ultimate criterion of art's social significance. Indeed, this conclusion is self-evident in a culture where traditional modernist forms of autonomy no longer provide any moral or political challenge to the effects of reification. Just as the pleasures of mass culture and popular culture do not have to negate the promise of happiness, but can, as Osborne says, at certain moments, "heighten the sense of frustration at the broken promise".13 As a consequence, it is hard to accept, in Adorno's terms, that autonomous art is any more critically effective than dependent art when certain products of mass culture can subvert the conventions of the traditions they operate within and disclose, on occasions, radical aspirations.
On this basis the debate on the dialectical content of autonomy is an attack on Adorno's traditional concern for normative evaluation. Irrespective of their 'levels' of 'autonomy' or 'social dependency' all works of art demonstrate a social function. However, unlike BŸrger and the postmodernists, to accept the multiple and variegated functions and forms of reception of artworks does not thereby mean accepting the abandonment of normativity altogether - the postmodernist syndrome of defining art as popular culture and popular culture as art. Rather, what is required is a more differentiated account of art's standards and criteria of evaluation, what Zuidevaart calls a "complex normativity".14 This complex normativity might include not only "technical excellence, formal depth, aesthetic expressiveness" (attributes conventionally associated with modernism) but also "social scope, potential effectiveness and historical truth". "Rarely would a particular work meet all these norms, nor would very many works display exceptional merit with respect to every norm that they do meet".15 By this, Zuidevaart means that the supposedly elitist concern with autonomy allows us to rethink the dynamics of popular pleasure and technological development in art, at the same as the dynamics of popular pleasure and technological development in art can allow us to rethink the limits and content of autonomy. Indeed normativity is unavoidable once we accept that the critique of the category of art remains inseparable from the continuing conditions of art's possibility.
Osborne adopts a similar position to this. But, in contrast to Zuidervaart, he is far more forceful in arguing that the implications of this dialectic are there latent in AdornoÕs work itself. As he says:
" Adorno's own analysis suggests another, far more productive approach [to the question of autonomy]: namely, to lay bare the structure of the dialectic of the dependent and the autonomous within dependent art, and to comprehend it through its opposition to autonomous art, as a distinctive part of a larger cultural whole."16
This insistence on the solution to the problem of autonomy lying in the transformation of Adorno's categories themselves is held, rightly, by Osborne to be a political decision. To defend autonomy in the spirit of Adorno as an historical and interrelational concept is to resist those who would judge negation and the critique of tradition in art to be dead and buried. In this respect the continuing importance of Adorno lies in how his concept of autonomy incorporates the irreconcilability of art to its own alienated conditions and fate into the conditions of its own possibility. The idea, therefore, that art can resolve these conditions by claiming allegiance to a given aesthetic tradition or by dissolving itself into everyday life, is an avoidance of the realities of art's alienation, whether these forms of reconciliation are offered in the name of cultural democracy or not. Hence the fundamental problem with BŸrger's, Habermas's and Wellmer's models - and postmodernism as a whole - is that in their various ways they fail to acknowledge the violence and misrepresentation which underwrite art's mediation of cultural and social division. As such in the case of Habermas, Wellmer and the postmodernists, they assume far too easy an incorporation of the artwork into the principles of communicative rationality, when human suffering and reification are always threatening to dissolve this rationality into incoherence, bad faith and sentiment. Indeed the rejection of all forms of aesthetic and social compensation in AdornoÕs theory of autonomy is designed not in order to foreclose all possible communication, but to render the truth of art as existentially and formally continuous with the effects of alienation and reification. By defending a form of autonomy which is constituted through the negation of tradition the irreconcilability of art is coextensive with the irreconcilability of the subject's consciousness of being-in-the-world.
Adorno's legacy, then, needs to be defended against those who would abandon normativity for shallow defences of the 'popular' and art's basis in communal discursivity, and all the political substitutionalism that inevitably comes with such positions. However, at the same time, it needs to be recognised that the theoretical resources in Adorno for sustaining the social content of autonomy, are highly attenuated, opening up room for misunderstanding and false departures, as in the writing of the Adornian philosophical aesthetes. This is not least because Adorno's notional recognition of the 'autonomous' in the 'dependent' and the 'dependent' in the 'autonomous' leaves the social character of his concept of autonomy highly ambiguous.
Viewed from this perspective, one of the problems with Adorno's writing for his philosophical aesthetic defenders is how to position the claims of anti-art in relation to the critique of tradition, particularly in the light of the most important art of the last thirty years, which has systematically expanded the forms and meanings of aesthetic experience through the strategies of anti-art.
The moment of anti-art for Adorno is determinate for the renewal of art's autonomy; in order to distinguish itself from what has become aesthetic, art is forced to expand into, or reclaim non-aesthetic, experiences, forms or practices, (popular and discursive modes of attention, the ready made, the textual etc). But for Adorno this is heavily qualified by his view that such moves always threaten to dissolve the artwork back into the real and the everyday. This leads him to attack the aesthetics of the ready-made and to devalue photography. The radical aesthetes of category (3), tend to follow this line, settling for the formal evaluations of Adorno's misjudged conclusions, rather than the dialectical implications of his argument. Consequently, they maintain that Adorno's critical potential today lies in his resistance to the dissolution of the artefectual and sensual base of artistic practice. But if this critique is pursued in order to draw attention to the false democracy of the 'popular' and anti-form etc - critical postmodernism is uppermost in their minds - it also threatens to disengage autonomy from AdornoÕs hermeneutical privileging of the 'new'out of anti-art.17 If the 'new' in art is the constitution of art's autonomy through the determinate negation of tradition, then the impulse of anti-art is integral to what has previously established itself as autonomous, and therefore essential to the social content of autonomy. Without this moment of negation autonomy in art degenerates into a confirmation of tradition and the present, meaning that, anti-art is a transgression that autonomy must undergo in order to reconstitute itself.18 Accordingly, one of the reasons that there is a close identification between autonomy and the aesthetics of modernism in work of the writers in category (3), is that philosophical aesthetics takes the superseded and conventionalized forms of anti-art in modernism as its guide to contemporary practice, losing the positional logic of anti-art in the pursuit of art's autonomy. In this sense it is the positional logic of anti-art which drives the social content of art's autonomy. In this way the ambiguity of Adorno's legacy tends to be exacerbated by this kind of philosophical aesthetics, because it treats the concept of autonomy as an abstract philosophical postulate, and not as something determined by the prevailing conditions of art's autonomy.
Adorno's concept of autonomy, then, generates two interconnected problems for its radical aesthete defenders: 1) in the interests of stabilising aesthetic quality and high-culture's negation of mass culture it weakens the moment of anti-art within art's pursuit of autonomy; and 2) in order to distinguish the authenticity of autonomy in art it represses the transcendent moment of autonomy immanent to all forms of culture. This leaves his defenders with very little to use aesthetically when coming to understand the art of the recent past and the massive expansion and diversification of popular cultures in the 1980s and 1990s. By identifying autonomy with tired modernist protocols and by defending an implausible account of ideology and popular culture - popular culture as fundamentally antithetical to the fulfilment of human needs - the radical aesthetes dissolve autonomy into a defensive aestheticism.19 In this respect the dialectical critics of autonomy are correct: the interrelations between autonomy and mass culture are dead in the water unless retheorized as part of the critical expansion of art's normativity. By expanding the content of normativity the opposition between modernism/anti-reification mass culture/reification is revealed to be no longer functional as a source of absolute value - if ever it was. But, if the dialectical theorists of autonomy correctly relativize the issue of reification, there is, similarly, little sense what this might actually mean in terms of the problems of contemporary art and culture. Osborne's notion of the "critical potential of mass culture",20 is frustratingly vague.
It is not of course the job of philosophy to answer such questions; philosophy cannot predict or legislate the content of art's autonomy. However, what it can and should do is clarify the conditions for a defence of the social content of autonomy against its premature aestheticization or dissolution. Hence, the dismantling of the opposition between a high modernist singular normativity and dependent popular culture, means little unless questions of value, meaning and pleasure are based on a theory of artistic subjectivity and spectatorship which adequately represent contemporary transformations in art and culture.
The central problem with the philosophical aesthetes' defence of a version of the traditional modernist subject and spectator is, as I have stressed, its lack of cultural differentiation. What demands our attention, therefore, if we are to establish a workable notion of autonomy is the need to connect the expanded social and aesthetic conditions of art since the 1960s to a theory of negation in art - or anti-art - that does not merely reproduce or reverse the antinomy between 'high' and 'low'. By this I mean that if the concept of autonomy is no longer able to sustain its negative logic through modernism's classical forms of distantiation it requires an aesthetic subject/producer which derives its critical agency from the relations between an expanded notion of social identity and form in art and the exclusions and aporias of social and cultural division. In other words, an adequate notion of autonomy is to be derived from the aesthetic subject/producer's mediation of the interrelations of 'high' and 'low', and not merely from their abstract conjunction.
Consequently, the concept of 'complex normativity' becomes clearer if we take the contemporary incorporation of popular modes of attention into the expanded social categories of art as a response to modernist 'expressiveness', as itself divided. The significance of the 'relativization of reification' for a complex normativity is not that it allows art to switch to the popular from the demands of critical distance, but that art's critical functions are structured within an understanding of the popular as both pleasurable and alienated. By stressing that popular modes of attention and pleasures define a shared space in which both 'high' and 'low' position themselves in late capitalist culture, the demands of autonomy are situated as internal to the determinations of dependency. Popular forms of attention are not so much the 'other' of authentic aesthetic life, but the dominant space out of which aesthetic pleasures and values are formed and struggled over.
From this perspective the experience of aesthetic subject/producer is opened up to the pleasures of popular culture and mass culture without condescension, which is a significantly different proposition from Adorno's occasional embrace of popular pleasures as a kind of healthy antidote to middle-brow taste. In this way embodied popular pleasures are enjoyed precisely because they refuse to give unqualified assent to the supposed enlightened pleasures of high-culture. However, this refusal of assent does not imply that the taking of such pleasures is a negation of high-culture or that such pleasures are identifiable with an undiscriminating cultural pluralism. On this basis of the aesthetic subject the taking of pleasures from the popular is not to be confused with the postmodern notion of the popular consumer. Rather, the aesthetic subject takes pleasure from the popular knowing such pleasures to be alienated. This is an important epistemological difference, for it reveals something significant that neither the Adornian philosophical aesthetes nor postmodernists take much notice of about the conditions of modern culture: that the pleasures taken from popular culture and high culture are mutually unstable for would-be popular consumers and 'aesthetes' alike - even if this instability is in the final analysis subject to the wider constraints of class division, and therefore unstable in uneven ways. But the important ontological point is that the taking of such pleasures is itself a process of internal division and dissent, for, there is no such thing as the uncultured and unfeeling popular consumer - everybody comes to popular culture and to a work of art with some knowledge and powers of discrimination whatever their educational and cultural accomplishments. And, similarly, this is precisely the point about the cultural limitations inherent in the position of the aesthete, for the aesthete is no less alienated than the popular cultural consumer - alienated by his or her own fantasy of aesthetic control. So, just as popular modes of attention are themselves internally differentiated under the demands of aesthetic discrimination, the aestheteÕs would-be disinterested pleasures are the constant, repressive reminder of the embodied and subaltern pleasures of the popular.
Thus, what the concept of complex normativity is able to establish is that both works of autonomous art (high culture) and the products of popular culture share a common space of reification and dereification. This allows us to theorize artistic production and reception without recourse to a simplistic model of high culture as the protection of a single normativity and low culture as the degradation of normativity - of one (higher) form of autonomy subsuming another. Indeed the idea of the aesthete as the defender of a normative autonomy and the popular consumer as the undifferentiated consumer of mass culture is utterly regressive. Consequently, the aesthetic subject/producer who acknowledges the dependency in autonomy and moments of autonomy in dependency, might be said to be extending the implications of Adorno's aesthetic theory, but crucially, from within a critical space where cultural alienation is treated as complex and internal to both terms. For the overwhelming problem with the Adornian philosophical aesthetes, is that the conflicts of aesthetic experience are not viewed as the result of the actual and symbolic violence internal to high culture and popular culture.
To link the question of aesthetics to symbolic violence is to make clear what connects the debate on art and the popular to what remains of importance in Adorno's writing on autonomy: the fact that the internal and external divisions of autonomy and mass culture are only comprehensible within a continuum of actual or symbolic violence. To analysis autonomy and dependency, in terms of the actual and symbolic violence perpetrated against works of art by the culture industry and aestheticism, and in terms of the symbolic violence internal to the social logic of art's autonomy, is to see how modern art's internal history and external relations with mass culture in the 20th century exist in a continuum of destruction and derogation. What this discloses, importantly, is how symbolic and actual violence constitute the ontological condition of art's production and reception under capitalism. Thus to acknowledge the incorporation of the moment of anti-art into art in terms of the irreconcilability of art's being-in-the-world is to foreground the philosophical and cultural intimacy between negation (of identity) with violence. The logic of art's autonomy is its internal disidentification in the face of art's external derogation.
Theories of aesthetics, however, are largely concerned with dissolving art's interpresence with symbolic and actual violence. As Paul de Man puts its it his critique of aesthetic ideology: "the aesthetic is not a separate category but a principle of articulation between various known categories, and modes of cognition".21 But, an acceptance of this separation is what leads to the culturally undifferentiated aesthete and to the abandonment of a complex normativity and the exigencies of anti-art. The self-divided aesthetic subject, however, challenges this loss of differentiation, insofar as it restores an active recognition and critique of the structural violence internal and external to both the production and reception of art and popular culture.22 The question of 'complex normativity' as the relativization of reification, therefore, remains incoherent if it does not make visible how the artist and spectator are now situated in a contested space between the modes of attention of popular culture and their critique. It is out of this space between the identification and disidentification of these modes that the contemporary conditions of a 'complex normativity' are currently being produced.23
The threat to art's autonomy is inherent to the social conditions of art's existence. But it is the social conditions of artÕs production and reception which bring the autonomy of the artwork (its challenge to the instrumentalities of market and academy) into being. Autonomous art remains authentically autonomous inasmuch as the conditions of its production recognise this and resist its instrumental and extra-artistic logic. Adorno's expressive model in Aesthetic Theory, is I have outlined, based on this. But Adorno is unable to develop this because the social content of autonomy is prematurely separated from the negation of autonomy within autonomy - the moment of anti-art. He is unable to see - or trust - anti-art as the means by which autonomy is able to mediate art's futural condition and the relations between art and knowledge. This might be described as the moment of 'realism' in art's autonomy, the moment which grounds the dynamic movement of autonomy's social content. Adorno's philosophical followers, however, dissolve this movement, by resolving the issue of autonomy in terms of the defence of a single normativity - against what they see as the loss of all normativity in postmodernism. In this the philosophical defence of autonomy as the negation of aesthetic tradition and protocol remains imperative in the face of the aggressive rejection of normativity in postmodern cultural studies and the positivization of negation in philosophical aesthetics. But the dialectical defence of autonomy is no source of artistic value. It is only the practices and criticism of art that is able to open up the the social content of autonomy. Philosophy's job is to underwrite that possibility, not to substitute itself for that possibility.
© 1999 John Roberts

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John Roberts is Professor of Art & Aesthetics at the University of Wolverhampton, and is the author of a number of books including, The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade (Verso 2007), The Necessity of Errors (Verso 2010) and Photography and Its Violations (Columbia University Press, 2014). His Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde is to be published by Verso in 2015. He lives in London.