What’s the Meaning of This!?!

I mentioned last week that I’ve been sitting in on a weekly foray into Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. I’ve been struck by just how forward-looking and piercing certain of Adorno’s insights are; by the same token, occasionally I read something and think, “wow, this guy is old.”

For an example of the latter, I’d direct you to the draft introduction, on page 341 (Adorno, Theodor W.; Robert Hullot-Kentor, trans. Aesthetic Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) of which Adorno vilifies “arbitrary, amateurish auxiliary hypotheses, homemade rationalizations, or [...] arbitrary declarations of intention framed by a Weltanschauung, without any justification from what is actually achieved” (emphasis mine). This warning reminds me of something I’ve heard more than once in the theory classroom: the invocation of “what’s really happening” in a piece of music. Looking at an artwork, how does one prove “what is actually achieved” or “what’s really happening”?

One doesn’t. Rather than ask “what’s really happening?”, we should ask “what purely metaphorical reading of this music might reach a consensus among informed spectators?” Even such a hedgy statement wouldn’t be bulletproof, but it would at least acknowledge that responding to “what’s really happening” demands that we accept a socially constituted phenomenon as objectively true, and the hell with that. “What’s really happening” in a Beethoven sonata is that someone is on a stage sitting in front of a piano, laboring for our enjoyment.

Obviously that’s a reductive and deliberately silly description of an art-object. A piece of music can’t quite be boiled down to the behavior of the performer or performers. But Adorno’s requirement that “what is actually achieved” bolster the composer’s ideological projections necessitates a two-person operation: A composer with a philosophy to convey and a listener with the cultural apparatus to receive the composer’s transmission.

2 thoughts on “What’s the Meaning of This!?!

  1. philmusic

    Good point Colin.

    You don’t need a theory to love Beethoven or to know that Mozart is damn good. Theories tend to come after the fact and many a time tell us what we already know.

    Yet theories can reveal insights into the art.

    These insights can be valuable even if we reject them as they make us consider thinking that is not our own.

    Phil’s run’o’the mill page

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  2. rtanaka

    I disagree with a lot of what Adorno has to say, but maybe what he was trying to say was this: his critique is likely directed at people who boast artistic accomplishments without paying much attention to its reception by the audience. This can often be found in concert reviews where polite/mediocre responses are exaggerated into glowing statements that tie the event in with some sort of grand narrative.

    Now there’s nothing wrong with tying in something with a greater context, but “amateurish auxiliary hypotheses” and “homemade rationalizations” would probably lead the reviewer to make over-inflated theoretical statements that have nothing to do with “what actually happened”. If a reviewer were to turn a polite, obligatory applause into a “deafening roar”, that would obviously be a breach of objectivity, even from a purely observational standpoint. It’s tricky, because the words we use to describe artworks are inherently subjective, which makes it very vulnerable to political appropriation. But I’d like to think that the good ones are dedicated toward the pursuit of truth in some way.

    The first step is to know what people are saying and to whom, the second is to know, ahead of time, what are likely responses when presenting an artwork to the general public. Philosophers do this all the time by anticipating arguments that are likely to come from critics of their work — the good ones will ensure that their arguments are clear and air-tight so that they don’t waste time trying to clarify misconceptions. I’m pretty sure Adorno himself has a lot of experience doing this.

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