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.