The Fleeting Promise of Art

The Fleeting Promise of Art: Adorno's Aesthetic Theory Revisited

Peter Uwe Hohendahl
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    The Fleeting Promise of Art
    Book Description:

    A discussion of Theodor Adorno's Aesthetic Theory is bound to look significantly different today than it would have looked when the book was first published in 1970, or when it first appeared in English translation in the 1980s. In The Fleeting Promise of Art, Peter Uwe Hohendahl reexamines Aesthetic Theory along with Adorno's other writings on aesthetics in light of the unexpected return of the aesthetic to today's cultural debates.

    Is Adorno's aesthetic theory still relevant today? Hohendahl answers this question with an emphatic yes. As he shows, a careful reading of the work exposes different questions and arguments today than it did in the past. Over the years Adorno's concern over the fate of art in a late capitalist society has met with everything from suspicion to indifference. In part this could be explained by relative unfamiliarity with the German dialectical tradition in North America. Today's debate is better informed, more multifaceted, and further removed from the immediate aftermath of the Cold War and of the shadow of postmodernism.

    Adorno's insistence on the radical autonomy of the artwork has much to offer contemporary discussions of art and the aesthetic in search of new responses to the pervasive effects of a neoliberal art market and culture industry. Focusing specifically on Adorno's engagement with literary works, Hohendahl shows how radically transformative Adorno's ideas have been and how thoroughly they have shaped current discussions in aesthetics. Among the topics he considers are the role of art in modernism and postmodernism, the truth claims of artworks, the function of the ugly in modern artworks, the precarious value of the literary tradition, and the surprising significance of realism for Adorno.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6928-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-30)

    A discussion of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is bound to look significantly cantly different today than it would have looked in the early 1990s, especially in North America. At that time, immediately after the end of the Cold War, which had influenced aesthetic debates more than most participants were ready to concede, the discovery of Adorno’s posthumous work through translations challenged students of critical theory because of its philosophical density. Reading Aesthetic Theory (first published in 1970) required a familiarity with the German dialectical tradition that could not be taken for granted in this country.¹ The explication of Adorno’s late work...

  6. Part I

    • 1 Human Freedom and the Autonomy of Art: The Legacy of Kant
      (pp. 33-56)

      If Adorno had died in 1949 instead of 1969, he would be remembered today primarily as the coauthor, with Max Horkheimer, of Dialectic of Enlightenment. That is, he would be remembered as a fierce critic of the European Enlightenment including Immanuel Kant. What Adorno and Horkheimer had to say about Kant in this pathbreaking study was mostly negative and hostile. Kant makes an appearance in the second chapter, along with the Marquis de Sade, where the authors want to demonstrate that the sage of Königsberg is very much part of a trajectory that began in the seventeenth century and ultimately...

    • 2 The Ephemeral and the Absolute: The Truth Content of Art
      (pp. 57-78)

      Aesthetic Theory was published in 1970, a year after Adorno’s death. Initially dismissed or attacked, it has become his most widely and carefully read work. While critics still disagree about the interpretation of the text, there is more or less consensus on its significance as the culmination of Adorno’s oeuvre and its importance for the contemporary aesthetic debate. More controversial, however, is the value assigned to Adorno’s contribution to the contemporary discussion. The broadest, and also most orthodox, claim for Aesthetic Theory is that it provides a comprehensive framework for the assessment of art in general. A more modest claim...

    • 3 Aesthetic Violence: The Concepts of the Ugly and Primitive
      (pp. 79-100)

      The concept of the beautiful occupies a central place in Adorno’s theory, and therefore it is not surprising that commentators have focused much attention on it, specifically stressing the link between classical aesthetic theory and the theory of the modern artwork, which stands at the center of Adorno’s endeavor.¹ In such accounts, the important issue is Adorno’s attempt to reconnect the theory of modern art with Kant’s and Hegel’s reflections on art.² It needs to be remembered, however, that Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory explicitly emphasizes the importance of the ugly in art. And yet the critical response to the concept of...

  7. Part II

    • 4 Reality, Realism, and Representation
      (pp. 103-128)

      The specter of realism haunts Adorno’s theory. The concept is both used and rejected in his theory of the novel, which is available mostly in the form of isolated essays that focus on individual novelists. Adorno’s resistance to the notion of realism is grounded in his concept of the artwork, in particular its emphatic distance from empirical reality.¹ This aspect is forcefully articulated in his understanding of poetry. In his seminal essay “On Lyric Poetry and Society” (1957; NL 1:37–54) Adorno attempts to persuade an audience of educated German listeners that poetry, while first and foremost determined by the...

    • 5 A Precarious Balance: Rereading German Classicism
      (pp. 129-151)

      Among Theodor Adorno’s contributions to literary criticism, his essay “On the Classicism of Goethe’s Iphigenia” stands out as an intervention that provoked strong unintended reactions when it was delivered as a public lecture at the Free University in Berlin in 1967. It also stands out as a text that decisively articulated its author’s position in the complex postwar discussion about the function and value of the German literary tradition. At stake here was the question of a German literary tradition tout Court. Could, or should, contemporary German criticism appropriate its literary past? Was there a German canon that was worth...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 152-166)

    The decision to end this book with an epilogue rather than a conclusion is more than just a matter of nomenclature. A customary conclusion, one that offers a straightforward summary of the preceding chapters, must be resisted for it presupposes that Adorno’s work can be systematically conceptualized without remainder, that it can be completely grasped by methodically reconstructing lines of argument. But Adorno’s thought, as I have tried to show, eludes this approach, and this is so for a number of reasons.

    First, the fundamentally essayistic nature of Adorno’s writing, even when we are dealing with a major book like...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 167-174)
  10. Index
    (pp. 175-184)