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Adorno’s and Benjamin’s theories of esthetics are among the most scientific representations of 20-th century cultural reality. Both philosophers are considered to be one of the most crucial figures in esthetics theory development as they opened radically new spheres and dimensions of its analysis. First of all, it should be noted that the cultural and historical atmosphere in which they elaborated their ideas and construct was characterized by several important transformations which shook later predominant vision of esthetics and philosophy.
Before 20-th the main notions of esthetics such as ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’ as well as their philosophical connotations were deeply embedded in classical antic Aristotelian and Platonic traditions in which they were regarded as eternal substances connected with ideal moral and universal norms and rules.
The piece of art as one of the main objects of esthetic theory was also regarded by Enlightenment theorists such as F. Schiller as the center of the esthetic word, esthetic representation of Absolute Spirit’s movement and ideal substances development. Art and esthetics as well as Subjects who created them were involved in some spiritual and mystic ritual and were delinked intellectually from the ugly truths of the worlds.
The departure from these ‘romantic’ sentiments, art, and culture adoration is already evident in Adorno and Benjamin philosophies as they are seen as certain markers of then-dominant ‘dissatisfaction’ with culture. Several historical changes should be taken into consideration if we want to understand this rising critique of culture and art as it occurs in the works of Benjamin and Adorno.
First of all, such segments of esthetical Object as literature and art become dominated by critical social content, for instance, it concerns such writers as Balzac, Stendal, Flaubert, etc. It no longer possible to abstract oneself from the real social content as it becomes more and more evident that critical relation to existent historical reality is one of the main prerequisites of good literature.
Besides this, it should be noted that with the development of capitalist societies the link between art and dominant interests sometimes becomes more evident and we already can speak about deeply embedded ideological meanings and connotations.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the technical development of Western civilization were one of the main factors that transformed classical opposition between vulgar and ideal, opposition between profane culture and art.
This trend would be evident in Benjamin’s analysis of the ‘Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’. Democratization of society which rapidly developed in the beginning of the 20th century together with these processes were among the crucial driving forces of mass culture as it first was reflected in jazz, modern operettas and other fusions of classical and profane.
There is no denying the importance, that all these processes should be understood as the basic elements of a new dimension of culture. Finally, the first half of the 20th century is characterized by bloody wars and the development of oppressive fascist regimes which deeply influenced the lives of Adorno and Benjamin. The latter, as a Jew, became the victim of Nazism. These regimes used culture as the ideological instrument for the legitimization of their regimes and it became evident that literature, art and new types of art such as cinematograph are not neutral vis-à-vis societal interests and social forces.
This is the main context within which Adorno’s and Benjamin’s esthetic theories developed. They can be described as a theoretical reaction to the changes which became evident and posed great danger to then existent esthetic theory and led to its complete reformulation. It should be noted that unlike other reactions to these changes Adorno and Benjamin’s stances have critical potential as both these authors can be placed within the Left tradition of philosophical thought (Walter Benjamin is Orthodox Marxist, however, he widely used his Jewish philosophical interpretations).
Therefore, it should be noted that Benjamin and Adorno’s approach to esthetic theory has much in common and they even were close friends and scientific partners who worked together until Benjamin’s death. Here, we outline several basic orientations which unite Adorno’s and Benjamin’s esthetic theories:
- 1. Critical relation to existing cultural patterns and critiques of ideologically ‘perverse’ literature and art.
- 2. Critique of classic esthetic categories for their abstract character
- 3. Sociological analysis of cultural production, understanding of culture in terms of the contours of capitalist society within which they are formed.
- 4. Reformulation of Subject going in line with Dialectics and the principle of Negativity.
As far as the differences between these philosophers are concerned they are evident. First of all, Adorno unlike Benjamin is critical of Marxist esthetic analysis and sees it as too ‘straightforward’.
He opposes both negative impacts on culture by Soviet and Nazi state but he differentiates one from another. Besides this, Adorno approach is more profound as he tries to develop his own theoretical system, unlike Benjamin who does not gather his thought in one elaborated system (see ‘Illuminations’) Furthermore, as it was noted above, Benjamin, unlike Adorno, was deeply influenced by Judaist religious tradition which is deeply evident in this theory of time (important for understanding the art as the instrument of oppressed) and culture.
So, let’s start with the analysis of Benjamin’s esthetic theory. As we progress with the analysis of Benjamin’s and Adorno’s contributions the abovementioned similarities and differences between them will become more evident.
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Benjamin’s esthetic theory
First of all, it should be noted that it is difficult to localize Benjamin’s focus on esthetic critique. First of all, Benjamin’s critique of esthetic opposes traditional understanding of it as neutral discipline as it is presented in German ‘Kunstreligion’. The critical stance on esthetic was formed in Benjamin during his school years when he wrote a short story where he describes the situation in which people who chose esthetic conduct didn’t find a true religion and only ordinary smith who engaged in manual work did find it (Iate, 2004, p. 56).
Benjamin here seems to take a religious (Judaic) point of view where esthetic conduct is debunked since it is not practical and vain and has no devotion to any serious things in the real life. Benjamin claims that the notion of beauty represents some king of ‘paganism’ embedded in ‘daemonic community’. Further, he even goes on to denounce beauty as such: « From the religious point of view the essentially beautiful is evil » (Benjamin, 1919, p. 196).
His religious stance on art continues when he going in line with Judaic tradition claims that Image can not be reproduced if it should be truthful. This idea will be evident in his critique of the mechanical reproduction of art for its alleged annihilation of art’s religious meaning (Benjamin, 1996). Besides this, it should be noted that going in line with tradition Benjamin gives preferences to musical art as it seems to him that it has the capacity to express various dimensions of human feelings and ideals. This approach to music unites him with Adorno who developed the interesting profound theory of sociology of music.
But unlike Adorno, Benjamin pays more attention to visual arts which he criticizes analyzing the theory of painting and different existing approaches. Based on these premises Benjamin develops the theory of social dimension of the image where he analyzes esthetic object, not as a separate meaning but a difficult constellation including structure, social context, and ideological use. One of the main contributions in this respect is the analysis of dialogical relation between images and onlookers which shows that Benjamin was greatly preoccupied with the social medium. It should be noted that this transformation of approach goes in line with the rising semiotics movement and linguistic revolution which deeply influences Benjamin’s work.
Besides this, Benjamin develops his important distinction between the ‘cult value’ and ‘exhibition value’ as it occurs in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
This distinction is not abstract as it represents fundamental approaches to art – one dominated by Ideal representation (cult) and the other by the exchange value. According to Benjamin, the symbolic autonomy of the Work of Art would be abolished in the free society and it will serve as an instrument of communication between people and the reflection of their own social and cultural experience (Benjamin, 1996, p. 145-179).
Benjamin goes on to claim that individualistic and subjective understanding of art as it developed in Romanticists Western Tradition and finally culminated in the form of l’art pour l’art represents modern bourgeois ‘idolatry’ which should be criticized for its abstract and ideological character. Esthetical conduct can not be revolutionary in any means but develops the feeling of cultural alienation and abstracting from reality and existing conditions. Therefore, more emphasis should be put on ‘objective’ forms of art as they are developed by Brecht for instance.
Benjamin claims that the work of art should be ‘demolished’ and ‘deconstructed’ and ‘criticism means the mortification of the works’ (Benjamin, 1996, p. 58).
Here lies his basic difference from Adorno’s theory which celebrates art as the sphere of negativity and claims that only dialectical unity of the form and content will help real art to survive.
To sum it up, several elements of Benjamin’s esthetics may be outlined. First of all, he outlined the main elements of its critique from a religious and Marxist standpoint. As Adorno, he rejects abstract dualism between esthetics and reality and claims that they are greatly interconnected. However, it should be mentioned that his religious Judaic stance made him skeptical over the future of art in the world.
Adorno’s esthetic theory
Adorno is one of the most famous representatives of critical social theory as it was developed on the basis of the Frankfurt school. As it was noted above his main ideological and mindset imperatives are greatly consonant with those of Benjamin but he develops them more systematically.
One of the main spheres of Adorno’s esthetic interests is the critique of mass culture and popular music. The philosophical premises of this critique are very complex but close ties with Benjamin’s critiques of Mechanical reproduction’s influence on the nature of art are evident. Adorno claims that the structure of capitalist society which is characterized by instrumental rationality, positivism with technological progress, and further democratization of cultural consumption infiltrates into all products of culture transforming them into commodity forms. In this way, if earlier Works of Art had some Ideal and esthetic substance, now the notion of Esthetic is detached from the majority of cultural products.
The form is detached from substance. Adorno gives many examples of how cultural production occurs in mass culture with standardization of themes, formal elements, instruments of consciousness manipulation. He compares this process with the growing standardization and rationalization in the modern capitalist enterprise.
According to Adorno, this type of cultural products is used as the instrument of ideological influence as they obstruct people from the reflexivity over the conditions and reality in which they live, transforming them into passive reactors to cultural stereotypes and psychological effects that are used by cultural production machine to impose dominant ideological patterns on them (Adorno, 1994, p. 76). According to Adorno, repressive and ideological elements of mass culture are already evident in jazz, early 20th century operettas and is in full reflected in modern pop culture.
Adorno’s critical esthetic theory can be supplemented by his positive contribution and alternative vision of art and culture. One of his basic points is that art shouldn’t represent positive living.
This should be understood not as if Art should not represent reality, but in contrast, it should represent it as concrete and dialectical substances, but not as a conglomerate and aggregation of facts of our daily life as it occurs in modern TV soap operas and other popular types of cultural production.
The esthetic approach to art must differ from this one (Adorno, 2001, p. 81). First of all, it should be developed in terms of negativity, following the famous Bloch maxim saying the ‘what exists can not be the Truth’. By superseding the positive dimension of representation and developing a conscious subjective position of changing reality, the esthetic substance of art can be maintained. Following the Hegelian and Marxist tradition of dialectics Adorno coherently supports this position and elaborates it in length in his seminal work Negative Dialectics.
Among other contributions which unite him with Benjamin’s work is his Sociology of music in which he develops a social theory of musical communication. Remember that Benjamin also paid attention to social communication between images and onlookers. Adorno may be said to spread it on the analysis of music developing the classification of listeners.
According to Adorno, if music is used for amusement and serves as a background for some ‘positive’ routine practices it loses it substance. This can explain the fact that modern music cultural production is not serious in terms of form and substance as it teaches people not to think but react. Adorno claims that only reflexive listeners which understand listening to music as the process of learning and cognition can perceive its reach substance embedded in its formal elements.
Adorno was mainly concerned with developing ‘negative’ aesthetic projects which were centered on explicating the repressive and totalitarian character of positivism. This ties him with Benjamin’s interest in aesthetic avant-garde. Adorno, for instance, was a musician himself, and together with A. von Webern, A. Berg developed an atonal musical approach which made emphasis on developing structural elements.
In Negative dialectics, Adorno claims that art and aesthetics if not ‘negative’ are false and ‘affirmative’. This means that for the artist to represent aesthetic truth automatically means a protest against standardized contents and dominant aesthetic and ideological forms.
As our analysis has proven both Adorno and Benjamin belong to a critical tradition of the Frankfurt school which has close ties with Marxism, Freudism, Judaism, critique of formal rationality and other currents which formed at the turn of 19th century.
Adorno’s and Benjamin’s esthetic theories seem to confront the dominant ideological perception of art as sublime essence. These thinkers represent the same critical tradition in which Esthetic is perceived in terms of its real social content. We showed that this commonality should be understood in terms of ideological orientations and methodology. While the latter greatly differs, the former shows that Adorno and Benjamin had a similar understanding of esthetic problems. As these thinkers work for some time together they developed a similar spectrum of problems and interests. For instance, both of them were interested in the role of art and esthetic in social change.
While Benjamin thought that esthetic conduct should not be privileged since it is speculative and has nothing to do with revolutionary practice, Adorno, who developed his theory during the dominance of totalitarian capitalist society thought that art if it is dialectic and ‘negative’ can serve as a strong catalyst of social change.
What concerns the differences among Adorno and Benjamin, as it was noted above they are also abundant. First of all, Benjamin belongs to Judaist philosophic tradition and at the same time follows the main premises of Marxist tradition and historical materialism. Adorno is critical of the Marxist tradition and various esoteric and mystic interpretations of history and society. Adorno follows Hegelian and Lucachian traditions of dialectics, technology, and formal rationality critique. Unlike Benjamin, Adorno pays more attention to the sociology of music while the former is keener on image theory. Besides this, while Benjamin criticizes aesthetics as such and avoids developing his own theory, Adorno creates his own approach and methodological instruments.
Adorno, Theodor W. Adorno: The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture. Ed. Stephen Crook. London: Routledge, 1994.
Adorno, Theodor W. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Ed. J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 2001.
Benjamin W. On Hashish. Belknap Press, 1999.
Benjamin W. « Das Luziferische ? » (1919?), in: Gesammelte Schriften VI, p. 196.
Benjamin, Walter. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin. Edited by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno. Translated by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Benjamin, Walter. Marcus Paul Bullock, and Michael William Jennings. Selected Writings. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.
Benjamin W. Illuminations.1st ed. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1968.