A summary of Adorno and Horkheimer’s pretty interesting and amazingly pretentious theory of art

The early 20th century witnessed a proliferation of new forms of mass communication, and the emergence of an enormous entertainment industry geared towards the creation of a profit through the production and distribution of cultural products. Adorno and Horkheimer were some of the first scholars to critically engage with these new cultural conditions. They argued that, in modern capitalist society, the increasing commodification of culture had transformed culture itself into a crucial medium of ideological domination, and a vital means by which the capitalist order itself was maintained.

Historical and Theoretical Context of their work.

In order to understand the emphasis that Adorno and Horkheimer placed upon the imperative need to undertake an analysis of the nature of mass culture in contemporary society, it is necessary first of all to situate their cultural theory within the wider context of their theory as a whole, given its fullest expression in Dialectic of Enlightenment.

At the heart of Adorno and Horkheimer’s work lies a deep discomfort with the nature of modern capitalist society. They drew heavily upon a Marxist framework of analysis, seeing capitalism as fundamentally exploitative, and believing that it must be overthrown for humanity to achieve its full potential. However, witnessing the rise of fascism, failure of socialism and dominance of monopoly capitalism, they argued that critical theory must move beyond a traditional Marxist emphasis on the mode of production alone, which they felt was unable to satisfactorily account for these developments.

Marx’s emphasis on the economic base led, they argued, to the conclusion that capitalism was doomed to be replaced by socialism. However, in fact they believed Capitalism’s more logical endpoint to be the creation of a ‘verwaltete velt’, in which mankind subjected itself to irrational rule in an entirely rational manner.

Adorno and Horkheimer argued that as mankind had increased its technical mastery over nature humanity itself had become caught up in this process of domination. In such a society the genuine aim of enlightened reason – to critically negate what is given – had been eradicated, allowing for the use of entirely rational methods to carry out the most irrational of goals, such as genocide or war. A belief in the need to understand the process of rationalisation led Adorno and Horkheimer to see it as critical to expand critical theory beyond a focus on political economy alone. Rather, it was necessary to uncover the processes which were leading to the creation of an entirely rationalised social totality, dominated by the logic of the market. Within the social totality, the previously distinct spheres of culture, politics and the market were increasingly merging, and each had come to play a central role in the maintenance of the whole. Culture in such a society could, they claimed, not be seen as a mere epiphenomenon determined by the base, but rather played a role in the creation of the base itself. Political economy declined in relative significance and the need for a critical analysis of culture became more pressing.

The Culture Industry.

Adorno and Horkheimer witnessed the emergence of new forms of mass media communication and the entertainment industry, and argued that these developments were of profound significance. What this represented, they argued, was the subsumption of the previously relatively autonomous realm of culture into the market, governed by instrumental logic. They use the term culture industry to describe the commodification of cultural forms that had resulted from the growth of monopoly capitalism. The culture industry, they argue, plays a central role in cementing its audience to the status quo, and had transformed culture itself into an ideological medium of domination. However, culture had not always served this role, rather the meaning and function of art changes historically. In their work, they contrast the emancipatory potential of what they term ‘genuine’ or ‘autonomous’ art, and the products of the culture industry, which play the opposite role. By uncovering the social conditions that gave rise to both forms of art, they claim to reveal the impact that commodification has had upon art itself, and hence on society as a whole and our very consciousness.

A central tenet of Adorno’s argument is the idea that under certain social conditions, art can provide an alternate vision of reality. He argues that autonomous art has the capacity to highlight the inequalities and irrationality of the status quo, by presenting an ideal vision of what mankind can aspire towards. As such it has an emancipatory character. The radical character of autonomous art stems not from its content but from its form. Therefore unlike other cultural critics they argued that the most radical form of art is not that which contains a political message, because this requires an attempt to work within the existing realm of ideas to demand change. Rather the most radical art is that which compels change through its form.

Art, Adorno argued, is only autonomous when it is not subject to specific demands and is not produced for any purpose other than its ‘functionlessness’. In the era of monopoly capitalism he believed that new techniques of production and distribution of art had meant that the free circulation of cultural products that had characterised the bourgeois era had come to an end. Rather production and circulation of cultural goods had come under the monopolistic control of the culture industry. This represented the triumph of instrumental reason over the role of culture. Rather than being produced for the inherent value of the piece itself, which for Adorno lay entirely in its lack of use value – its purposelessness – art had now been almost entirely commoditised. Consequently, it had lost its autonomy and with it its critical potential. No longer free from the demands of the market the gap between art and reality which is the basis of its critical potential had been undermined, and art had become a means by which to cement mass audiences to the status quo. In their critique of the culture industry Adorno and horkheimer describe the way in which culture becomes a tool for domination.

Adorno believed that the rise of the culture industry has resulted in the standardisation and rationalisation of cultural form, and that this in turn had weakened, atrophied and destroyed the capacity of the individual to think and act in a critical and autonomous way. He argued that standardisation emerges largely as a result of the capacity of those with power to control the production of cultural goods to employ positivistic methods in an attempt to formulate a scientific measurement of people’s precise ‘tastes’ and expectations, and in doing so increase profitability. As the culture industry develops this process has become more specialised, leading to the emergence of a very precisely targeted hierarchical range of goods aimed precisely to align with consumers preconceived expectations of the product itself ‘so none may escape’. Horkheimer and Adorno focused on Hollywood as a particularly glaring example of this phenomenon. In its attempt to produce a profit, Hollywood pumps out an endless stream of movies, all classified according to the exact tastes of particular groups, ensuring the viewer has to exert next to no mental energy in understanding the film. Whilst there are differences in the content of each film,these differences amount to merely pseudo-individualism, that serves to mask the fact that the style and form of the film is identical to all others; all differences, such as variations in plot, character type etc, are simply superficial imitations of individuality that mask the fundamental uniformity of all its products. Thus studios spend enormous amounts promoting ‘bigger better’ films, new bands, a new star, but rather than these differences in fact it is the underlying structural uniformity which is the ‘really meaningful content’ of the film.

Standardised art does nothing to stimulate critical social reflection. Rather, it creates standardised responses. Unlike authentic art it doesn’t challenge our conception of existing social norms and reality, but rather reinforces them. The viewer is presented with a smooth and comfortable spectacle that requires no deep concentration, and elicits no genuine attempt to criticise the art. Everything has been pre-classified by the production team and the audience has no choice but to become a passive unreceptive recipient of the art. This process is reinforced by the incessant and deliberate incorporation of ‘cues’ within the works themselves, which direct us and leave us with little doubt as to the ‘correct’ reaction. A TV show will contain canned laughter, a movie sad music, and so on. Thus ‘programmes watch for their audiences and popular music hears for those who listen’. (Held 96).

By repeatedly supplying formulaic products that vary only very little in their underlying form, and which are explicitly designed with the aim of eliciting a particular response requiring minimal mental effort, the culture industry serves to create dependence upon its own products by making us fearful of anything genuinely new or innovative. It is psychoanalysis in reverse. Rather than challenging our repetitive and destructive patterns of thought and behaviour, it serves to reinforce these patterns. For this reason, Adorno and Horkheimer rejected the term ‘mass culture’ in favour of the term ‘culture industry’, which it was hoped would highlight the extent to which the cultural products that we consume, and the demand that gives rise to them, are imposed upon us from above, rather than arising spontaneously from the masses.

Unlike autonomous art, which was able to main some autonomy from the market place, today art is entirely a commodity. Thus the autonomy which allowed art to maintain its distance from reality has been eradicated, and its production is determined by need. Consequently, art is no longer able to maintain any distance from reality. Rather it creates art that is indistinguishable from reality. This is the ‘new ideology of the culture industry’. Adorno and horkheimer argue that the culture industry represents a new form of ideological domination. In that past, ideology had been dependent upon defining society as it is not, and thus could be subjected to a critique in its own terms, for example ‘is the market just based upon the definition of justice provided by capitalism itself’, today culture was ideological precisely because it depicted reality exactly as it is. The culture industry’s products do not serve to challenge our existing normative assumptions. Rather they reinforce the status quo by depicting it as entirely natural and unquestionable. This is a form of pseudo-realism, as it prevents critical analysis of the existing social and economic order. It serves to create a sense of fatalism and an acceptance of the existing order as unquestionable. It passifies any social discontent by presenting not a picture of an alternative reality, but an alternative picture of the existing reality (Craib).

Adorno and Horkheimer believed that a key function of the culture industry was to extinguish the revolutionary potential of the masses, by providing relief from the stresses of life under capitalism through brief and surface level distractions. However it cannot provide genuine happiness, only short-lived and meaningless pleasure. Real happiness comes from the challenge of decoding complex work and the intellectual stimulation that this provides; the culture industry by contrast provides only a formulaic and predictable escape form reality, and one which stays within existing social and artistic boundaries.

By Max Klinger. I’m on twitter here


One thought on “A summary of Adorno and Horkheimer’s pretty interesting and amazingly pretentious theory of art

  1. Pingback: From Critical Theory to Postmodernism – Foucault, Horkheimer and Adorno « E-Learning

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