“This new evolution of art”: Adorno’s modernism as a re-orientation of aesthetics OLEG GELIKMAN
In contrast to virtually everything said on the subject of modernism, Theodor Adorno maintained that the nineteenth-century equation of the modern with the new had introduced a negative, reductive, contentless term that must not be allowed to dominate the critical discussion of modernism in an unanalyzed form: “The new is a blind spot, as empty as the indexical gesture ‘look here’” (Adorno 1997: 20).1 Making it new, modernism gestures toward the void that propels it. As a privative concept, the new indicates the absence of the old, the familiar and the expected. Because the new must always be determined anew, the content the category received in various modernist reincarnations conceals the stagnation in the overall historical process. This stasis is the dialectical counterpart to the velocity of modernist innovation, and a key to its reinterpretation. The value of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory today consists in delivering a comprehensive analysis of modernism guided by the critique of the new as the blind spot in its critical self-understanding. Despite and, no doubt, by virtue of being unﬁnished, Adorno’s treatise holds
considerable promise, not least because its analysis of modernism conducts a meta-critique of traditional aesthetics. I argue that Adorno’s conception of modernism as a normative condition of art, his account of the negative dialectic of tradition in modernism, and his materialist theory of the artwork collectively provide a viable alternative to the unhappy choice that the criticism of modernist art makes vis-à-vis its recalcitrant objects: either to apply extrinsic explanatory schemes or to employ the reﬂexive discourse of the artists as a basis of analysis. Given Adorno’s considerable attachment to the concept of the gesture (and
especially an empty one), the depreciation of the new in Aesthetic Theory is not to be mistaken for a suppression of this category. The inability of the new to account for the metaphysical signiﬁcance of modernism does not disqualify this concept from a theoretical reconstruction.2 On the contrary. Pursuing a dialectical strategy, Aesthetic Theory grants the new the considerable authority of a failed attempt to master the experience of modernity of art. Adorno appeals to the historical experience of this failure as the source of conceptual material absent in the concept of the modern as the new:
The experience of the modern says more, even though its concept, however qualitative it may be, labors under its own abstractness. Its concept is
privative; since its origins it is more the negation of what no longer holds than a positive slogan.