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What’s new? On Adorno and the modernist aesthetics of novelty: Response to Oleg Gelikman

ByMARTIN JAY

In his trenchant and insightful response to Theodor W. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, Oleg Gelikman highlights the ambivalent role Adorno assigns to novelty in the modernist break with traditional aesthetics. Although he applauds the modernist intent to abandon exhausted models of universalizing aesthetic normativity, Adorno accuses the fetish of newness for its own sake, the need always to innovate and leave behind the past, of complicity with the very forces it tries to negate. First, in its haste to plunge headlong into the future, it mimics the logic of capitalist fashion, where profits follow from planned obsolescence and new commodities demand to be bought by consumers wanting to be “up to date.”1 It has a mimetic relationship to the reproduction of capital through the ceaseless expansion of the market. Second, by becoming an abstract and transcendental invariant, the need for newness loses its connection with genuine historical change, becoming instead paradoxically a mark of repetition. It partakes of a kind of mythical thinking that operates on the ahistorical level of the eternal return. Third, by over-emphasizing the voluntarist and subjectivist role in creating novelty, which suggests total mastery of aesthetic material, it duplicates the technical domination of nature in the dialectic of enlightenment. And finally, by devaluing all that went before, discarding the past as without merit, it severs its ties with the redemptive energies revealed when the past is rubbed against the grain; a past whose residues, as Walter Benjamin knew, can be recombined in new and arresting constellations in the present and future. Seeing itself instead as liberated from the fetters of the past, conceptualizing the future as unconquered territory for appropriation, it rushes headlong into the abyss. The real historicity of artworks, Adorno claims, lies in the heterogeneous

residue of the traditions out of which they emerge and against which they measure themselves, their sedimented materiality, not their claim to total novelty. Although shapable by formal construction in the present, this aesthetic material is irreducible to the dominating innovation of the current creator, who is wrong simply to negate and devalue what went before. The substance of the work is never, however, a timeless essence, hovering above historical change. Nor can the smooth continuity of tradition be repaired once it is ruptured, contrary to revival efforts such as neo-classicism.2 Genuine art, Adorno insists, is a negative dialectic of tradition and innovation, of historicism and formalism, of a past that is-luckily-not fully overcome and a future that is not yet born.