I spent a great deal of time studying/spiraling into Adorno’s aesthetic theory, both in Minima Moralia and Aesthetic Theory excerpts. This is what I’ve produced and its hardly anything. I feel like I’m on a drug I don’t want to be on anymore. The drug of Adorno.
Pt 1: Adorno and Art
The artist can preserve the integrity of her productive activity by turning the relationship between producer and consumer against its own goal. By collapsing the labor of the artist and the consumption of the observer in time, either by manipulating the temporal condition of the art object or creating an art object that disappears or is destroyed, artists can resist incorporation of their art objects into the exchange economy. This collapse keeps the artist from being alienated from their labor because the consumer/observer of the art cannot possess the product or divorce it from its active creation. This active creation can be conceived in the context of what Adorno would call the art object’s “laws of movement”. Adorno holds that good art is constituted by “moments” of encounter or expression that render it irreducible to criteria and keep it in a state of flux. It is not exactly that good art must be temporary, but the unique relationship of the art object to time is what can prevent its being located or stabilized. If it is these “moments” rather than any specific content that make the art object what it is. As such, the art object, impossible to corral, defies commodification—you can’t sell a horse you can’t catch.
Pt 2: Adorno and Slacker
Slacker literalizes Adorno’s metaphor of “movement” or momentariness as requisite to truthful art through its ever-mobile camera and characters. The motion of the camera resists a totalizing narrative, a point made recursively by the scene of the super8 bouncing between operators splicing and dicing a water bottle-banging performance into grainy and indecipherable morsels. The observation of the performance through the super8 camera is a deliberate attempt by the artist (the super8 supplier) to keep the art moving, temporary and changing. Although fragmentary, the super8 film has the potential to be productive because of its pretense of reproduction or possession of the performance. Lucky for Adorno, the viewer doesn’t get to see where this narrative thread might take us.
The last scene of the film mirrors the above in many ways. The super8 filmmakers pass the camera between each other, filming each other haphazardly. To the viewer the effect is building disorientation that culminates when the camera is thrown off the cliff. The kids’ penchant for destruction, and what is revealed as a fundamental irrationality in the production and (lack of) consumption of the art object falls right in line with Adorno’s theories about aesthetics. By destroying the camera the kids ensure that their art is unable to be possessed, thereby precluding its recruitment into the marketplace and preserving its autonomy and uselessness in an act of brutality. This is a perfect example of Adorno’s active violence against utility (121).
It is in such a way that, according to Adorno, we may come close to preserving arts use value, and genuine benefits to society. By denying the marketplace the opportunity to identify the art’s commodity character and giving that mediating power back to the artist, the artist may then wield his/her mediating power by manipulating the execution of the art object in time. Thus the artist can deny the art’s productivity in the marketplace by allowing its use value to circulate in a manner that subverts the temporal scale of industry. A quick non-Slacker example that I like is a John Cage piece, the execution of which involved stamping “listen” on every audience member’s hand and having them board a bus to be chauffeured around. Lets check in with Adorno:
- The art is decidedly temporary (it appears and disappears as it is consumed)
- The art cannot be taken away and reproduced, for its moments of experience and expression are spontaneous (car horns, birds, etc)
- By literally inducing motion the piece fragments itself (in a Slacker-like-move)
Part 3: Performance, Fetishism and the Replacement of Use Value with Exchange Value
The fact that much of the art is encountered for free in Slacker can be interpreted as an attempt to reclaim the value of the labor of the artist and challenge the logic of dominant exchange relationships. The artist-as-producer in Slacker creates art that doesn’t really satisfy the demands of the marketplace/monetary exchange but rather affirms the abilities of the individual and is shared for communal benefit. If we cannot rightly “possess” something like a free performance, for example, then we cannot exactly conceive of the exchange value that “possessing” the art would offer. Spontaneity as a formal constraint would push performance even further from desirability as a marketplace commodity as it cannot be reconciled cleanly with marketability.
There is, however, a way in which the performance can still produce exchange value, and it occurs when what is qualitative in art (use value) is transformed into something quantifiable. If I understand correctly, this is the definition of fetishism as it pertains to Adorno. As he articulates: “No humane exertions, no formal reasoning, can sever happiness from the fact that the ravishing dress is worn by only one, and not by twenty-thousand. The utopia of the qualitative—the things which through their difference and uniqueness cannot be absorbed into the prevalent exchange relationships—takes refuge under capitalism in the traits of fetishism.” (120) If the audience at our spontaneous performance art nightmare estimates the social value of the performance, the art object begins its journey towards capital and fetishism. The individual who witnessed the performance can exchange the memory of the experience as cultural capital by soliciting recognition of the consumption of the artistic experience (1:“I saw the nightmare performance xyz did on Friday and it made me cry.” 2:“You must be a sensitive and profound individual! Come meet my friends/come to my party/send me your manuscript”). The audience member exchanges his/her experience for other social capital ex: entry into certain social groups, network contacts, or publication of a review of the piece. This activity could potentially transform the cultural capital into economic capital by allowing the audience member a bit of upward mobility in the labor market. For example, an audience member could “name drop” the performance and/or artists and so convert what was unproductive, the art’s use value, into the realm of financial gain and careerism, i.e. the economic marketplace. By the time this happens, though, there are already postcards for sale at Starbucks with the artist’s face on them, the purchase of which people believe constitutes a transformative artistic experience. This entire process also confers onto the labor of the artists an exchange value, essentially robbing them of their artistic autonomy and pushing art and artist into the economic sphere of usefulness. “Every commodity you produce is a piece of your own death”.