Adorno in a condom
A few years ago an industrious agent provocateur put a statuette of the Virgin Mary inside a condom and exhibited it at Te Papa National Gallery in Wellington. Predictably, a bunch of right-wing Catholics were soon protesting outside the gallery, demanding that the exhibit be withdrawn, or better still publically destroyed. These sensitive souls hadn't seen the artwork, let alone objected to it on aesthetic grounds - they were simply repelled by the idea of dear old Mary being juxtaposed with something as loathsomely modern and secular as a condom. The purity of the idol had to be preserved.
It's not only Catholics who resent the mistreatment of their idols. Back at Drury Primary School I nearly got beaten up by the standard two bully when I refused to recant certain solemn truths I had learned from Return of the Jedi. When the bully saw the film a couple of weeks later he had to concede that, yes, Darth Vader really was Luke Skywalker's father, and find another excuse to pick on me. It's tough being a witness to The Truth.
Now two sensitive flowers over at The Rotten Elements blog have taken umbrage at my clumsy attempts to suggest that Theodor Adorno might have ended up being a little, you know, right-wing. Neither Vivian Bolus * nor Zak Bickerstaff mentions the Adorno essay I discussed to make my case; their interest is not in discussing the ebb and flow of the great man's political opinions, but in constructing a cordon sanitaire around his Masterpieces. The very notion that the sonorous abstractions of Minima Moralia and The Dialectic of Enlightenment might be juxtaposed with anything as coarse as the elderly Adorno's support for Israel during the Six Day War or his use of the cops to deal with student indiscipline strikes Viv and Zak as unforgivably 'Stalinoid'. Putting Teddy next to politics is as sacreligious as suffocating dear old Mary in that nasty condom. The purity of the idol must be preserved.
I went back and had a look at a bit of Adorno's late writing yesterday: I hadn't read 'On Resignation' for years, and it reminded me of nothing so much as the posts which regularly grace the blogs of Norm Geras and certain other ex-Marxists who have passed through apathy and resignation to an occasionally grumpy acceptance of the status quo of capitalism and pax Americana. A comparison can also be made to the 'MacSpaunday' generation of disillusioned lefty poets whom EP Thompson brilliantly diagnosed in his essay 'Outside the Whale'. If you give up entirely on trying to connect your revolutionary theory to an unfriendly reality, and postpone the advent of socialism until some distant future, then you face a choice between a) apathy and b) support for the status quo as the best show currently in town. Like the MacSpaundays and today's breed of Eustonite keyboard warriors, Adorno seems to have passed with a minimum of fuss from a) to b).
Teddy Adorno never went as far as his old mate Max Horkheimer, who hailed the US war in Vietnam as a necessary exercise in the containment of Eastern barbarism, but he did labour under a very favourable opinion of American and Israeli foreign policy in his final years. He thought that Germans ought to support NATO out of gratitude for what the US had done in World War Two, and he supported Israel in the war of 1967 using arguments that would do the Henry Jackson Society proud today. Vivian Bolus got all cranky when I mentioned the name Harry Cleaver in my original post on Adorno, but Cleaver was right to think that it's a strange sort of revolutionary theorist who calls the cops to drag away his students when they do something he disagrees with. The unpleasant turn in Adorno's politics doesn't automatically invalidate his thinking - it may even be irrelevant to his best ideas - but it does at least have to be taken seriously.
But Zak and Viv don't really want to discuss anything as prosaic as Adorno's politics; they want to put an anathema on attempts to link politics to the ineffable worlds of Theory and the Arts. Those who ignore this anathema are simply Stalinists who want to reduce all writing to the statement of facts. Haven't we heard this argument before? Alas, comrades, I still have the same vulgarly Stalinist views I expressed then:
Many of the commenters on this blog have a tendency to try to wall 'art' off from 'life', by insisting that an artist's political opinions and behaviour, and the political context in which their work is received and used, should not interfere with judgements of their work. I can understand that this desire to wall off art and politics might be prompted by a distaste for the conception of art as propaganda, and for simplistic political readings of complex works of art like, say, Eliot's poems.
The trouble is that if we treat art as basically autonomous from politics we actually accept the schema of the reductionists who want all art to be propaganda. Whether they are Stalinists or right-wing philistines and moralists, they typically divide art into 'self-indulgent' stuff, ie 'weird' or 'difficult' or 'irrelevant' stuff they can't easily reduce to a simple political message, and 'good' or 'conscious' or 'wholesome' stuff, ie simplistic propaganda. They dismiss the supposedly self-indulgent stuff as basically a bourgeois/decadent bohemian luxury with little relevance to the lives of ordinary people in the real world. If we celebrate, say, the poems of Eliot as autonomous works of art unaffected by the life and politics of their author then we are in danger of accepting that Eliot has nothing to say about anything but poetry - we are in danger of saying that reading him is an escape from things like politics into a different world, the world of Literature.
I think that the extremes of art as propaganda and art as escape are both dead ends. What we need to do is relate art to the real world it springs from, without reducing it to a simple reflection of or commentary upon that world.And I don't think my comments here have been too reductionist - if I were only interested in judging people's art by the standards of their politics, then I'd be lumping Eliot in with Tolkien as a bad writer, not defending him as a genius.
*As an aside, Vivian, what makes you to think Adorno would dig The Rotten Elements, let alone Velimir Khlebnikov and Arthur Cravan? He would detest you, in the same way he detested that freewheeling, pop culture referencing chaotic 'Negro' jazz. Trotsky in his Mexico period would be a better bet, if you want a famous dead Marxist patron.