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Overcoming Adorno’s Aesthetic Critique

Theodor W. Adorno observes in his posthumous opus Aesthetic Theory: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore” (2). Adorno’s pessimism about art in his time and ours arguably presupposes a problematic definition of art and artistic merit. In what follows I’ll rehearse his arguments, give a charitable gloss of considerations which lead him to his position, and argue that they are consequences of his subscription to something like the institutional theory of art. I’ll then present Levinson’s historical theory of art as a sound alternative to the institutional theory of art, develop an evaluative framework for assessing artistic merit, and show it is compatible with Adorno’s attitudes towards art while being immune to problems he identifies with the prospects of art in his time and ours. Every era thinks itself unique in the challenges and opportunities it faces, this is what ensures a perennial ubiquity of, and balance between, doomsayers and apologists. This is true of every domain of human concern but becomes particularly interesting in the realm of art. Not only does everyone have an opinion about art, either pessimistic or pollyannaish, the opinion comes with its own procrustean definition of art; one that aims to demarcate once and for all the difference between art and nonart. As the standard of living has undergone hitherto unprecedented improvement more people than ever have found the freedom and energy to launch their own artistic creations into the world. It is not surprising that the number of artists across media has gone up year on year. Globally, the number of novels released, people employed as visual artists, people employed as musicians, and people employed in the film and TV industry has been increasing. While some of these media have inherent limitations on growth built into them, for instance not everyone can be employed in the film or TV industry simultaneously, and while all adults might produce a novel many will not read one, other media remain capable of absorbing artistic talent from just about anyone. Anyone can, in principle, become a visual artist while holding down another job, for instance. This democratisation of art creates the aporia where everyone’s artistic credentials qua creator are given but their credentials qua consumer are not.

When everyone is potentially an artist, and relatively few are consumers of art, the social conception of art vs. nonart is reduced to the brute force of the buying power exerted by players in the art market for each medium, the battle of art sellers against art buyers. Everyone can make paintings and murals but only a few can and even fewer will buy them, or consume them virtually or in person at a museum. The best films become synonymous with those which rake in the highest box office earnings, the best paintings those which command the highest price in the auction market, the best music that which sells the most physical records and draws in the biggest audiences at concerts. Literature, which is inherently less legible than film, and music, but more legible than painting—because mediated by the registral heteronomy and independence of language—manages to separate at least in appearance the hallmarks of quality from those of saleability. But, then, we have bankers, like Chetan Bhagat, who understand the buying capacity and aspirations of their demographic much better than grammar and craft successfully break into the Indian trade publication market. So, even this medium is not immune to the gravitational force of the cash register which forces workers in the world of letters to the moral that the literary gravity of writing must consist at least in part in its ability to part readers from their money. Hunter Biden, failson of the POTUS, an unknown quantity in the art world, hawking his paintings at between $75,000-$500,000 is testament to the divorce between institutionally appraised artistic merit and actual artistic merit. Even if one is reluctant to avow Adorno’s view that “[t]he absolute artwork converges with the absolute commodity,” (53) one is hard-pressed to accept that the contemporary art world has illegitimately deciphered the indeterminacy of new art by equating artistic merit with the exchange value of the artwork in the market.  

One lay attempt to prevent the notion of artistic merit from collapsing into the exchange value of artworks proceeds by declaring all works created with a view to encourage spectation as art. The housewife who embroiders doilies and the kindergartner who makes crayon portraits of his family are artists, and their productions are art because intended for spectation by an audience—however small. As such productions are art they are intrinsically possessed of artistic merit. This view is attractive not only because it shows art to be a fully egalitarian enterprise but also because it makes the economic criterion of exchange value completely irrelevant to appreciation of artistic merit. The regard of family and friends legitimate the artistic merit of the kindergartner’s portraits and the housewife’s doilies alike. Their enjoyment of these products gives them the oomph expected of aesthetic objects as items inviting pleasurable contemplation. The problem with this view of artistic merit is its inability to explain the difference between lesser and greater art works, as for instance between the kindergartner’s crayon portraits and Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. If all that endows an art work with the oomph expected of aesthetic objects is the creator’s desire that the work be enjoyed by others as art it appears that the housewife’s doily and Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Rooms are inalterably equal specimens of art. The heart of the problem here is that the way the society at large associates with the housewife’s doilies and Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Rooms is contingent at least on the relative exposure each work will receive in its capacity as a piece of art. In principle, many doilies made by many housewives could be put on display at major museums though not every housewife could have her work exhibited. In any case, the upshot is that institutional recognition or endowment of artistic merit perpetually separates many an artistic housewife from Yayoi Kusama.  

The Problem of Outsider Art 

It is in the context of this lay theory of art on which every artwork has about the same artistic merit that theorists like George Dickie and Arthur Danto have offered the institutional theory of art. According to the institutional theory an artifact is art only after it is recognized by the art world as being the sort of thing that has features which make it worth appreciation (Levinson 3). As something is only art after it has been subject to social appraisal, by the art world, the problem of works created by unknown housewives is solved: they aren’t making art. Perhaps, their work constitutes craft. It fails to count as art on account of not receiving the social appraisal which endows an artwork with the aesthetic oomph artworks must have. Artifacts blessed with the right sort of social appraisal, i.e. appraisal of the art world, are endowed with the status of being art and so per definition have aesthetic merit. How various pieces of art with the requisite social blessing are to be ranked is in theory left open. In practice ranking often takes place in terms of the prestige accorded to various art institutions comprising the art world. Ceteris paribus being represented by the Jehangir Art gallery, Mumbai is less prestigious than being represented by the Gagosian Gallery, New York. Accordingly, an artist exhibited at the Mumbai gallery is accorded lower prestige than another artist exhibited at the New York gallery. Prestige, as a proxy for merit, works associatively: high prestige galleries are thought, fairly or unfairly, to represent only artists whose works represent high artistic merit. Theoretically, the institutionally theory of art makes it possible to derive a complete and consistent ranking of galleries, artists, and art works in terms of their prestige and artistic merit. By simply listing galleries in descending order of the prestige accorded to them one gets a complete and consistent list of artists in descending order of artistic merit supposedly displayed by their works. While this procedure is valid it is far from sound, and since this procedure is a downstream consequence of the institutional theory of art the problem must originate in the theory itself.

To bring the problem into relief, consider how the theory would diagnose the artistic merit of an intricate sculpture secretly created by a tribal artist who is afraid of his tribe discovering the work and punishing him. He thinks the sculpture is beautiful and ought to be enjoyed by others but doesn’t believe his community will think the same, and that the best outcome is for future generations with the right mindset to discover the sculpture and appreciate it as the art work it is. On the institutional theory of art this sculpture is not art; at least not till future generations with the right sort of social standing recognize it as an object meant for aesthetic contemplation. Only this possible future social appraisal and endowment of oomph by the art world can turn the tribal craftsman’s secret sculpture into art. Along with Levinson (2011), I am inclined to think this is a flaw in the institutional theory of art. Adorno disagrees. On his view it is not that the institutional theory is flawed but that society has degenerated to the point where the institutions which constituted the art world have been stripped of their authority. Institutional authority has been eroded by the proliferation of rival institutions contesting the power of the art world. This has been made possible by industrial capitalism, which has increased the disposable incomes of large swathes of society while goading them to become consumers of art—hitherto the province of a highly cultured elite. Now that people want to dine at venues offering live muzak with its “miserable mechanical clattering” scholarly discussion about aesthetics may just be “art’s necrology” (Adorno 4) and it’s pronouncements about any given artwork, or tendency, have become suspect as answering to something other than artistic merit proper. 

Discourse about aesthetics has been parasitised by talk about the purpose, or use-value, of arts and artworks initiated and kept alive by a new art industry with a vested interest in increasing consumption of art and relative indifference towards its quality. Suppliers of artistic products for the entertainment of the new leisure class have taken on the role of tastemakers for the masses by default, since they make the movies, compose the music, exhibit the paintings, and market the novels the naïve consumer ascribes to them an authority they have done nothing to earn. Adorno argues, indeed, these tastemakers have shown remarkable ignorance about the historical provenance of various arts, and in their bid to increase custom for their offerings have made a fetish of novelty. One on hand “since the mid-nineteenth century and the rise of high Capitalism” (Adorno 28) novelty has become central to defining artistic projects, on the other hand the art world has been theorizing away everything new as actually just a reconfiguration of the old. These contradictory tendencies serve two complementary purposes. Firstly, they elevate new artworks making sure they’re received as being quite unlike fusty, classical art, and so as being possessed of a greater intrinsic appeal for the busy man looking for something edifying rather than a piece of homework. Secondly, by arguing that the new is in fact just the old playing dress up, they also reassure the novice aesthete in his anxiety that he’s a mere pretender to high culture on account of his appetite for new, or modern, art rather than classical art typically accorded high prestige. Thus the novice looking to the contemporary art world is whispered at: You must listen to this new pop artist who is making concept albums that are nothing like the boring operas your grandpa listened to! But, rest assured it is not some hipster’s bedroom jam but music deeply inspired by theoretical innovations first given form in the work of Wagner. Now, this would be merely manipulative without being perverse if the music were indeed as adverted to, or the new Netflix drama were indeed the next best way to understand the unique screenwriting and directorial vision of Ingmar Bergman without watching Ingmar Bergman films. But often the absence of scruples is the defining mark of such pronouncements by the dominant art industry and its spokespersons. 

The Temptation to Equate Quantity with Quality

Champions of the new demotist art industry, which has robbed older institutions’ position as arbiter of artistic merit for the masses, will reject this characterisation as unfair on the grounds of elitism. But noting that Chetan Bhagat cannot write more than a few pages without grammatical errors while Salman Rushdie can is not elitist. The argument that Rushdie is not as widely read by Indians can be dismissed by the counterargument that Bhagat has never been considered for a Booker Prize, the Booker of Bookers Prize, or knighted for his services to literature. Does it bespeak the high quality of a work for it to be read widely by denizens of a country where at most 10% of the population can read English rather than being read world over and being globally recognized for the sophistication of its craft? Of course, not. That the question is become one people think merely rhetorical, and already settled in favour of the left disjunct, is itself evidence in favour of Adorno’s pessimistic diagnosis of art in a society where the art world has become amnesic with respect to its own historical traditions on account of subordinating its mission to “economic and social structures” (29). For to think the quality of art is determined by the quantity of people who enjoy it, and are willing to pay for it, empowers the audience only on pain of enfeebling art. Any artwork is robbed of its autonomous charm, its ability to recruit attention of the sensitive aesthete aware of what makes it a singularity, a unique item possessing sui generis traits demanding appreciation. Those who think art has no such powers in any case, and that any power it has is contingent on and downstream from mass appreciation might insist that the greater popularity of some artworks relative to other comparable artworks is the only sort of evidence of quality that is intelligible and acceptable. Assume arguendo that this is right, and art is good or bad only in the measure that it is thought to be so by a majority of the audience it is available to. Then, aberrant individual judgements about any given piece of art at variance with the majority judgement amount to nothing. Making the approval of the masses crucial to determination of artistic merit renders the minority of dissenting views wrong as well as unintelligible, which is puzzling. Their views can’t be both wrong and unintelligible, for unintelligible judgements can’t be detected to be right or wrong. People who dislike a hit movie are being told by the populists that they are wrong to dislike it because the movie demands to be an object of liking, and that while what they’re saying can’t be understood by the majority it is nevertheless being decided by fiat that they’re wrong whatever they may be saying.

Another line of defence rallied by the naïve defenders of the status quo in the arts at its worst is that writing of the sort Bhagat can muster uniquely voices concerns identifiable as those belonging to his compatriots. This defence founders, however, in the face of the countervailing charge that this was, and is, true of other Indian writers who outclass Bhagat at every level of analysis. For instance, sixty three years ago when Nirad C. Chaudhuri published his autobiography, composed in a register beyond Bhagat’s prowess, it perfectly captured the concerns of his compatriots while being illegible to most of them given the relative rarity of English literacy. Clearly, capturing the preoccupations of a region is a language-neutral affair in that it can be accomplished in any language. It can be done well, or badly, in any language. The specific register of the writer working in a given language is irrelevant to discussion of the relevance to concerns of a given regional demographic. Yet, Chaudhuri is better than Bhagat; even if they were, counterfactually, writing in different languages. It is inconceivable Churchill, or V. S. Naipaul, for instance, would have anything nice to say about Bhagat’s writing; though they’ve both said superlative things about Chaudhuri’s. Neither Naipaul nor Churchill can be accused of professional jealousies, not only because they’ve enjoyed mass success in India as much as abroad but also because they’re long deceased. An even more decisive blow to the quantitative view of artistic merit espoused by the champions of the populist, demotist alternatives to the preceding institutional theory of art, is ironically a quantitative rebuttal. Assuming for simplicity every Indian was and is a reader of Indian writing in English and merely reading a book amounts to thinking it as being a great work, Bhagat would be judged to be superior to Chaudhuri on the populist theory of artistic merit merely because he was read by more than a million people, while Nirad was generously read by no more than 500,000. Taking into consideration the total world population in 1951 and 2021 shows this reasoning to be quantitatively specious in addition to being aesthetically bankrupt. Bhagat sold more than a million books at a time when the world population was 7.9 billion, while Chaudhuri sold less than half a million books when the world population was 2.6 billion. So, the weighted average sales of Bhagat’s Five Point Someone show his readership to comprise only 0.00012% of the world population, while Chaudhuri’s readership comprises 0.00019% of the world population. Contrary to what populists about artistic merit want to believe, Chaudhuri is better than Bhagat even in terms of the strength of readership share alone. Having seen that quantitative criteria, like readership share in the global population cannot establish literary merit in particular, and mutatis mutandis the popularity of an artwork cannot establish artistic merit generally, what can those who want to reject the obviously flawed institutional theory of art do? How can they reject Adorno’s elitist adherence to the institutional theory of art while maintaining that artworks can have value for people who have a different opinion than the majority view on its quality, and that anybody can make great art? Levinson’s historical definition of art provides an answer, which—suitably expanded—allows one to avoid Adorno’s pessimism while retaining the egalitarian spirit of the populist theory of art and artistic merit without being vitiated by the flaws of the quantitative theory of artistic merit. 

Alternative to the Institutional Definition of Art & Artistic Merit

Per Levinson (19) something is art just when it is a thing over which the creator has “appropriate proprietary rights” and they have towards it a “nonpassing” intention that it be regarded to be an artwork in the way some older artefact is regarded as an artwork. This definition, obviously, relies on some older artefact being regarded as an artwork in an obvious way. Without a grasp of what it was that made that older artefact an artwork the definition is uninformative, or has an empty extension. Reasoning backwards, one ultimately ends up with the ur-artwork, or the first artwork, made by someone with the appropriate proprietary rights over it and a nonpassing attitude that it be regarded in a way no previous artefact had been hitherto regarded. Identifying this ur-artwork is as hopeless an errand as identifying the first pet dog named Tommy. We do know the name of the first documented pet animal [pre-2280 BC] was Abuwtiyuw, but the moral still stands: the first artwork, which referred back to nothing in the manner of regard it arrogated to and for itself is not practically identifiable in every case. Suppose as Levinson argues (20) we were somehow able to ferret out all the “ur-artworks of Western culture” we would end up with artefacts that first purported to be art in virtue of the nonpassing intention of creators who had proprietary rights over them. In principle and in practice, thinking through this situation is beneficial inasmuch as in radically novel artefacts which are not comparable to any past artworks but have the right proprietary relationship and intentional regard of their creator are functionally identical with ur-artworks. Consider the case of a future artist who uses yet undeveloped technology to give audiences an aesthetic experience that is not comparable to any of the known artistic genres and media known to us today. On Levinson’s theory this would be an ur-artwork; the first of its kind. Subsequent works of this sort would be artworks only inasmuch as they resembled, riffed on, or rebelled against it in some way. So, the Levinsonian theory of art can handle existing as well as not yet existent art that might be radically different from anything we’ve had the chance to audit. 

One problem with the Levinsonian definition is its stipulation that the creator have a proprietary right on the candidate aesthetic object. He gives the example of an ancient cultic object not intended by its makers as an artwork being excavated centuries later and exhibited in museums as an artwork. Not only does he think it is a mistake to consider this cultic object an artwork, he thinks if a person belonging to tribe responsible for the creation of the object who has the requisite knowledge about its intended purposes shows up then that person has a proprietary right over the object. I think this is misguided. It is entirely possible that perceptible features of the object make it comparable to other aesthetic objects, and that its composition qua aesthetic object supports critical and appreciative regard. This should be sufficient to render the object into art. Another wrinkle in the Levinsonian picture of art needs ironing. On the historical definition of art rehearsed above artistic merit must consist in reflecting, intensifying, or subverting expectations engendered by a previous art work to which any work under consideration makes reference. But as is always the case with referential enterprises, new works might overshoot, or undershoot; underwhelm or overwhelm, estrange or endear when compared to the work their creator intends them to be considered kin to. A filmmaker A might claim their new work is an homage to an earlier, much beloved filmmaker B. But it is possible none of A’s contemporaries or audiences agree that it is in any way related to the work of B. In such a case, A’s work would be art regardless because A enjoys proprietary right over it, and intends it to be an object intended for aesthetic contemplation. Nevertheless, in its failure to get audiences to regard it as an homage to B’s work A’s work displays less aesthetic merit than it could potentially have. Suppose now another filmmaker C makes a film as an homage to B’s work that is widely acknowledged as a fitting homage to B’s work. Then, it follows that A’s work is strictly less meritorious than C’s, or which is the same thing C’s work is strictly more meritorious than A’s. Using this methodology we are free of the dogmatism and elitism of the institutional theory of art, which bestows its blessings on who it will under an opaque and rationally indefensible approach to artistic evaluation. We’re also free of the chaotic, and equally rationally indefensible approach which lets the number of fans decide which artwork is more meritorious. The artist’s intentions and what features of the work are accurately described by those intentions in their own, their audience’s, and their critic’s estimations all figure into a rational evaluation of the artistic merit of their work. The process of evaluation triangulates intentional features [attributed by the artist] with intentional features [acknowledged by audiences and critics as part of their interpretations of the work] and perceptible features [attributable to the work without reference to intentions of the artist and interpretations of audiences or critics]. 

At this stage one might think getting rid of proprietary rights as a necessary factor in the art status of a candidate aesthetic object threatens to leave the definition of art underspecified. I’m convinced it does not. One needs to think of the triangulation  between artist’s intentions, audience and critical interpretations, and perceptible features as a list of independently sufficient conditions rather than cumulatively necessary conditions. An object with respect to which the creator’s intentions are not known may have art status merely because it invites critical and appreciative interpretations referring to other art objects; additionally, it may or may not have perceptible features that make it read as an art object without any reference to other art objects. The triangle of intention, interpretation, and perception implicated here is not an iron triangle; it is like a thread and may be wrapped around one, two, or three fingers with equal ease. The absence of one or even two of the three features might impinge on the artistic merit of a candidate aesthetic object, but it cannot strip it of its art status. But the presence of a single feature suffices to secure an artefact’s status as art.  

Overcoming Adorno’s Pessimism

Adorno resists the Levinsonian historical definition of art, as well as my evaluative framework for ascertaining artistic merit sketched above, by denying that identifying ur-arts justifies the attribution of art status to all previous artefacts implicated. On his view if we go far back into the catalogue of artefacts referred to by familiar artworks we end up with cult objects that are part of ritual ceremonies, or mating calls with a more corporeal purpose. Since these purposes are this-worldly and play a functional role in the human ecology Adorno hesitates in identifying them as properly related to the powers and potentials of art. On his rather romantic view, art must militate against the empirical world while also somehow resisting the ascetical drive to spiritualise itself in the pursuit of purely artistic ends using artistic means; he wants art to serve humanity, but serve it what it doesn’t need or want per se as that would make it too useful to be transcendent. Art he says “is concerned with what has not yet been socially approved and preformed and thereby becomes a social condition of determinate negation. Spiritualization takes place not through ideas announced by art but by the force with which it penetrates layers that are intentionless and hostile to the conceptual” (129). In order to be possessed of spirit, artistic merit, art must resist comprehension in terms of historical traditions, reference to ur-arts which served cultic purposes, and must somehow influence how audiences experience their contemporary world. He wants art works to merely vibe, not speak.  

This romantic impulse puts Adorno in league with the populists who don’t want to be given homework on theories of tonality but simply some nice muzak to frame their prandial experiences, embellish it with auditory cheesecake as it were. Of course, Adorno and his champions would insist he doesn’t belong with the populists because he understands the historical tradition, for instance in the realm of music the inherited theories of tonality and how Schoenberg’s early piano pieces are only appreciated by barbarians “more barbaric than the barbarism they fear” (128) and find lurking in the continued enjoyment of older tonal music. Or that in the realm of painting the Cubists are bad because their reliance on geometric shapes that are recognisable makes their work corporeal rather than spiritual (113). Nevertheless, his aesthetic theory is unable to explain why the populists who reject discourse about art as a valid preface to an artwork aren’t just adopting precisely the quietism recommended by the principle that art ought to “go beyond the intuitable” (136) to escape subaltern status. If the genuinely meritorious artwork cannot be brought into the canonical normal form in which content must be if it is to be verbally described, intuited, then the populist who listens and expresses his like or dislike mutely, non-verbally, and refuses to explain his reaction, is more Adornian than Adorno. But likening the populists to Adorno does them a disservice. The populists, after all, are anti-elitists, egalitarians who believe anyone can make art and that outsider artists can make art that is more meritorious than recognised professional artists. To give them a fighting chance against Adorno’s logorrheic amphibolisms in service of his aesthetic theory one might introduce them to the Levinsonian historical definition of art on which new art refers in some capacity to older art. One might make them appreciate that the ur-artist’s intention to glorify a deity in making what we now take to be an aesthetic object is not fully determinative of its being non-art, or art; we might,  pace Levinson, be able to consider it art based on its perceptible features and its capacity to support audience and critic interpretations. To help them judge for themselves if an artist doing radically new work is any good one might equip them with the idea of ur-art implicit in the historical definition of art they’ve accepted in accepting that new art refers in some capacity to older art. To help them tell if one artwork/artist is better than another, in more sophisticated ways than the rude quantitative analysis in currency, one might introduce them to the idea that they might triangulate between the artists’ intentions, audiences’ and critics’ interpretations, and the perceptible features of the artwork/oeuvre.  


Jerrold Levinson. (2011). Music, Art, and Metaphysics: Essays in Philosophical Aesthetics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Theodor W. Adorno, Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (2020). Aesthetic Theory. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

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