Apr 132011


Address unknown. – Cultivated philistines are wont to demand that the work of art should give them something. They are no longer outraged at what is radical, but draw back with the shamelessly modest assertion, that they just don’t understand. This latter clears away the resistance, the last negative relation to the truth, and the offending object is catalogued with a smile under under consumer goods between which one has a choice and which one can reject, without incurring any responsibility. One is just too dumb, too outmoded, one just can’t keep up, and the smaller one makes oneself out to be, the more reliably do they participate in the mighty unison of the vox inhumana populi [Latin: inhuman voice of the people], in the guiding force [Gewalt] of the petrified spirit of the age [Zeitgeist]. What is not comprehensible, from which no-one gets anything, turns from an outraging crime into mere foolishness, deserving of pity. They displace the temptation along with the spike. That someone is supposed to be given something, by all appearances the postulate of substantiality and fullness, cuts off these latter and impoverishes the giving. Therein however the relationship of human beings comes to resemble the aesthetic one. The reproach that someone gives nothing, is execrable. If the relation is sterile, then one should dissolve it. Those however who hold fast to it and nevertheless complain, always lack the organ of sensation: imagination. Both must give something, happiness as precisely what is not exchangeable, what cannot be complained about, but such giving is inseparable from taking. It is all over, if the other is no longer reachable by what one finds for them. There is no love, that would not be an echo. In myths, the guarantor of mercy was the acceptance of sacrifice; love, however, the after-image of the sacrificial act, pleads for the sake of this acceptance, if it is not to feel itself to be under a curse. The decline of gift-giving today goes hand in hand with the hardening against taking. It is tantamount however to that denial of happiness, which alone permits human beings to hold fast to their manner of happiness. The wall would be breached, where they received from others, what they themselves must reject with a sour grimace. That however is difficult for them due to the exertion which taking requires of them. Isolated in technics, they transfer the hatred of the superfluous exertion of their existence onto the energy expenditure, which pleasure requires as a moment of its being [Wesen] all the way into its sublimations. In spite of countless small moments of relief, their praxis remains an absurd toil; the squandering of energy in happiness, however, the latter’s secret, they do not tolerate. That is why things must go according to the English expression, “relax and take it easy” [in English in original], which comes from the language of nurses, not the one of exuberance. Happiness is outmoded: uneconomic. For its idea, sexual unification, is the opposite of being at loose ends, namely ecstatic tension, just as that of all subjugated labor is disastrous tension.

–Adorno, from Minima Moralia

  4 Responses to “Cultivated philistines & the work of art, from Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia”

  1. This is a tough but engaging read.

    “Therein however the relationship of human beings comes to resemble the aesthetic one.”

    By “aesthetic one,” I assume he’s referring to the aesthetic situation created by “cultivated philistines”?

    This was written some 60 years. How has the picture changed since?

    If this climate prevails now, what does that mean for writers? How do they approach that audience? How should their recognition of that audience, the scene, influence their work? Or should they even try? If there is no other audience, is there any point in writing?

    (Kind of the point I fumbled with in my comment about your story, and really have been touching in many of my posts.)

  2. I am reminded of a submission policy from a literary magazine I read in Writer’s Market some years ago:

    “We don’t want stories that make us feel stupid.”

    (I can’t find it–from memory, but I know this is close.)

  3. I’ve been trying to parse this challenging offering and not doing so well. I will take a stab at it, but please jump in and help me out. I am coming at this recklessly with no context.

    I take it as a tirade against passivity. That only milquetoast happiness can be attained without effort and engagement. He seems to have a general complaint that people are not engaging in consuming art with sufficient exuberance, but it is more than that. I also find a call to artists: “It is all over, if the other is no longer reachable by what one finds for them.” This says that, like all relationships, the one mediated by art requires engagement on both sides. If no one is responding to my art, I need to use my imagination and find a way to reach them. What we need around here is a little more exuberance!

    Could this be what dg was telling us with this post?

    • Something like that. 🙂 It’s perhaps not a great translation. It’s an argument against acquiescence, acceptance and passivity.

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