Autonomous Work of Art

Kim talks with Pardis about Theodor Adorno’s concept of the autonomous work of art, as articulated in his Aesthetic Theory, and The Dialectic of Enlightenment (with help from Max Horkheimer).

Pardis Dabashi is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she specializes in 20th-Century literature and Film studies. Starbucks Christmas Blend is one of her many guilty pleasures. Adorno would be upset.

Image source: Witches dancing in forest, in the Compedium Maleficarum of Francesco Mario Guazzo, published in 1608. Available on Wikimedia Commons.

TRANSCRIPT

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

autonomous, adorno, work, art, hand, conditions, capitalist ideology, high, meditations, pollock painting, fantasy, kim, political, capital, nightmarish, podcast, theory, temporary autonomous zone, academic, rejects

Kim

This week I am talking with Pardis Dabashi about the autonomous work of art. So I’m gonna start by asking Pardis to introduce herself. 

Pardis

Hi everybody. And Kim, thanks so much for having me on your awesome podcast. My name is Pardis Dabashi. I’m an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada in Reno and I teach in the English Department. I specialize in home studies in 19th and 20th-century American, European and more recently, some Persian literature. 

Kim

Okay, what the heck is the autonomous work of art? 

Pardis

What the heck is the autonomous work of art? Before I talked about what the autonomous work of art is, I was wondering if I could just, like, make sure that everybody knows that I’m actually not high and the reason is because my experience with drugs has been nightmarish. Like I don’t enjoy it at all. And so, I’m not high, but in another sense, like, I wish I were high. So if I, like–when I inevitably make mistakes about what the autonomous work of art is I can blame it on the fact that I am, like, completely sober. Soberly making mistakes. Okay, all right. So now that I’ve gotten that out of the way.

Kim

Alright, so now you’re ready to answer the questions.

Pardis

I’m ready to answer the question. Okay. What the heck is the autonomous work of art? My suggestion is that the autonomous work of art actually does not exist, okay. But it is a concept, or a placeholder, let’s say that Adorno–Theodor Adorno–uses to try to think about the way that we could imagine an alternative reality than the one that we’re in. So for Adorno the basic condition of human beings under capitalism is that we are subject to or subject others to suffering by way of domination basically, then what the autonomous work of art does is attempt to imagine a reality outside of these relations, outside the conditions of capital. But the catch is that the very idea of generating a realm outside the conditions of capital is itself like a re-inscription of capital. Yes, on the one hand, there is something about going and dancing naked in the woods that rejects, ostensibly rejects, the power dynamics of capitalism that like force our bodies into doing certain things on a regular basis. Yes. But on the other hand, there is a kind of fantasy of transcendence going on there that Adorno is really skeptical of. The idea that we can make a work of art that transcends the condition of capital or the idea that one could transcend the conditions of capital at all–that fantasy is just as bourgeoisie as, like, the bourgeois guy sitting in his apartment, like smoking a cigar and flipping through magazines. So when I say that the autonomous work of art doesn’t exist what I mean is that I don’t actually think, like, while on the one hand, we could say yes, okay, like a Pollock painting is an autonomous work of art.

Kim

So I was thinking when you said people want to go dance naked in the woods is thinking, oh, Burning Man, Burning Man is the greatest example right?

Pardis

Perfect example where it’s like, oh, yeah, let’s go be in the desert in this temporary autonomous zone where anything goes, but let’s also pay $4,000 per ticket. Adorno would be, I mean, Adorno hated everything, Adorno hated jazz. He did. I was just joking with a friend that, like, Adorno is the most profound killjoy. Like there’s, like he doesn’t like anything. He’d be like the idea of enjoyment is, like, wrapped up in capitalist ideology. He’s not wrong, but it’s sometimes, like, it’s just, like, dude, just let me zone out for a minute. 

Kim

Yeah, so maybe this is a good point to ask the next question. Since it’s, you know, it’s such a contradictory and maybe non-existent thing, how do I use the autonomous work of art? 

Pardis

Like, how does one use the autonomous work of art? I would say, for Adorno, the question would be like, how does one use the idea of the autonomous work of art? And I think the short answer is, one tries to think the autonomous work of art and by virtue of thinking the autonomous work of art one becomes a different kind of political subject. One who is less susceptible to engaging in the objectification of the other.

Kim

Okay, so like art shifts directly into politics there, right?

Pardis

For me, as far as I’m concerned, his meditations on the autonomous work of art are meditations on a different kind of political subjectivity. Even though to my knowledge, he doesn’t come out and never really exactly says that. That’s how that’s how I read it. For sure.

Kim

Okay. So then as a political theory, how will the autonomous work of art save the world?

Pardis

The autonomous work of art can’t save the world right now. And it can’t save the world two years from now. But, what it can do is contribute to the creation of a critical community. And when I say critical I don’t I obviously don’t mean academic, what I mean is, like, contribute to the growth of a kind of, like, community of people who think critically about, like, what is in front of them.

Kim 

Can I actually ask you, I know this is kind of a crazy question. But like, what is art for Adorno?

Pardis

I thought you were, like, just going to ask what is art and I was like holy shit.

Kim

If you have an answer to that please, please give it to me! But, like, for Adorno specifically, if you’ve got that.

Pardis

For Adorno art is… can I use really deep words like “monadologically.” Okay, so the monad: the monad is like a thing of a term that Adorno borrows from Spinoza. And it’s, like, the monad is like a thing that recreates in miniature, the terms or the form of, like, the totality. So, what in the way, the reason why he uses that term to talk about the autonomous work of art is that the autonomous work of art recreates through forms. Like the autonomous work of art isn’t like a painting, like a Diego Rivera mural, for example, that shows like working bodies, Adorno will be like, this is not the autonomous work of art. It’s not about thematizing labor as content, for him that’s just as part of the bourgeois fantasy of transcending capital as like anything else. So for him, the reason why I use the Jackson Pollock example is that that’s something that is really formally fragmented, that in its form of fragmentation, sort of recreates in miniature the fragmentation and internal contradictions of capitalist modernity. So this is why he’s drawn more toward modernist aesthetics.

Kim

Okay, so what defines art as such is form and then what’s powerful and maybe like the saving grace–if we’re gonna go back to that, like, how will it save the world question–involves the viewers interaction, or the the listeners interaction with the work?

Pardis

Totally, totally and what’s interesting about Adorno is he doesn’t really talk about reception all that much, except for this relatively brief moment in the aesthetic theory where he talks about what he calls the shutter. The shutter ideally is the thing that I as a person, like, let’s say looking at a painting, let’s say at a Pollock painting, experience. When I look at the Pollock painting, I experience what Adorno calls a shutter, which is a kind of like a breaking down of my subjectivity, like a recognition of the fact that my subjectivity is wholly dependent on that which is outside of me. Ideally what the autonomous work of art would do is like, generate in me a shutter. I suppose that’s what could save the world. But again, it’s like, like, that doesn’t happen. You don’t like I don’t, you know?

Kim

It’s not what I feel when I go to art museums.

Pardis

Certainly not!

Kim

I feel very hailed as a bourgeois subject. I don’t…

Pardis

Me too, I go there, I’m like, oh, I should think that this is beautiful. Therefore I will sit…

Kim

I should be proper and observed the beauty…

Pardis

Meanwhile, to myself, I’m thinking I really want a hot dog. 

Kim

That’s a really excellent note to end on.

Pardis

I think by the way, like somewhere spoken poorly upon dogs.

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