Adorno's Negative Theology And The Religious Dimension Of Art
Religion in art can perform a variety of roles. A religious picture, literary text or piece of music can be didactic in intent, spreading knowledge of religious teachings, ideologies and practices; it can serve a commemorative purpose, reminding present generations of the significance of past episodes, or the examples of particular individuals, in shaping present religious belief and practice; it can be inspiring in an emotional or spiritual sense, acting to create a suitable emotion or feeling of a religious nature in its audience. Art with religious content or purpose can be contemplative or bombastic in character, and can convey a message that is conservative or radical in political, social or cultural terms; it can operate on an individual or a collective level, and inspire engagement with the world or withdrawal from it; it can work through great formal simplicity or abstruse complexity. What religious art of all kinds shares, however, is a concern with being more than merely decorative. Religious art inevitably has a message. As is suggested by the brief summary of some of the extraordinarily varied forms of religion in art above, such messages can transcend the narrow limitations of particular religious systems or ideologies; but in a modern world characterized by a falling away of traditional religious belief and practice, what role does religion play in art? If it retains a validity, at what level does it operate and what it its significance? If modernism has undermined the place of religion in society, what purposes can be served by a continuing religious presence in art?
For the social and cultural critic and theorist Theodor Adorno (1903-69), art is integrated into the society that produces it, and cannot be considered separately from the economic, political and ideological circumstances of its creation. This position reflects the continuing influence of Marxist theoretical approaches to art which can be found underlying even Adorno's most radical writings.
However, Adorno tended to distance himself from a crude materialist or historical-contextual reading of art, focusing on a close reading of the work itself and claiming such thorough analysis from the inside would enable a reading of the work's social meanings without cumbersome references to external contexts.
Those social meanings, however, remained central to any accurate and meaningful understanding of the work, whether literary, musical, or visual in nature.
There is an apparent paradox in this view, for Adorno also insisted on the autonomy of art, simultaneously arguing that art was the product of its context and that it was vitally differentiated from that context. At the heart of this position is the concept of "negativity," which is a key one for Adorno in a variety of contexts. A recent scholar of Adorno's aesthetic theories has summarized this position as follows:
The basic thesis of the aesthetic of negativity rests on a simple equation: aesthetic difference, the distinction between the aesthetic and the nonaesthetic, is, in truth, aesthetic negativity. Only by conceiving of works of art in their negative relationship to everything that is not art can the autonomy of such works, the internal logic of their representation and of the way they are experienced, be adequately understood. The distinctiveness, the uniqueness of art, is that it sets itself apart, that it separates itself off. It is just as inadequate to explain the autonomy of art in terms of distinction, coexistence, or complementarity as it is to subordinate art to externally imposed ends. What art actually is, is contradiction, rejection, negation. Determinations of this kind are basic to Adorno's aesthetics.
The reconciling element of this paradox is provided by Adorno's emphasis on the role of human labor and human experience in creating works of art. For Adorno any concept of metaphysical meaning in art was extrinsic to its real value, which was in its exploration and expression of these profoundly human issues:
[Adorno] did not, however, give up the concepts of society and history as necessary codeterminants for the aesthetic realm. His criticism is filled with a strong sense of social history as the condition under which artworks are produced and consumed. This is not a matter of the artwork reflecting social conditions but rather a matter of human labor.
For Adorno, works of art are expressions of human creativity and have a truth content in reflecting the conditions of their creation. It is this commitment to reading art as the product of human experience that underlies Adorno's claim in his Aesthetic Theory that "art is the sedimented history of human misery."
A great work of art possesses a truth content that reflects this, while escaping any particularizing contexts that would limit its universal significance and autonomy, and serves as a pointer to a world in which misery is defeated and the creative potential of human beings is finally, fully, realized. It could be said that for Adorno art possesses an almost religious significance in terms of its role as an agent of revelation. Adorno's view of the importance of art is thus concerned more with potentials than with actualities:
Whether art is still possible today cannot be decided from above, from the perspective of the relations of production. The question depends, rather, on the state of the forces of production. It encompasses what is possible but not yet realized: an art that refuses to let itself be terrorized by positivist ideology.
This combination of autonomy and rootedness in context has important consequences for Adorno's view of religion in artistic production. Fundamentally, the argument of this essay will be that while rejecting the embodying of religious meaning in art and artwork in the institutionalized sense of churches or other organized religions, Adorno identified and insisted upon a revelatory role for art itself in terms of its engagement with the human condition and human values.
Adorno was in many ways a writer and thinker profoundly influenced by religion. He made extensive use of religious languages and concepts throughout his writings: to quote the modern scholar and translator Robert Hullot-Kentor, "theology is always moving right under the surface of all Adorno's writings ... theology penetrates every word."
Religion is in its essence metaphysical, and naturally tends to argue for a significance that lies in transcendence; its values seek to place themselves beyond any particular historical or cultural circumstances, to escape the limitations of context. Adorno rejected any notion of transcendence in art, but did argue for a view of art that emphasized its role as a communicator of potentialities rather than solely as a product of actualities, and for "the inevitable intertwining of material and ideal or spiritual reality."
This understanding of art can be related to what has been called Adorno's "negative theology" of disenchantment: "whoever believes in God cannot believe in God."
This is not a negative theology in the sense that there is no God, but rather that He cannot be represented, as there is no means by which human structures of knowing can access or experience His reality. It is not possible to speak meaningfully of God in any positive way at all, for God is an "ultimate end" and, as such, cannot be comprehended in human understanding, limited as it is by intentionality in language -- this is the clear argument of the Negative Dialectics -- but can only be discussed in terms of what He is not. In other words, God can only ever be conceptualized and approached through negative rather than positive theology; and indeed, the only theology that is possible in the modern world is negative theology. The consequence of this for religion in art is potentially wide-ranging, tending to undermine its very position -- if religion rests on the notion of God, a notion that cannot be represented, then by definition a religious art that satisfies Adorno's central criterion of truth content cannot exist.
It can be argued, however, that there remains hope for religion in art within Adorno's scheme of things despite this objection, in the key implication of his argument about the nature of negative understanding. Using Adorno's own terms of argument, it can be convincingly proposed that negative theology is itself a form of representation. This is not a matter of closing the door on theology and religious standpoints, but of bringing them within the boundaries of the political and the social. This can be done (for Adorno, it must be done) through art, which is uniquely placed to effect this subsumation. Art is in fact utterly fundamental to this process. Adorno wrote in an essay on the work of the German playwright Bertold Brecht and the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre that "This is not the time for political works of art; rather, politics has migrated into the autonomous work of art."
Art provides a realm through which politics can bring about an engagement between human actuality and human potential; it is precisely its autonomy as a realm of the aesthetic, differentiated from the non-aesthetic, that allows it to perform this role. Elsewhere, Adorno argues,…