A Note on a Tag in Adorno

De gustibus est disputandum

This Latin tag (from Adorno’s Minima Moralia), which means “it is necessary to argue about taste” is counterposed to the saw de gustibus non disputandum (“there is no arguing about taste”) is key to understanding his much more turgid Aesthetic Theory.

That is, based on Kant, Adorno notes that despite the fact that it’s bad manners to disrespect another’s taste in art as people will say when they sigh, and repeat the grave saw, this is precisely what art works “want”: truth content. They ASSERT that “this is worth your time, baby”, but in a way for which there are so many multiple and conflicting metrics as to make this claim disputable without being decidable.

Now, there may be works of art beyond reproach, and note that in the vastly more important zone of ethics, Adorno identifies a class of ethical statements he and many other people thought sans reproche even in a godless and de-spiritualized world, statements that, far from needing a religious ground, themselves are the ground of religion: my son wrote an excellent paper at uni in which he pointed out that Abraham’s “angel”, that told Abraham not to slay Isaac, was Abraham’s pre-Abrahamite, pre-religious ethical instinct which needs no ground.

One statement that Adorno identified as being beyond question was “there should be no concentration camps”. Bingo, perfect pitch, something more than an axiom, something that’s a mathematical proof without being an argument at all: if we understand perfectly that a concentration camp is a place in which even your death is without meaning (not the British proto-camp or approximation of the Boer War except insofar as that experiment shared elements) the Nazi camps, and, to the extent they followed the model, Serbian camps of the 1990s, and, to the extent it followed the model set by the Nazis as dark exemplars, Abu Ghraib.

Likewise, we might say something in art theory like “if anything does not suck, Raphael’s mature style, late Beethoven, Tolstoy’s Karenina, Coltrane, do not suck”. And even if we get a lot of back-talk, we want to say it, and Coltrane’s music says it. It says, listen to this, man!

Listen! to what I mean. The Youtube video, which is part of a live recording of A Love Supreme made in 1965 as replayed on an analogue system, will open in a different window and you can come back here if I’m not totally boring you yet.

Coltrane has truth content that Glenn Miller lacks because the more you know about Jazz production the more you can educate yourself about why this really doesn’t suck. Adorno’s world-historical brain fart (On Jazz), an essay in which he was completely wrong about Jazz, only illustrates this: to Adorno and many other Europeans of his time, blacks were invisible, so despite the fact that Teddie was in fact deeply familiar with white pop of the 1930s and 1940s, he seems never have to educated himself about African American music! This is more than a Homeric nod, but it doesn’t make Adorno’s theories worthless.

Part of the truth content of music, about which we can indeed dispute and which can be empirically brought to bear, is the unexpected response. I was playing an obscure piece (the Sweelinck fantasia) performed by Glenn Gould at a government school in a poor district in Hong Kong. The cleaning lady, who spoke no English, asked me through a student to write down the name of the piece and the performer since she’d thought it beautiful.

This was like an incident that happened in Glenn Gould’s lifetime. While he hated performing for classical audiences because of their cultured barbarism, their expectation of a “culinary” experience which treats art as a “fine meal”, their secret hope of seeing the performer shamed, their Sacre du Printemps as it were, he would at times invite ordinary people, strangers, to listen to him rehearse.

This is replayed in the film 32 Variations on Glenn Gould. He invites a German chambermaid into his hotel room not to harass her like that French guy a couple of weeks ago but to listen to him practise the Goldberg Variations, and she responds to the music.

Which means as a matter of truth that he didn’t suck, right?

In fact, when we sigh, and agree not to argue about taste, this is the point at which engineered entertainment destroys high culture. Mass media knows how to manipulate us and it does. Whereas to force oneself back to the experience of Adorno’s child who is listening to a string quartet in the next room with utter fascination we have to be “pretentious”.

We have to attend to the boring bits and in my direct experience this is painful. This is because of another thing my fat pal said: we owe Beethoven far more than he owes us: culture as opposed to entertainment is NOT focused on the “customer”, it is not our servant.

At the same time, an essential point in Aesthetic Theory is that the truthiness (if you will), the truth-content, of the assertion of ANY work of art that “this is worth your time, babe” will never be established once and for all by descriptions, let us say, of sonata form followed by a demonstration of how Beethoven mastered, and then went beyond.

Big deal: this is no more an argument for abandoning the dispute than undecidability in math or physics is an argument for not majoring in math or physics. In fact, something like real aesthetic beauty may have appeared, for the first time, in math with Godel’s Proof and in physics with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Kant’s category of the Sublime is precisely what would be called, today, the uncanny WTF factor. It’s why the Gypsy dancer La Malena said that Bach had “duende” and not Gluck.

We know WHY Saving Private Ryan was a cool movie: all those dirty Germans got killed and that homo with the typewriter learned what real men are like. But The Thin Red Line, Terence Malick’s film released in the same summer about the regular (US) army at Guadalcanal, was “uncanny”. It was only marginally better made in the tech sense. Its duende was precisely how it frustrated the viewer’s expectations: guys are heading to the beach, viewer thinks, OK, Japs gonna open up, Japs don’t, WTF.

And then, on the third viewing, I realized something. As the safe viewer I am barbaric to want to see a representation of men who could have been my father getting fired upon: the men are like, whew, I shall live, and isn’t this world, this island, beautiful.

The point of a war movie worth our time would be “reconstructing the emotional life of our ancestors”. Peter Weir did this in Gallipoli and Jean Renoir in The Big Illusion, as did Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory. Spielberg, while a sub-genius, did not. Instead, he feels himself so inadequate at not being part of his father’s generation that his characters are ultimately inhuman: early in the film, the Yuppie wife chides the Dad for taking pictures of his own father at the Allied gravesite as if to draw a boundary between him and his father…something a wife really has no authority to do, or, more precisely: Spielberg adds the feminine response to say that the men of WWII were more than human…when of course they were not.

I cannot capture duende but I can weave a circle of words around it which might be boring as hell but might also be a useful lesson in how to watch a film. Stop expecting entertainment all the time. I have to be in a dialogue (in somewhat the manner of old philosophy as last seen in Berkeley, or ethics as last seen in 18th century dialogues between a Dudley Do Right and a common lecher) with my own Studs Lonigan, my own Slats Grobnick, my own “heavy bear” in the poem of that name (Google it), for this is the damaged existence constructed by “entertainment”.

The Spielberg wife, in Private Ryan, does call me to account. She knows that there’s a point where it might be disrespectful to photograph (or make a movie of) the solemn. But: the problem in Spielberg is that he cannot think beyond an American theme wherein women are now burdened with having to be superegos. Spielberg creates a domestic drama in the middle of a war picture. I seriously wish he’d grow up, in part because I’d like to play John Rabe for his planned movie about Nanking.

After the 1940s, Adorno and his wife Gretel didn’t go to the movies because he hated their increasingly slick audience manipulation. They did like animal and nature programs on TV.

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