Explosive aesthetics: adorno & the art of detonation

May 7, 2010

A presentation which I gave last night. It probably makes more sense in my head than in the note form here – there are sections that I didn’t write but did deliver – so I’ll tidy it up soon. Essentially about the realisation of the sublime in art through a sort of technical transposition that takes it from natural to art beauty. Trajectory goes Kant, Adorno, Mutually Assured Destruction, auto-destructive art: in a loose sense to do with non-present presences.

The picture above is of a tower built to test a nuclear device that is vaporised in the explosion. Interesting temporary architectural form.

By way of context: This presentation, and I apologise for this now, is non-deliberately open ended. It’s intended as drawing together a few threads that I intend to explore further in the dissertation, based, primarily, around an exploration of Benjamin’s interpretation of ruins in light of a dual reading of catastrophe, as a disastrous event, and in his terms as ‘missed opportunity’. So, for example, how we get from [image hiroshima pre and post] to [image lea valley pre and post]. If we leave aside the issues of Benjamin’s interpretation, what I wanted to focus on here, was how we get to the status of ruin, explosive imagery and the sublime, and its transposition, as Adorno sees it, from nature into art.

I just wanted to show this clip to start with, which, is I am informed, of the test of the Tsar Bomba. The Tsar Bomba is the largest nuclear device in terms of yield to ever have been tested. It was detonated by the Soviet Union over the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, located in the Arctic Ocean north of Russia, in 1961. The estimated yield – measured in tons of TNT – was 50 megatons (50 million tons), to contextualise that, Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima had yields of around 20 kiltons (20 000 tons).   The scale of this is illustrated rather nicely, but in a manner I find entirely incomprehensible in this image. [image of blast cloud] The reason for mentioning this is not just by way of process – so how we get from this (pic of thing) to this (ruin) – but that it allows us to deal with the concept of the sublime.

The sublime, for Kant, is an expression of beauty. It is one of the parts of the judgement of beauty. The sublime, is then further reduced into two categories. The first, as related to the mathematical, the second, as related to dynamics. For Kant the sublime is the ‘shudder’ of alternation between two instances of recognition of an overwhelming. It is, in the sense of the person to the object, the overwhelming of an inability to intuit, in mathematical terms, the scale of something – a mountain – or to grasp the force of something – a storm for example. Although Kant states that these are instances when we feel the sublime, he holds that the objects they relate to are not actually the objects of the sublime. What is constituted is the second instance of overwhelming, not of us to the object, but of the object to the idea of absolute totality or freedom. The shudder of the sublime, is then the alternation between the overwhelming of us by the object, and the recognition of the overwhelming of the overwhelming object in its relation to absolute totality or freedom.

As Kant holds that beautiful objects express a purposiveness without purpose – beauty does not pertain to a concept as the knife does to the knife maker’s idea of it – a dual process is instantiated. The first layer provides the admittedly counter-intuitive exhibition of the non-purpose of the sublime object: its size or force as end, rather than means. But the second layer, the alternation to the idea of a purpose in the recognition of the sublime object in relation to the idea of absolute totality or freedom qualifies the judgement.

Caveat: *moral culture needed for judgements: we can only recognise the sublime because we recognise our rationality*

What we then see in Kant is an attribution of the sublime to nature. What we see in a nuclear blast is the unnatural expression of a natural reaction. The technically prompted excursion into uncontrollable nuclear fusion. Of course, the parameters of the reaction can be roughly set through the material used in the bomb, but the reaction once started, unfurls within and up to its own limits. In the fleeting form of the fireball and mushroom cloud that develops out of it, we see the intermingling of the mathematical and dynamic sublime. The overwhelming scale combined with destructive force. As Jeremy Bernstein writes of witnessing a nuclear test:

‘What I saw defies description. The photograph… gives some sense but not of the scale. [image of cloud from the test ‘smoky’ that Bernstein describes] At first there was no noise. Then came the shock wave that made a disagreeable click in my ears and finally the rolling thunder of the noise. The Joshua trees were aflame as if in some obscene pagan rite. The bomb had evaporated the tower.’1

In this intermingling of overwhelming scale and force that illustrates the sublime potentiality of the destructive act. The consistent description of mushroom clouds as beautiful points to some overwhelming transcendence of the technical possibility expressed in nuclear power beyond its destructive purpose. We should be wary of the fetishisation of the mushroom cloud as solely aesthetic object outside of its historical context, but it points towards the critical aesthetic potential – the explosive quality of this potential – that Adorno holds that we find in art.

The treatment of the Kantian sublime in Adorno runs, both in and against aesthetic tradition, as a continuation of the project of de-alienation. The sublime takes its form in aesthetic works under which the ‘pressure of truth content, transcends itself’ to ‘occupy the position that was once held by the concept of the sublime.’2

While Kant holds that the sublime is found in nature, Adorno notes that the sublime was co-opted during the enlightenment so as to be the ‘historical constituent of art itself’.3 What this points to is the move of the sublime from its defining of natural to art beauty. As such, art becomes ‘in itself what was previously attributed to it as its cathartic effect on another spirit: the sublimation of nature.’4

What this means for the potential of art to convey the sublime – and through this the ideas of totality and freedom – is in its interpretation as ‘an art that shudders inwardly by suspending itself in the name of an illusionless truth content, though without, as art, divesting itself of its semblance character.’5 But for Adorno the object of the sublime, the mountain or storm, are not the representations of an overwhelming force, but the image of a ‘space liberated from fetters and structures, a liberation in which it is possible to participate.’6  This space, free of the alienating forms of dominance that society under capitalism – under a dubious relation to nature – structures, is the goal of the negative dialectical project of Adorno.

If this is then the goal of art: to inform us of a space beyond that which is presented to us as one of liberation, freedom, beauty realised in a capacity beyond that of the negation of the present, then its important to ask just how does Adorno get to the pronouncement that ‘art is profoundly kin to explosion’? 7

Given Adorno’s striking – and necessary – negativity towards the social relations that constitute the functioning of society under capitalism, the explosive quality of art is realised in a number of ways. Dialectically, Adorno exploits the antagonistic unity of the artwork as a constitutive factor of the artwork, so that it exceeds its limits, its semblance, exploding and at once unifying itself against the idea of an organic whole. So while the artwork’s success can be measured in truth content – the manner in which it sets itself against society to reveal a structural arrangement that could be – its power is expressed through its explosion of the generalising effects of the categories that it inhabits.

The explosive power of the artwork is thus derived from the inherent antagonism of the dialectical constitution of its form and content. This antagonistic unity speaks to the intimate relationship that informs, and obfuscates the nature of the form and content of the artwork, in that the two are not easily drawn into separate strands, but necessarily enmeshed in the whole. So while Adorno states – following Rimbaud – that art must be absolutely modern, that is, heterogenous, it is not enough for the form to merely change if the content is retrograde or derivative. The reverse is then also true. The artwork then plays on this dialectical unity in order to provide it with the explosive qualities that allow it to extend beyond itself, the ‘monadological’, to quote Adorno, structure of both the dialectic and the artwork.

Given the Marxist content of Adorno’s aesthetic theory it is not enough to deal with the artwork qua artwork, as an isolated entity devoid of its historical context. It’s here, in what approaches a prompt or actualisation of critical thought, that we again see recourse to explosive imagery.  In the same manner that Benjamin tried to instantiate messianic time as a mode of seeing history as more than the pacifying linearity of the bourgeois account, Adorno holds that the artwork has the power to ‘explode’ the ‘undialectical, gapless continuum of tranquil development’. 8

The continuum here has as its referent the organic composition of a history of artistic development, but in the monadological quality of the artwork, is extended out of this to society. To refer to this continuum as undialectical is to cede to the accepted, bourgeois, notion of history as it is, to ignore the potentialities of new modes of living, of changed social relations. The artwork thus responds to its historical context – in its truth content – by aggregating, by ossifying the sediment of history in its core. For Adorno, the dialectical process inherent in the artwork is one that constructs its own inner time, so that when Adorno writes:

‘What appears in the artwork is its own inner time; the explosion of appearance blasts open the continuity of this inner temporality. The artwork is mediated to real history by its monadological nucleus. History is the content of artworks. To analyse artworks means no less than to become conscious of the history immanently sedimented in them.’9

We see that the explosive quality of the artwork is thus its power to actualise consciousness. To offer us the awareness of an society orientated around spaces of liberation – an orientation once glimpsed in the natural sublime, but transferred to the language of the artwork.

I’d like to read Adorno’s pronouncements on the explosive power of art through the work and theory of Gustav Metzger, the Polish-Jewish artist who came to Britain as part of the Kindertransport programme prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Metzger, was and is, a committed political activist and early proponent of the need for positive action with regards to the threat of climate change. I’d like, because I think that it approaches the overtly political response that Adorno decries, to leave aside his more recent work including the Flailing Trees installation, and instead, focus on the period from around 1959 to 1980. We must bear in mind that the ambitions that Metzger held for auto-destructive art were perhaps not fully realised, that the works that we have, especially in the period mentioned, are the first tentative steps towards a wider realisation.

Metzger, is known as developing the concept of auto-destructive art and the art strike. The former, first devised in 1959 as ‘primarily a form of public art for industrial societies’10 and issued in manifesto form in 1960.11 The significance of industrial societies for Metzger, revolves around the (misused) capacity of technology. Coalescing as a dialectical response to the ‘chaos of capitalism and of Soviet communism’, the ‘co-existence of surplus and starvation’ and ‘the increasing stockpiling of nuclear weapons’12, auto-destructive art plays on the technical absurdities of a society predicated on waste, productive and consumptive coercion and miss-articulation of technical capacity

We can locate two threads in Metzger’s work that perhaps speak to the formulation of the artwork – the successful formulation of the artwork in Adorno’s terms – as well as a  response to a society dominated by a culture industry that maintains that ‘the outside world is the straightforward continuation of [the world] presented on the screen.’ 13

Situating Metzger’s work in the context of Cold War logics of inexorable escalation allows us an insight into both, the auto-destructive tendencies of his art, as well as the potential effectiveness of the notion of the art strike. Returning to the Tsar Bomba, we see the absurdity of a nuclear device escalated in scale to a point of tactical uselessness. While it exhibits a bizarre inverted logic of non-deterrent as deterrent, precisely because the Russian weapon was so large as to require a semi deconstructed plane to drop it for testing. The tactical results of this escalation amounts to a weapon that would have been easily intercepted because it required slow moving bombers to transport and deploy it. The scale of the detonation is then a strategic response to its tactical ineffectiveness. By realising its status as non-deterrent deterrent in its political purpose: that is, in the expression of an escalation towards an unrestrained bomb based on destructive size, the bomb ensures its non-use, but the effectiveness of its non-use. The symbiotic reinforcement of an American-Soviet Mutually Assured Destruction leads us to a diversion of capital, of technology, beyond any meaningful end. The threat then is both non-present and omnipresent.

If MAD provides the globalised specter of a non-present presence: that of the bomb. Then the art strike provides the non-present presence of the emancipatory potentials of Adorno’s artwork. In construing the non-work, the non-production of artworks as an artwork, we can read both the absurdity of a society mired in a sclerotic response to a non-present presence, and extrapolate beyond it to a wider sense of social structures that facilitated the absurd relation. It is then, a legitimate artistic response – in a society in which Adorno questions arts ability to even exist anymore – to the omnipresence of the image: the, in Debord’s terms, spectacular society. To construct art as the image of the non-image, is to provide the same explosive logic of the threat of MAD.

That then is the first thread of Metzger’s work. The artstrike, or non-production of artworks, proferred, in itself, as an artwork.

In terms of specific artworks we can read Metzger’s acid paintings, created at the South Bank demonstration, [image] as what a typically Adornoite artwork may look like. Given that the artwork itself was ephemeral and that document now exists as record of the act, one may question the relevancy, but perhaps not its truth content. The acid paintings consisted of chloroform sprayed onto sheets of hanging nylon which corrode at the point of contact within 15 seconds. What we see here is an embargo on images, non-representative artwork, and the creation of the radically heterogenous, in spite of its inherently fleeting nature. It is then, a work that points to the freeing of the particular from the general, an appreciation of the location of its moments in relation to its form, as Adorno attributes to the twelve tone structure of Schoenberg’s compositions. In allowing the mechanico-technical potentials of readymade materials to realise themselves auto-destructively, Metzger points to the conception of the artwork that Adorno praises. Here we see the space of liberation, freedom from modes of domination, and a political response to an aesthetic content that does not explicitly situate itself as political. What remains of the artwork is nothing, the nylon is dissolved, but it situates itself as non-present presence.


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