Response to Trumping the Arts

Further Reflection on the Relevance of Theodor Adorno

By: - Mar 23, 2017

Charles Giuliano's essay "Trumping the Arts: Budget Wipeout of Government Funding" is a compelling and timely call to action.  As Giuliano suggests, it is important that proponents of the arts “do the math” and actively develop strategies that can be implemented to combat the threat to culture posed by the Trump administration.  Yet in order to develop these strategies, those of us who advocate on behalf of the arts must first look inward to assess our complicity in creating this crisis.

As part of his piece, Giuliano cites a widely-know, but often misunderstood dictum penned by the theorist Theodor Adorno.  Appearing in the essay "Culture Critic and Society," first published in 1951, the Adorno passage reads: "The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today."  Rather than addressing the impossibility of generating art in the wake of Auschwitz or suggesting that the trauma of the Holocaust rendered artistic practice inherently frivolous, Adorno was foregrounding his belief that this dialectic, the boundary between culture and barbarism, had collapsed.  In its quest to detach itself from barbarism, culture had instead become attached to it.  In other words, culture's desire to distance itself from that which was inherently barbaric paradoxically confirmed that it had in fact succumbed to barbarism. 

There is a great deal that can be said about this canonical passage from Adorno's oeuvre, but when considered in relation to the argument outlined by Giuliano, it is important to consider the extent to which those of us who find the Trumpian position on art and culture abhorrent to be inextricably bound to the very "barbarism" we disdain.  Does indicting so-called ideological Others, namely Trump and his followers, as the lone source of this existential threat to the arts and their funding fail to adequately identify the causes of this crisis?  How have those who champion the arts been complicit in creating a cultural landscape that has enabled this ideological threat to germinate and flourish?  Have advocates of the arts been seduced by a false consciousness that encourages us to believe we are merely victims who have not contributed to this crisis?

There are no simple answers to these questions.  However, the passage from “Culture Critique and Society” cited by Giuliano alludes to the importance of introspective philosophical thought and critical exploration, especially by those of us who would like to believe that we are not apparatuses of the barbarism that Adorno laments.  

Adorno's body of thought suggests that in the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism, art is obligated to endure as a means of resisting the corrosive forces to which it has already capitulated.  Perhaps it goes without saying, but in keeping with this imperative, proponents of the arts must also endure.  Yet it is worth reiterating that those who advocate on behalf of the arts must embrace honest, critical introspection that will enable us to truly acknowledge our uncomfortable, complicit position within the dialectic.  Only then will we possess the knowledge necessary to act as agents of historical change who can confront this Trumpian crisis in an authentic, meaningful, and substantive manner.