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The death of sensuous particulars

The death of sensuous
Adorno and abstract expressionism
Jay Bernstein
‘Hell is the denial of the ordinary.’

John Ciardi, The Gift
1. This essay will engage in three distinct tasks
simultaneously. first, it will form a light introduction to
the philosophical aesthetics of T.W. Adorno. Second, it
will reconnoitre a reading of abstract expressionism in
Adornoesque terms. Adorno’s aesthetics is usually read
as the philosophical counterpart and thinking-through of
high modernism: of Berg and Schoenberg in music, of
Beckett in literature. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory,
published posthumously, was to be dedicated to Beckett.

One, if not the, distinctive feature of Adorno’s
philosophy is that, rather than being an a priori discourse
about its objects, it contested the aeons-long claim of
reason to self-sufficiency, the claim that philosophy
could command the world from the height of reason,
universality, method; and he did so by explicitly making
or letting his philosophy become beholden to its other art. It is not just that Adorno thinks philosophical
concepts are realized or fulfilled or find evidence for
themselves in art practices, but rather such high
modernist practices provide, however temporarily, the
condition of possibility of there being philosophy at all.

To say that these practices are the condition of possibility
of philosophy should be taken as equivalent to saying
that they provide the condition of possibility for us being
or becoming self-conscious about who we are, what the
world we inhabit is like and how those two fit together. If
Adorno had turned his attention to art, to painting and
sculpture, he would have, could only have, deployed the
resources of abstract expressionism for his purposes. His
quintessential ‘Europeanness’ did not permit him to
recognize in this very American art the same type of
claiming that he found in European composers and
writers. finally, these two tasks will be choreographed in
relation to TJ. Clark’s recent reconstructive essay, ‘In
Defense of Abstract Expressionism’.1

2. Presupposed in what follows is the thesis that
reflective or second-order practices like art and
philosophy operate a closure on the basic terms
supportive of meaning in a culture and submit them to
‘tests’ for coherency and consistency that are supplied
by the fundamental principles of the practice in question.

Philosophy submits the meaning-complexes of everyday
practices to the demands of conceptual coherence, while
art submits them to the requirements of two-dimensional
representation through drawing and painting. Philosophy
and art, then, are reflective articulations of first-order,
everyday practices of meaning. They operate on firstorder meaning complexes through selection, purification
and closure. Philosophical or artistic closure should be
considered as doing for domains of meaning what natural
science’s abstractions, idealizations and closures do for
causal contexts. Philosophical and aesthetic closure
permit the isolation of the inference structures operating
invisibly in the open vista of the everyday. So, for
example, the most stringent attempts to narrate empirical
existence in the modern novel show that everyday life no
longer possesses narrative coherence through time, and
hence that the modern self is fragmented or decentred in
painful and troubling ways. Analogously, that painterly
representations of the natural world appear naive or
kitsch or sentimental when directly representational and
only attain artistic authenticity when they are abstract as, for example, with Richard Diebenkorn’s postabstract-expressionist ‘Ocean Park’ series – says
something about the availability or non-availability of
the natural world to us that is hidden in and from
everyday life. This is the sense in which art and
philosophy are their own time apprehended in
representation and thought respecti vel y .2

Radical Philosophy 76 (March/April 1996)


3. There is only one really plausible alternative to this
view, namely, that philosophical and artistic practices
are, well, just different practices, different language
games from the language games of everyday life, and
hence while these different language games are certainly
contiguous with one another, and hence mutually inform
one another through leakage and the grafting of elements
from one discourse into and onto another, no regimented
relations between the practices exist. One can imagine
Wittgenstein or Lyotard or Foucault making such a
comment. In one respect this is true; art practices
certainly have their own grammar, techniques and
history. Further, they can be about, in the weighty sense
of that term, more than just ‘seeing’. They submit other
elements of the everyday to artistic treatment. Art
practices can be used to interrogate the role of the
unconscious or memory or history or alienation or gender
or ethnicity or religious belief. But what makes art
practices matter here is that there are elements of these
phenomena that are bound up with ‘seeing’ in its austere
and wide sense – with perceiving, representing, and the
limits of perceiving and representing; and hence with the
way in which these phenomena are articulated in (or for)
the domain of the visible.

4. But this is equivalent to saying that we are, always
already, invested in art; that its tracking of the
possibilities of the visible is a tracking of the meaning of
the visible world for us. This type of investment in art
must, sotto voce, be hovering in the borders of Clark’s
thought since for him the question raised by abstract
expression is its insistence: we seem unable to let it go,
to make it a thing of the past. At least for now, abstract
expressionism appears to have a hegemonic grip over
our (visual) comprehension of visibility, over what
belongs intrinsically to the visible and what not, over the
proper that belongs to perceiving. For Clark this is
troubling to the extent that until abstract expressionism
becomes a thing of the past art cannot, meaningfully,
confidently, routinely, carry on. Abstract expressionism
is the shadow towering over the present that will not let
art go forward, but keeps contemporary art stuttering,
hesitant, failing, sucking everything into its orbit and
evacuating its possibility – like a black hole.

5. Clark, correctly, aligns this anxiety about the shadow
of abstract expressionism with Hegel’ s thesis that art has
become for us a thing of the past; articulating this thought
with the idea that the progress of art contributes to the
disenchantment of the world. Clark’s bold thesis is that
modernism ‘is the art of the situation Hegel pointed to,
but its job turns out to be to make the endlessness of the


ending bearable, by time and again imagining that it has
taken place … ‘ (DAE, 25). Hence, until abstract
expressionism can end, art cannot end (again), and hence
the business of making ending bearable (again) cannot
be relaunched. To bring an end to abstract expressionism
would be to show that its disenchantment of previous art
was still enchanted: imaginary, fictitious, a work of
anthropomorphism, a projecting onto the screen of the
visible world merely imaginary significations. In so far
as we remain in the grip of abstract expressionism we
remain enchanted and the world will appear enchanted,
thus regressing from its uniquely modern standpoint.

This enchantment of the world, the one accomplished by
abstract expressionism, would, Clark avers, play into the
hands ‘of that general conjuror of depth and desirability
back into our world – that is, the commodity form. For
the one thing the myth [sic] of the end of art made
possible was the maintaining of some kind of distance
between art’s sensuous immediacy and that of other
(stronger) claimants to the same power’ (DAE, 25).

6. While well taken and raising the correct issues (the
end of art, the disenchantment of the world, and the
relation between aesthetic enchantment and commodity
fetishism), Clark’s account needs to be contested. Hegel
believed that with the coming of modernity art would
become, had already become, a thing of the past because
modernity arises through the discovery that the world is
a human one, that God becomes Man, and that Man was
but a cipher for community. (The descent of the Holy
Spirit is the coming-to-be of the religious community as
the bearer of the meaning of religion, and, in time, the
recognition that there is only community – however
fragmented and dispersed it is.) Once this occurs, then
the articulation of subject and substance, the individual
and her ground, could no longer be representational, a
work of picturing, since the ground of human existence
is now individuals in relation to one another, in relation
to their communities and their essentially open histories.

Meaning could be indefatigably representational picture thinking – only when the ground of existence was
assumed to be outside the subject, in God, or, what is the
same, His history: in a remote (past) origin or a remote
(future) telos. Once there are only historical communities
without determinate origins or ends, then metaphysical
meaning can no longer be represented in pictorial form.

Hence, the primacy of philosophy and the prose character
of the modern world for Hegel. So, in Hegelian terms,
the disenchantment of the world meant the process of
overcoming the religious enchantment of the world, with
this process being accomplished once the relation of self
to ground became an uncompletable reflective process
of (communal or collective) self-grounding.

7. But, in ways that Hegel did not foresee, the disenchantment of the world has miscarried precisely by
carrying on, infringing on and destroying those very
relations of community and history that he thought the
achievement of modernity had secured. Hence the
progress of disenchantment, the work of countering
anthropomorphic projections, carried on to the point of
undoing the very relations among persons, and among
persons and the natural world, that it had in the first
instance made possible. Through progressive disenchantment, ‘the destruction of gods and [secondary]
qualities is [equally] insisted upon.’ 3
8. ‘Nature is ceasing to be divine, ceases to be human …

We must bridge the gap of poetry from science. We must
heal the unnatural wound. We must, in the cold reflective
way of critical system, justify and organize the truth
which poetry, with its quick, naive contacts, has already
felt and reported.’ The author of these sentences is not
Adorno, but the young John Dewey, writing in 1891. 4
There is, however, only a sliver’s distance between them
and, for example, Adorno’ s ‘But although art and science
become separate in the course of history, the opposition
between them should not be hypostatized.’5 What the
instrumental rationality exemplified by natural science
begets, and what is socially borne into everyday life by
industrialization and technology (for Dewey), and by the
ever-expanding domination of exchange value over use
value, the ever-expanding commodity form (for
Adorno), is the disenchantment of the world, the creation
of an unnatural wound, a diremption, between human
nature and nature. This wound is unnatural, or contrary
to nature, because the human animal is a part of the
natural world. In raising ourselves above it, in making
the world an object of representational knowing
(cognitively), and exchange value the measure of all
worth (practically), all subjective response to the world,
and thus the world as it gains its constitutive sense in its
appearing to human subjects, is qualified, curtailed,
elided to the point of disappearance, to the point where
worldly things become mere fungible props for an
allegorical system whose truth is number and quantity.

The cultural crisis generated by science, technology and
capital is a crisis of subjectivity and meaning; the
disenchantment of the world is the proximate and ground
cause of this crisis. However inarticulately, this is also
the . view of the matter taken by the abstract

9. The mechanism of disenchantment is abstraction:

‘Abstraction, the tool of enlightenment, treats its objects
as did fate, the notion of which it rejects: it liquidates

them.’6 Abstraction is the negation of a concrete item in
its givenness, and its (re-)identification in terms of some
more abstract feature or quality, some mark, it shares
with other items. Abstraction takes effect through
analysis – the fragmentation of the given in order that its
multiple features can each be identified by a common
mark – and synthesis – the recomposition of the
particular through its now fragmented elements. Science
abstracts from sensuous givenness and re-identifies
objects through their measurable features. Capital
abstracts from use value and labour power, and
synthesizes through exchange value and labour time
(which prepares labour to be a commodity). The
rationalization of society abstracts from intersubjective
practices of meaning and synthesizes through function
and system. This continuation of disenchantment, the
indefinite recruitment of ever more domains into the
grasp of an indifferent system of commensuration,
reaches down into everyday life and tendentially robs it
of subjective qualification.

10. Heidegger, in considering what it means for the
Rhine river to become, essentially, a ‘water power
supplier’, comments: ‘In order that we may even
remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let
us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of
the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power
works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in
Holderlin’s hymn by that name. But it will be replied, the
Rhine is still there in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps.

But how? In no other way than as an object on call for
inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation
industry.’7 The object, the Rhine, and so nature as a
whole, but also, mutatis mutandis, manufactured things,
artefacts, are no longer there as objects that can be seen;
we can have no experience of the object perceptually or
discursively since it has been removed from itself by the
sway of the abstract universal. Enlightenment,
progressing through the work of abstraction, is the
sacrifice of the sensuous particular to the universal. As
Adorno sums up the situation: ‘The marrow of
experience has been sucked out of the concrete. All
experience, including experience that is removed from
economic experience [including, then, aesthetic
experience – JB], has been emaciated’ (AT, 46).

11. For Adorno progressive disenchantment has an
ironic structure: the universal – whether scientific,
economic or societal – was to be the means through
which the world was appropriated for the sake of human
ends: happiness, freedom from fear, equality and liberty.

Now, the mechanism, the means, have slipped from the


noose of the ends and become universal themselves,
vanquishing the ends. The instrument has become the
master of the master; we now the slaves. But the
instrument is simply a blown-up, articulated, congealed
aspect of human subjectivity (means-end rationality in
its complex materializations); the stamping of the world
by the instrument is making it a mirror of our subjectivity,
making the world ‘for us’ . In becoming uniquely ‘for us’

the world became no longer ‘for us’ at all, and we no
longer for ourselves. To say that the process of
abstraction removes the object from itself must include
the thought that it removes us from ourselves; it
eliminates subjectivity from the subject.

12. Abstract expressionism combats societal abstraction
with artistic abstraction; abstract expressionism combats
societal disenchantment through the further disenchantment of art. ‘What is vaguely called abstract
painting’, Adorno contends, ‘preserves traces of the
tradition it destroys. We get a glimpse of this continuity
by contemplating traditional paintings. To the extent to
which we detect in them images rather than replicas of
something, they are “abstract”. Thus [modernist] art

William De Kooning, Excavation, 1950. (Art Institute of Chicago)


consummates the eclipse of concreteness, whereas reality
refuses to face up to this fact, even though it is in the real
world first and foremost that the concrete is no more than
a mask of the abstract, that the determinate particular is
no more than a representative and mystifying example of
the universal which is identical with the ubiquity of
monopoly capital’ (AT,46).

13. One way of taking abstraction might be through
understanding representational art as mythologized and
anthropomorphic, as a mimesis of the projection of
human needs, interests and desires onto the object world,
and thereby in need of demythologizing. Abstract
painting, following in the footsteps of Cezanne and
passing beyond the abstractive achievements of analytic
and synthetic cubism, would then be understood as
operating in precisely the same way as mathematical
physics, as its parallel formation, by reducing the visible
to the conditions of visibility – above all, colour and
space. So painting would become an essay on the
visibility of the visible without reliance on the props of
objects locked into the circuit of meaning defined by
interest and utility. Such a (Greenbergian) conception of

art would thus construe art’s disenchanting as continuous
with rather than opposed to the rationalization of
experience. I suspect that this is the kind of disenchanting
function Clark has in view for art, and why he considers
those (like Adorno?) who see art re-enchanting as ‘false
friends’ (DAE, 25). But the experience of abstract
expressionist works cannot be contained by the
scientistic view, in part because it cannot account for
abstract expressionism’s long shadow – these works,
despite everything, continue to matter to art and to life.

There is (re )-enchantment in them in the sense that they
remain obstinately particulars that are not subsumable
under any universal. They demonstrate that sensuous
particulars can mean, can be hypnotic objects of
attention, apart from and in defiance of any form of
identifying mechanism other than the one their sheer
presence insinuates.

14. The claim of abstract works, at their best, is that of a
sensuous particular as indicative of what sensuous
particularity could be: having weight and salience,
mattering, in itself. This ‘in itself’ opposes the universal
‘for us’ of rationalized society, including all previous art.

This tallies with the kind of abstraction such painting
enacts: its abstraction from genre, representation and
symbol, but also from ‘memory, association, nostalgia,
legend, myth’ – the ‘devices’, as Barnett Newman called
them, ,of Western European painting’ .8 Once uni versals
have become subject to the doubt that they are merely
‘for us’ , there for the sake of control and so mirrors of the
subject, then any art which participates in the given
universal, no matter to what good end, denies the worth
of the painting itself. Through abstraction the work is set
free (made autonomous) in order to claim for itself. In
this respect, in opposition to all the chatter about God,
transcendence and theology in abstract expressionism,
Rothko’s famous statement about the ‘intimacy’ of these
artistic mammoths appears just right: ‘I want to be very
intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place
yourself outside your experience, to look upon
experience as a steriopticon view or with a reducing
glass … However you paint the larger picture, you are in
it. It isn’t something you command.’

15. It is the achievement of sensuous particularity that
distinguishes abstract expressionist works. Our inability
to abstract from them, except with respect to what
sensuous particularity itself might mean, gives them their
specific kind of objectivity. To attend to De Kooning’s
Excavation is to discover resources for meaningfulness
exhausted by what appears before the eye. The painting
itself is the end, it seeks identity only with itself and is its

own ‘subject’. These particularist motives are established
through its overall structure, its lack of centre, standpoint
or perspective; and through the spontaneity of the
painting that appears to escape De Kooning’s will, only
to find a fragmented integration through the canvas as a
whole. A heightened freedom and order are here in terse
harmony. Part of the continuing enigma of Excavation,
like Night Square, is how little it offers the viewer in
sensuous terms, how its scribbles of red, the hints of
yellow and blue, tell us, as the paintings of Franz Kline
do, how much is to be refused in its ‘appeal’, its claiming,
how the painting turns its back on us, on sensuous
immediacy and art, and yet commands. Nothing we
thought we desired or might desire is here, and yet … So
now, if only ‘this’ painting matters, then mattering itself
can have its ‘origin’ in something sensuous and
particular, in what is ephemeral, finite, transient. Such a
view of mattering speaks in favour of the ordinary, of
finding the ordinary, the everyday satisfying because
‘uncanny’, something for us through its being beyond

16. Clark conftates the issue of particularity, and hence
the fact that ‘this’ artist has only ‘his’ art on which to rely
(and not tradition), with the equation of art and lyric ‘the illusion in an art work of a singular voice or
viewpoint, uninterrupted, absolute, laying claim to a
world of its own’ (DAE, 48). The assumption behind
Clark’s identification is that particularity and universality, particularity and meaning, are incommensurable,
and hence so are the claims of the individual subject with
respect to the objective world. Hence, ‘the illusion’ and,
worse still, the ‘its own’ of the singular viewpoint.

Adorno perceives modernist art as contesting that
separation: ‘The purist – and hence rationalist separation of intuition and conceptuality fits in nicely
with the dichotomy of rationality and sensuality which
society imposes, in fact and in ideology. Actually, by its
objective existence art should criticize in effigy that
separation. As it is, the separation is confirmed by the
fact that art is confined entirely to the sensuous extreme.

The falsehood opposed by art is not rationality per se but
the rigid juxtaposition of rationality and particularity’

(AT, 144; see also 201). Art’s confirmation of the duality
is the confirmation of the diremption outside art. Its
confinement to the sensuous extreme is the confinement
of its articulation of rationality and particularity to art, to
semblance. If modernist art were lyrical it would be a
celebration of the now-defunct individual. While artistic
modernism achieves its objectivity through extreme
individuation, ‘enshrined’ in its objectifications ‘is a
collective We’ (AT, 338; see also 240).


17. Because sensuous givenness and particularity have
been the victims of rationalization, then it is unsurprising
that ‘in significant works of art the sensuous shines forth
as something spirituaL .. ‘ (AT, 21). This spirituality, this
transcendence, does not point to anything beyond the
material world, although it does point beyond our
empirical world. The relation between immanence and
transcendence, what counts as immanent and what counts
as transcendent, is historical. To endow sensuous
immediacy with a ‘sense’ of meaning is to claim for
sensuousness a commensurability with meaning and
rationality that existing rationality refuses. Pollock’s
Lavender Mist Number 1 has twisted fragments of
dripped lines of black painting interweaving with,
scoring and cutting the translucent yet opaque surface of
blue, pink and white. The illusion that the surface of the
painting does not coincide with the surface of the canvas
is everywhere disrupted by the way in which that illusory
surface is consistently cut into and etched, like a scalpel
randomly slicing through innocent fiesh. 9 The vectorial
drips provide the otherwise optical field with a tactility
that has the effect of embodying the eye of the viewer, of
making the experience of seeing the painting an
experience of being embodied, as a condition of viewing,
without the painting at any point or moment denying its
condition of being a surface. That a sensuous, fragmented
suiface, a surface that robs the viewer of perspective and
orientation with respect to it, like the De Kooning, can
nonetheless hold the (embodied) eye, gives back to
sensuous immediacy a potentiality for statement as such.

This, I think, and nothing else, is what fascinates us with
this canvas, the enigmatic delight that it is not purely
decorative – although doubtless it soon will be.

18. To say that sensuous immediacy is capable of
holding our attention, of engaging the embodied eye, of
so suggesting meaning, is equivalent to saying that
meaning does not unconditionally derive from intention,
will, desire – the mental or, what this is sometimes taken
as equivalent to, the established conventions – and that it
resides in the material/natural too. In tracking this
thought we are broaching the way abstract expressionism
contests the diremption of nature and human nature.

Consider a typical Newman ‘zip’ painting: say Vir
Heroicus Sublimis. All we have is the red colour field
and the five zips, yet everything we need in the way of a
semantics (the colours themselves) and a syntax (the
work of the zips) is here: the zips, the minima of
negativity in a field, ‘become’ syntactical by their
division and thus ‘make’ the field a proto-semantics. Of
course, Newman offers us a very classical geometrical
syntax in the central square, only to contest it with the


unbalanced and dissonant zips that break up the two wing
fields. The apparently dissonant zips augment the
classical syntax, supplying it with a power of articulation
that its concern with harmony and balance disallows.

19. In this account the following ratio is assumed: syntax
is to semantics as abstraction is to expression. With this
ratio in hand, the needed articulation of the meaning of
the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘expressionism’ begins to come
into view. In abstract expressionism (we must hear this
concatenation of terms as oxymoronic) the dual
dimensions of meaning are folded into the material
medium. Because even those Newman works that do not
explicitly employ classical geometric syntax insinuate it,
remind us of it through its abridgement, the apparent risk
of his canvases, and hence their power, is limited. We
are never quite sure if we are responding to a novel
sensuous syntactical-semantic formation or being
reminded of the classic one; if we are spectating on the
purely sensuous appearing of the minima for an
intelligible world or seeing an illustration of the
conception of how such a world is possible. Newman is
almost a conceptual artist. 10
20. Nonetheless, beginning from Newman it is not
difficult to understand why Adorno operates with a dualaxis conception of language. Adorno labels the two axes:

sign and image; concept and object; rationality and lruth;
and, most tellingly for us, communication and
expression. These two axes condition one another, and
hence require one another. They are ineliminable and
irreducible. However, while they can be coordinated,
they naturally pull in opposite directions, and hence must
forever remain in a state of tension which permits of no
ideal resolution.

21. In the ‘communication and expression’ version of
Adorno’s analysis the term ‘expression’ condenses the
formula ‘expressing oneself … about something’ into a
single complex dimension. That matters, since for
Adorno the ‘aboutness’ of language cannot be detached
from the subject’s embodied response to the object
world. This moment of response features in more
standard accounts as the ‘resistance of the world’ in
innerworldly experiences. In accordance with
Enlightenment ideology, this resistance is usually
rationalized as ‘the given’, ’empirical significance’ or,
most familiarly, the moment of falsification in testing
procedures – the theory of fallibilism. 11 Fallibilism is the
instrumental reduction of subjective response to the limit
case of falsifying expectations, the reduction of
experience (Eifahrung) to experiment. There is reason

Sarnet Newman, The Promise, 1949. (Adrian and Robert Mnuchin)

in this reduction, but it is the reasoning of instrumentality
itself. Innerworldly experiences resist language not
merely negatively but essentially in that they resist full
or unconditioned discursivity, the linguistic exchange of
meaning without remainder. 12 And they exceed full
discursivity because our bodily response to things, our
seeing, feeling and hearing them, is forever dependent
upon, forever beholden to, forever in debt to things, in
just the way Adorno conceives his philosophy as
indebted to and beholden to art. The moment of
dependence in language, which instrumental discourse
attempts to surmount, master and leave behind, is
recorded as, amongst other items, sensation, image,
feeling and expression, the somatic moment Adorno
entitles ‘mimesis’ or ‘affinity’. This dimension of
meaning can be presented (for response) but never
represented (exchanged), and hence from the perspective
of full discursivity is a moment of silence. Full
discursivity does not hear the silence; the language of
abstract expressionism makes somatic silence articulate
and unavoidable. It is, in Adorno’s phrase, a language
without signification.

22. Because abstract expressionism aims to reveal its
material medium as ‘unowned’, not subjective, but the
point of affinity between subject and object, it urges

colour not as a ‘secondary property’ of things but as
primary, as objective as measurable properties. Because
the colour elements of nature are themselves articulate in
these canvases, they portend a renewed language of
nature, a language without signification and without
speech (AT, 117). It is, thus, not an accident that
Gottlieb’s late ‘bursts’ should have developed out of his
earlier pictographs, or that we should associate the
calligraphic biomorphs of Motherwell’s Elegy to the
Spanish Republic series with the central accomplishments of the colour field painters. In all, however
differently, the presentation of a non-signifying language
of nature – ‘writing’, as Adorno sometimes calls it – is
pivotal (see AT, 141, 182). The routine construal of
Pollocks as presenting a ‘baroque scrawl’ (DAE, 35)
simply underlines this point. For us, and for now, Adorno
believes, ‘the more religiously works of art try to stay
away from naturalness and from imitating nature, the
more they approximate nature’; aesthetic objectivity is
the reflective capture of ‘nature’s being-in-itself’ (AT,
114). To say that this capture is reflective and reflexive is
equally to say that such images of nature are critical and
negative, not sheer (re-)presentations. Hence, Adorno’s
qualification: ‘Works of art state that there is an in-itself,
but they do not spell out what it is’ (AT, 114).


23. We should distinguish two ways in which we can
detect the will and intentions of a painter in a canvas: the
first is the effort of composition, in integrating ‘these’

materials in just ‘this’ way; the second in our sense of
contrivance, an awareness that a gesture is there in order
to produce a certain effect on us. We can align these two
artistic wills with Michael Fried’s categories of
‘absorption’ and ‘theatricality’.n Clyfford Still’s
paintings strike me as almost always theatrical and
lacking absorption: all those highly contrived jagged
edges – suggesting leaf, bark and fire – breaking and
fragmenting the colour plane. It is a technique for
producing the effect of sublimity on the viewer, for
theatrically preserving aura, for providing his works with
consummate ‘exhibition value’ (AT,66-7).

24. If we configure the three themes so far sketched the employment of further aesthetic abstraction to
counter both empirical and artistic abstraction, the
connection between abstraction and sensuous
particularity, and the idea of an enigmatic, nonsignifying language of nature – we have the raw materials
to engage with the central worry and claim of Clark’s
paper. He hopes that, by means of coming up with a new
term to describe and evaluate the specificity of abstract

expressionism, the historical blockage it represents for
contemporary art can be loosened. The concept he thinks
best captures abstract expressionism is ‘vulgar’. It is, he
thinks, an advantage of this term that it points in two
directions: ‘to the object itself, to some abjectness or
absurdity in its very makeup, some telltale blemish, some
atrociously visual quality that the object will never stop
betraying however hard it tries; and to the object’s
existence in a particular social world, for a set of tastes
and styles of individuality that have still to be defined,
but are somehow there, in the word even before it is
deployed’ (DAE, 28). Clark appropriates for himself the
idea that the ‘abject object’ side of vulgarity reveals it as
‘one of the forms of death’, or ‘death mingled with life’,
and hence with abjectness itself (DAE, 32). He associates
the ‘existence of the object in a particular social world of
tastes and styles’ side of vulgarity with abstract
expressionism being an expression of petty-bourgeois
taste, of the bourgeoisie deploying petty-bourgeois taste
as the guilty fa9ade for the failure of bourgeois ideals to
be realized (DAE, 36).

25. I take it that the vulgar is a replacement term, the
successor concept to the sublime. Subliminity was
always a negativity in relation to a standing measure. The

Clyfford Still, Un titled (PH-968), 1951-52. (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)


idea of the ‘modernist sublime’ tokened the
moment of dissonance in autonomous art, the
moment of negativity through which such art
declared its departure from the canon of the
harmonious, the beautiful, the tasteful. 14
Vulgarity’s contented transgression of good
taste makes it a plausible successor to
sublimity; it also makes Clark’s innovation
less startling or radical than it sounds at first

26. For this very reason, it is not necessary to
contest the credentials of vulgarity; on the
contrary, the term’s inner relation to sublimity
makes it eminently usable in order to help
explain, and to that extent vindicate, our
inability to make abstract expressionism a
thing of the past. Its long, vulgar shadow is an
accomplishment of nearly as high an order as
its proponents wished and claimed.

27. In building his case for the abject
vulgarity of abstract expressionism, Clark
approvingly cites a description of Rothko’ s
work by Clyfford Still: ‘When they are hung
in tight phalanx, as he would have them hung,
and flooded with the light he demands that William De Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
they receive, the tyranny of his ambition to
suffocate or crush all who stand in his way becomes fully
conciliatory instead. Cruelty emerges in its naked form
manifest. .. It is not without significance, therefore, that
in works of art as soon as their spell begins to lose its
the surfaces of these paintings reveal the gestures of hold. The mythical cruelty of beauty has its counter-part
negation, and that their means are the devices of in the phenomenon of the irresistibility of art works … ‘

seduction and assault. Not I, but himself, has made it
(AT, 74). I note, parenthetically, that this cruelty, this
clear that his work is of frustration, resentment and
moment of anti-art, which is just the moment of
aggression. And that it is the brightness of death that veils
abstraction itself, is the key to the connection between
their bloodless febrility and clinical evacuations’ (DAE,
De Kooning’s pure abstractions and the assault on art _
34). The ‘death’ in question here refers not to the explicit and spectator alike in his ‘Woman’ paintings. A constant
references to it that Rothko, but not he alone, was wont temptation and fate for abstract expressionist works is
to summon into his art for the sake of profundity, but the
that they might lose their moment of cruelty and anti-art,
precise ‘death’ which belongs to the execution of the
that they might lose their abstraction, their negativity,
paintings themselves, to abstraction.

and become either dull and familiar (,neutralized’ is
Adorno’s term) or sweetly beautiful (as Lavender Mist
28. As a hint about where Still’s prescient passage might has probably already become). Scrap the bravura: De
lead, let me instance a corresponding passage from
Kooning knows the danger and finds resources even
Adorno: ‘When cruelty rears its head explicitly and
more disturbing than Soutine’s carcasses to enact the
directly, as it does in modern art, it thereby validates the
moment of abstraction itself. That these moments are
themselves ‘representational’ focuses the anti-art
thought that in the present age art can no longer rely on
its a priori ability to transform cruelty into form because
moment of abstraction, the fact that its negativity is
reality has become overwhelmingly powerful. Cruelty is
poised against both society’s and art’s own abstract
a result of the self-reflection of modern art, which
universality. However misogynist, De Kooning’s
despairingly realizes that it would find itself in the role of
‘Woman’ paintings are properly death masks, abstract
a henchman of the powers that be, if it were not cruel but expressionism’s painterly memento mori.


29. As Still correctly notes, and Clark fails to pursue, it
is the ‘gestures of negation’ that belong to the paintings
which determine their vulgarity. At issue in these
‘gestures of negation’ is the meaning of abstraction itself,
and hence of the cost involved in overcoming the disenchantment of art and world through its continuation that is, through a further work of disenchanting further
negations. Art cannot avoid the progressive
disenchantment of the world that has occurred outside
art; if it sought to obtain authenticity and authority for
itself by summoning dead gods and dead meanings into
its precincts, it would rightly be accused of naiVete or
anachronism. But almost all mentionable constructions
of meaning are subject to this stricture, including both
previous aesthetic forms and the sorts of archaic or
primitive images from the collective unconscious to
which abstract expressionists themselves liked to refer.

One now can be charmed by Klee’ s or Gottlieb’ s
pictographs, but their conventionality, mythicality, is
unavoidable. Authenticity without cruelty is no longer
possible. De Kooning’s parodic woman is the cut of the
scalpel applied with a smile.

30. If there are no positive meanings outside art that can
be cited, then art will be forced to cite itself, the fact of its
continuing, without anything to support that self-citation

other than works. What such works allow us is the

experience of the absence of experience. But that
experience is one of semblance, illusion. It refers to
nothing in the world. To be so locked in semblance – ‘the
new as a longing for the new’, so necessarily not new,
but always already old – in itself makes modernist art
abject. It equally yields to a certain posturing about ‘art’,
a self-aggrandizing gesturing, which becomes internal
and intrinsic to a practice that intends, promises more
than art. For the promise of meaning, the promise of
human happiness, to be lodged in the space of aesthetic
illusion, in messing about with bits of paint on canvas, is
outrageous and ludicrous. Abstract expressionism invites
and shoulders the burden of this promising, becoming
heroic, self-serving, self-important, fatuous and kitsch
all at the same time. The constellation of these concepts
– vulgarity itself, perhaps – configures the meaning of
the present, not of art alone.

31. ‘Aesthetics today,’ Adorno states, ‘is powerless to
avert its becoming a necrologue of art’ (AT, 5). This
conception of the death of art is quite other than Clark’s
‘making the endlessness of ending bearable’ since the
latter takes the disenchantment out of the world to be
emphatic, that is, to be a situation in which our ‘inability
to go on giving Idea and World sensuous immediacy, of
a kind that opened both to the
play of practice[,] would
itself prove a persistent,
maybe sufficient, subject’

(DAE, 25). For Clark our
‘inability’ to provide an
articulation of Idea and
World is enough, an intrigue
of its own. What speaks
against this intrigue is that
the fit between Idea and
World that is wanting is that
between human subjects and
everyday objects – including
other subjects. Hence the
question, the problem of
sensuous immediacy, what is

Adolph Gottlieb, Excalibur, 1963. (Whitney Museum of American Art)


proper to art, is invested with
a significance that art’s first
disenchantment, viz., its
becoming autonomous from
the demand of re-presenting
the religious absolute, can
hardly have prepared it for.

As Adorno notes, ‘it was
only fairly recently, namely

after art had become thoroughly secular and subject to an
internal technical evolution, that art acquired another
important feature: an inner logic of development’ (AT,
4). This inner logic of development is nothing other than
‘dialectic of enlighten-ment’, that is, progressive
demythologization through the sacrifice of the particular
to the universal. Art becomes the polar opposite of the
abstract universal by continuing this process inversely: it
sacrifices the universal to the particular through the
universal (technique). If this is the process of which
abstract expressionism is a potential concluding moment,
it is that moment because even sensuous immediacy itself
must, in time, come before the court of negation. Yet, to
give up on sensuous immediacy would be, for all intents
and purposes, to give up on art, what made works
compelling as works of art. Hence, abstract
expressionism’s long shadow: we cannot give up on
sensuous immediacy without giving up on the claims of
sensuous particulars iiberhaupt, and yet if post-abstract
expressionism is to avoid regression, then it can only go
forward by cancelling the medium of art itself – which to
a certain extent is exactly what has happened. It is this
happening itself, the happening of happenings,
minimalism and conceptual art, that has, in fact, kept
abstract expressionism alive despite the cultural
neutralizations it has undergone. The inner artistic
necessity of ‘carrying on’ suffers the counter-thrust of
the claim of sensuous particularity, a claim raised strictly
in virtue of its painful or playful absence; this makes the
‘carrying on’ itself belated, a work of belatedness. ‘Art
will not survive if it forgets sensuousness, just as it will
not survive if it gives itself over to an external
sensuousness that is divorced from its real structure’ (AT,

32. Adorno’s brief way with this thought about the
dialectic of abstraction is to claim that its mortality could
be art’s content (AT, 5). His longer way is this: ‘If art
were to discard the long demystified illusion of duration
and incorporate into itself its mortality, out of sympathy
with the ephemeral, which is life, then it would live up to
a concept of truth at the core of which is time rather than
some enduring abstract essence. Just as all art is
secularized transcendence, so all art participates in the
dialectic of enlightenment. Art has faced the challenge
of dialectic by developing the aesthetic concept of antiart. From now on, no art will be conceivable without the
moment of anti-art. This means no less than that art has
to go beyond its own concept in order to remain faithful
to itself. Hence, even the idea of the abolition of art is
respectful of art because it takes the truth claim of art
seriously’ (AT, 43; emphasis mine). The cruelty of
abstraction, its cutting into the flesh of sensuousness in

order to enact such sensuousness, engages us on the
ground of our bodily mortality, which the reigning
universals eclipse as a condition for meaning. The
disturbance, distress, suffering of the material surface just that – that these canvases perform (on and to us) are
a way of calling back and voicing sensuous reality in its
mortal coils, of recalling or inventing an experience of
depth or transcendence that hangs on nothing more than
our bodily habitation of a material world in which all
things pass away. That all this might (must) transpire
within the frame of petty-bourgeois vulgarity, through
canvases unable to rid themselves of the ‘telltale
blemish’ or tackiness and kitsch, is the minor materialist
miracle that engraves the moment of abstract
expressionism as still our own. The long shadow of
abstract expressionism is the persistence of the need for
art; what such art promises, but is impotent to realize, is
that the need for art – the precise need to which abstract
expressionism is a response – can disappear because its
promise was realized.

33. That there is a need for art here and now is how art
becomes entangled with commodity fetishism. Clark
would like a situation in which the enchantment of art
and the enchantment of the commodity could be firmly
distinguished. For Adorno, in so far as commodity
fetishism continues to reign, no such separation is
possible. On the contrary, works of art are ‘absolute
commodities; they are social products which have
discarded the illusion of being-for-society, an illusion
tenaciously retained by all other commodities’ (AT,
336). That abstract expressionism’s commodity
character should adhere to the vulgarity of the petty
bourgeois has everything to do with this art’s unique selfimportance and impotence. The progress of capital has
made even the bourgeoisie petty bourgeois. Vulgarity is
the death’s head of self-deceived bourgeois optimism.

34. In survey: the above account of abstract
expressionism told of how its abstractions, over-allness
and largeness fed particularism, how its connecting of
colour and writing fed a relation to nature, and how the
linking of particularity and nature fed an objectivity and
transcendence. This characterization of abstract
expression-ism enjoins both the thought that
disenchantment has become dir-emption and that under
existing conditions abstract expressionism appears to be
a definitive response to our social impasse in painting.

The question raised by this defence of abstract
expressionism is not where might art go from here; who
cares? But where might we go from this desolate place,
and how on earth are we to get there?


1. October 69, pp. 23–44. Reference in the body ofthe essay
to this text will be abbreviated DAE. References to
Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, hereafter AT, will be to the
translation by C. Lenhardt, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
London, 1984. This paper was originally given as a lecture
at The Slade School of Art in February 1995. I want to
thank Michael Newman for that invitation and his
promptings to get me to talk about some art works. For
ease of reading, I have let the essay remain in its slightly
informal lecture format.

2. See AT, pp. 6-11; and Lambert Zuidervaart, Adorno’s
Aesthetic Theory: The Redemption of Illusion, MIT Press,
London, 1991,pp. 152–4.

3. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of
Enlightenment, trans. John Cummings, Seabury Press,
New York, 1972, p. 8.

4. John Dewey, ‘Wondering Between Two Worlds’, quoted
in John Patrick Diggins, The Promise of Pragmatism,
University of Chicago Press, London, 1994, p. 4.

5. Theodor W. Adorno, Notes to Literature, Volume 1, trans.

Shierry Weber Nicholson, Columbia University Press,
New York, 1991, p. 7.

6. Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 13.

7. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology
and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt, Harper Colophon
Books, New York, 1977, p. 16.

8. ‘The Sublime is Now’, in Charles Harrison and Paul
Wood, eds, Art in Theory: 1900-1990, Basil Blackwell,
Oxford, 1992, p. 574. The essay was originally published
in 1948.

9. Some of what I think about Lavender Mist is influenced by
Rosalind Kraus, The Optical Unconscious, MIT Press,
London, 1993, esp. p. 307. Her central concerns in her
discussion of Pollock, the shift from the vertical to the
horizontal and the play of gravity, were originally
broached by Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria, Oxford
University Press, London, 1972. Throughout, however, I
have been more than influenced by Adorno’s thesis that in
modernist art meaning and causality are (still or re-)
combined. This thesis is at the heart, I would argue, of any
adequately materialist epistemology or account of

meaning. finally, it is worth recalling here what remains
the best starting place for reflection on modernist painting
and the surface, Richard Wollheim’s ‘The Work of Art as
Object’, in his On Art and the Mind, Harvard University
Press, Cambridge MA, 1973.

10. This angle on Newman was already suggested by Clement
Greenberg, ‘After Abstract Expressionism’, Art
International, 7/8, October 1962, pp. 24-32.

11. For a renewed critique of the myth of the given which still
serves to prop up the duality of meaning and materialism,
see John McDowell’s lucid Mind and World, Harvard
University Press, London, 1994. McDowell, naturally
enough, is primarily concerned with demonstrating that
the space of reason must reach out all the way to the object.

Adorno works the other side of the same fence: if there is
meaning all the way out (or down), equally there is object
and materiality all the way in (and up). Adorno’s
materialism is not anti-idealist, but a nuanced inflection of
idealism. Bald naturalism of coherency theories like
Quine’s and Davidson’s are, from an Adornoesque
perspective, equally forms of ‘identity thinking’.

12. For a useful critique of the ideal of pure discursivity, pure
communication without remainder, see David Bell, ‘The
Art of Judgement’ , Mind, 96/2, 1987, pp. 221–44.

13. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder
in the Age of Diderot, University of California Press,
Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1980.

14. This modernist reading of the meaning of the sublime is a
leitmotif throughout my The Fate of Art: Aesthetic
Alienationfrom Kant to Derrida andAdorno, Polity Press,
Cambridge, 1992.

14. This is rapid shorthand for an immense historicophilosophical problem. From the beginning of modernity
the themes of sensuousness, and so sexuality and
mortality, have been relayed through a fragmentation and
splitting of the female body, and thus through cruelty”ando
negativity. This begins, at least, with Marvell’s ‘To His
Coy Mistress’ . For these beginnings, see Francis Barker’s
The Tremulous Private Body, Methuen, London, 1984. I
presume that the relatively immediate precedent for De
Kooning’s ‘Woman’ series is to be found among Picasso’s
women, certainly the viciously ironic Ma folie.

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