U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Art, The Arts, “Secret Thought,” and Intellectual History

In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn refers to the arts* as holding a society’s “secret thoughts” (p. 443-444). This notion came up during his discussion of early twentieth-century precursors, in poetry and music dating to the Harlem Renaissance, for the developing Civil Rights Movement. The arts, for the repressed, were a repository for revolutionary thought in a country where social control, Zinn argues, was at a premium.

This train of thought is not entirely new to the blog (or me), since I covered it, indirectly at least, in a review Richard Cándida Smith’s 2009 book, The Modern Moves West: California Artists and Democratic Culture in the Twentieth Century. That work narrates “art as knowledge” in the development of postwar California, particularly in relation to ethnicity and race. That thought was less secret than expressed as an indirect road map for helping Californians cope with the present and chart a peaceful, pluralistic future. [Aside: Here’s an interview with Cándida Smith on the book.]

Lately I’ve also been thinking a lot about the Frankfurt School, Critical Theory, and critical theories in relation to art and thought, particularly the “avant-garde” in relation to art, form, and thinking. As I understand Critical Theory, generally, its school of adherents held that the best art turned on itself—provoked critical thinking and questioning about the state of things. This often means avant-garde art. That style promoted nonconformity and human emancipation rather than simple happiness, rest, or complacency. Paraphrasing Jurgen Habermas, that kind of art, or free expression, is an intentionally distorted communication that fights the power-protecting distorted communication of ideology. Adorno, as I understand his thinking on these matters, argues that art allows for a “mimetic reconciliation with the other” (assumed to be through nonconformist avant-garde forms of expression in the context of late/state capitalism and the dominant culture industry). Since art often communicates indirectly or subtly (unless it’s communist art), it houses and forwards nominally “secret thought.” And that art helps us grope toward democracy, what Habermas called the “unfinished project of modernity.” This kind of movement is clearly evident in Cándida Smith’s book.

My deepening relationship with Critical Theory has not yet involved a careful reading of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Does he deal with avant-garde art as, in its best form, turning on itself? I didn’t see a citation of avant-garde expression in that essay. I mean, thinking and art are mostly likely to lie in cutting edge expression in the eyes of Critical Theorists.

Anyway, let’s discuss this more. It seems that Adorno and Benjamin are the two Frankfurt School members who deal most prominently with the arts. Where in Habermas’ work does he deal with the public consumption and usage of art? Does Zinn engage Critical Theory anywhere in his corpus? Which intellectual historians, either today or recently, put Critical Theory to use in their works? Is there a USIH model of applied theory out there, for us seekers, or are we on our own?

*And, by the way, when I refer to “art” or the “arts,” I mean art broadly conceived—as the written word (particularly in “fiction”) as much as on canvas, through music, or the theater. – TL

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is very much where I live, so I am grateful to see this post here.

    Crudely, one could draw a distinction between two tendencies within Frankfurt School critical theory: one was concerned with preserving (emancipatory) modernism from (totalitarian) kitsch, and was, as such, forward looking; the other was concerned with making sense of the 19th century, and was, as such, backward-looking.

    As regards the first tendency, the key fight was actually around officially mandated “socialist realism” in Communist countries and as dictated by the Comintern, which, for a variety of reasons, could not be tackled head on (except for in the work of Lukacs, who, of course, was “for” “socialist realism”). Jameson’s little book of edited debates on this is the crucial text. Two more recent interventions come to mind, however, when reading these debates: first, the persuasive claim by Cary Nelson, Michael Denning, James Smethurst, Bill Mullen, and others, that the engaged art of the 1930s was not really an anti-modernist cult of “social realism”: much of “social realism,” especially in African American and Jewish writing, was actually avant-garde in form (which suggests that the Peter Burger-ian reading of avant garde as inherently about a formal auto-critique of art is too limited); second, the argument by Slavoj Zizek that the Frankfurt School’s “totalitarianism” encompasses too many contradictory currents to really make any sense.

    Fascism and Stalinism work very differently from one another, structurally, and we might say that the problem of fascist kitsch is different from the problem of Stalinist kitsch. That was recognized most by Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin, who looked for radical utopian longings in aesthetic representations of desires for wholeness, totality, return to a Golden Age, etc. Bloch argued, in fact, that unless the Left could present a counter-articulation of these themes, the fascists would win. He was tragically correct. Anson Rabinbach has great essays on this.

    And Benjamin was above all a phenomenologist: taking seriously the notion that reification was an ever-worsening problem of capitalism, his interest in art was in its capacity to create “dialectical images” that break through the haze of reification and remind the viewer or reader of non-capitalist possibilities. This led Benjamin rather quickly to Jewish Messianism and a kabbalistic gloss on the problem of appearance and reality in capitalism. Which, I think, is one of the reasons that Benjamin remains so appealing: his work is so starkly in contrast to crude social control theories of art.

    More recent leftist work on art has built on a different aspect of Benjamin’s work: with “reification” in bad shape, theoretically (see James Livingston and Jacques Ranciere on what’s wrong with “reification”), Benjamin’s emphasis on the “auratic” quality of painting versus the absence of the trace of authorial labor in mass reproduced culture has led to increasing curiosity about the links between art and labor, art as work, art and economic value, etc. I am particularly taken with the work of Julia Bryan-Wilson on these questions in the postwar US context.

    My discussion leaves out, of course, important arguments from Brecht and Marcuse (whose Aesthetic Dimension was probably the most straightforward manifesto for art as the key to political salvation ever produced by anyone in the orbit of the Institute for Social Research), and fails to focus on music, which the Frankfurt School types were particularly obsessed with. And it ignores the things Habermas most values: art’s place in the construction of bourgeois self-identity (I agree with Ranciere that Habermas plays a kind of shell game in these discussions; in any event, there is nothing hidden or mysterious about the way the bourgeoisie used art instrumentally in the 19th century). But perhaps it will be of some use, nonetheless.

    • Kurt: Wow! Thanks for the long comment. There’s so much here that I don’t know where to start—a pleasant problem to have.

      Of course I’m most concerned with the forward-looking, emancipatory-themed project. As such, I clearly have some reading to do: Lukacs, Jameson, etc. I’m familiar with Denning, and his work has come up many times at this blog.

      I’m less concerned with the kitsch-high art/avant-garde art distinction than I am with how art (whether organically genuine or mechanically reproduced) works on the viewer. I’d like to find the Frankfurt theorist who recognizes this distinction—that view response to the art matters more than the mode of production/reproduction/translation. If that poster of the Matrix inspires you to think about the system and respond to it, then I’m interested in both the reader/viewer’s thought response *and* the purpose/intentions of the original artist. So I guess I’m into the Bakhtinian performer/response dialectic (but esp. in relation to books)—and how that interplays with critical theory.

      On reification, I’ll have to take your word for it. I profess my ignorance. But go figure that Livingston is involved. – TL

      • Hard to say who has the most to say about the question of the Matrix poster… after all, there is no guarantee that that poster will be read as an indictment of Baudrillardian imprisonment in the simulacrum and not, say, as a testament to the powerlessness of individuals to ever understand the system that enslaves them or the importance of heroic vigilantes (themes that can tack in a reactionary direction as easily as they tack in an emancipatory one).

        FS aesthetics tend to work, simultaneously, with a very long duree sense of political time and a very short duree sense of moments of transformative possibility: shocks, blasting, the moment between dreaming and being awake (or for Adorno, the duration of the sonata form, following which the bourgeois meta-meaning is reimposed on the aesthetic experience). In other words, it’s not a yes/no framework, which makes it particularly useful for thinking about contradiction in art.

        I think Ernst Bloch is without doubt the closest FS dude to Bakhtin; it would be instructive to read both with Saldivar’s seminal work of Chicano/a critical theory, Chicano Narrative. I also must recommend my two favorite Ranciere texts on art, The Politics of Aesthetics (about a 45-minute commitment; it’s short), and The Emancipated Spectator. Also, Norman Bryson’s Vision and Painting is a must-read if you are doing any thinking about people contemplating art.

        Thanks again for the stimulating post.

  2. If you’re interested in Benjamin’s take on the artistic avantgarde, you should check out his essay on Surrealism, which you can find in volume 2 of the Selected Writings. One-Way Street also offers a fascinating glimpse into Benjamin’s fascination with avantgarde aesthetics in the late 20s and early 30s. And of course his essays on Brecht. When you mention the idea of art turning into itself, the figure of Brecht immediately comes to mind: conceiving art as self-reflective and producing a distancing effect on the audience. The Artwork essay has several versions (3 from what I remember), which can be found in volume 3 of the SW. Benjamin kept editing it because of Adorno’s dissatisfaction. For Adorno, the essay was not dialectical enough and it idealized cinema as a revolutionary medium without understanding the material conditions of its production. Adorno also criticized Benjamin for his fixation with Jungian psychoanalysis and thinking of human society in terms of a collective unconscious. The Benjamin-Adorno letters are a fascinating read in relations of power in the Frankfurt School circle, in which Benjamin had a peripheral role. I strongly recommend you do not read the version of the essay found in Illuminations and check out the texts in the SW, which Benjamin scholars view as the authoritative edition (for instance, technological reproduction is better translated as technical reproducibility). For the relationship between the avantgarde and politics from the perspective of Adorno, Bloch, Benjamin, Brecht, and their nemesis Lukacs, the anthology Aesthetics and Politics is a wonderful little book.

    • Dear Kahlil: Thanks for the substantial comment. Small note: I wrote above about avant-garde being art that “turns on itself”—meaning that the piece inspires critical thinking, either of the art by the viewer or in the viewer herself. I think you know this based on the rest of your comment, but I thought I’d clarify.

      Thanks a million for all the book tips, esp. Benjamin’s selected works.

      Aside: I love how respectfully the Critical Theorists treated psychology in general. It’s challenging to me as someone who hasn’t yet, after all these years, figured out a comfortable way to work it into my own philosophy of history. – TL

      • Dear Tim,

        Exactly: in this sense, the art represents an object that produces critical reflection through its aesthetic effects (aesthetics understood as an embodied, sensory experience). Now, this is not specific to the avantgardes at all, one could already see this kind of critical reflection in the 19th century, from romantic irony to the modernism of a Mallarmé. Indeed, Benjamin, who loved making transhistorical connections, traces continuities between his vision of the avant-garde to the poetry of Baudelaire. The difference is the, particularly in more radical avantgarde movements like dadaism, futurism and surrealism, is, on one hand, the pretension of absolute newness and, on the other, the notion of rupturing the boundaries between art and life.

        And yes, the FS’ heterodox use of psychology and psychoanalysis is fascinating; there’s much to be said about that, and how we can engage with these theoretical currents responsibly.

        Btw, Kurt does a great job at explaining these issues too, though it would be more precise to say that Benjamin’s heterodox theology and Messianism are present from beginning to end in his works, in varying degrees. Also, I am not so sure that Benjamin should be defined as a “phenomenologist.” This is an interesting idea, specially since Benjamin emphasizes the role of the senses. But B. views experience via the unconscious and the ways subjectivity is shaped and reconstructed through technologies, the city, etc., a perspective completely alien to Husserl, Heidegger and co.. Perhaps a better way to describe Benjamin would be as an “antiphenomenologist.”

  3. For Zinn, I imagine (!) that Marcuse and his later idea of art as a repository of utopian aspirations would be the relevant reference. i 2nd Kurt’s point that Marcuse is straightforward–i want cynically to say that his desire to actually be understood later in his life became embarrassing for many people…and I agree with Kurt about the Jameson edited volume. I would only add that folks should not fail to actually read Lukacs’ defense of realism.

    although in the end i tend toward a more sociological reading of aesthetic questions–I found Kenneth Warren’s *What Was African-American Literature?* exemplary in this regard.

    • Thx for the tip, Eric. Sounds fascinating. Let’s look at Kenneth Warren’s teaser for his thesis in, well, howbout the Chronicle of Higher Education:



      Like it or not, African-American literature was a Jim Crow phenomenon, which is to say, speaking from the standpoint of a post-Jim Crow world, African-American literature is history. While one can (and students of American literature certainly should) write about African-American literature as an object of study, one can no longer write African-American literature, any more than one can currently write Elizabethan literature.

      A literature highlighting discrimination is a literature of that class stratum. And make no mistake, the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen the publication of many very fine novels and poems by writers like Thomas, Colson Whitehead, Paul Beatty, Danzy Senna, Andrea Lee, and Carl Phillips, to name a few. By the criteria we use to determine matters of racial identity, all of these authors may indeed be African-American. The works they’ve written, however, are not.

      I had a parallel thought the other day, if we are permitted our value judgments, that it’s far more worthwhile [and challenging] to know every jog and tittle of the Harlem Renaissance than of the banalities of Jim Crow.

    • Eric: !!??

      Trying to follow you here, seems a promising vein. Shall we not listen to that inglorious Nazi basterd Wagner’s operas or what? Trade in our Wolksvagens?

      Is it better to be an expert on Duke Ellington or Emmitt Till? This is where I’m going with this.

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