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Theodore Adorno on Modernism
Kate Liu
For Adorno, modern art is negative on different levels.  
  First of all, it critiques the administered and antagonistic society it is in, at the same time it "makes an uncompromising reprint" of the society (Aesthetic Theory 28).  
The work of art is also negative of its predecessors.  Modern art, specifically, negates its own affirmative tradition, exposing the latter's illusion of harmony and totality.  
Placed in the dialectical history of art, modern art also negates itself.  Post-war modernism with its lack of tension negates of high modernism's negation and break the latter's taboo (Aesthetic Theory  53).
What Adorno is most concerned with is, however, the negativity of high modernism, which "expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure."  Modern art de-aestheticizes itself by presenting neither harmony nor formal unity but dissonance and fragmentation.    
 Modern art, however, does not simply "embody the contradictions" correlative to the tensions in society; it integrates and synthesizes them through form.  This integration, however, is "non-repressive," allowing the "non-integratable" to subsist.  Adorno, for me, is vague in describing art as a dialectical process that transcends antagonisms but not abolishes them (aufheben).  One possible reason for this vagueness is that in describing the dynamics of art, as well as "aufheben" as its outcome (272), Adorno intentionally leaves out the audience--an indispensible dimension in the play of art.

The whole, as a positive entity, cannot be antithetically extracted from an estranged and splintered reality by means of the will and power of the individual; if it is not to degenerate into deception and ideology, it must assume the form of negation.  The chef d'oeuvre remained unfinished and Schoenberg's admission of failure, his recognition that it was "a fragment, like everything else," says perhaps more for him than any success.  (Prism 164)

"A successful work, according to immanent criticism, is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure."

"Art, and so-called classical art no less than its more anarchical expressions, always was, and is, a force of protest of the humane against the pressure of domineering institutions, religious and otherwise, no less than it reflects their objective substance."  (Jay)

the process of de-aestheticization in modern avant-garde art, the consciously executed destruction of aura

This did not mean the end of traditional art through the extrinsic intervention of machine technology or the masses, but rather the immanent techinical development in which auratic qualities are eroded from within.  In the face of a Brechtian politicized art or the affirmative "culture industry," this process kept alive the primary function of art as a negation of a completely instrumentalized world: only "where art observes its immanence does it convince practical reason of its absurdity."  (Lunn)

Endgame--Beckett uses form to evoke the emptiness of modern culture.  ...The absurd discontinuities of the discourse, the pared-down characterisation, and plotlessness, all contribute to the aesthetic effect of distancing the reality to which the play alludes, and thereby giving us a 'negative' knowledge of modern existence.

Adorno argues that art cannot simply reflect the social system, but acts within that reality as an irritant which produces an indirect  sort of knowledge: "Art is the negative knowldge of the actual world."  This can be achieved ...by writing 'difficult' experimental texts and not directly polemical or critical works. (Selden)

"The return of the repressed" can only occur through a "shattering of the social contract with reality"   (Laing 64)  Schoenberg emerges from Adorno's analysis as a composer whose work reflects the social totality, but negatively, through negating it.