A participant emailed me an interesting question this morning. First is my reply followed by his question. Feel free to chime in!

Hey! So he does decouple autonomy and freedom. Freedom isn’t something an individual can have in an unfree society. You can have a highly developed individual consciousness, but in today’s world that would entail the realization of the impossibility of freedom. And art that is art highlights this, making a claim to freedom but then undermining that claim by staying in the realm of illusion. Art cannot currently actualize the agency it seems to represent, and it’s self aware of that contradiction.

He would probably say that Hann dynasty art is art that served a direct social function. Any art in today’s unfree world that served a direct social function wouldn’t be art, it would be part and parcel of the “administered world”.

He most definitely does not want to make universal claims about art and aesthetics. They mean different things at different times, depending on how society is organized. The modernist moment is highly specific to the 20th century western situation. It would be false and possibly heteronomous outside of that context.

In general, he does not think the just society is one of autonomous individuals. A just society is one where the individual and the collective have been reconciled. He’d say this has never happened anywhere, because he’d say that you first have to fully develop the consciousness of the individual on a mass scale before that collectivity can form. And it’s western enlightenment reason that holds this promise (tho we are currently living in the nightmare of its dark side).

Great questions! Hope this helps


I was really hoping to get into autonomy more. I realized I was kind of hearing "agency" in my head, like, autonomous art giving autonomy(/agency) to the individual experiencing the art. In the way that you mentioned art negating a social reality to create something new, creating a platform for imagining a collective...it sounded to me like art as a thing that could help imagine/inspire autonomous collectives full of agential potential.

That combined with aesthetics as the high watermark of autonomy got me thinking about this description I read years ago (and took a photo of and uploaded it) of how music functioned in ancient China....it's a description of a society organized by aesthetic principles.

Obviously it's a whole different idea of art in a very non-20th Century context, but it just has that quality of "aesthetics as the high watermark of autonomy" if I'm taking that to mean, aesthetics as the highest form of achieving autonomy, or organizing in such a way that leads to an autonomous existence.

I'm not sure if anybody in the Hann dynasty was living a life full of agency, but they were certainly living a life organized by aesthetic principles.

I duno, what do you think? Does the 800 person Imperial orchestra have any place in Adorno's ideals?