Voluptuousness and asceticism in Adorno

Ross Wilson

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This essay explores Theodor Adorno's view of pleasure in general and his account of the pleasures of modernist art in particular. At first sight, this hardly seems a promising topic for study, given Adorno's consistently stated antipathy to the false pleasures of the culture industry. While some consideration of Adorno's critique of pleasure is important to this essay, its central aim is to demonstrate that Adorno's aesthetics does not reject pleasure outright. In particular, it will be shown that Adorno's contention that ‘[d]er Bürger wünscht die Kunst üppig und das Leben asketisch; umgekehrt wäre es besser’ does not involve an unqualified advocacy of modernist art as ascetic pure and simple, just as voluptuous life itself could hardly be initiated by an act of will. Rather, voluptuousness and asceticism are to be conceived dialectically, for Adorno, both in aesthetic theory and, indeed, in philosophy and social theory. Specific examples of Adorno's conception of the relation of pleasure to its apparent renunciation will be given from his reading of Charles Baudelaire and from his critique of developments in music allegedly in the wake of Schönberg's innovations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)270-283
Number of pages14
JournalGerman Life and Letters
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2009

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