“Thou Shalt (Not) Make Graven Images”

Theodor Adorno added notoriety to his authority as a social theorist by remarking in 1949 that poetry had become impossible after Auschwitz. That thought continues to haunt poets; for instance, Eugenio Montale entitled his acceptance speech at the 1975 Nobel Prize for Literature “The Possibility of Poetry”. Indeed, commentators on all the arts still circle Adorno’s statement. On July 6, ABC Radio National’s film critic, Julie Rigg, repeated the comment at the start of her review of Monsieur Batignole, set during the deportation of the Jews from Paris. The eternal recurrence of Adorno’s remark registers a fear that art has been rendered mute. Or has it been reduced to Absurdism and Abstraction?

Adorno’s comment resonated because of his fame. By the early 1930s, the 27-year old Adorno had become a leader at the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research which the Nazis forced into exile, before reestablishing itself in Frankfurt in 1949. His writings on Wagner, Mahler and his teacher Alban Berg would secure him a niche in intellectual history even if he had not also pioneered research on racial prejudice, the authoritarian personality and mass communications. Much that is grouped under the rubric of Post-Modernism is either an extension or a refutation of his School’s critique of the “Culture Industry”.

Reflections from Damaged Life was the subtitle that Adorno gave to a miscellany of philosophical assays composed between 1944 and 1947, and published as Minima Moralia. As personal as those fragments were, he connected them to “Life”, not just to his own experience, where the damage was evident in his shedding of his father’s Jewish patronymic, Wiesengrund, in favour of his mother’s Catholic surname, Adorno. Writing in the middle of the hundred years war that was the twentieth century, Adorno offered few of the consolations of philosophy. When Adorno declared that “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime”, was he praising or condemning creativity?

Before Adorno’s comment on the fate of poetry could become a straw man for any rhymester to ridicule, its wording had to be mangled. Here are his words: “Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today”. In dismissing Adorno, poets emphasize the impossibility, eliding the barbarism and avoiding the reasons why. The charge of impossibility can be made to sound silly, or excused as the rage of the just whereas refuting the allegation of barbarism requires subtlety.

The itch to refute Adorno derives from a suspicion that poetry written in the circumstances of barbarism must be a mechanical reproduction of strict forms. Even a poet as erudite as Australian Peter Porter lacked the intellectual heft to meet Adorno’s analysis. Last October, Porter entitled his Australian Book Review Lecture at La Trobe University “The Survival of Poetry”, another denial of its impossibility. In the final stanza of Porter’s “Annotations of Auschwitz”, chickens declare that the rotisserie is “their Auschwitz”. That quatrain is a banality bordering on the barbaric.

From the cultural Right, film-maker Hans-Franz Syberberg has linked artistic reactions to the Holocaust with the Mosaic prohibition on graven images and thereby to Abstraction. He accuses “Judeo-Marxists” of crippling post-war German culture through their assaults on the notion of beauty. Syberberg traced this villainy back to Adorno’s denial of poetry after Auschwitz. Behind that diktat, Syberberg alleges, stands the Biblical commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”.

Defenders of Adorno have argued that his remark on poetry  is out of context even in the context of the essay. Those lines do convey an urgency removed from the preceding discussion. Yet to detach the disputed sentence is to misunderstand Adorno’s entire project for his claim was more sweeping than the assertion that poetry had become either impossible or barbaric. Those propositions were not premised on the destruction of European Jewry. Rather, Adorno pursued the sources of genocide through the dependencies of high culture on injustice.  

Adorno was far from alone in fearing for the fate of the arts. From Death in Venice in 1911 to Felix Krull Confidence Man (1954),Thomas Mann had diagnosed the sickness and trickery at the heart of European culture, specifically music, which Richard Wagner had lauded as the “Holy German Art”. In California in the early 1940s, Adorno had supplied Mann with the technical understanding of the 12-tone scale to create Doctor Faustus (1947) where the composer-protagonist, Adrian Leverkuhn, sells his soul to the devil. One cannot dismiss Adorno’s epigram without first dealing with Mann’s oeuvre.

The critic George Steiner skirted the question of art’s viability in his 1959 essay on West Germany, “The Hollow Miracle”, where he argued that the Nazi’s use of German to enforce bestialities had polluted the language, which would remember. Steiner’s article itself now rings hollow because he limited his reaction to a linguistic blight which he later acknowledged had been purged by writers such as Gunter Grass. By contrast, Adorno saw the contamination of German as a symptom of a malaise throughout Western civilization. 

A surer test was whether creative writers could deal with the slaughter. Literary critics accused D. M. Thomas of plagiarism when he reproduced documentary material for his account of the massacre at Babi Yar in his novel, The White Hotel (1981). Thomas replied that no artist should be expected to imagine the particulars of genocide. His self-defence implied that, confronted by the Holocaust, inventiveness was possible only by sharing its barbarism.

A late poem by labour camp survivor Paul Celan (1920-1970) associated poetry with barbarism in its original, onomatopoeic sense of bah-bah-bah, which was all the ancientGreeks could hear in the speech of other peoples. Celan proposed that even the Old Testament Prophets would be reduced to “babble and babble” in discussing the Holocaust. Those forms and content confirmed Adorno’s judgement that Celan had been able to “articulate unspeakable horror by being silent”. Celan’s suicide in 1970 spoke volumes.

In later years, Adorno would admit that he - perhaps - had gone too far in declaring poetry to be impossible. “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”. However, he never retreated from his accusations about the complicity of high culture, which he continued to label “dogshit” and “garbage”. Since Adorno was no Nazi reaching for his Browning, what provoked his unseemly language?

For Adorno, Auschwitz was evidence of a catastrophe which was neither specifically German nor Nazi. He saw its origins in centuries of material and spiritual deprivation. Until those inequities were redressed, Auschwitz would be repeated, though not necessarily with Jews as its victims. Adorno strove to make sense of the Holocaust, but never of the six million deaths. To attempt that would be to enter the iron-cage mentality that had authorized their execution.

Like Freud, Adorno believed that the benefits of civilization had been bought at psychic costs which intensified discontent with its achievements. Like his colleague, the literary critic Walter Benjamin, Adorno gave Freud’s account a material base. Civilization had been erected on the barbaric treatment of slaves, serfs and proletarians: “There is not a document of civilization”, Benjamin wrote in 1940, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”. Another contemporary, Wilhelm Reich, married social, sexual and industrial alienations in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1934).

Although no one has been more devastating about Wagner’s musical legacy and social outlook, than Adorno, he would not have endorsed the approach of Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996). Yes, the SS were willing, he would have agreed, but not because of an eliminationist culture of anti-Semitism. That hatred festered within the everyday life of class-riven societies, not from their intellectual life alone.

Adorno entrenched his analysis in the title he gave his 1949 essay: “Cultural criticism and society” (Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft). He bristled at the term Kulturkritik because, like “automobile”, it jammed together Greek and Latin. The comparison goes to the heart of his explanation of the Holocaust. He saw the automobile as both a lexical abomination and the epitome of the machine age. Henry Ford’s production line had intensified the alienation against which Adorno believed anti-Semites were reacting. The denial of work as a creative, socialising experience had produced their dehumanization, which, in turn, had allowed them to become willing executioners.

“Work Makes Us Free” over the entrance of Auschwitz was a broken promise of joy from work to generations freed from all burdens except the compulsion to sell their capacity to labour. Inside the slave camps, German industrialists such as Krupp instructed the S.S. on how to work inmates to death. Exactly calibrated food allowances, drawing on the body’s fat and muscle, would extract the maximum surplus from the meanest rations. That crime extended the time-and-motion studies of scientific management.

For Adorno, turning the human capacity to create into another commodity had splintered mental from manual labour, debasing both. Divisions of labour denied workers the satisfactions from completing a task. The Enlightenment had led to a calculating mind where every value was monetarised. Adorno agreed that the secular anti-Semitism that had emerged after 1850 was a reaction against the cultural order generated by capitalist industry. The Jew became feared as the carrier of that Modernity. (That mind set is visible today when the costs of globalisation are blamed on its other victims, notably, the refugees.)

Adorno tightened the connection between alienation and Auschwitz by the second term in his title – Gesellschaft. Among sociologists, that German word for “society” invokes a debate beyond its everyday meaning. Capitalism heightened the conflict between two principles of social organisation. On the one hand were the organic, communal bonds (Gemeinshaft) from the family and locality. On the other were the connections imposed through the state and corporations, those of Gesellshaft. (This dichotomy lingers in the attempt to champion “social capital” against “market forces”.) Adorno’s choice of “Gelleschaft” pointed up this ratiocination, whether in the Holocaust, in Stalin’s five-year plans, Henry Ford’s assembly line or belief that the invisible hand of the market would install a utopia.

Other debates over barbarism and culture informed Adorno’s scepticism about the civilizing possibilities of art. Could Fascists create art? In linking the good with the true and the beautiful, aestheticians had assumed that art, by definition, would affirm life. Nazism reveled in a culture of death. SS insignia bore a death’s head. Franco’s supporters chanted “Long Live Death”. Among the French Right, Louis-Ferdinand Celine celebrated decadence with novels such as Death on the Installment Plan (1936) and racist pamphlets such as School for corpses (1938). Book-burnings and expositions of “Degenerate” painting and music presented fascism as antithetical to art, and hence to life itself.

However, the Nazi challenge to conventional aesthetics was profound because its spokespeople were neither antagonistic nor even indifferent to fine art. The arts meant more to Hitler’s sense of identity than they did to Chamberlain’s, Churchill’s, Stalin’s or Roosevelt’s. Hitler saw the clearing of Jews from Germany as a condition for a healthy cultural life. His favourite Wagner was The Mastersingers of Nuremberg which ends with alarums about “Evil tricks” and “foreign mists and foreign vanities”. Only by living “in honour of the German masters” could the good, the true and the beautiful be reunited.

Similarly, the SS officers who compelled their victims to perform Beethoven string quartets appreciated those pinnacles of civilization as rapturously as any Musica Viva audience. Paul Celan portrayed the Nazi combination of high culture and base behaviour in the most famous of Holocaust poems, “Fuge of Death”, composed just after the Red Army had liberated him. Evoking Wagner’s “German masters”, Celan wove mass murder around the dances demanded by a camp commandant:

he shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a master from Germany

he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you shall climb in the sky

Adorno knew that art had never tamed the wild beast. The divine Apollo had flayed Marsyas alive after beating him in a musical contest.

Moreover, Adorno’s years of research into the US “Culture Industry”, had convinced him that whatever power the fine arts might have once possessed against bestiality had been sapped by over familiarity. In an age of mechanical reproduction, the work of art became another commodity, loosing what Benjamin called its “aura”. The mass production methods that had made work alien to humanity had, through a concomitant mass consumption, deprived Beethoven of his ability to disturb. A pursuit of relaxed comfort ensured the triumph of the barbaric in the fine arts. The world had no shortage of poets. Tin Pan Alley churned out lyrics before, during and after every catastrophe. Their dissemination by radio and the gramophone made the lyrics of Stefan George no longer achievable.

In Adorno’s final meditations on aesthetic theory, he echoed the laments from writers of the 1840s on first hearing a locomotive whistle in the woods. The poet could no longer gain the silence to write, or the reader the quiet to reflect. The death of nature poetry became a case study in the impossibility of all poetry. The noise of industry and commerce, Adorno noted, “not only destroys the actuality of nature as an object of poetic celebration. Nature poetry is anachronistic not only as a subject: Its truth content has vanished.”

In this sense, Adorno perceived that Celan’s poetry “yearns neither for nature nor for industry”. Instead, its material was what Adorno called “the anorganic”. This new subject matter required new forms: the Absurdity of Samuel Beckett, or the Abstractions of the German painter Anselm Kiefer (1945-). Harvard art historian Lisa Saltzman has explored the impress that the Old Testament commandment against images had on Kiefer who, around 1980, produced a series on the “Iconoclastic Controversy” of the 8th century through depicting the detritus of modern life. In “Twilight of the West” (1989), Kiefer portrayed a death camp as a post-industrial landscape dominated by railway lines. Those “things” had not been created by God, and so did not risk the injunction against graven images. Likenesses no longer need to be prohibited if they have been rendered impossible. Another series of Kiefer canvases were inspired by a phrase repeated throughout Celan’s “Fugue of Death”: “your ashen hair Shulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined”.

In attacking the “Culture Industry”, Adorno did not privilege high art. On the contrary, he accused the snobbery underlying its appeal of intensifying the spiritual and material deprivation of the multitudes. He would not have been surprised at the way in which today’s corporate elites protect themselves by inciting the impoverished against the cultural elite. Thus, high culture will no more protect us as individuals than it can preserve our species. Faith in the redemptive power of art is as much a part of the problem as is the debasement of popular entertainment by commerce.

Nonetheless, most of us go on hoping that civilisation can be snatched from the maw of barbarism. Millions have turned to craft as the only work fit for human beings. Sculptors still struggle to convey some divine spark in the human form. In such ways do we empathize with Walter Benjamin who, a few months before he took his life to escape capture, had encouraged a friend to complete a book on Medieval Jewish mysticism: “Every line we succeed in publishing today – no matter how uncertain the future to which we entrust it – is a victory wrenched from the power of darkness”. Adorno would have agreed. Otherwise, why did he himself go on writing? Yet he insisted that culture could be preserved only by being attacked. Only then would poets become self-critical of how their sensitivities are sheltered by inequality and misery. In Minima Moralia, Adorno had proposed that there could be “tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more”.

To be effective, Adorno’s location of the Holocaust within the achievements of civilisation must provoke anger and distress. His analysis cannot be answered by misrepresenting one sentence about poetry. His challenge can be buried beneath the kitsch of the “Culture Industry” just, as he noted, the SS had used fine music to drown the screams. Through that palimpsest of barbarism and civilization, Adorno beckoned us to read the best and the worst simultaneously. The road away from destruction is paved with “dogshit” and lyrics, with “garbage” and the Sublime.

Book List
Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, New Left Books, 1974, crafted essays and aphorisms as philosophical prose poems after the manner of Montaigne and Nietzsche.

Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, MIT Press, 1982, the collection of essays that contains the remarks about impossibility of poetry. 

Daniel Arasse, Anslem Kiefer, Abrams, 2001, adorns a thematic analysis with 400 colour-illustrations, the best alternative to a retrospective exhibition.

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Fontana, 1973, contains some of the most influential meditations on cultural questions in this age of mechanical reproduction. 

Paul Celan, Selected Poems and Prose, Norton, 2001; Celan has been called the “greatest poet since Yeats”. His spare vision of a fractured world is etched into this bilingual prize-winning edition.

Martin Jay, Adorno, Harvard University Press, 1984, originally in the Fontana Modern Masters Series, this intellectual biography situates Adorno in the Western intellectual tradition.

Thomas Mann, Letters, 1889-1955, Penguin, 1975, traces how the greatest novelist of the first half of last century moved from being a big-C Conservative and Chauvinist into a liberal and then a social democrat.

Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Penguin, 1975, reports Reich’s practice as a revolutionary and a psychiatrist in Weimar Germany where he recognised consumption as an opiate against the degradation of labour.     

Lisa Saltzman, Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz, Cambridge University Press, 1999, tracks German disquiet, on the Left and the Right, at Kiefer’s encounter with recent history and its mythos.