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SubStance 28.3 (1999) 102-128

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Sic Transit Gloria Artis:

"The End of Art" for Theodor Adorno and Guy Debord *

Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

It is now difficult to resist the impression that "the end of art"—so often and so noisily announced, and just as vociferously rejected, during the 1960s—has finally come about, albeit surreptitiously, and "not with a bang but a whimper." For more than a century the development of art was synonymous with an uninterrupted succession of formal innovations and "avant-gardes" continually extending the boundaries of creative activity. The last period of seeming glory ended, however, at the beginning of the seventies, since which time no new avant-garde tendency has come to the fore. All we have seen is a recycling of isolated and degraded fragments of the arts of the past. The suspicion that modern art is exhausted has now begun to affect even those who have been the most resolute opponents of any such notion. The very least that may be said is that for decades now we have witnessed nothing even remotely comparable to the formal revolutions of the years between 1910 and 1930. Opinions differ, naturally, as to whether or not work of value is still being produced. But it is unlikely that there is anyone for whom the art of recent years still represents "the sensible manifestation of the Idea," or even an expression of the present period as focused and conscious as were the literature, visual arts or music of the first decades of this century.

All the same, the crisis of the avant-gardes has not meant the sort of return to the past that the detractors of those movements would have liked to see. It is apparently art as a whole that is suffering a crisis, and this as much with respect to its formal renewal as with respect to its ability to express the development of society. As time goes on it becomes ever more evident that this is neither a transient stagnation nor a mere crisis of inspiration, but at the very least the end of a particular relationship between art and society that has lasted for over a century. Of course, texts continue to be written and published, pictures painted and exhibited, and supposedly novel forms, such as video or performance art, tried out. Yet this in no way justifies treating the existence of art as an obvious fact, like the existence of oxygen, [End Page 102] as aesthetics persists tirelessly in doing. The question is whether artistic production is now anything more than an anachronism overtaken by the actual development of social conditions.

Avant-garde and formalist art between 1850 and 1930 involved the destruction of traditional forms far more than the elaboration of new ones. The process had an eminently critical function, and in what follows we shall attempt to show that this critical function was bound up with the historical phase during which the type of social organization founded on exchange-value was struggling to impose its rule. The complete triumph of exchange-value, and ultimately its crisis, which we are living through today, have cut the ground from beneath the feet of the heirs of the avant-gardes, leaving them, regardless of their subjective intentions, bereft of any critical role.

Our focus will be a comparative analysis of the contributions of Theodor W. Adorno and Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and main theoretician of the Situationists.1 Adorno and Debord are among the pre-eminent exponents of a social critique centered on the concept of alienation. Both regard alienation not as some vague dissatisfaction with "modern life" but rather as an antagonism between humanity and forces that humanity has itself created but that have now entered into opposition to it in the guise of independent beings. This process is none other than the transformation of the economy from a means into an end, a transformation brought about by the conflict between exchange-value...


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