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New Left Review I/87-88, September-December 1974

Theodor Adorno


Since Sartre’s essay What is Literature? there has been less theoretical debate about committed and autonomous literature. Nevertheless, the controversy over commitment remains urgent, so far as anything that merely concerns the life of the mind can be today, as opposed to sheer human survival. Sartre was moved to issue his manifesto because he saw—and he was certainly not the first to do so—works of art displayed side by side in a pantheon of optional edification, decaying into cultural commodities. In such coexistence, they desecrate each other. If any work, without its author necessarily intending it, aims at a supreme effect, none can thereby truly tolerate a neighbour beside it. This salutary intolerance holds not only for individual works, but also for aesthetic genres or attitudes such as those once symbolized in the now half-forgotten controversy over commitment. There are two ‘positions on objectivity’ which are constantly at war with one another, even when intellectual life falsely presents them as at peace. A work of art that is committed strips the magic from a work of art that is content to be a fetish, an idle past-time for those who would like to sleep through the deluge that threatens them, in an apoliticism that is in fact deeply political. For the committed, such works are a distraction from the battle of real interests, in which none are any longer exempt from the conflict between the two great blocs. The possibility of mental life itself depends on this conflict to such an extent that only blind illusion can insist on rights that may be shattered tomorrow. For autonomous works of art, however, such considerations, and the conception of art which underlies them, are themselves the spiritual catastrophe of which the committed keep warning. Once the life of the mind renounces the duty and liberty of its own pure objectification, it has abdicated. Thereafter, works of art merely assimilate themselves sedulously to the brute existence against which they protest, in forms so ephemeral (the very charge made viceversa by committed against autonomous works) that from their first day they belong to the seminars in which they inevitably end. The menacing thrust of the antithesis is a reminder of how precarious the position of art is today. Each of the two alternatives negates itself with the other. Committed art, necessarily detached as art from reality, cancels the distance between the two. ‘Art for art’s sake’ denies by its absolute claims that ineradicable connection with reality which is the polemical a priori of the very attempt to make art autonomous from the real. Between these two poles, the tension in which art has lived in every age till now, is dissolved.

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Theodor Adorno, ‘Commitment’, NLR I/87-88: £3

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