Variable Decline

Adorno’s ruminations on the difficulty of “new music” include the following, which supports my own earlier comments on Richter-style abstraction and music:

“Tonal complexes [in Wagner]…are already conceived in such a way as not to be perceived with the same precision in each of their sounds as pre-Wagnerian music, but rather, as it were, from a certain distance. A certain vagueness of perception is presumed, indeed composed into it…This suggests…that since…the middle of the nineteenth century, music, to the extent that it belongs to modernism, already addresses itself to listeners who do not pay such close attention and—so one may extrapolate—consequently do not understand so very precisely either.”

Adorno is tracing a real decline in the ability to listen, and it has social origins which I won’t go into. The overall general effects found in Richter and so many others are just as much a symptom of loss of receptive capacities. Still, there are plenty of people who are sensitive to subtle and expressive arrangements of color, and who understand that a certain disintegration of form is necessary to allow that. I vividly remember


Henri Matisse, The Pond of Trivaux 1917

seeing this piece in the Tate many years ago, the first real Matisse I had ever seen, and being immediately struck by the artist’s intelligence, expressed in color and construction. The picture radiated intelligence, is all I could say about it, but obviously had no ideas, theories, messages or any of that. Our danger today is that we are constantly battered by bright colors in advertising, on screens, in clothing, packaging and so on, and so our sensibilities can be damaged. Immediacy of expression through color is lost. The only way to work is through the mediation of conscious groupings. That’s the way I do it, and comparable to how Adorno understands “new music.” His biggest problem is the way that musical tonality refuses to give way, and he sees that as an index of social regression. Art may have an advantage over music in that the historic forms to be overcome are themselves secondary to nature, which is the final measure and infinitely variable.

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