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“Every work of art is an uncommitted crime” – T. Adorno

Christine-Marié Louw

I. Introduction

Reality is undeniably a certain ideal reality constructed by a collective social norm. We as collective individuals assemble our own way in dealing with this ideological and somewhat virtual reality. Reality is therefore an inevitable mode in which we construct our lives as something with movement and as a result a way of continuation. This reality instructs the social collective to develop a so called social norm in which a certain public sphere is created. This idealistic approach results in a complete uneasiness within society and therefore a certain amount of uneasiness towards reason.

When considering this, the topic of this essay introduces a reflection of Adorno’s perceptions on crime, society and a so called “damaged life.” His quotation on art, “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime,” introduces a paradoxical view on not only art, but also a demonstration of the supposed norms of how we perceive art to be. Thus, in order to explore these boundaries and supposed influences, one should not only consider the importance of context, but also the importance and dominance of time. Adorno’s statement is therefore a clear representation of how art could impose political and social justice and as a result a driven force of reality.

II. Background of topic

A crime refers to a certain degree of offence against someone, particularly resulting in the common force of lack of judgement. A crime most often involves the breaking of the law and therefore the breaking of the laws constructed by humanity. In cases like these, a crime is in order if it is committed, therefore perpetrated to some degree. Crime shakes us out of our own world of ideological norms that we as society construct as the norm. The committing of a crime can relate to a degree of positive offense.

Adorno proclaims a very provocative and bold statement when he says, “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.” When considering this statement, one should not only look at the use of the word “crime”, but also the use of the word “uncommitted.” The word “uncommitted” refers to an indifferent or apathetic way in which we as social entity perceive art to be. This result in an unmoved or uninterested way of recognising what art is and as a result how it shares the idea of something “uncommitted.” This statement should reveal a sense of urgency when Adorno uses the word “crime.” One should believe that the processes of art should in fact not be associated with something cruel and violating such as the offence of a crime. It could also be said that Adorno is in fact illustrating crime as extended metaphor for the uprising against social constructs.

Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903-69) was one of the most prominent theorists, philosophers and social critic of the 20th century. His theories were greatly influenced by the writings of Hegel, Marx and Freud. Another significant effect on Adorno’s writings, were the rise of fascism in Germany, therefore the repression and dictatorship surrounding society and Marxism’s failures. His writings are not only focused surrounding modern art, but also specific critical analysis’s surrounding classical art and literature. Some of his most prominent writings include: “Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944); “The Philosophy of Modern Music” (1949) and “Minima Moralia: Reflections form Damaged Life” (1951).

Adorno is of great significance when considering theories surrounding art and literature. In an “Introduction” to German 20th Century Philosophy by Wolgang Schirmacher, Adorno is described as: “Adorno’s enduring impact is due above all to a sensibility, rare among philosophers, through which he combines the eternal questions of philosophy and the artist’s love of the particular. Adorno is a post metaphysical thinker not because he presented modest philosophical proposals, as does the Frankfurt School of today, but because he knew how to protect the uniqueness of the particular from every theoretical assimilation and dominion.” (Wolfgang Schirmacher, “Introduction” to German 20th Century Philosophy: The Frankfurt School, 2000).

III. Statement of research problem

It is in our nature as human beings to construct the idea that the committing of a crime can only exist as negative connotation. Crime can revolve around the idea that it is an act of uprising against society and therefore breaking away from social constructs. Crime is therefore not only the negative perpetration of a misdeed, but also the defiance of social norms.

With this in mind, then, the following essay will attempt primarily to examine and explore how Adorno’s statement, “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime,” can be seen within public boundaries and social constructions.

IV. Literature study

There has been much said about the writings of Adorno, both positive and negative. His writings are considered as esoteric and abstract and for this reason people as a result considers it as difficult to read. His ideas surround the themes of aesthetics, culture, art and sociology, that of the study of human beings. Some critics believe that his writings introduced a very conservative way of introducing specific subject matter. His writings were therefore constructed in a very traditional and conventional way in order to emphasize and underline the importance of his theories.

Adorno’s anti-fascist point of view greatly influenced the writings of other 20th century criticism. His writings influenced a specific discourse between society and culture. Adorno presented a logical point of view in which critics and philosophers could relate to in such a way that a stereotypical mass culture could be explored. He did not only comment on the collective nation, but also commented on the collective of a mass culture. He distinguished between the supposed nation and the unification of the so called mass culture in such a way that parallels can be drawn between a variety of traditions and civilization.

Adorno’s work on culture and society has been greatly criticized by writers such as Christian Bethune. He supposedly acknowledges Adorno’s work, but to refuse to recognise it as methodical knowledge. He considers Adorno’s work as an “end of history” and therefore subjecting towards social constructions and political norms.  Other critics of Adorno’s theories include: Ralf Dahrendorf, Karl Popper and Georg Lukacs. These critics all share the idea that Adorno’s writings, with specific reference to his theories, are in some ways a representation of a conservative narration of the past. They suggest that Adorno’s style lacks in focus, with specific reference to his conventional methodology. Another important figure to take into consideration is the writings of Horst Müller who focus on Adorno’s reference to Marx. In “Critique of Critical Theory,” by Müller, the writer goes on to say that “Adorno posits totality as an automatic system. This is consistent with Adorno’s idea of society as a self-regulating system, from which one must escape (but from which nobody can escape). For him it was existent, but inhuman.” Müller also comments on the practical solutions for societal change and how Adorno’s writings influence these thoughts.
Some other critics include the writings of Georg Lukacs. In his 1962 “The Theory of the Novel,” Lukacs describes how Adorno’s German, specifically East-German, surroundings influenced his writings. He also comments on Adorno’s style of writing and his fascist approach in critically analysing. Most criticism surrounding the writings of Adorno comments on his conservative style of writings. Examples of this include the writings of Karl Popper and Leo Strauss. They also comment on the accessibility of his writings, paying specific attention to his style in writing and use of language.

The final commentary I would like to make surrounds the criticism on Adorno’s theories by Ronald Weitzman. In his article, “An introduction to Adorno’s music and social criticism,” Weitzman comments on Adorno’s verbal prose and construction of different terminologies. The writer goes on to state the way in which Adorno’s style influences his audience: “Existential writing is basic to Adorno’s thought, though the existentialist rarely escapes the rough edge of his literary tongue.” (Weitzman: 1971) Culture is a term that has different meanings. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of “culture” in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions…

V. Own contribution to topic

According to “Philosophical Perspectives on Music” (Wayne D. Bowman), music can be described as “fundamentally social” (304). Music represents a social and political force constructed by numerous entities. Music represents a “cultural phenomenon” in which every work of art is structured and then perceived by different social groups. This art also embodies human activity, therefore activities within activities, which relates to the interaction between people. Music therefore represents the collective activities in which societies are constructed and defined. Bowman believes that “music is never a ‘pure’, self-contained thing…” music is cultural, “and culture is constantly being created, recreated, modified, contested, and negotiated”(305). This idea of music as ever changing art can relate back to the idea of the committing of a crime. Crime is ever changing as well. We perceive the committing of a misdeed in various ways, depending on the contexts, therefore the specific time. Crime in relation to music is therefore entities which can only be examined with context and therefore in relation to the importance of time. Music and crime are therefore every changing entities constructed by societies, which depend on their effective notion of something timeless. Music cannot be understood without the consideration of its social and cultural background.

One should take into consideration that this deed could relate to something positive and therefore not the reinforcement of the negative connotations in which we share this idea of crime. Adorno could possibly be commenting on the effectiveness of the process of crime and that art allows us to free ourselves of the traditional boundaries in which our lives are constructed. Art as crime is therefore the uncommitted deed in which we as collective individuals express a sense of freedom. Crime allows reason within our actions, therefore reason within art. We allow ourselves to reason within reason over the possibilities crime evokes when committing art.

Adorno, in his words, explores that “music has a fundamental social obligation to advance human consciousness and thereby social progress” (305). This can be understood when looking at how music interacts with human activity. Music influences human consciousness and therefore develops social awareness. Adorno goes on to point out the importance and significant value of music. This idea of importance shows rather paradoxical understanding of his statement. We could go on to argue how Adorno puts emphasis on the understanding that crime can also be of significant value to societies, however when looking at the musical value of art, crime becomes something uncommitted. We as society fix our attention rather on the value of music and therefore to an extent crime is no longer uncommitted. The value of music therefore overshadows the committing of a misdeed and therefore points out that music is a positive recreation of the committing of something. The one significant aspect to take into consideration is human thought. Reason and thought allows societies to construct what we should perceive as art and therefore what we should perceive to be a misdeed and therefore what should or can be committed.

Adorno’s esoteric observations allow us to reinforce our perception of the significance of the committing of a misdeed. Adorno goes on to point out the significance of the “awareness of individuality” (308). Our actions should be determined by our thoughts, our preoccupations and our ideas, constructing our realities. We should therefore not be “mindless followers” or “victims of ideology” (308). Society should as a result not determine destinies, but construct destinies into idiosyncratic entities of individuality.

Art as uncommitted crime symbolises the idealistic beliefs we as society reinforces. Bowman argues that “social forces shape consciousness,” therefore how we would argue the importance and the value of the misdeed (309). Music (as well as crime) is therefore a social and political force in which societies are driven by. We construct our ideas around this concept and as a result music and crime becomes a driven force in which narratives are created. Music and crime share the same effect, that of its “obligation: to shock, or jar, exposing contradictions in a way that undermines false or ideological consciousness” (311). For music to be uncommitted, it should therefore symbolise what Adorno reinforces—the idea that the positive outcome of a misdeed is its way in which it is uncommitted.

Adorno goes on to emphasise how music purely “functions ideologically to perpetuate bourgeois consciousness” (312). This is rather odd, considering how crime also draws our attention to the common folk. It would be unlikely to draw relation between the purpose of music and the purpose of crime. They both find ways in which social consciousness is developed let it be negative or positive. What is significant is not the crime that is done, but the specific outcome.
We are challenged by our conscious and ideas that are constantly in an ever changing cycle of pure development. We allow ourselves to explore our ideological consciousness and therefore to an extent explore art. Music as well as crime allows us to reason within reason and develop our own consciousness surrounding several matters. It is in fact this uncommitted crime in which we allow ourselves to reason over art. When we enter a concert hall we have the freedom to criticise whether or not it was good, therefore whether or not it was committed. We therefore enter the hall with the knowledge of reason and consequently how we shall criticise. It is in our nature to explore criticism and as a result how to react towards criticism. We as individuals are constantly praising or condemning creativity. We construct ideologies within societies and if it does not adhere to the so called norm, it is either wrong or just bad. Individuals should allow this freedom to criticise, whether or not how the outcome will appear to result.

I would also like to comment on the idea that crime evokes tragedy. Tragedy in itself is something realistically set to reinforce our perceptions surrounding crime. Crime allows misfortune and as a result represents a form of catharsis, therefore an emotional release. Adorno points out that “tragedies, which by means of ‘style’, most strictly maintain a distance from mere existence, at the same time most faithfully preserve, with their communal processions, masks and sacrifices, the memory of the demonology of primitive man.” (Adorno: 1951) Adorno is referring to the idea that tragedy almost exists as entity on its own and introduces the concept that misfortunes resemble sentiment, therefore the so called “primitive man.” Catharsis therefore introduces emotional distress in which tragedy is evoked.

Another significant observation would be to comment on Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy where he writes about how tragedy introduces a series of actions imitated by human beings. Crime, as supposed to tragedy, is therefore just another way in which a series of unlimited actions are performed by individuals. Aristotle points out that: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…” Crime is therefore a social representation of how tragedy is evoked and as a result how social constructions are pointed out by the collective individual.

VI. Conclusion

We as a social structure invented this natural force of how ideas should be constructed. Music consequently evokes impressions or certain imitations to which individuals can either relate or criticise. It is therefore within choice in which we criticise whether or not something powerful such as music or crime is committed or uncommitted. The freedom of choice therefore lies within the individual and not within the crime itself.

As mentioned before, art symbolizes a cultural phenomenon within social constructions of boundaries. These boundaries are constructed within time and therefore within context. Time reflects upon realities within the movement of continuation. Art mirrors a depiction of virtual realties in which the collective individual explores the social boundaries in which norms are constructed. Art symbolizes an essential representation of cultural awareness wherein we as human beings can explore, investigate and criticise.

VII. Bibliography

1. [110; 111] ADORNO, T. 1951. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. [access 2010, April 17]; Available:
2. BOWMAN, W.D. 1998. Philosophical Perspectives on Music. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. DAVIES, S. 2003. Themes in the Philosophy of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
4. DAY, J. and le Huray, P. 1981. Music and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
5. MACONIE, R. 1990. The Concept of Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
6. WEITZMAN, R. 1971. An Introduction to Adorno’s Music and Social Criticism. Oxford Journals: 287-298.