Adorno's Philistine: The Other of Art and Aesthetics

Paul Ingram


This paper takes as its point of departure the so-called “philistine controversy” of the 1990s. Dave Beech and John Roberts’ “Spectres of the Aesthetic” and Malcolm Bull’s “The Ecstasy of Philistinism” both seek to work through the insight that, within the discourse of art and aesthetics, the typological figure of the philistine functions as the other of art, or as the ideal embodiment of everything that the (bourgeois) aesthetic subject is not. Theodor Adorno is identified as the source of this insight, but it is claimed that he fails to develop it sufficiently in "Aesthetic Theory". My research surveys his oeuvre for references to the philistine (“Philister”, “Banause”, “Spießbürger/Spießer”), finding a more sophisticated version of this concept than acknowledged by either Beech and Roberts or Bull.

Adorno’s model of advanced art is negatively delimited by “the philistinism of art with a cause” and “the philistinism of art for enjoyment”, which are the extremes of the dialectic of the aesthetic and the social. The philistinism of art with a cause, represented by committed art, reduces the aesthetic to the social, whereas for him the social import of the work of art consists in aesthetic autonomy. The philistinism of art for enjoyment, represented by l’art pour l’art, excludes the social from the aesthetic, whereas he recognises that aesthetic autonomy is itself a social fact. Adorno’s philistine is further defined in relation to its counterpart the connoisseur, with the interplay between these figures delineating his preferred approach to aesthetics, in which an affinity for art and alienness to it are combined dialectically.

Adorno’s seemingly straightforward derogatory comments about philistines must therefore be read in conjunction with the instances in which he affirms the critical potential of the concept to counter the ideological character of art and aesthetics. He deploys philistinism to secure the borders of his own discourse, while self-reflexively disclosing the complicity of the term with domination. The philistine is a rhetorical container for contradiction, combining irreconcilable aspects of a truth that he believes can only be expressed negatively under capitalism.

Adorno - Aesthetics - Culture