Adorno’s Conceptions of Rationality, Mimesis and Truth in Art as Seen through Anselm Kiefer’s Works

Text: Irmeli Hautamäki

In Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) Adorno and Max Horkheimer criticized the state of affairs wherein art has been systematically separated from modern rationality, while the entire modern society is at the same time controlled by instrumental reason and scientific administration to the point where rationality turns into its opposite, irrationality.

In his late Aesthetic Theory (1970) Adorno argued that there is rationality in art too, suggesting that art’s rationality is connected to “mimetic impulse”. Mimesis, or the mimetic impulse, is expressive, bodily impulse, which is crucial not only in art but in moral sensitivity, as well. (Reiners, 178 -179) Rationality and mimesis in art are dialectical counterparts, which means that neither can be understood without the other. Rationality in art cannot be understood without mimesis and art’s mimetic impulse must be rational.

In the rationally controlled and administrated modern world the mimetic impulse has an important critical function as it opposes the bad irrationality of the rational world. “Art is a refuge for mimetic comportment”, Adorno says. “That art, something mimetic is possible in the midst of rationality and that it employs its [rationality’s] means, is a response to the faulty irrationality of the rational world as an over-administrated world.” (AT, 53.)

Finnish theoretician Ilona Reiners has explained that the mimetic impulse appears in a person’s emphatic ability to identify with another. In art it appears as sensuality and expressivity. The bodily mimetic impulse is an ancient, primordial faculty. In art its origins are found in the magical practices of “the primitives”; but in the course of history, art has nevertheless disavowed these magical antecedents. However, Adorno argues that mimesis is the source of all methods and means of artistic production. (AT, 54.) Music, dance, theatre, and painting preserve the bodily, expressive mimetic impulse even in our late modern society.

It would, however, be a mistake to regard the mimetic in art as a-rationality. Adorno explains that in art the mimetic and rational depend on each other so that rationality appears as the organizing, unity-producing element in art. It is not unrelated to the rationality that governs in the external world but it does not reflect its categorizing order either. “Art is rationality that criticizes rationality without withdrawing from it; art is not something pre-rational or irrational, which would peremptorily condemn it as untruth in the face of entanglement of all human activity in the social totality. Rational and irrational theories of art are therefore equally faulty.” (AT, 55.) In other words, art’s rationality appears as (i) a critical position against shallow, one-dimensional instrumental reason and (ii) as the organizing element in art.

On Dissonance and Coarse Expression
Mimesis and rationality complete each other but they are not a harmonious pair; tensions and contradictions exist between them. The triggering element in art is the mimetic impulse; as a result the artistic practice shows dissonance rather than harmony. “Dissonance is expression,” whereas harmony always tends to calm down expressivity. The endeavour of beauty has a similar effect. The attempt to make beautiful semblances or illusions is in complete opposition to what Adorno regards as artistic expression in the proper sense of the word.

Adorno explains that mimetic expressivity, which bears memory of the body, reminds us of the pain of living beings. “Art is expressive when what is objective, subjectively mediated, speaks whether this be sadness, energy or longing. Expression is the suffering countenance of artworks.” The work turns its suffering face only to those who respond to its gaze, Adorno says. (AT, 111.)

The above means that moral and aesthetic feelings are closely connected in mimetic impulses. (Reiners, 184) Since the social conditions are negative, modern art may be ugly and may contain dissonances and compulsive elements. Art is capable of maintaining the possibility of a better life only as its inverse. In Adorno’s aesthetics, this reflects the difference between classicism and modern art. If classical art attempted to render harmony with beautiful semblances or illusions, modern art breaks such semblances.

Modern art does not, however, represent the ugly as such. The mimetic impulse transforms the ugly and displeasing feelings into ciphers, symbols and hieroglyphs that help to maintain an inverse picture of the corrupted world. Adorno means that rather than attempting to make an illusion of a better world, a utopia, art should refer to its possibility with an inverse picture, a negative utopia:

“Art is no more able than theory to concretize utopia, not even negatively. A cryptogram of the new (art) is the image of collapse: only by virtue of the absolute negativity of collapse does art enunciate the unspeakable: utopia. In this collapse all stigmata of the repulsive and loathsome in modern art gather. “

“In the image of catastrophe, an image that is not a copy of the event but a cipher of its potential, the magical trace of art’s most distant prehistory reappears under the total spell, as if art wanted to prevent the catastrophe by conjuring up its image.” (AT, 32 – 33.)

Modern artworks, which are cryptograms, present their truth in the form of riddles, which demand interpretation. This is true of Anselm Kiefer’s works, as well, which I shall analyze more closely below. They also use ciphers, symbols that remind us of historical catastrophes. This also explains the expressive quality of Kiefer’s works. He uses coarse and harsh materials, such as bare metal, lead, sand, dirt, dried wood, and deceased plants. The landscape formed out of these rough materials is the ground as such, bare wasteland whose harshness and austerity is bodily touchable. Though Kiefer’s works often take the form of landscapes, they refuse to make an illusion of reality, a semblance, because they do not depict a certain site or place, they are simply an image of collapse.

Anselm Kiefer: Mutatuli (1991)

The Truth Content and Language-Character in Art
Adorno argues that all remarkable works of art are enigmas, yet they possess a truth content that can be resolved. The enigma demands an objective solution or interpretation in each and every work; no general method of interpretation exists. The truth content “can only be achieved by philosophical reflection.” (AT, 128, 256) Although no artwork can be reduced to the rationalistic propositions presented about it, each artwork turns toward interpretative reason. “No message is to be squeezed out of Hamlet, this in no way impinges on its truth content”, Adorno says. (AT, 128.)

Truth in art and the artwork’s appearance as a riddle are again dialectical counterparts in Adorno’s thought. He believes that though it is necessary to interpret the work’s truth content, it is not identical with simple propositional truth. Truth in art is not the same as the truth or untruth of propositional sentences. An artwork’s meaning cannot be rendered in propositions; art does not attempt to assure.

The truth content of an artwork is related to its organizing element, which Adorno identifies as its affinity to language (“Sparch-ähnlichkeit”). This means, that the elements of the artwork have been organized in a manner that is capable of creating meaning; in this sense artworks are comparable with language. An artifact is composed of material elements, objects; in art, however, these objects are not considered as mere objects. What counts are the relations between the objects, the “configuration” that they form. Adorno claims that the language-character is present in all works of art, not only in those which use language as a medium.

The British philosopher Simon Jarvis has crystallized this by saying that, just as in “language, whose elements, morphemes or phonemes and lexical items which they constitute are not atoms of fixed meaning which are then simply added up to produce a sum of meaning, but are variably meaningful and meaningful only in relation to other morphemes or phonemes. In an analogous way Adorno argues, works of art organize elements which have no fixed or essential meaning in themselves into a meaningful relation.” (Jarvis, 103.) The language character of art, which is a structural feature, functions as a crucial part in art’s rationality.

The language-character of art does not exclude its “mimetic aspect”. In addition to the organizing or classifying function, the affinity to language maintains the mimetic or expressive aspect. The two aspects of language, the classifying or cognitive and the mimetic aspects, are complementary. Jarvis points out that the mimetic characteristic, which refers to the subjective surplus in expression, is normally omitted in philosophy or it is simply held as a-rational or meaningless. This is not the case in Adorno’s theory, wherein the mimetic impulse is the triggering force, and the organizing principle is subjected to it.

From a philosophical point of view it is crucial that the language-character of art, which actually relates to the structure of individual works of art, is an objective characteristic. Due to the objective organizing or structural features, it is possible, according to Jarvis, to say that art is an attempt to know; artworks have a cognitive content. The truth content of art, which stems from its ability to organize reality, also allows the receiver to address the truth of the artifact irrespective of the artist’s subjective conceptions, which may or may not be true. The truth content in art is not dependent on the artist’s or the receiver’s knowledge.

Language-Character and Truth in Anselm Kierfer’s Art
In the following I attempt to address the truth in Anselm Kiefer’s art by using Adorno’s conceptual tools. Kiefer’s subject matter is history, yet his relationship to historicism is problematical. As an artist, Anselm Kiefer (1945 –) belongs to the post-war generation from whom the past was dispelled. While the general cultural attitude in Germany was reluctant to remember the past after World War II, there were some intellectuals, Adorno among them, who reminded society of it. Kiefer also responded to the challenge of the quieted history. His works address historical turning points, taboos, and conflicts; things that history has kept silent.

While Kiefer’s early works considered German history, today his subject matter consists of history at large: it includes ingredients of both the oldest and most recent history of mankind. Among his subject matter there are narratives from the Bible and Judaism as well as tales of Greek mythology and Renaissance theories of the origin and structure of the world. [1] Though Kiefer’s subject matter refers to historical narratives and documents, his relationship to history, i.e. what is considered to be ‘the historical truth’, is problematical. In his works he questions the universal history and attempts to rewrite history from an authentic perspective.

History has been preserved for us in written form, as texts, the importance of which is compelling and heavy in Western culture (and in other cultures such as Judaism, as well). Kiefer’s works often include books, whose pages have been prepared of lead; this symbolically emphasizes the weight of history and knowledge. History, or that which has been written, however, is only present in the works’ titles or as textual fragments within the works; the works themselves do not illustrate or represent any historical events.

If the works do not illustrate history, the question arises: how can an artwork, a tableau by Kiefer, rewrite history and even possess truth content? The answer lies in the language-character of art. The works show us material objects, which do not serve only as artistic productions: Kiefer uses everyday readymade objects, such as miniatures of warships, airplanes, women’s clothing, ladders and other domestic equipment. They all have a concrete historical meaning, which does not necessarily coincide with the meaning of the textual fragments that are also used as material in his works.

Actually, the written elements and the material objects, which may contradict each other, are two distinct kinds of material out of which the works have been assembled. Sometimes the objects that function as supplements to the text transform the content of the text; for example, Jacob’s Dream (2008) shows a broken ladder. Other times, the textual element is complex and refuses interpretation. Kiefer’s works, which consist of material objects and written, textual elements, are typical cryptograms; they convey their message in cipher.

Anselm Kiefer: Jakobs Traum (2008)

Kiefer’s work Mutatuli (1991), for example, consists of flowers, deceased tulips installed on a leaden surface. The tableau looks like a deserted landscape with its waned tulips, only the word ‘Mutatuli’ poses an enigma that urges toward further interpretation. The word refers to the Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker, who was known for his criticism of the colonialist politics of his country. Dekker used the Latin pseudonym Multatuli, which means “I have suffered much”. [2] The work is first of all an homage to Dekker. The mimetic impulse shows compassion towards Dekker and his works. However, this is not the whole truth content of the work, because the artist has purposefully misspelled the name as Mutatuli which now comes close to the meaning of mutilare, to mutilate. Herein then, what has been written is not reliable. Thus, the tableau can also be interpreted as an homage to those soldiers, perhaps, who have been mutilated and lay under the ground. A noteworthy detail is that the deceased tulips remain bulbs which are the beginning of new life.
Another example of the language-character of art is Kiefer’s Schwartze Flocken (2006), Black Flakes. Its title refers to an eponymous poem by Jewish writer, Paul Célan; the subject of the poem is the holocaust. In the middle of the work there is a book made of lead out of which lines from the poem float to the surface of the tableau. The lines have been written between rows of dry branches that form an endless landscape, a deserted vineyard – or is it rather an ancient battle scene and a military cemetery? The mimetic impulse, the work’s expressive quality, stems again from sorrow rather than from positive expectations. The dirty landscape is covered with black flakes of coal.

Anselm Kiefer: Schwarze Flocken (2006)In spite of its written source, Célan’s poem about holocaust, the truth content of Kiefer’s work is not unanimously identical with that of the poem. Namely: the concrete material elements, the branches, which seem to transform into letters, resist such truth content. The branches are writing too, marks that resemble the ancient German runic alphabets that the Nazis used for their purposes, for instance, in the imitative typography of the SS symbol. As a result, the work intimates as its truth content that the landscape is not only a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust, but also a memorial for the soldiers who were victims, as well. Herein Kiefer’s work beautifully affirms Adorno’s argument that all artworks are writing.

Artworks express their truth like enigmas. Adorno comments that, “[a]rtworks share with enigmas the duality of being determinate and indeterminate. They are question marks, not univocal even through synthesis. Nevertheless their figure is so precise that it determines the point where the work breaks off. As in enigmas, the answer is both hidden and demanded by the structure.” (AT, 124.) He continues that, “[t]hrough organization artworks [which are material objects] become more than they are”. All artworks are writing due to the organization of their material. They are hieroglyphs for which the code has been lost; nevertheless this loss has a positive effect on their content.

The truth content is not based only on the structure of the work, but also depends on the historical meaning of the material used in the work. The materials are not timeless or outside history. They are subject to destruction and oblivion like history itself. Adorno says that the truth content of art is not outside history; the works themselves are the history that has crystallized within them.

Conclusion: The Notion of Truth in Adorno
Adorno’s aesthetic theory offers an opportunity to evaluate the truth in art historically in materialistic terms. His theory contradicts many contemporary theories of art that refute the truth in art. However, as the truth content has neither a connection to propositional truth nor to the correspondence or coherence of theories of truth, a question arises about what kind of truth is at stake in art. Adorno has not presented any theory of truth.

Albrect Wellmer has assessed the question and argued that Adorno’s negative concept of truth is difficult to understand and to apply operationally. According to Wellmer, Adorno’s concept of truth can only be understood metaphorically. Wellmer has made a proposal that the truth content could be developed into inter-subjective communicative practice composed of diffuse, a-rational materials. Such a practice could lead, he suggests, into an open, control-free state of communication. Such an interpretation of truth would however be impossible for Adorno. (See: Jarvis, 113 – 114.)

Simon Jarvis has pointed out that Wellmer’s proposal of diffuse communicative practice is in contradiction with Adorno’s idea of truth, wherein the different elements of truth – its moral-pragmatic, negative (apophantic) and endeetic elements – function as a constellation in a non-hierarchic manner. If the communicative practice would be preferred, it would necessarily lead to a hierarchy within the concept of truth.

[1] There are references to different genres of knowledge such as theology and alchemy. It has been said that Kiefer wants to preserve and maintain all existing knowledge in his works.
[2]Dekker is famous for his criticism of Dutch colonialism in East Asia.

Theodor W. Adorno: Aesthetic Theory, Ästhetische Theorie, 1970. Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor, 1997: University of Minnesota Press.
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno: Dialectic of Enlightenment, Die Dialektik der Aufklärung, 1944/47.
Simon Jarvis: Adorno, A Critical Introduction, 1998: Polity Press
Ilona Reiners: “Materialistinen ethos. Mimesiksen jälki Theodor W. Adornon moraalifilosofiassa”. Teoksessa Ilona Reiners ja Anita Seppä (toim.): Etiikka ja Estetiikka, 1998: Gaudeamus. S. 171 – 193.
Anselm Kiefer: Alussa, In the Beginning. Works from the Private Collection of Hans Grothe, 2015: Serlachius Museums, Wienand.