The concept of art is located in a historically changing constellation of elements; it refuses definition. Its essence cannot be deduced from its origin as if the first work were a foundation on which everything that followed were constructed and would collapse if shaken. The belief that the first artworks are the highest and purist is warmed-over romanticism; with no less justification it could be claimed that the earliest artistic works are dull and impure in that they are not yet separated from magic, historical documentation, and such pragmatic aims as communication over great distances by means of calls or horn sounds; the classic conception of art gladly made use of such arguments. In bluntly historical terms, the facts blur. [From Aesthetic Theory]
Who can say what art is? Besides philosophers and critics, I mean. We like to tell you exactly what you should think about art and literature and music and the like, but we don't agree with each other, do we? Nor do we even like to agree.
We don't agree about the concept of art in part because we're not all really talking about the same thing when we use the word art. Each of us has latched on to one of many concepts of art offered in history. For my part, when I wrote about art, I referred mostly to modern art, which is itself a broad term with many uses.
There is no essence of art that rises above all history and escapes all change. Art has more than one direction; there's more than one sense of what makes something beautiful. Some definitions of art don't even care about beauty in the first place.
There's no use looking for historical progress in art, either. You won't be able to figure out what art is by going back and looking at the first works of art, nor can you find the height of art in what's being made today, most of which is garbage produced to stupefy the masses so they'll buy more junk. (I'm looking at you, Michael Bay.)
The more brazenly society is transformed into a totality in which it assigns everything, including art, to its place, the more completely does art polarize into ideology and protest; and this polarization is hardly to art's advantage. Absolute protest constrains it and carries over to its own raison d'être; ideology thins out to an impoverished and authoritarian copy of reality. [From Aesthetic Theory]
I attended a jazz performance once, after which, strolling through the lobby, I overheard two poor souls discussing the purpose of music. One asked the other, "What is the place of music in society?" And the other gave some reply he'd probably read in some magazine at the dentist's office. I wanted to walk over them and shake them both out of their complacency. Art shouldn't have a place in society. That is not its reason for existing. That is not its truth.
Art cannot escape society: it's made from within a society, and it's shaped by a mind socially taught and by hands socially trained. Artists make use of the tools and techniques of artistic movements, but art will only serve society if it can critique society. To critique society, it must not fit too comfortably within society. The truth of art must be other than the prevailing truth in society.
Translation: art shouldn't just tell you everything is great, and life is as it should be. Art should be what you see or feel what's wrong with society—because trust me, a lot of things are wrong with society.
Society, of course, does not like this. The dominant social order wants affirmation, not critique. It wants its art to represent its ideology—its way of thinking. For modern, capitalistic society, this ideology is exchange value. So it pushes art to make artworks in its image; it wants art that supports the idea of exchange value.
Real artists want to push back against this, but this pushback can go too far. Art isn't really art if its protest becomes too explicit and absolute. If it does that, it just turns into politics, because it's playing entirely by society's rules—and not by art's rules. If it does that, then society wins, because its authority is affirmed... and the domination will continue.
Art needs to be critical, but it needs to be art.
For ruling consciousness, any consciousness that would have the world other than it is always seems chaotic because it deviates from a petrified reality. Inevitably those who rail loudest against the anarchy of modern art, which for the most part hardly exists, convince themselves of what they presume to be the nature of their enemy on the basis of crude errors at the simplest level of information; indeed, there is no responding to them, because what they have decided in advance to reject they are not willing to experience in the first place. [From Aesthetic Theory]
Lots of people complain that modern art is chaotic or confusing or seemingly formless. They don't like deviation from plotlines they can follow, or melodies they can whistle, or shapes they can recognize. Modern society is very ordered, and people in modern society want art to reflect that order.
Modern art, simply by being different from this order, disorients people. Rather than face this disorientation, people run away from it and ridicule the art that triggered it. "My six-year-old could have painted that," they say... not that their six-year-old has actually done such a thing.
The fact is that these people don't understand what they're ridiculing. They don't have the technical mastery to give form to content. They know only what they've been told, and they've accepted with the faith of children. Modern art has taken away their comforting blanket, and they don't feel comfortable without it.
Art keeps itself alive through its social force of resistance; unless it reifies itself, it becomes a commodity. Its contribution to society is not communication with it but rather something extremely mediated: It is resistance in which, by virtue of inner-aesthetic development, social development is reproduced without being imitated. [From Aesthetic Theory]
Art resists social domination simply by being different from what society thinks is rational. To resist, it doesn't have to offer opinions on instances of social domination, and it doesn't have to talk about how society ought to change politically, culturally, or economically. For a work of art, resistance is already kind of built in: art doesn't really have a social purpose. Its purpose is its lack of social purpose, or its "functionlessness." Translation: art is a privileged, special realm related to but outside of the social and political reality.
That makes it dangerous—and political and social reality can strike back. It can take work of art and turn them into commodities. With a little marketing, today's functionless artwork can be tomorrow's mass-produced fad. It's sort of like how Che's face is now printed on millions of T-shirts from Urban Outfitters. Che is pretty much just a personal brand now.
Nothing is sacred, and no artwork is safe. Once it becomes just a commodity, an artwork loses its truth because it's not longer opposing the dominant social order (as a commodity, it's now part of the dominant social order).
Probably no important artwork ever corresponded completely with its genre. [From Aesthetic Theory]
If artworks stand unique and peculiar next to the sameness of mass society, then it stands to reason that they wouldn't perfectly fit into the box of an artistic genre, either. You can describe important artworks in terms of the genre in which they (mostly) fall, but there's something about them and the specialness of their form that rises above what they have in common with other works.
What I'm saying is that every good tragedy, every good comedy, and every good novel is different. Sure, they have things in common, but it would be a mistake to just assume that they're all just rule-following examples of a fixed, unchanging genres.
Although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the conscious and unconscious state of the millions towards which it is directed, the masses are not primary, but secondary, they are an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery. The consumer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object. [From "The Culture Industry Reconsidered," in The Culture Industry]
Sure, the advertisements that bombard you every single day want you to fixate on your own fine self (they want you to want to own whatever they're selling), but I've got a newsflash for you: advertisers don't care about you or about satisfying your needs.
Your needs and wants and your desires and dreams amount to nothing more than variables in their capitalist ventures. You count only as much as you're their money in the bank. They'll shape you by telling you what you should like and by giving it to you with limited commercial interruption—but only so they can sell you more stuff and keep you under their spell.
But don't worry: you're really free. Just look at all the stuff you can buy.
The entire practice of the culture industry transfers the profit motive naked onto cultural forms. Ever since these cultural forms first began to earn a living for their creators as commodities in the market-place they had already possessed something of this quality. But then they sought after profit only indirectly, over and above their autonomous essence. New on the part of the culture industry is the direct and undisguised primacy of a precisely and thoroughly calculated efficacy in its most typical products. [From "The Culture Industry Reconsidered," in The Culture Industry]
Even the artist has to make a living. Any artwork with a price tag is a commodity to some extent. What defines the culture industry isn't costs and sales, or even profit; it's the fact that the whole shebang is aimed at generating profit. The artistic forms and content the culture industry produces are aimed solely at filling up the cash register, now and in the future. It isn't about quality.
The culture industry makes products for consumers, but it does so in a way that prepares consumers to eagerly consume both current and future products. Movie studios wouldn't keep making Transformers movies if the public didn't happily eat that junk... over and over and over again.
The phrase, the world wants to be deceived, has become truer than had ever been intended. People are not only, as the saying goes, falling for the swindle; if it guarantees them even the most fleeting gratification they desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to them. They force their eyes shut and voice approval, in a kind of self-loathing, for what is meted out to them, knowing fully the purpose for which it is manufactured. Without admitting it they sense that their lives would be completely intolerable as soon as they no longer clung to satisfactions which are none at all. [From "The Culture Industry Reconsidered," in The Culture Industry]
As my buddy Marcuse has said, mass culture succeeds when it creates false needs and convinces people that those needs are real—and really theirs. People then think they're free because they have the means to fulfill those needs. They can buy the latest smart phone and video game system; they can go to the grocery store and pick from 50 brands of processed sugar disguised as cereal; they can even get the latest designer clothing featured in GQ or Vogue.
What people don't realize or want to realize is that they're not in control and they're not free. They choices and desires are not their own. They are like puppets, moving with the intentions and designs of the culture industry.
A lot of people recognize this but go along with it anyway, content with gratification, even though it comes with the domination of their mind and hearts. Look! A new Star Wars movie! Look! Jennifer Lawrence fell down again! Look! Someone on Twitter said something offensive! Who cares about people suffering from poverty, disease, and war? Who has the time to care? Who has that kind of freedom?