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“Mimesis of the Hardened and Alienated”: Social Practice as Business Model


We have invented ourselves, so to speak, the social contradictions that made our freedom necessary. Where invented doesn’t mean made up but found and translated the facts that reveal their dormant political dimension.
—Claire Fontaine, “Human Strike Within the Field of Libidinal Economy”

The title “Mimesis of the Hardened and Alienated” comes from a phrase used in an essay by Theodor Adorno called “Situation,” published in his book Aesthetic Theory. In this essay Adorno writes, “Only by immersing its autonomy in society's imagerie can art surmount the heteronomous market. Art is modern art through mimesis of the hardened and alienated; only thereby, and not by the refusal of a mute reality, does art become eloquent; this is why art no longer tolerates the innocuous.” We can make some extrapolations here, which may not necessarily be Adorno's own. One is that part of modern art's very being consisted of emulating that which was alien to it. That is, its autonomy was based upon a relation of troubled proximity—whether of rejection or mimesis—to the banal social, economic, material facts from which it operated at a remove. A degree of “near distance” was necessary to provide it with new resources drawn from “alienated reality,” which it would process into increasingly less formal and independent articulations as the transition to the “contemporary” made its impact felt.

This kind of mimesis, as we can observe in the history of art since the decline of its “modern” moment—a decline which was well under way by the time Adorno wrote the above in the 1960s—not only gradually takes over art's formal imperatives, but also ends up incorporating the social character of the artist and the productive relations which sustain her. This, arguably, signals the shift from modern to contemporary art, to a situation in which art is no longer a separate domain strategically distancing itself from or connecting to an “alienated reality” at will, but a specialized niche within that reality—art that is contemporary with its time, a time which is strictly harnessed to the temporal rhythms of the market, or more broadly, to capital accumulation.

Another extrapolation would be that the intolerance of the innocuous that Adorno imputes to art can otherwise be coded as a constant modernizing and revolutionizing of the techniques, social relations, and formal ambitions of art. This tendency can perhaps be said to follow the “dialectic of Enlightenment”—art constantly strives to overcome its inherited limits, but the metaphysics of art stay in place and prevent it from fully doing so. Following through on this modernizing logic might also entail art doing away with itself in a moment of enlightenment-cum-immolation.

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