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On the False Democracy of Contemporary Art


Historically there have been two methodologies of resisting the complacency of the culture industry and bourgeois society’s reliance on the judgment of taste. One was the modernist stance: it required extreme estrangement and abstaining from alienated capitalist reality; it turned the artwork into a piece, blocking perception, pleasure, or the judgment of taste, so that such work would exist in extra-social conditions rather than be perceived by a society that can never evade the capitalist economy and the cultural industry. This was the standpoint of Theodor Adorno.

Another position—the avant-garde one—resisted bourgeois culture and its traditions of connoisseurship via dissolving art within life and making life the matter of political and social transformation. Both stances reached their peak in 1960s and ’70s. Contemporary art absorbed and comprised both of them. But today these legacies—albeit reenacted, reinstituted, and revisited all the time—nevertheless lose their social and aesthetic viability.

Such a decline has reasons: modernist reductionism and rigidity long ago turned into successful abstract art production. Formalist or abstract tendencies were not able to further revolutionize their methodologies in striving to detach the piece from perceptive pleasure. Moreover, formalism’s once-extreme negative rigidity is now compelled to fit into the regime of the Kantian beauty object that produces the judgment of taste.

But what happened to the avant-garde’s rhetoric? This is even more inconsistent. The historical avant-garde’s openness toward life and politics happened to become the mainstream of critical but still institutionally commissioned art activity and resisting frameworks. This was motivated to a certain extent by the fact that the institutions themselves became self-critical, flexible, and often creative subjects of production—sometimes along with the artist or even instead of the artist.

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