I once knew a monster who said she could not read Proust because there were no figures in Proust with whom she could identify…Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Aesthetics’ (1958-59)
Getting an audience to identify themselves in a work – ‘being seen’ – is one of the only reasons why art is commissioned, celebrated or even allowed to exist today. In other words, the 21st century world belongs to Adorno’s monster: we just live in it.
The 20th century’s definition of art, as expressed by another Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse, where ‘art is committed to that perception of the world which alienates individuals from their functional existence and performance in society—it is committed to an emancipation of sensibility’, is dead.
Art has been put to work. It must be useful, and seen to be useful; it must put its shoulder to the wheel of individual, regional or national self-improvement.
The ugly word for this ugly idea is instrumentalisation – one of many ugly things that came of age in Britain during the Blair years. This was the era in which Labour forced arts institutions to justify increased subsidies by finding spurious evidence of their social good. Art had to foster ‘community cohesion’ and fight crime. Some councils went so far as to claim, with a completely straight face, that art could reduce coronary heart disease. The principles of Soviet art were sophisticated by comparison.
A quarter of a century on, economic and social justifications for art are the only justifications in town. So there’s something absurd about the convulsions over the Arts Council’s recent edicts. Their reallocation of funds to the rest of the country, their forced resettlement of English National Opera to beyond the M25 (though now pushed back to 2029), is not, as some would have it, the consequence of the Tories’ non-existent ‘levelling-up agenda’.