To understand what he’s about, you have to situate yourself in fin de siècle Vienna (from around 1890 until right before WWI in 1914), and then in Berlin during the Weimar Republic (from the end of WWI around 1918 until 1933, when Hitler took over). There was all kinds of intellectual foment and turmoil. In the arts, it was the birth of “modernism” – Klimt for painting, Schoenberg for music, Gropius for architecture, Musil for literature, etc. These were the first serious cultural developments since, say, the Enlightenment. While today there is a plethora of different aesthetic theories, modernism is their common ancestor.
Hand-in-hand with this went political instability. Germany in particular had dozens of political parties, everywhere on the ideological spectrum. One of the big drivers of debate (both pro and con) was Karl Marx’s theory about the inexorable demise of capitalism. Marx was inspired by the grim conditions of the industrial revolution in Great Britain. His conjectures about the oppression of the masses by the elite, and how workers inevitably would throw off their chains, led directly to the Russian Revolution.
Many found Marx, or Marxist-like ideology, especially appealing, in particular during the depression that hit Germany in the 1930s. It came to permeate not only political theory, but also sociology, aesthetics, and all forms of speculation about culture.
The reason why it’s important to know about these connections is because Adorno is a peculiar combination of Marxist social theory, together with what only can be characterized as Marxist aesthetic theory. For some reason, Germans were particularly susceptible to this tendency (though the French are a close runner-up).
Much of what he wrote is incomprehensible. It may have made sense in context, but when you look at it now and try to deconstruct it, you can’t make heads or tails of it, or for that matter, even discern what they were worried about. Writers about sociology, culture, aesthetics and what not from that period tend to lose their way in a thicket of archaic (or invented) words, mixed-up syntax, and unclear exposition.
To the extent it can be understood, it is implausible. Art is not the “cultural expression” of the history or socio-economic conditions of a people, or the outcome of an historical process, as Adorno contends. It can be inspired by that (Orozco), or have cultural references to it (just about everybody – e.g., Chagoya), but it is not a precipitate of it. Nor does it arise from the repression of individual instinct, or the sublimation of cultural imperatives (Freud).
Of course all works of art, whatever they might be, have to be interpreted within the context from which they arose (like everything else). Particular styles (i.e., works that are paradigmatic of a style), only can occur at a certain point in space and time. They are inspired by, and possibly only intelligible within, those circumstances. Analogy: look at Ptolemy versus Copernicus, Newton versus Einstein – the successor theory in effect wipes out its predecessor. What with media, technology, etc., it wouldn’t be possible to recreate the circumstances that lead to the birth of modernism, and the astonishing creativity of the people who were around then. Nor, reciprocally, would they understand the first thing about what’s going on, now.
This being so, all works of art are the result of individual initiative and creative expression. The skill of the artist is to create a plausible alternative universe that compels the viewer/listener/experience to become a part of it, for however long they linger within it. In a way, the whole point of art, at least interesting art, is to create a new texture, a new interface, between the imagination and the world. Art is “non-referential,” it’s not “about” anything, and the idea that it is “true” or “false” (in relationship to “the world”) is absurd.