5 min read

Aesthetic Theory (Taylor's Version)

Aesthetic Theory (Taylor's Version)

Adorno wrote, “The work of art still has something in common with enchantment: it posits its own, self-enclosed area, which is withdrawn from the context of profane existence, and in which special laws apply. Just as in the ceremony the magician first of all marked out the limits of the area where the sacred powers were to come into play, so every work of art describes its own circumference which closes it off from actuality.”– a criticism lobbed (unfairly) at Taylor Swift is that the narratives inher music are, both, naive and fantastical, yet to a commited fanbase, they are relateable; a wholesome version of a world where a wounded young person can sublimate their pain into meaningful works of art, not to prolong their suffering, but to resolve it, to put it in the context of catharsis, rather than lingering, the enchantment of solidarity with a massive group of people also experiencinga deep, intimate kind of hurt, using the internal grammar of Swift's lyrics. You don't have to relate to them to understand this in principle. There's something to be said, however, for a generation of fans raised with the evolving nature of her art, and that's what this is about– a holistic view of works of art, the nature of culture creation, and the role of capitalism, ownership of cultural output, in our mass culture.

A couple years ago, Swift began re-recording her earlier albums for a variety of reasons, but the important one, as an artist, was to become the owner of her own work again; by re-recording the albums, she, not the labels, would own the master recordings. Adorno would likely appreciate the way that Swift's re-recordings are a form of "autonomous art." By this, Adorno meant that art should be created for its own sake, not for the sake of profit or fame. The fact that Swift is re-recording her albums for the sake of artistic integrity, rather than for financial gain, would likely be seen by Adorno as a positive thing; “The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory: all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu.”– the consumer should not have been content to listen to the music, but to engage with it, and to follow Swift on this journey was not only to engage with the work, but to engage in combat with the record industry in solidarity with artists.

“If in keeping with Hegel’s insight all feeling related to an aesthetic object has an accidental aspect, usually that of psychological projection, then what the work demands from its beholder is knowledge, and indeed, knowledge that does justice to it: The work wants its truth and untruth to be grasped.”– this is, as Adorno might suggest, an object lesson in art being more than about the artistic output, but the conditions under which it was created, for what purpose, implicit and explicit, conscious and unconscious; why should it matter that Swift own the masters, to what do the labels attribute their entitlement to them, and so on.

I've written extensively about the mass culture problem as Adorno saw it, I don't believe there's very much wrong with it, as even worse than Adorno could have imagined has it bore out; "The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics.  Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organising, and labelling consumers.  Something is provided for all so that none may escape; the distinctions are emphasised and extended.  The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification.  Everybody must behave (as if spontaneously) in accordance with his previously determined and indexed level, and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type.  Consumers appear as statistics on research organisation charts, and are divided by income groups into red, green, and blue areas; the technique is that used for any type of propaganda."– it should be fairly self-evident that a fanbase enthusiastic about an artist engaging in this sort of "autonomous art" but also responsively to a fanbase (so, both, consumers dictating against industry, but also mass culture being responsive to consumers without dictating the art itself) is an uncommon example of commercially riskless art taking the extreme risk of alienating the industry that enriched Swift in the quasi-Faustian bargain to begin with, her platform for her rights to her work in perpetuity; one problem, she always had this option to take it back, if she'd be so bold– sit on it and spin, Mephisto.

"Kant said that there was a secret mechanism in the soul which prepared direct intuitions in such a way that they could be fitted into the system of pure reason.  But today that secret has been deciphered.  While the mechanism is to all appearances planned by those who serve up the data of experience, that is, by the culture industry, it is in fact forced upon the latter by the power of society, which remains irrational, however we may try to rationalise it; and this inescapable force is processed by commercial agencies so that they give an artificial impression of being in command."

In this scenario, however, the command is truly where captialism claims it always has been– between creator and consumer; to admit this hasn't been the case undermines the core metaphysical proposition of how capitalism purports to work (supply, demand, voting with one's dollars, etc.) rather than the reality that one must be satisfied with the menu, to paraphrase Adorno, and spend accordingly. To retaliate against Swift is to admit this isn't true, so in this way, she's subverted the artificial impression, even if the goal were purely commercially interested on her part, it's the demand of consumers and the prerogative of the artist that is materially relevant to this transaction– there's other artists pushed by these labels, these producers, and this is what all involved prefer.

It's important to note that none of this is radical, one cannot fight the system from the inside of it, but this is a rare example of where influence can force a system that thrives on non-compliance, on exploitation, to observe its own rules, admit to a foundation of exploitation, for the sake of its continuity– on the one hand, it doesn't deal a blow, but it does set the public up to deal one. More than perhaps even the Napster-era, the mainstream is now discussing the question of ownership in art, who makes art, who should own it, who should dictate its access and release and what role should the labels play, and it's due in no small part to mega acts like Swift being clear about who is an artist and who merely profits from the extraction from them.