– Spring/Summer 1999

Afterword: The End of Utopia

Charles Esche

I suppose it can seem a little trite to write about the end of something, the apocalyptic tone of the declaration seems too properly commensurate with the fin de siècle mood that unfortunately pervades almost everything today. Regardless, we know that the end, or at least the decline of categories has always been important for art and aesthetics. Art tries to think these categories of decline as categories of transition. It was this a priori that led Adorno to open his Aesthetic Theory with the now famous declaration that 'It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, nor its inner life, nor its relation to the world, nor even its right to exist'. This uncertainty is, in part, the result of art's failure to free itself from outside determination, a determination with which modern art, ever since the failure of romanticism, has by necessity found itself at war. As failure has defined and figured modern art since its very birth in order to negate its history of failure, art must, as Adorno says, seek refuge in its own negation, hoping to survive through its death. An anxiety of influence with an attendant fetish for the new is, in this light, only a symptom of this failure, or rather of the failure to properly acknowledge the failure that is increasingly at the heart of art's identity. In the wake of its own failure, then, art incorporates it into its very appearance, so that art becomes a witness not to the achievement of freedom, or Utopia, but to the continuation of its failure ever to arrive. But what then of freedom, what then of