I've always been fascinated by the following constellated section of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, probably because phenomenology is intuitively easier to get to grips with than a drawn out critical theory of an artwork.

enter image description here

Maybe this is more about the limits of phenomenology than a very useful way to explicate what the "enigma" of art is. But:

  • does this (I think) need to keep thinking through art, tell us anything about what the enigma of art is: specifically, is it how the artwork can tell us about the (falsity of the) social whole?
  • can the unfolding of the art work as social criticism ever come to a halt, either for an individual, or as a tendency within art? i.e. can there be a termination of further enlightenment to come, either from future art or criticism.
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    Somehow your last question reminds me of Derrida in The Truth in Painting, it might be worth looking into that
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 13:44
  • 1
    I find it interesting and suggestive that Adorno reverses the gaze; can you add a reference to the quote? Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 23:41
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    it's from p168 of aesthetic theory
    – user6917
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 11:38

4 Answers 4


To answer the latter question, an artwork that is still alive does not terminate this social criticism.

The critique of freedom in society will be present when the universal and particular yawn apart - and all autonomous artworks thus engage in this criticism. In another part of Aesthetic Theory, Adorno claims that art would cease if historical suffering had never taken place.

So in other words, engaging in social critique constitutive of art's utopian character in that it looks for what is better - for the promise of reconciliation. The constant "thinking through" keeps the dialectic going - it does not result in the closure of the dialectic through a positive identity.

The former question is a little bit more difficult. This thinking through does tell us more about the enigma.

The German translation of enigma in aesthetic theory is puzzle. So this thinking through without reaching a determinate end is a disposition of the enigma. The second part - telling us about the falsity of the social whole - I am not so sure of.

His critique of phenomenology in this passage does show his problem with having complete knowledge of the artwork. The artwork, in being enigmatic cannot be completely grasped. You could say that since the enigma rejects conceptualisation, that art refuses to be subsumed by an idealistic philosophy, and thus, critiques its totalitarian character.

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    – J D
    Commented Mar 24, 2020 at 18:00
  • Not quite understanding, but there is definitely something here. Thanks.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 9 at 2:02

"It brings thinking experience to a halt."
This is the point, as best I know, of art: the experience called Aporia:

a logical impasse or contradiction especially : a radical contradiction in the import of a text or theory that is seen in deconstruction as inevitable. (Merriam-Webster definition)

Most of human experience is simply not amenable to rational / discursive thought. I hope I don't need a reference to support that assertion. You can't think logically about simple experiences like taste or smell, yet they can rouse very deep responses of memory or feeling. There is no way to rationally defend practices of dance, pottery, poetry, music or visual arts. To try is to come to an impasse as surely as trying to describe a flavor to someone who has never tasted that thing. Why bother?

Art is not simply an experience, even to a casual observer, because it is a made thing, not just a flavor or noise. So we want to understand what is behind it. But that would be like wanting to know why someone is happy, or wistful, or why they cry when listening to a particular piece of music, even for the hundredth time. Art is not about discussion, social criticism (except in a very obvious way) or any other thing than some one person's individual experience which they wanted to convey in a non-verbal and non-rational way.

Who would try to then apply tools of reason or words to that? Only a very deluded person.

  • A question with one upvote that sat for 4 years with no answers, then got one answer with no upvotes, then I added my answer, and someone came by months later and downvoted it without any comment at all. Is something expected to be learned from this? If not, why perform any action at all?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 23:47
  • And now it has been upvoted. This must be the enigma of SE.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 23, 2021 at 23:51
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    I've helped your enquiry into The enigma of the art of SE 😉
    – Rushi
    Commented May 9 at 2:23

The quote suggests that we cannot state the enigma of art purely in terms based on our experience of the artwork. Artworks do not "gaze" at us, we do them, except non-propositionally, which is a function of the social criticism artworks can generate, that artworks are more important, or at least vaster, than us, which is utopian.

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    A Van Eyck can gaze at you across 6 centuries and keep you awake at night months later. Like "winds untangled from the Sphinx, which holds the desert for routine questioning."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 9 at 2:10

I believe one can define such enigma et terma art as the mechanism to which the art came to be;

Time, mind and body in an ephemeral frame to which one creates some work [of art].

The mechanism to which a work of art was created is by virtue of the fact of ones experience in other words it is a product of some experience combined with that of some other imagination.

Humans have 2 hemispheres to our brains ... a trait which makes humans bipolar by virtue of that fact and giving us the ability to lament.

Art to a child is not art to an artist and one artists masterpiece is not such to may others.

To each their own individualistic and unique experiences, few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own heats.

A doodle is art, Graffiti is art etc. A murder although a terrible act can be considered art to a psycopath.

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    You said, "Time, mind and body in an ephemeral frame". So beautiful.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 21, 2022 at 10:45

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