The art of saying no: Adorno's aesthetic negativity in the work of Richard Serra, Bob Dylan and Robert Creeley
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The Art of Saying No is grounded in the idea that Adorno's aesthetics (as expressed not only in his Aesthetic Theory, but across and throughout his interdisciplinary body of work) can be characterized in terms of what Christophe Menke calls aesthetic negativity. The thesis of aesthetic negativity holds that art does its work by means of its capacity to dialectically negate, or enact its distinction from, the site of its happening. As I see it, the aim of this dialectical negation is the liberation of the site of the work of art from the ideological forces that seek dominion over it. I use the term "site" to indicate not only the physical spaces in which works of art are enacted (the physical site of Richard Serra's Titled Arc, for instance, is New York City's Federal Plaza), but also the artwork's historically contingent discursive context. In Chapter 3, for example, which is focused on protest music and the public response to Bob Dylan's transition from acoustic folk to electric rock, the primary discursive site is American popular culture in the 1960s. It is important to note that the temporality of the kind of negation I identify is not always immediate. That is, since ideological forces are usually shifting, ambiguous, and subtextual, it is often the case that they only become distinct in the very moment of their negation, when they come into contradiction with the work of art. Beginning from this theoretical perspective, my project proposes three distinct sites of aesthetic conflict or opposition (one per chapter), which I characterize in terms of the practice of site-specific aesthetic negativity (or negative site specificity). The first is the controversy surrounding Richard Serra's Tilted Arc in the 1980s, the second is Bob Dylan's turn away from protest music in the middle of the 1960s, and the third is Charles Simic's review of The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley in 2007. The common feature shared by each of these sites is not only their relative contemporaneity, but also the fact that at each site the work of art's right to exist is explicitly questioned or threatened. Examining this questioning in terms of Adorno's negative aesthetics, I argue that the work of art enacted at each particular site becomes the subject of conflict, controversy, or, in the case of Richard Serra's Tilted Arc, physical violence, to the extent that it successfully distinguishes itself, or enacts its liberation from, that site. Regarding the ideological forces dominant at each respective site, the enactment of aesthetic negativity by the artworks I engage can be characterized in terms of disruption, contradiction and rejection.