Adorno and Aesthetics

mickyates Aesthetics, Art, Critical Theory, Ideas, Mick's Photo Blog, Philosophy, Photography, Post-Modern, Realism Leave a Comment

I have been reading Theodor Adorno of late, and in particular Brian O’Connor’s excellent introduction to his work. Here are a few of the many notes that I have taken on O’Connor’s book and others. I am particularily taken with his approach to ‘mimesis’.

Mimesis … is not another name for the subject-object relationship. It is the pre-conceptual human desire to imitate and to seek affinity with an other, underpinning, what we saw in Adorno’s discussion of morality, ‘the sense of solidarity with what Brecht called “tormentable bodies”. In a non-reified realization of the subject-object relationship, this desire is pursued through the activities of conceptualisation and judgment and through the correction of the content of those activities when contradictions emerge. It is in Aesthetic Theory that mimesis becomes a central theoretical principle. In that work Adorno endeavours to articulate a distinctly critical-theoretical account of the mimetic basis of art. Art is mimetic not only in its content that is, in how what it says is in some way imitative of reality but also in the aesthetic activities of performance and experience: the full range of the aesthetic realm is mimetic’. (O’Connor, 2013: 150)

Aesthetic mimesis is not just the opposite of reification, but is a diagnostic concept. It is a reference point for non-reified human behaviour.

‘Reification is the process of attributing concrete form to an abstract concept. For example, a red rose may be a reification of the concept of love. Reification is a complex idea for when you treat something immaterial – like happiness, fear, or evil – as a material thing’.

In the experience of aesthetic mimesis – imitative creativity – there is the ‘happiness of producing the world once over’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory: 339) that has almost entirely been eliminated by the reifying rationality of the social totality. Mimesis, then is a dimension of human behaviour whose origins precede the development of the aesthetic realm, whilst somehow surviving only as a vestige in an aesthetic form’. (O’Connor, 2013: 150)

It is about how the subject has a capacity to orient themselves non-instrumentally towards objects and .. an understanding of the orientation gains us a critical perspective in the current condition of experience’. (O’Connor, 2013: 151)

‘The external orientation towards objects in our knowledge gaining activities is, for them, grounded in our basic mimetic capacity. However, that capacity is not adequately exercised when knowledge becomes – as it does in modernity – a matter of constructivism: that is, when the subject seeks to generate knowledge through systems it establishes prior to engagement with objects. Constructivism is, they argue, a reversal of mimesis. It may well seek to apprehend the world but it does so by making the world fit with its systems. Writing of the notion that the world is most adequately grasped through mathematical conceptualisations they claim ‘mathematics made thought into a thing – a tool, to use its own term’. (Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: 19). Through this mimesis … thought makes the world resemble itself …‘ (O’Connor, 2013: 151)

‘In mimetic behaviour the subject loses itself in an ‘object of desire’ (Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: 27). The self driven by an affective interest in the world expands beyond itself. Constructivism, in stark contrast, is without the affective dimension. In Negative Dialectics, Adorno would go on to characterise constructivism, in the shape of idealism, as a predatorial ‘devouring’ rage against the world. Adorno and Horkheimer’s account of mimesis identifies a dimension of human engagement with the world not considered by the conventional explanation that human interest in the surrounding environment was originally motivated by practical concerns alone. Mimesis is a desire driven, transformative opportunity for the individual’. (O’Connor, 2013: 152)

‘Imitation [or mimesis] designates a relation between persons in which one accommodates to the other, identifies with the other, empathises with the other. There is an allusion here to a relation in which the surrender of the one to the example of the other does not mean a loss of self but a gain and an enrichment’. (Habermas 1984: 390).

‘This ‘imitative’ process is suggestive of Adorno’s account of non-identical experience, which involves subjects adjusting, as we saw it argued, ‘to a moment which they themselves are not’ (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 1966 :138). Adorno and Horkheimer contend that the dialectic of enlightenment eventually replaced the original mimetic immersion with conceptual structures that obviated the affective dimension. It thereby delimited the scope of the subject’s capacity to know an object: ‘Along with mimetic magic enlightenment tabooed the knowledge which really apprehends the object’ (Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: 10). Adorno and Horkheimer describe the original environmental relation as ‘purely natural existence’. (Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: 24). (O’Connor, 2013: 153).

‘Plato decried mimesis as a mere copy of a copy. But Aristotle took it as central to our learning capacity and method. It’s also central to our appreciation of art as the audience, yet these mimetic qualities are in no sense the artwork’s representational accuracy. (O’Connor, 2013: 155).

‘Adorno’s rejection of [mere] representation as a genuinely aesthetic quality leads him to a sharp repudiation of photography as as art form’. This critiquing Benjamin’. (O’Connor, 2013: 1560.

My observation – This may or may not be true, but it does frame Adorno’s non-representational principle of mimesis which underpins his view that social ideas should be treated aesthetically.

‘Adorno is not the first philosopher to characterise aesthetics as a kind of absorption in which the ego or self no longer relates experience to its objects instrumentally. What is original about Adorno’s contribution, though, is that he attempts to explain this capacity for absorption as a fundamental mimetic mode. We have already discussed the theory of that mode in some detail. Interestingly, Adorno does not defend the thesis purely theoretically. He also provides a phenomenology of aesthetic receptivity He identifies a moment in which we make the transition from non-mimetic experience to aesthetic receptivity as a moment of shock (Erschiittertuig). It is, for him, a shock precisely in its radical departure from what we take to be our normal experience:’ (O’Connor, 2013: 170).

‘The shock aroused by important works is not employed to trigger personal, otherwise repressed emotions. Rather, this shock is the moment in which recipients forget themselves and disappear into the work; it is the moment of being shaken. The recipients lose their footing‘. (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory: 244).

‘However, Adorno thinks of art’s critical relationship to society as a dimension of art per se. This relationship has nothing to do with the political or philosophical intentions of the artist. We are to think, rather, of art as being critical by virtue of its very status as art within its socio-historical reality. Adorno provides two general lines of thought on this inherently critical positionality of art towards society (1) Art’s specific intra-aesthetic motivations contrastively expose the deterministic life of purpose embodied in society (2) The dynamic of an artwork diverges from the narrow logic of reified society’. (O’Connor, 2013: 180).

(1) Art exposes the version of purposiveness that predominates in everyday life. Society is understood, by Adorno, as blind purposiveness, in which individuals gain meaning and significance only in so far as they accommodate themselves to the self-reproducing norms of society. Art, by contrast, does not have a socially functional purpose. Indeed, its anti-purposiveness is what allows the subject to experience ‘happiness’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory: 389) during aesthetic experience. The very presence of art within purposive society undermines – determinately negates ‘determinate society’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory:  226) – the social imperative that everything should be useful. What artworks offer, without intention, is ‘the critique of the practical positing of purposes’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory:  288). Aesthetic experience seems like something worth having, yet it is without any sense of purpose as defined by’ the functional processes of society’.

(2) Adorno specifies that the process of an autonomous work is ‘objectively the counter-image of enchained forces’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory: 226). The enchained forces refer to what Adorno describes as the integrational effects of the social totality. Against the pressure of conformism, in which each process is to be made entirely predictable, we have the authentic work of art. ‘Every authentic artwork is internally revolutionary’, he writes (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory: 228). And this revolutionary aspect is its innovation of aesthetic form. Through form an alternative to the grammar of experience to that offered by ‘administered society’ is produced. (O’Connor, 2013: 180).


Header Image: Theodor Adorno & Heinrich Böll. 1968. © Picture Alliance / AKG images


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A Question of Ethics

mickyates Documentary, Ethics, Ideas, Mick's Photo Blog, Photography, Street Leave a Comment

A very interesting conversation occurred recently in the RPS Documentary group on photographic ethics. Copied here with permission of the participants.

Frankie McAllister

A general question on ethics please, if people don’t mind. I’m having a debate about ethics in travel photography, which led to a debate on documentary photography. Would you say documentary photography can be a) valid and b) ethical if undertaken by an amateur, by which I mean someone who is not on paid assignment to do the project. Would be very grateful to hear some views on this – it’s a neutral question as I don’t know the answer.


As someone who would consider themselves an ‘Amateur’ (IE: Not paid for my work) I would consider the work of an ‘Amateur’ to be both valid and ethical. I would also consider myself as a ‘Documentary’ photographer – I’m interested in what is happening around me and want to record some small portion of it. During my MA course I undertook a small project based on public transport where the subject of what is or is not ethical arose’.

I concluded that yes, it was ethical to photograph members of the public in a candid manner (think Walker Evans) for the simple reason that they were already having their image captured on the security cameras of the bus or train, without them necessarily being aware of it. Now, If I’d gone on to sell that work then I might have taken a very different view but, again that would depend on the use to which the images were being put.

Frankie McAllister

Thank you. I’m trying to see the distinction between amateur and professional from the point of view of the ‘subject’. I tend to think that it is a matter of the behaviour of the photographer and the use he/she puts the images to that determines the ethical impact rather than the status of the photographer per se. That didn’t seem to be the view of the semi pro I was having the debate with and it was hard to know if that was a degree of protectionism (understandable to some extent).

Graham Wilson

Alan: “Yes, it was ethical to photograph members of the public in a candid manner (think Walker Evans) for the simple reason that they were already having their image captured on the security cameras of the bus or train, without them necessarily being aware of it.”

So because something is happening already, it makes it ETHICAL to do so again? Did your supervisor/tutor agree with that rationale?

So, for example, because women are being objectified already it is ethically OK to continue to do so…? Or because white male anthropologists have always taken pictures of indigenous people in the nude, it is ethical to continue to do so…?


Graham, no, it’s not ethical, in fact it’s a dangerous oversimplification in so many ways. But, by the same argument can street photography can ever be ethical? I think the ethics really come into it after the shutter has been pressed and you’ve seen the result – keep, destroy or publish?

I try and avoid capturing faces wherever possible, I won’t photograph children and I won’t photograph nudity. Every candid image is an internal debate that continues after the shutter is pressed but, I do have problems with issues around cctv and it’s presence in our society.

Stewart Wall

I’ve been a professional photographer for over 40 years Frankie, money does not effect the validity of the work

Frankie McAllister

Stewart, no, of course. I wasn’t saying it did. The person I was debating with thought the reverse. I’m just trying to work it all out.

Graham Wilson

Curious, Frankie … what do you mean by “valid” and why do you question whether it is “ethical”? I can understand that certain practices may not be commonplace, or might in themselves be not so much unethical as untasteful, but what is it that you feel might be intrinsically “unethical”?

Frankie McAllister

Graham – ethical in the sense of working in sensitive places or with vulnerable people, possibly altering outcomes or behaviour by your presence – this is in particular regard to travel documentary.

Graham Wilson

OK… well, firstly, I don’t see that as “travel photography”. The RPS defines TP as “images that express a feeling of a time and place, or portray a land, its people or a culture in its natural state.”

I would say that there ARE ethical questions if you are travelling to a place in order deliberately to portray sensitive places or vulnerable people. This is why the statement of intent (which, by definition, is formed before the images are taken not retrospectively as some people here seem to think) is so important. By portraying something (I’ve photographed nuclear power stations, for example), or vulnerable people (thinking of Salgado’s child labourers), then understanding your intent is crucial.

However, these are still about personal ethics, rather than those of your society. If you are doing so to provide images to a protest group, to put onto Alamy as stock photos (which could be used by a regional economic development group who think nuclear fission is OK), or to illustrate a Wikipedia page about the phenomenon, then these choices are yours and the imagery personally is both “valid” and “ethical” – others might disagree.

If your intent is to document a situation that you feel is indicative of a socially challenging issue, then personally, I would describe that as “contemporary photography” rather than “documentary” or “travel”.

There are organisations that sell travel packages to visit places where the environment, the fauna and flora, and the people are all vulnerable. They endeavour to present these trips as being of benefit to the charities hosting them because the photographers will supply copies of the images, when the reality is that most pictures will be useless and the real benefit is a few thousands dollars from a bunch of white, Anglo-Saxon, exploiters.

This issue was particularly strongly identified in 2017 as the growth of “orphanage tourism” in low-income countries had reached obscene levels. Simply because a “charity” is working in a field, this doesn’t mean that its practices are good.


I’d agree with Stewart – one’s professional status (or not) does not affect the ethics of one’s work.

Frankie McAllister

Mick, see my reply to Stewart. I’m really not suggesting that professional = bad. I’m trying to understand where the line lies and why amateur/independent is considered bad but professional isn’t. The dilemma is precisely whether one’s status affects the ethics of the work.


Frankie, I am not suggesting that there is a difference. I am simply saying that the matter of ethics applies both to professionals and amateurs alike. Both can do both good and bad things. Ethics applies to the social system to which both belong. Of course personal morality might be at odds with that, but that’s not defined by amateur vs professional.

Frankie McAllister

Mick, thank you. Yes, that’s really what I thought too (as I’ve probably said earlier in this feed). My debate was with a semi professional who essentially thought any amateur photography in documentary subjects, was photo tourism and unnecessary, therefore dubious. Whereas, if it was a ‘professional’ project, it would be justifiable. As an amateur (or you could say independent) photographer, I question that but I’m not sure.


Frankie, I did understand. It would seem to me that the ‘semi professional’ is trying to self-justify rather than really deal with ethical issues. It’s also possible that he / she is trying to justify his / her status. No doubt a professional photojournalist might face more difficult choices more often than a non professional (war, conflict for example) but the ethical issues remain constant.

Frankie McAllister

Mick, yes, I can see that. I was concerned that what genuine exploration, travel, research, documenting of situations should be denied to amateurs on grounds of ethics. I think the ethical question is huge and growing, believed that personal ethics and sensibility was more relevant than status. I’m reassured to understand from this argument that is probably right.

Graham Wilson

Mick and Stewart – “one’s professional status (or not) does not affect the ethics of one’s work.”

I’m not convinced by this argument. If I was a forensic photographer employed by the police, and as part of my work I took pictures of a corpse, then I would be doing my job and, I don’t think there’s anything ethically or morally wrong with that.

If I was an amateur who happened upon a road accident, and had nothing else to do, but started to take photographs of the scene including a body that was clearly not going to be resuscitated, then I would (I think) be acting outside the norms of society. In our present society, this would be morally unacceptable, and therefore unethical.

Have I missed something in your argument?


Graham yes, but that’s a category mistake. Why would photographing a corpse be outside the realms of society? Documentary photographers and journalists do it all the time, as do ‘citizen journalists’, bystanders at accidents (whose images get used by police) and even family members when people die.

There are of course ethical considerations in how the images are used. If the autopsy images were sold for profit, that would be unethical. But if a bystander took pictures of a traffic accident that solved a crime, that would be ethical. I contend the issue is not the profession, it’s the use.

It was Susie Linfield that noted ‘Photojournalists are responsible for the ethics of showing, but we are responsible for the ethics of seeing’. Substitute another noun for ‘photojournalist’.

I am not trying to absolve the amateur paparazzi, but some kind of blanket statement about what people can and cannot take photographs of is equivalent to predetermining what they can paint or sculpt. And again, profession is not the criteria. Personally, there are many things I would not photograph. But that’s not because I am either amateur or professional. It’s because I have moral opinions.

Graham Wilson

Thanks Mick. Yes, fair point – it’s the use that they are put to rather than the taking – in this context certainly.

Stewart Wall

Putting academia and legal statute etc to one side, ‘ethics’ are personally agreed with oneself. 

For example, I refused to do a job for the Sun newspaper because it went against my personally set code of ethical practice.

What I will concede is that professionals, in practice know the law better than non professionals. I have a qualification from the National Council for the Training of Journalists and we studied the law during that period. However this is a generalisation and there are non-professionals who know the law as well as I.


Stewart, of course, always a personal choice. And yes, some pros might know the law better than some non-pros – but not all. I’d add, though, that the law is something else. Just because the law says it is possible, does not mean it is ethically right.

For example the law allows me to take candid pictures of anyone I please in a public place (law of panorama). But I personally do not take pictures of the vulnerable unless there is a conversation and a very good reason. Even so, the use of any photographs may be subject to defamation laws etc.

I also stand by my words that personal choices are moral ones, and that whilst ethics and morals get to be used interchangeably, it’s a useful way of defining them separately, especially in academic circles and to help people understand the issues.

See my earlier post Street Photography, The Law and Data Collection

Paul Moran

Take a look at the Overton Window Theory. This shows how ‘acceptability’ changes over time.

Frankie McAllister

Paul, thank you

To reply to all the comments, which are helpful to receive. I’m in a debate with a semi professional photographer, actually about travel photography, and the crossover between photojournalism and independent or amateur travel documentary photography. The issue is about the impact a photographer has in certain situations and whether their status in any way changes that.

Stewart Wall

I often recommend this book to my students Frankie, especially when I am teaching on the documentary course. I think it will help you.

BARTHES, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

Frankie McAllister

Stewart, again, thank you for the recommendation. It’s a tricky area and I’m grateful for the discussion and pointers to writings.

Graham Wilson

I read this, which helped me see how this can get tangled up:

  1. Norms deal with standards of appropriate behavior. There is no value judgment by the individual as there is with morals. Instead society dictates what is acceptable.
  2. Morals involve value judgments and principles about right and wrong in behavior. They can be decided by individuals or society.
  3. Ethics are based upon rules of what is morally good or bad behavior. Since ethics are rules, they are generally determined by society.

The terms are all similar in that they deal with right and wrong in behavior. They are different in that norms deal with societal standards, morals involve value judgments by individuals or society, and ethics are based upon rules (usually dictated by society).

Morals are the basis for the definitions of ethics (rules based upon morally good or bad behavior) and norms (appropriate behavior is arguably, generally moral).”


Graham indeed, though my simplification would be that ethics are systemic (determined by societies, organisations, religions, cultures, philosophies) whilst morals are personal (determined by choice or belief). We tend to use the words interchangeably in everyday use, but …

Graham Wilson

Mick – Yes, however, I think that distinguishing norms from the others is useful especially in the current political environment. People are having their perspective of norms manipulated profoundly.


Agree. Though ‘norms’ may or not be questions of ethics

Graham Wilson

Mick – Yes, absolutely

Frankie McAllister

Can I just say, looking back over all the comments, that some very interesting points have been made and it has been a really useful exercise for me to get such considered and
different views on the question. It’s much appreciated, so my thanks to all.


Paul Moran

Frankie McAllister can I just say – it’s nice to have such an intellectual, interesting and intelligent debate without any aggression, rudeness, baiting and confrontation that I so often see on other sites.

Frankie McAllister

Paul Moran agreed!

Andrew Mills

I’ve been a pro photog all my working life: Advertising, commercial, magazines, tourism, and then as a senior lecturer, field chair at a university for 20 years … in most of that time I used the Association of Photographers’ book, “Beyond the Lens” as the go-to reference work for almost all aspects of photographic law including copyright etc.

There’s a small section on trespass and it is dead simple … you can photograph anywhere in a public place and any thing from a public place … ethically is different from legally, as I think Stewart said in his responses. I never photograph disadvantaged people without their knowledge and permission and even then the shots will be for a purpose – to show dignity, or to advertise the plight of someone – with their permission.

And, I never shoot anything stealthily. Be upfront or don’t shoot. My attitude is that stealth is like stealing, it’s furtive and voyeuristic. It doesn’t settle with my integrity.