In Mass Culture and Aesthetic Redemption: The Debate between Max Horkheimer and Siegfried Kracuer, Martin Jay explores the potential of art to redeem mass culture by dialoguing the contradictory thoughts of Horkheimer and Kracuer. In so doing, he offers an outline of their implicit debate and ultimately suggests with reservation the impossibility of a redemptive art.
The heart of the essay begins when Jay employs Peter Bürger’s controversial distinction between modernism and the avant-garde. Jay uses dichotomy as linchpin throughout his piece to help contrast the views of Horkheimer and Kracuer. That is, Horkheimer sides with modernism because in its most esoteric forms it supposedly works outside of the marketplace, thus offering a sort of utopian oasis from mass culture. Conversely, Kracuer sides with exoteric avant-gardism because it works within mass culture hopefully galvanizing revolution. After establishing this dichotomy, Jay unpacks and clarifies these two views focusing first on Horkheimer and then Kracuer.
Jay associates Horkheimer with esoteric modernism in large part because of his remarks on the writing of Joyce and paintings like Picasso’s Guernica: “[They] abandon the idea that real community exists; they are monuments of a solitary and despairing life that finds no bridge to any other or even to its own consciousness” (372). Or, put another way, Horkheimer wants art to negate culture and communication and in this negation escape mass culture. With this in mind, we can understand why Horkheimer rejected film as an art form –– it was too real, too easy, and consequently always under the tent of mass culture (372 – 373).
The analysis of Kracuer offered by Jay associates him with the exoterically avant-garde because for Kracuer –– and the following is something very quirky for a member of the Frankfurt of School –– mass culture was not bad, but rather a necessary stage in a larger process of rationalization (i.e., the end of class struggle). So where Horkheimer wanted to break bridges of communication in art Kracuer wanted to create them to invoke revolution. Kracuer, then, like Benjamin, celebrates the avant-garde filmmakers Pudovkin and Eisenstein for their collective calling of the body politic to organize and revolutionize. Kracuer did not care if such films were superficial for in he thought in a certain regard his era was one were “we cannot gain access to the elusive essentials of life we see assimilate the seemingly non-essential…” (374). This is all evidenced his discussion of the Tiller Girls were he argued that they were a “mass ornament” whose “aesthetic reflex” was inspired by the rationality of capitalism, like Taylor modes of organization. This rationality, of course, was obscured but it was less obscured than myth and thus marked a movement in the right direction. It was, in one of Jay’s more memorable phrases, “a way station towards a rational future” (380).
The difference between Horkheimer and Kracueris’s views on the potential of art, then, is the difference between solitary and solidarity, isolation and community. But as different as their views might be, they in the end both realized neither esotericism nor exotericism could redeem mass culture. Horkheimer realized that even the most esoteric art would be absorbed into the market (387). And Kracuer later lost his radical leanings deeming any revolution in art or elsewhere impossible (379). For this reason, Jay concludes with an ambiguous cynicism: “the sobering lessons provided by their very different attempts to harness art for radical purposes make it difficult not wonder if its end may be near” (381).