(The gallery for this text is Roadtrips. The footnotes for the text are in the pdf).

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment


In the early 1990s, prior to putting photography aside to complete a PhD in philosophy, I started making photographic road trips in South Australia and Victoria. The picture-making was topographical in orientation, as I was interested in a mapping of the present; mapping the effects of the way that industrial capitalism had reshaped the physical form of the land.

Wittgenstein’s remarks below seem appropriate to, or resonate with, the topographical conception of photography:

‘I am trying to conduct you on tours in a certain country. I will try to show that the philosophical difficulties … arise because we find ourselves in a strange town and do not know our way about. So we must learn the topography by going from one place in the town to another, and from there to another, and so on. And one must do this so often that one knows one’s way, either immediately or pretty soon after looking around a bit, wherever one may be set down.’

The road trips highlighted the narrowness of the industrialisation in South Australia had been outside of Adelaide and Whyalla and how much the land had been shaped by the cultural and economic practices of agriculture. This landscape had a dark side, as it was premised on the dispossession of the Aboriginal people from their land, with the land depicted as barren waste awaiting conversion into productive land by the white settlers. I slowly became aware of the power of the landscape in the formation of colonial, regional and national identity in Australia’s pre-industrial modernity.

The culture wars had emerged in the late 1990s with neo-conservatism and the public value of the creative arts and the humanities was being downsized, hastily reshaped, or cut altogether by the instrumental reason of the corporatised universities. In this post-Fordist, neo-liberal world everything in society, including healthcare and education was to be be run as a business with university degrees becoming market transaction for private benefit. An ‘affirmative’ culture of complicity in the ills of the neoliberalism world places the emphasis on desire, individual responsibility and the easy life. This culture, which was a bizarre synthesis of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism that privileged the present with its perpetual change of fashion, style and media image, was excessively nostalgic.

A topographical photography is incorporated into the commodity sphere where its exchange value matters more than its use value: the market is the major determinant of arts meaning and value and its imprimatur counts for more than any critical interpretation or evaluation. The aestheticisation of commodities (ie., photography in advertising restoring a sensuous particularity to the abstract status of the commodity) dominates. This is also a post-historical era when art is no longer governed by art history’s sequence of developmental narratives (eg., the realist one following Vasari or Greenberg’s modernist one) that tried to explain everything from a single point of view. A post-historical era is characterized by freedom and plurality, by the coexistence of all currents absent any hierarchy.


Landscapes represents a detached way of seeing a territory that has its own history, which can be understood as part of a wider history of economy and society. A long standing division in art history about landscape as art is that between landscape and topographics as forms of picture-making. Topographics is traditionally understood as a mapping of the surface features of a region, and it is seen as inferior form of picture-making because it was depicted as real views of the geography of place that lacked imagination. The pastoral imagery of colonial landscape photography that depicted the domestication of an unfamiliar land was seen to strip the aesthetic appeal from landscapes as a genre. Real views means accurate representation of the land or region, and prior to photography it was drawing that precisely recorded what one saw in specific places. Topography’s real views are in contrast to John Olsen, the painter, representing the intensity of individual experiences in the Australian landscape.

Topography’s real places are depicted as a picture by photography through a European perspective system that assumes the Renaissance model of standing, looking, and photographing what was in the viewer’s line of vision. These real places are contested sites, places over which different interests assert incompatible claims, where the past and present compete for attention and where the local is often at odds with the national. A central figure of topographics as a map of a known place in the history of photography is Atget’s photographs of old Paris. We interpret these topographic photos as images of a home-place that Atget was familiar with. These photos show that the value of topography is that it is a way of knowing and understanding a place, not as it would have appeared to a visitor, tourist or traveller, but as it would have been known and understood, as a place where people live, rather than an urban space. Atget’s place-based photography is premised on an understanding that human beings stand in an essential relation to place and are constituted in and through that relation.

Monarto, South Australia

In US photography of the 1970s topographics meant picture making in a documentary style about the changes in the outer suburbs in the American West as well as the architectural phenomenon of industrial parks and the newly built tract house estates. The style and approach of new topographics was a turning away from the traditional depictions of the landscape as wilderness (eg., Ansel Adams ) to that of industrial landscapes, suburban sprawl and everyday scenes in the American West. This new topographics was medium specific in its modernist orientation; its objectivity displaced the emphasis on subjectivity through keeping authorial input to a minimum; and it placed an emphasis on the straightforwardness or matter-of-factness of the photo-document.

Robert Adams, a member of the New Topographics, interprets this style in his Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defence of Traditional Values by turning to an aesthetic tradition that distinguished photography form the objectifying representation and instrumentality of economics. Adams returns to Plato’s two world philosophical tradition that had been very skeptical about art’s capacity to contribute insights to the workings of our world: it devalued art in its epistemic potential, that is, the possibility to ground any kind of insight, and it was suspicious of art’s claim to knowledge. Plato charged artworks with being ontological flawed representations of ideas of Forms, even further removed from the eternal essence of the object than their martially exisiting counterparts. Mimesis is merely the reduplication of material objects that were, in turn, already flawed approximations to their ideas or Forms.

Adams says that the proper goal of art is Beauty, Beauty is Form, and Form is the structure underlying life understood as harmonious totality. This revives Plato’s ideas about beauty as the symbol of the good and his view that true and reliable knowledge rests only with those who can comprehend the true reality of the Forms behind the chaotic world of everyday experience. Adams thereby avoids beauty being solely a matter of subjective feeling, of ‘taste’ and artworks consequently being reduced to the subjective contingencies of their reception. An aesthetics based on subjectivity has no way of articulating the truth in works of art. However, Platonism is wary of the world of sensuous particularity and it tries to transcend it by gaining access to an intelligible world of general essences or unchanging Forms, even though in modernity the methods of modern science have come to seem by far the most appropriate way to explain the nature of things. Since art imitates physical things, which in turn imitate the Forms, art is always a copy of a copy, an imitation of the visual display of Eternal Forms such as Beauty. The truth content of art is minimal.

A one world aesthetics that differentiates a topographic photography from economics and the market, and avoids Plato’s expulsion of the poets from the republic, is developed in the German aesthetic tradition. This offers an account of art in modernity where the natural and social sciences provide the dominant account of truth, and art and philosophy are no longer assured of their value or purpose. This aesthetic tradition held that aesthetics can be understood as exploring the implications of the special status of art works. This special status, was defined by Kant as the autonomy of art from science and morality with aesthetic judgement being on a par with those of a cognitive and moral nature. Art inhabits its own realm, but the price is high: the independence of art is one that is freed from history and the aesthetic experience is divorced from the object and grounded in the subject.

Junction Mine, BHP, Broken Hill, NSW

The broad pathway of German aesthetics states that what makes an art object of value has nothing to do with its usefulness or its exchange value. Even though artworks clearly do become commodities, neither their use-value nor their value as commodities can constitute them as works of art. Schelling was adamant on this: to look for a use value in art reflects the spirit of the age in which economic principles reign supreme. The broad conception of art in the early German aesthetic tradition is that if an autonomous art is to be sustained as a source of truth, beauty and meaning, then it must employ forms of articulation that establish an independence from the demands involved in the sciences, at the same time as not losing the immediate particularity essential to art. It links art to the immediacy of the individual’s sensuous relationship to the world which is part of aesthetic pleasure, but accords art a truth claim. The emphasis on the truth of art is central to Schelling’s romantic aesthetics. If art lives from its particularity, which is not reducible to conceptual generalisation, it depends on philosophy to interpret the artworks.

Art for Hegel art is, the realization of a radical principle of freedom and subjectivity, which is specific to modern times, which can be seen as the signature of modernity. It is with Hegel that an autonomous art becomes historical in that the concrete forms of art depend upon specific historical constellations; and that art transcends history insofar as the work of art allows the past to be present again. Far from being mere historical interest the art of the past speaks the present no less than the contemporary artwork. The artwork not only pleases our senses but it also allows us to comprehend the concept as realized in the material object. Art is the source of a kind of truth inaccessible to other forms of articulation, as opposed to being merely a means of rendering a post-theological world more tolerable for those with the resources to have access to art. Art has a double character: it is both autonomous and social and this is responsible for the artwork’s paradoxical character.

The central argument of this tradition that art can offer uniquely valuable and revealing non-conceptual forms of experience is one of the central claims of German Idealism’s challenge to the sovereignty of Enlightenment’s scientific rationality. In this tradition artworks can provide a critique of the concepts of our way of thinking. In the assumed concepts of New Topographies place by and large was reduced to space. The assumption of the topographical approach to picture making is that the topos in topographical is a mapping of the present and that these representations of real places are based on knowing and understanding a particular place. This mapping represents human situatedness through attachment to place with its set of interconnections or relationships.

The New Topographics assumed that the tract housing mode of existence and industrial architecture was flawed, yet what was missing was the questionability of place, of dwelling and identity. Yet the people who lived in this tract housing belonged to this place as their identity was linked to this mode of existence with its sense of belonging-together. Place remained in the background disconnected from the tract architecture of the space of the mid-west, even though this kind of estranged dwelling was the way people ordinarily lived, it was a relation to home, and people’s identity is bound up with this mode of living. This kind of urban landscape or environing world would shape people’s memories, feelings and thoughts. Human identity is in some deep way tied to locality or the places they inhabit. There is a close connection between the human being-in-the-world, and spatiality, locality and embodiment.

Shell, Port Augusta, SA

A second criticism of New Topographics its that if urban sprawl in 20th century industrial modernity is a subject of photography’s topographic explorations, then so did its effects on the adjacent environment. From this perspective the original label ‘New Topographics’ in the US neglected the immanent references to the environment made by photographers starting in the 1980s. The following references come to mind: Richard Misrach’s Bravo 20, The Bombing of the American West and Petrochemical America; Lewis Baltz’s   San Quentin Point; Martin Manz and Reinhard Matz’s Unsere Landschaften (Our Landscapes); Wout Berger’s Poisoned Landscape.

This indicates that the New Topographics movement contributed to establishing a body of critical environmental representations in the canon of artistic photography. This type of refashioning of existing forms of articulation into ‘environmental photography’ adapted the 1970s New Topographics exhibition’s subtitle of a ‘man-made landscape’, to point out the negative influence of humans on the Earth. What emerged from the US style topographical perspective was a transnational tradition of critical photographic landscape depiction in urban centres in France, Germany and the Netherlands; a tradition with was shaped by different photographers who were independent of each other, and with various time-lags between their works.

In contrast to the US and Europe a topographic photography existed in Australian photography in an underground way. There were no books published in Australia of a topographical photography that were a critical representation of the ‘man-made landscape’; one that made explicit the negative influence of humans on the Earth.


In Australia it was philosophy that articulated the environmental undercurrent of topography’s ’contested places’. An influential account of the environmental undercurrent in the human altered landscape of the present was that by Richard and Val Routley’s The Fight for the Forests (1975); the subtitle of which was The takeover of Australian forests for pines, wood chips and intensive forestry. The Routleys identified a ‘wood production ideology’ of the forest industries and the state forest services; an ideology focused on providing cheap wood for private industry and with a determination for Australia to become a large woodchip exporter. The Routley’s highlighted the clearing of “useless” native forests to plant the pine trees, and the clear-felling of native forests in order to export woodchips. Nature (old growth native forests) was framed as available for our unconstrained use and it was reduced to being a mere resource to be exploited by industry.

his emphasis on preserving old growth native forests provides a way to look at how the land had been transformed in South Australia after European colonisation: — it was stripped of trees to make away for agriculture. The growing domination of capitalist forms of exchange in modernity lead to nature being regarded in terms of the profit which can be extracted from it. The ills of modernity are rooted in the attempt by the subject to dominate the world of objects. Brian Medlin, who had travelled and camped widely in South Australia and Victoria, wrote about the regional fora and fauna, addressed this issue in the form of a critique. In Human Nature, Human Survival he reminded us of Australia’s terrible past with its destruction of land, its flora and fauna and aboriginal civilization. We can add Chernobyl or other man-made environmental catastrophes. Will the earth become so despoiled that human beings are no longer capable of inhabiting it?

Medlin says that to save our civilization from this crises we must get our philosophy right and that philosophy is the commitment to thinking about the whole of life and he understands philosophy as a way of life. In his ‘Ecological Crisis and Social Order’ essay in the Level-headed Revolutionary, Medlin’s ecological politics argues that humans need to recognise their place in the natural world, embracing all of nature:

“We shall never be safe in the world for as long as we think only of our own safety in it, that we shall never properly cherish our resources while we think of them only as resources. Amongst the many bad features of this limited perception of the world, the worst is that it readily goes over into an adversarial attitude to non-human nature … The non-human world is to be valued, but not simply because it may serve humankind. Nor is it to be valued as an extension of ourselves. Not even as a means of self-realisation. It is to be valued for itself, because it has value in itself. Until we win our way back to a proper reverence for non-human nature, we shall remain lost in a world growing ever more hostile to us. We shall remain lost in the world because subjectively we are not really in it at all, but apart from it. Lost, not in being mis-placed, but in having no place. Our resources are mere resources, external to us.”

This is a shift away from regarding nature just as a system of causal laws to seeing nature as historical in the sense that it constantly changes and because it has been profoundly – often negatively – affected by human history. Capitalism has a destructive and self-destructive relation to nature. The damage we have inflicted on non-human nature has been extensive, and it could assume catastrophic proportions, if we continue to behave as we do now. Climate heating spells the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history. What was once regarded as a necessary, natural condition, underlying the contingent changes of history, now appears to be an effect of human history. During this time of mass extinction we are now destroying not just what we are trying to preserve but what we need to survive.

Sedan, South Australia

Medlin’s argument for seeing the natural world differently and valuing the natural world for itself is premised on a:

scientific appreciation of our place in nature. An appreciation that will eventually engender a direct experience of ourselves as part of the world. An appreciation of our ignorance and dependence ….as animals in the universe. Of our dependence as a species woven by time into the one world whose fabric we unravel at our peril.

This points to caring for country instead of using the land as a resource for our prosperity. Philosophy would argue for this through a critique of the dominant form of reason — for Medlin this is confusing rationality with ratiocination and not allowing for poetry and literature opening a path to intuition as a road to truth. In his essay “On the Nature of Philosophy”, Medlin says that philosophy at its best:

will teach us how best to act when we cannot know what is the best thing to do… Philosophy is about the texture of human life. Philosophy is about getting life right and about making life right.

This reference to practical philosophy connects with Adorno’s insight in Minima Moralia that wrong life cannot be lived rightly, that the true field of philosophy is the teaching of the good life, and that philosophical practice consists in the systematic refusal of consolation and the justification of what exists.

Medlin does not undertake any clarification here, even though the Eskimo conception of country that he refers to is not founded on subjectivity, nor is it a physical location or position —ie., the where-ness of things. Consequently, our place, or situatedness, in the natural world remains obscure. This requires philosophy to distinguish place as an abode within which someone resides or dwells from simple physical location and from space as physical extension. Analytic philosophy’s conventional position is that space is primarily a feature of the physical universe, with place, as a human or subjective construct.

In Australia caring for country is a way to develop a proper reverence for non-human nature implies tying a person to place to which he or she belongs. Country is a bounded open region, a nourishing terrain and a place in which things are gathered and disclosed. Place was important for aboriginal people who highlighted how place mattered to them in both colonial and postcolonial Australia. They were dispossessed from their land and place with its centrality of boundedness, local attachments and interconnections is a necessary element of the structure of human existence. Place is as much about bounding and enclosing as it is about opening and connecting. Philosophy articulated the distinction between space and place, and recognised that place with its centrality of boundedness, local attachments and interconnections is a necessary element of the structure of human existence.

saltpan, Murraylands, South Australia

Medlin is unclear how poetry, literature, and we can add the visual arts, help to open up a path to intuition as a road to truth in a world where an instrumental, economic reason has turned everything into a resource to be exploited. Does this refer to a poetic mode of thinking? Is this poetics premised on what the early German aesthetic tradition referred to as a form of cognition without concepts that was contrasted with a form of cognition based on fully developed conceptual knowledge? Is it a mode of thinking that would help to turn us back to place as in Wordsworth, Hölderlin, Proust, Namatjira, or Colin McCahon where the poetics of art, poetry and literature work within and through specific places?

Medlin doesn’t spell out how art can help us to find our way back to a proper reverence for a non-human nature in a damaged life in a desolate present; or how art can respond to this by disclosing and valuing nature differently to controlling and exploiting it for human purposes. This is crucial because nothing in the sciences provides a sense of the existential meaning nature can have for the individual subject. The point of science is the production of general laws which subsume individual cases and enable the manipulation and control of nature. The problem with the natural sciences is that they exclude most of the content of what Edmund Husserl will later term the ‘life-world’, the untheorised horizon of our everyday experience, from any kind of truth. If art provides other ways of seeing nature and human activity, apart from the instrumental views offered by the natural sciences and industrial capitalism in modernity, then this needs to be spelt out.


It is philosophy as aesthetics that can help to make sense of the immediacy of the individual’s sensuous relationship to nature and the world Yet since the early 1980s the discourse of aesthetics has been notable by its absence. The widespread marginalization of aesthetics in postmodern art theory may be attributed to the success of the art critic and theorist Clement Greenberg, who co-opted Kantian aesthetics to underwrite modernist theory. The postmodern rejection of Greenberg also involved the rejection of Kantian aesthetics and aesthetics. Postmodernism became an anti-aesthetics. The poststructuralism that swept through the humanities in the 1980s and 1990s all but swept aesthetics from the map, leaving us with the opposition of an anti-aesthetic postmodernism and a late modernist aestheticism with little in-between. Aesthetic autonomy was caricatured as holding that art is a privileged realm which exists at a non-cognitive remove from history, politics and society. Aesthetics and its crypto-theology was a deadweight and outmoded.

BHP, Broken Hill, NSW

In the space inbetween a redemptive modernist aestheticism and an anti-aesthetic postmodernism that rejects aesthetics as the residual metaphysics of a bygone era sits Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, a text largely unknown in Australia. Its uncompromising style of is alien, forbidding and remote from us, whilst his notion of a philosophical aesthetics seemed awfully antiquated. Artists, curators, academics and public opinion are indifferent to aesthetic theory; they see aesthetics as tending towards the over theorisation of art works at the expense of the force of their sensuous and material particularity. For cultural studies, with its orientation to popular culture, aesthetics covers up the repressive discourses of race, gender and class in the name of an illusory harmony.

We can interpret Adorno to unpack Medlin’s view that art can open up a path to intuition as a road to truth. Intuition refers to the sense of immediate givenness or contemplation which apprehends the object without first seeing it in terms of defining concepts. The representations of intuition refer to the sense of the particular, immediate relation to the world which concepts cannot capture. In the wake of Kant’s Critique of Judgement, Schelling, for instance, presented aesthetic production as a way of overcoming the limits of the understanding, and thereby opening up a relationship to nature that is lacking when nature is seen solely in terms of an objectifying empirical science.

Adorno held that the dominant form of reason in industrial capitalism has two strands: that of instrumentalization –- coming to recognize and experience objects only insofar as they further our practical project, such as economic growth; and secondly, the intensification of socially expressed self-preservation – that is, only relating to objects insofar as they have economic value. The thesis of the Dialectic of Enlightenment is that rationality develops from human self-preservation, but that through the course of history, human conceptuality becomes deformed, leading to a form of life that is deformed in its organization and in how it produces subjects. Horkheimer and Adorno argue that nature in this sense of simply being there to be dominated, means that such domination leads to domination of ourselves as part of nature. History regresses because progress, as the progress of domination, is sacrificial.

Adorno argued that it is crucial – for aesthetic, normative, and epistemic reasons – that a modernist art resist this social form of reason, in which objects only appear in relation to their economic fungibility and instrumental value. And this entails that the artwork must be radically autonomous as it is only autonomy which lends art the power to realize and express our needs; and to stand against the conceptual network of an instrumentalized model of reason. Art becomes social through its opposition to society, and it occupies this position only as an autonomous art.

Medlin doesn’t outline how art’s intuition can help to reorient our thinking in relation to nature or the environment, given the successful domination of nature by science and technology. Both natural science and an analytic philosophy aligned with science say that human beings are physical, natural beings and a part of nature —- as animals in the universe. What role then, for art in helping the reorientation of thinking in relation to nature or the environment. Adorno helps answer this.

Modernist art, for Adorno, is the art practice that criticizes the abstract rationality of the instrumental reason modelled on the mathematical and natural sciences that adjudicates questions of value in terms of quantifiability and usefulness. Art remaining a repository for an alternative, poetic rationality that underpins aesthetic modernism’s opposition and resistance to the commodity world of exchange value in modernity. Adorno argued that the truth content of art is inseparable from the sensuous particularity of an art work because the kind of knowledge implicit in art works is different from the knowledge of objects given by the natural or social sciences. An instrumental rationality in the theoretical and conceptual ways of knowing the world for self-preservation, and the control of nature, needs to get rid of sensuous materiality, concreteness, and the experience of those things. For Adorno it was the radical afunctionality of the works of art that confers upon them the capacity to embody and articulate resistance against the contemporary world of universal exchange.

The core thesis of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is that a modernist art practice criticises an abstract, instrumental rationality as a mode of domination by remaining a repository for an alternative mimetic rationality. Modernist art becomes the voice of sensuous particularity against abstract rationality — art is a refuge for mimetic comportment. Mimesis is found in modernist art because art is a sphere which in Adorno’s time is free from the demands of self-preservation and the pursuit of profit. Mimesis is an umbrella term standing for a fuller experience of reason that is repressed and denied by identity thinking of instrumental rationality, yet still operative within it. These sensuous particulars are the bearers of a kind of truth that is not beholden to the pre-existing and categories and concepts of neo-liberalism — what Adorno called the non-identical. The non-identical registers art’s way of demonstrating the inadequacy of the purely conceptual ways of knowing the world.

Aesthetic Theory re-asserts the significance of art in the tragic aftermath of the Enlightenment’s domination of nature. Its insight is the value of art for making sense of life; that the sense art makes of the world is not primarily cognitive; that this involves participation in the world; and that our motivations are different to wanting to conceptually know what things are and how they work to ensure our self-preservation. Artworks have a truth content that is aimed against the falsity of our way of thinking and discloses the non-conceptual medium of experience.


Does the cluster of concepts around mimesis and art’s openness to the full texture of experience entail a relation between subject and object that is different to instrumental reason’s domination and mastery to ensure self-preservation?

Salt Creek, Corrong, South Australia

Our experience of nature (first nature) is mediated through a world of images, norms and conventions and concepts in our social world (second nature). Our social world in late modernity presents itself as first nature, thus creating the illusion that things – i.e. social conditions and relations – are naturally ordained. We are stuck in this second nature and the natural appearance of society is awfully hard to see through. Art is also a product of identity thinking that harbours the illusion of a resistance to identity thinking; and the existence of that illusion within the work of art makes a difference that matters to the truth of the work of art. We only have our socially mediated conceptual array with their logic of domination and identity thinking so how can we go beyond this array in order to identify what it excludes? If art is rationalized through and through, and itself a species of identity thinking, then how do we come to identify and know the non-identical in the experience of art?

Adorno suggests that aesthetic agency helps us to recognise the value of the non-human world in so far as the image of natural beauty can lead us out of simply viewing nature as an object to be dominated for the purpose of self-preservation. Nature is something we have learned to master to such an extent that its intrinsic value is repressed and almost obliterated. For Adorno, art in late modernity “stands in for” first nature: natural beauty does not appear in nature; it appears in the work of art. So it is only as second nature – as art – that natural beauty appears beautiful. Art beauty has replaced natural beauty. Though the closest we can get to this absent nature is art, the beauty of nature as appearance manifests itself as that which escapes instrumental reasoning and the reduction of nature as a resource for production in capitalism. It is the residue of the non-identical in things.

Wilson’s Promontory National Park, Victoria

Mimesis serves as a constant ‘return of the repressed’ – it is through mimesis that we find the possibility of the irruption of these suppressed experiences, impulses, and so forth. Mimesis’ functions as a short-form reference to these non-instrumental phenomena —the non-cognitive qualities of aesthetic experience help us to make sense of the world. The non-identical is disclosed through a mimetic rationality, which holds the promise of resistance to a dominate order as a mode of contact and engagement: one that is marked by awe, respect and supplication, but also, is productive of an affective bringing-close, which moves humans toward the rhythms of nature.


Medlin is likewise silent on the relationship between philosophy that is about getting life right and about making life right and an art that facilitates the reorientation of our thinking towards nature and the environment. What islet unsaid is how philosophy connects to individual art works that are bound to the life of particulars, which celebrate the claims of sensuousness and embodiment, and holds to a poetic conception of representation? If we are to explore this relationship we need to move way from analytic philosophy of art that sees its job to conceptually determine what the object ‘art’ or ‘photography’ is to a philosophy that emerges from an art that knows something that the propositions, arguments, and syllogisms of Anglo-American philosophy as yet doesn’t.

Adorno shows the relevance of the humanities through addressing the problem of how an art work’s meaning can be interpreted in the sedimented content of sensuous forms of a post-historical art. Adorno like Benjamin held that the image or artwork needs to be interpreted. The image’s temporal link to the past needs to be turned into a language that brings the historical image into the present. This is the work of the critic/philosopher who recognizes that past things existing in the present have futurity, and who situates the particular patterning of the work within a broader experimental context of modernity with its destruction of tradition. Adorno held that this involves passing from commentary to aesthetics, since only philosophy can find the truth content of art.

It is here that art and aesthetics converge. Art requires philosophy which interprets it in order say what art is unable to say, but art’s form of expression can never be reduced to, or translated into, the conceptual language of philosophy. Both engage with historical experience in order to become aware of the forces that have shaped and damaged our subjectivity, art and social totality is a crucially important one. The fragmentary pictures of industrial modernity make visible through the remnants of an industrial capitalism what has become invisible in the historical present of the neo-liberalism’s business ontology.

These fragments are evidence of past lives, failures and destruction, and the unconscious history of human suffering, which help to make visible the darker side of industrial modernity. Art and philosophy to interpret and understand the fragmentation of experiences; and then to decipher the hieroglyphs of modernity in the darkly, haunting past of everyday life in a post-industrial and urbanized modernity and capitalism’s destruction of nature.   



Adorno’s Modernism: Art, Experience, and Catastrophe, Epson Hammer, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015.

Adorno’s Theory of Philosophical and Aesthetic Truth, Owen Hullat, Columbia University Press, New York, 2016.

Aesthetics and Subjectivity: From Kant to Nietzsche, (second edition) Andrew Bowie, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2003.

Aesthetic Theory, T.W. Adorno, trans. C Lenhardt, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1984

Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Peter Osborne, Verso, London, 2013.

Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, translated John Cumming, Verso, London, 1979.

Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie: The Correspondence between Iris Murdoch and Brian Medlin 1976-1995, ed. Gillian Dooley and Graham Nerlich, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2014.

The Dialectics of Aesthetic Agency: Revaluating German Aesthetics from Kant to Adorno, Ayon Maharaj, Bloomsbury, London, 2012.

The German Aesthetic Tradition, Kai Hammermeister, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002.

The Level-headed Revolutionary: Essays, Stories and Poems, Brian Medlin, (ed.) Gillian Dooley, Wallace McKitrick, and Susan Petrelli, Wakefield Press, Mile End, 2021.

Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno, Robert Hullot-Kentor, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006.