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Images Without Images – Adorno on Natural Beauty

By Sebastian Truskolaski, 13 February 2013

Opening a short series of essays on the concept of Natural Beauty in Adorno’s work, originally presented in London at Historical Materialism 2012, Sebastian Truskolaski introduces the concept's negative foundation and utopian promise


The aim of this paper is to try and elucidate a cryptic reference that Adorno makes to ‘the Old Testament prohibition on images’ in the notoriously difficult chapter on Natural Beauty from his posthumously published fragment Aesthetic Theory (1969).1 My question is twofold: how does Adornos recourse to the second commandment relate to his account of natural beauty, and how can we read this as a facet of his utopian orientation? Surely this is a strange position for a Marxist – however heterodox – to adopt. Let us begin by considering the text itself:

The Old Testament prohibition on images has an aesthetic as well as a theological dimension. That one should make no image, which means no image of anything whatsoever, expresses at the same time that it is impossible to make such an image. Through its duplication in art, what appears in nature is robbed of its being-in-itself, in which the experience of nature is fulfilled. Art holds true to appearing nature only where it makes landscape present in the expression of its own negativity (…).2


My proposition, then, is that the ‘Old Testament ban on images’ is no mere metaphor introduced from without to illustrate Adorno’s aesthetics (as has been suggested by some commentators); rather, it serves as the organizing principle for Adorno’s account of authentic art as the site upon which natural beauty appears – a point that has far-reaching consequences for the particular character of his utopian project. The point is this: what natural beauty promises – ‘that which surpasses all human immanence’ – can, be neither positively schematised, nor immediately experienced.3 The appearance of natural beauty is always ex negativo – that is, imageless – and its experience is not one of enjoyment, but one of visceral, somatic suffering. In other words, natural beauty appears only in its obverse: in the work of art as sheer artifice. It honours the promise held by natural beauty by breaking it. This, I believe to be Adorno’s central claim: that the Bilderverbot (prohibition on images) is the cipher of a negative utopia.


Perhaps to begin with it’s worth clarifying a few terms. To Adorno, nature – following a division inherited from Georg Lukács’s Theory of the Novel (1916) – is divisible into first and second nature. (Adorno famously elaborates this point in the 1932 lecture on ‘The Idea of Natural History’.)4 Herein, first nature is nature as we experience it ‘out there’, so to speak, whereas second nature is the world of human convention – the social world. Lukács argues that the treacherous thing about second nature is that it presents itself as first nature, thus creating the illusion that things – i.e. social conditions – are as they are of necessity: as though they were naturally ordained. In other words, our image of first nature is, in fact, retroactively modelled from the standpoint of second nature, so that (in a way) there’s always already something mythical about the encounter with what we misperceive as natural. With this in mind, what is at stake in Aesthetic Theory is the view that natural beauty does not appear in nature; it appears in the work of art. Perhaps one might say that the authentic work of art is the afterlife of nature. I want to go one step further, and tie Adorno’s idea of an afterlife – Nachleben – to Benjamin’s account of allegory (to mortification, ruins, the deaths’ head) and to the idea of a ‘nature morte’ that Adorno speaks of in the sentence immediately preceding the one we’ve just looked at.5 It’s the triangulation of Bilderverbot – Allegory – Afterlife that reveals Adorno’s project as a negative utopia.


Just to round off the account of what Adorno means when he speaks of nature: I think we can begin to better understand his argument by recalling a passage where he speaks of the horror that inheres in birdsong. He says:


something frightening lurks in the song of birds precisely because it is not a song but obeys the spell in which it is enmeshed. The fright appears as well in the threat of migratory flocks, which bespeak ancient divinations, forever presaging ill fortune.6


This calls to mind the opening chapter from Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). There is something fearful and menacing about the encounter with nature. At the same time, however, Adorno says that everyone ‘in whom something of the European tradition survives’ is moved by birdsong.7 I think this is important (and I want to leave aside his glaring Euro-centrism for a moment) precisely because it indicates that the experience of nature as beautiful is never the experience of nature as beautiful per se. Natural beauty only appears beautiful against the backdrop of tradition. But what does that mean?


Adorno argues that ‘Nature is beautiful in that it appears to say more than it is.’8 And, in a way, that’s precisely the point: mere nature is only beautiful where it steps outside of itself by saying ‘more than it is’: by making itself completely into artifice (second nature). So it is only as second nature – as art – that natural beauty appears beautiful. The point is that art has its critical function as the self-consciousness of this dialectic.9 What is important with regards to the relationship between beauty in art and beauty in nature that is at stake in this chapter is this appearing quality of natural beauty as artifice.


The other terminological issue is what Adorno means by ‘beauty’. Of course that’s not a simple question to answer, but – for the sake of my presentation – I would like to propose that the experience of beauty is something like the experience of the ‘promise of happiness’ – the dictum that Adorno inherits from Stendhal and that he makes so much of in Aesthetic Theory, although it will be recalled that this promise is honoured precisely there where it is broken.10 The content of the promise held by natural beauty, like the image of natural beauty itself, must not be positively schematized lest it succumb to the shortcomings of all that betrays – both – beauty and happiness. What Adorno certainly doesn’t mean when he speaks of beauty in art or nature is that it is discernible through subjective judgement of taste or that it is the outcome of some normative schema of form, colour or symmetry.


In any case, the question of how natural beauty appears in art is precisely the question of what Adorno means when he speaks of the Old Testament ban on images. Adorno says: ‘Nature, as something beautiful, cannot be copied. For natural beauty as something that appears is itself image. Its portrayal is a tautology that, by objectifying what appears, eliminates it.’11 The question of what Adorno means by natural beauty appearing as an image, is, undoubtedly, a complicated one, but perhaps one way of answering it would be to say that natural beauty appears as an image because it appears only in art. The image-character of natural beauty is the acknowledgement of its artifice. But what are we to make of this image-character given that art must observe the ‘Old Testament ban on images’, because any attempt to depict natural beauty would rob it of its being-in-itself? I think that Adorno answers this question where he speaks of art imitating not nature but natural beauty. Where art abides by the image-ban it doesn’t depict natural beauty: it embodies nature’s lament. Another way of answering this question might be to consider the reference to the image ban in light of this idea of a ‘nature morte’, noted above. Only when nature is turned into complete artifice does it hold true ‘to appearing nature’. I think this is also what René Buchholz means when he observes that ‘in its representational character the work still resembles the image’ – the image as which nature appears – ‘but in the admittance of its semblance [Schein] it is the “image of the imageless”’.12 That is, in the self-consciousness of its own paradoxical make-up, art enacts the gap between its individual manifestation as a work of art and the concept of art; and the experience of this gap gives you the negative contours of natural beauty. Its own untruth is hereby redeemed as truth, or – as Adorno says in an inversion of Spinoza’s famous dictum – ‘Falsum (…) index sui et veri.’13


Let us develop this point about ‘nature morte’ a little further. You will recall that Adorno characterizes nature as a cipher of transience. This is a motif that Adorno takes from Benjamin’s ill-fated Habilitationsschrift on The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1925). Only where it is dead can nature be treated as the object of a kind of philosophical hermeneutics. And inasmuch as it is dead – second nature – natural beauty (as it appears in art) is allegorical.14 In other words, only there where art (the self-consciously artificial afterlife of nature) recalls the melancholy transience of a landscape does it – paradoxically – hold true to the promise held by it. Adorno says, in this respect:


Art is not nature, a belief that idealism hoped to inculcate, but art does want to keep nature’s promise. It is capable of this only by breaking that promise; by taking it back into itself.15


So having established all this, what can we say about the passage we cited initially? ‘The Old Testament prohibition on images has an aesthetic as well as a theological dimension.’ – Theological, in that it proscribes the worship of an intermediary (an idol); aesthetic in that it proclaims as impossible (or at least tautological) the depiction of natural beauty in art, given that it always appears as an image. This claim has a quasi-logical, formally philosophical dimension: ‘That one should make no image, which means no image of anything whatsoever, expresses at the same time that it is impossible to make such an image.’ The articulation of this impossibility essentially aims to circumvent art becoming a crude re-doubling of the merely existent. Natural beauty (and art as the site upon which it appears) is to evoke something more than what it merely is – something more than what the crude representational orientation of naïve materialism can provide. Nature is beautiful there where this more finds an expression. But how are we to think of this expressive quality? Perhaps the answer lies in Adorno’s estimation that ‘Art holds true to appearing nature only where it makes landscape present in the expression of its own negativity’. This is the sense in which the image ban is the organising principle of art: the domain of natural beauty. It proceeds mimetically: in the imitation of that which is ‘not-yet-existing, the possible’ and that which ‘probably never existed’.16 This is the sense in which the authentic work of art qua the appearing of natural beauty is the ‘image of the imageless’ – Adorno’s utopia of the negative.17



Opening image credit: Louise Bourgeois, I Had a Flashback of Something that Never Existed, from the illustrated book, Ode à l'oubli, 2002. (Link:



1 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (eds.), Robert Hullot-Kentor (trans.), New York: Continuum, 2001, p.93.

2 Ibid., p.93.

3 Ibid., p.73.

4 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘On the Idea of Natural-History’, in Robert Hullot-Kentor, Things Beyond Resemblance, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

5 ‘Even in the past the portrayal of nature was probably only authentic as nature morte: when painting knew to read nature as the cipher of the historical, if not as that of the transience of everything historical.’, Aesthetic Theory, op. cit., p.67.

6 Aesthetic Theory, op. cit., p.66.

7 Aesthetic Theory, op. cit., p.66.

8 Ibid., p.78.

9 Art’s privileged position, in this regard, is associated with Adorno’s account of mimesis. It is precisely through the category of mimesis as play that Adorno seeks to assign a special role to art as the placeholder of an intention-less relation between subject and object as a thinking-in-constellations/affinities: not through quasi-metaphoric identification.

10 ‘Art is the ever broken promise of happiness.’, Aesthetic Theory, op. cit., p.136.

11 Ibid., p.67.

12 René Buchholz, Zwischen Mythos und Bilderverbot, Pieterlen: Peter Lang, 1991, p.117. My translation.

13 ‘The false is the sign of itself and of that which is right/true’. Adorno & Bloch, p.70 My translation.

14 Allegory is the succinct deployment of post-lapsarian speech: a specific mode of expression, which operates by way of a series of codified signifiers that bear only an arbitrary relation to the signified. On the model of The Origin of German Tragic Drama, then, the image of the Romantic Absolute that Benjamin treats in his dissertation on The Concept of Art-Criticism in German Romanticism (1919) is dissipated. Truth is not the positive sum of the unfolding continuum of forms, but can only be discerned from random scatterings in the profane. Allegory is not merely the literary mode most suitable to the Baroque, or – for that matter – to Benjamin’s own age: it, rather, imposes itself objectively. Its deployment is not arbitrary, but is invoked by historical conditions – it acknowledges that no account of a meaningful whole is possible and seeks to discern truth from the detritus of history. This is the sense in which modernity itself (and with it nature) is allegorical inasmuch as it is dead. Benjamin’s treatment of allegory instates transience rather than perfectibility as the temporal index of his project: the decay of nature, ruins, the deaths’ head etc. That is, Benjamin proposes an account of history discerned not through the cumulative telos of perfectibility, but from a hermeneutics of allegorical images that intimate the truth of the untruth of the world after the fall. Natural beauty, as it appears in the self-consciousness of its own artifice qua second nature, then, is allegorical. It bespeaks the truth of its own impossibility. It is the allegory of what natural beauty promises – the negative image of redemption. (Cf. Michael Jennings, Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Literary Criticism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988, p.178. And Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press, 1989, p.178.

15 Aesthetic Theory, op. cit., p.65.

16 Ibid., p.73 and p.66.

17 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Quasi una Fantasia’, in Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 16 – Musikalische Schriften, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2003, p.312.