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An Exile Dreaming of Saint Adorno
Two general groups of people define society: the observers and the observed. Observers tend to think of themselves as superior. After all, they bother to observe in the first place. Flaunting their own awareness, they watch and judge, ever inflating their egos. In the words of Theodor Adorno, a German philosopher, "He who stands aloof runs the risk of believing himself better than others and misusing his critique of society as an ideology for his private interest” (Wenzel). In elevating themselves, observers find themselves trapped in a vicious self-serving cycle. Opposite them are the observed, who can never quite find the energy necessary to pull themselves from their mindless following of culture to break free and become aware. Adorno wrote that "what had become alien to men is the human component of culture, its closest part, which upholds them against the world. They make common cause with the world against themselves, and the most alienated condition of all, the omnipresence of commodities, their own conversion into the appendages of machinery, is for them a mirage of closeness" (Wenzel). The observed do not trap themselves, rather, they allow themselves to be trapped, becoming a part of the machinery of society, never actively attempting to free themselves beyond the obvious. Neither group is happy, and both are alienated by either their conformity or lack of. In Adorno's world, everyone is faceless, unknown because of their withdrawal from society's norms in order to observe, or unknown because they are a part of a machine so large and predictable.
I felt it first when entering the gallery. A chill crept up my spine as it struck me how dark it was compared to the rest of the museum. The dim lighting gave the gallery an eerie feeling, as though I had intruded on something private. And something private it was. A glass room, consisting of eight walls and a ceiling, all bordered by black wooden beams, dominated the gallery. The only way in or out of it was through one of three handless closed doors. Inside the glass room was a cage of closely spaced vertical green bars, containing simple wooden chair and a bed with a mattress and pillow. In the back corner of the glass room was a much smaller green cage, this one containing a human spine. Two life-sized faceless dummies, the observer and the observed, were the subjects of the art. One sat in a balcony above the glass room, looking in at the other, who slept at a desk inside the glass room. This colossal scene was the brainchild of Siah Armajani, an artist who left his home in Iran in 1960 to attend Macalester College in St. Paul. He majored in philosophy, where he learned of the works of Theodor Adorno, a German philosopher and critic of culture (ArtsConnectEd). He named his creation “An Exile Dreaming of Saint Adorno” in Adorno’s honor. Before I had a chance to absorb any more details or connect the art to its inspiration, two women barged into the gallery.
These two women were much easier to understand than the art in front of me. They talked loudly about the prestige of spending the day in an art museum while they clutched their oversized purses. They confirmed Adorno's belief that "everything has value only in so far as it can be exchanged, not in so far as it is something in itself. For consumers the use value of art, its essence, is a fetish, and the fetish—the social valuation which they mistake for the merit of works of art— becomes its only use value, the only quality they enjoy” (Dialectic of Enlightenment). Ignoring me, they glanced around the exhibit and exchanged a few words, disregarding the sculpture before them as a "mess." The locked doors, empty bed, human spine, and isolated balcony were all too much for them. Once they caught sight of a demonic looking bunny sculpture in the next gallery over, they hurried to see it, distracted by its bright colors and attracted to its simplicity. I covered my face with my notebook, afraid to let them see it, and observed them from across the room, feeling superior to their foolishness. Art is supposed to be thought-provoking and enlightening, and as these women showed me, society is moving in a direction that wants everything to become fast and easy, quick to understand, and requiring a minimum of thought. Not wanting to become like those women, I resumed my analysis of the art in front of me, playing the role of yet another observer in this absurd scene of cages and locked doors.
First, I observed the observer, who wore a black suit and a gold halo, like a sort of divine judge. Perched on the wooden balcony attached above the large glass room, he sat elevated above the three handleless closed doors, like a king on his throne. He had no means of accessing anything outside of his balcony. It had no stairs, no ladder, no pulley, ultimately trapping the him above the three locked doors. Chin resting on his hand, he could only continue gazing into the glass prison at his companion below him.
I followed his gaze to look at the observed, who, despite also wearing a black suit, possessed none of the regality of his observer. He had no halo and sat on a plain wooden chair, slumped over a plain wooden desk, his head resting on his arms. He slept in front of the small green cage, within the larger glass room. He had escaped the green cage and its simple contents to enter the larger glass prison, and, content with his effort, had fallen asleep. If he could somehow force himself awake, he would find the three doors to his left, which I now noticed were each locked shut from the inside. To my surprise, each lock already had a key in it. It would have been so simple for him to escape the glass room as well, but instead he slept on as his faceless companion observed him from his throne.
The image of a man naïvely sleeping in front of the doors reminded me of the two women I had encountered just minutes previously. They, too, were asleep, going through the motions of visiting an art museum but with their eyes closed. Through the museum's open doors, they escaped their green cages of normalcy and entered a larger glass prison, completely unaware in their sleep. The art was the keys to their locked doors, waiting to be turned. Instead, like the man at the desk, they chose to sleep, satisfied with their escape from the world of the ordinary and into the world of prestigious art.
Gazing at the exiles dreaming of Saint Adorno, I believed there was no hope. Society was doomed to mediocrity and conformity. But then I opened my eyes. I was in an art museum. Perhaps some people would never understand art, but some people always will. The assortment of marble sculptures, oil paintings on canvas, immense tapestries, and photographs that fill the museum attest to art's ability to survive. All around the world, art has endured unappreciative viewers and has still been preserved for centuries. It's fine not to appreciate art’s appeal, but for those who do, it is a thought-provoking miracle that unlocks the doors that separate the observers from the observed, bringing people together to appreciate what a thinking society can create.
"An Exile Dreaming of Saint Adorno." ArtsConnectEd. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 02 Oct
2010. Web. 22 Mar 2012.
T. W. Adorno and M. Horkheimer, ed. G. S. Noerr, trans. E. Jephcott, Dialectic of
Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (1947), Stanford: Stanford University Press,
Wenzel, Eberhard, comp. Quotes: Theodor W. Adorno. Eberhard Wenzel WebSite. 3 June 1998.
Web. 23 Mar. 2012.