The challenge of nominalism in philosophy and theology to the reality of universals has been a motor of modern thought. Translated into aesthetic terms, it has abetted resistance to generic conventions and helped undermine essentialist notions of aesthetic form. Theodor W. Adorno had a characteristically dialectical response to nominalism, applauding its subversion of categorical reifications, but alarmed by its indiscriminate leveling of the distinction between concept and object, which could also efface the distinction between works of art and everyday objects. In musical terms, he appreciated the nominalist emphasis on individual works as opposed to generic formal categories, and praised Arnold Schoenberg's atonal revolution. But he was also aware that carried to an extreme, nominalism could lead to the subjective domination of a nature that was understood to be without essential characteristics of its own. In his late embrace of musique informelle, he admired a music that eschewed both reified categories and subjective domination of the apparent contingency of the material world, a music that expressed a nominalism that might better be called “magical” than “conventional.”

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