Adorno’s metaphor of the “matadors of the culture industry” didn’t fall out of the sky. Nearly four decades earlier — sometime between 1931 and 1933 — he had written several short pieces, one of which was titled “Applause.”
I came across mention of it when I was looking to see if Susan Buck-Morss had anything to say about pseudo-activity in her The Origin of Negative Dialectics. I didn’t find anything on pseudo-activity there but her quote from “Applause” seemed to tie right in to the matador motif, especially the part about applause possibly referencing, “the ancient, long-forgotten sacrificial ritual. Perhaps we might surmise, men and women once thus clapped hands when priests slaughtered sacrificial animals.”My hunch hit a bullseye. The matador makes his entrance in the fourth paragraph of “Applause”:
It is the virtuoso above all who merits our applause, because it is he who most clearly preserves the features of the priest performing a sacrifice…. Like the matador, who even today dedicates the bull to a saint or ruler before entering into combat, the virtuoso slaughters the piece of music in the name of the spellbound community as an act of atonement.
The theme of ritual sacrifice and the renunciation of ritual sacrifice plays a major role in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. Coincidentally — or not — the essay (from 1955) immediately preceding the fragment on “Applause” in a collection of Adorno’s writing on music is a panegyric to Bizet’s Carmen. The short piece following “Applause” also mentions, in passing, “the wild excitement of the bullfight.”