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Avant-Garde and Modern, Part One
I am back from the dead if not yet from the walking wounded (fever and fatiuge, nausea and vomiting, hot sweats and cold chills), and am posting a piece on which I’ve been working for a while. I hope that it proves to be of interest.
In his provocative book Theory of The Avant-Garde, German art theorist Peter Bürger makes a useful distinction between avant-garde art and modernist art. The historical avant-garde (in his view comprised of Dada, Surrealism, and Russian constructivism), which Bürger sees as a failed project that is now finished, sought to destroy the institution of art in order to merge art and the praxis of life: “Creativity would cease to be the eccentric prerogative of individuals, with society itself revealed as a work of art”? (Peter Conrad, Modern Times, Modern Places, 301). Though German critical theorist Jürgen Habermas points out in his essay “Modernity—An Incomplete Project”? that “A rationalized everyday life…could hardly be saved from cultrural impoverishment through breaking open a single cultural sphere”? (Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic, 11), the project of sublating the institution of art with the praxis of life succeeded in a negative, parodic form (the danger of which Bürger recognizes), as capitalism has colonized all areas of life and human experience, including, as critical theorist Fredric Jameson points out, the unconscious. (I have dreams about buying things, or stealing them, or finding them, dreams about finding or stealing money.) Bürger notes that the sublation of art into the praxis of life can only be destructive of art’s capacity to critique and imagine different shapes for reality if the praxis of daily life remains one of capitalist instrumentality: “In late capitalist society, intentions of the historical avant-garde are being realized, but the result has been a disvalue. Given the experience of the false sublation of autonomy, one will need to ask whether a sublation of the autonomy status [of art] can be desirable at all, whether the distance between art and the praxis of life is not requisite for that free space within which alternatives to what exists become conceivable”? (54).
As distinct from the avant-garde, modernist art (most of what would be called avant-garde in standard art world and poetry world discourse: Bürger’s example is Cubism) explores and expands the productive processes and capacities of its medium. With regard to the frequently heard assertion that “We are all post-avant-garde,” it would be more accurate to say “We are all post-Modern,” in the strict chronological sense. Most who adopt such a position aren’t referring to the historical avant-garde at all, and certainly not to Bürger’s concept of the artistic avant-garde. What’s usually meant when someone says that we are all “post-avant” is that we are all post-Language poetry: a considerably narrower historical horizon. Thus the statement would be more accurately reformulated to assert that we are all post-Modernist, following after and in the wake of Modernism, of the Modernists. This passage from Robert Archambeau’s Samizdat review of the critical anthology The Mechanics of the Mirage: Postwar American Poetry sums it up very well: “all poetry being written in America now could usefully be discussed under rubrics that attach one prefix or another to the term ‘modernist’: anti-modernist, late-modernist, post-modernist, neo-modernist, maybe even pop-modernist.”
With regard to Bürger’s conceptualization of the avant-garde, I’d be hard-pressed to think of anyone writing in America today, whatever the merits of their work, who is engaged in the project of breaking down the barriers between the institution of art and the praxis of life that Burger attributes to the historical avant-garde. In Bürger’s terms, they are all modernist or “experimental” writers, not avant-garde writers. In fact, it’s hard to imagine just how any purely literary endeavor would even go about trying to unite art and the praxis of life—Dada and Surrealism were, after all, not primarily literary movements. I am in any case wary of treating poetic form as a political issue.
Situationism (which was also not strictly an artistic movement) might be seen as an attempt to recreate and resuscitate Bürger’s historical avant-garde, but it ended just being a retread of Surrealism (including the Situationist notion of the dérive or drift, which the Surrealists had already done, and in the same city). André Breton’s “novels” Nadja (1928) and L’Amour Fou (Mad Love) (1937), are Situationist “psychogeographies” of Paris well avant la lettre; Louis Aragon’s “novel” Le Paysan de Paris (The Peasant of Paris) (1926) is even more so. As Peter Conrad notes, the Surrealists “hoped to bring together Marx and Freud, combining social liberation with psychological revolt” (ibid.). As he also notes, perhaps a bit unfairly, “The revolution failed to occur—or perhaps it was foiled by the surrealists, who stirred up revolt inside the mind but on the streets” (307). Situationism added some memorable slogans—“All power to the imagination,” “Reality must be destroyed”—and some interesting ideas about the society of the spectacle that Marshall McLuhan was already expounding. I often think about the unacknowledged debt that thinkers like Guy Debord (the leader of Situationism) and Jean Baudrillard, with his simulations and his precession of simulacra, owe to McLuhan’s medium as the message, not to mention the massage.