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.

Originally Published: June 10th, 2008

Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...

  1. June 10, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    "McLuhan, the spectacle's first apologist, . . . seemed to be the most convinced imbecile of the century. . . ." -- Guy Debord.

  2. June 10, 2008

    Debord did have a name-calling streak, didn't he.

  3. June 10, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    Welcome back, Reginald! And thanks for this essay, which is stimulating even though it seems to encourage us to float a foot or so off the ground. I like levity but am incapable of levitation. So, let me ask a couple of questions for the sake of getting me back to earth.
    Are you agreeing with Bürger that "the sublation of art into the praxis of art can only be destructive of art’s capacity to critique and imagine different shapes for reality"? I'm taking for granted, of course, the reality of our capitalist situation.
    Secondly, are you arguing for the view that poetry cannot or should not reflect the real world–if by "real world" we mean the historical forces that shape our daily lives?
    As for Debord, is it not true that his first book had a cover made of sandpaper in order to damage books placed next to it on the shelf? What a clever little vandal...

  4. June 10, 2008

    I think that Avant-Garde, as I believe Bürger contends, was a very specific movement. It is not a failure of the art and literary world today, it just means that we need to be more exacting in our terminology.

  5. June 10, 2008

    In Bürger's terms, the avant-gardists were insincere: They were constantly engaging with the institutions of art. Engagement is, to some extent at least, affirmation. And, of course, the institutions of art have absorbed the historical avant-garde. I'd be curious to know where Bürger places Marinetti and the Futurists, who were more explicitly contemptuous of the institutions of art than the later Dadaists and Surrealists. (I don't know the Russian Constructivists well enough.)
    In Bürger's terms, the graffiti artists of the '70s and '80s were more avant-garde than the original avant-gardists. Completely eschewing the institutions of art (for a long time, anyway), the graffiti artists' work was all about the praxis of daily life.
    Latter-day graffiti artists who alter billboards toward political and/or social purposes are equally avant-garde.
    The closest literary equivalent is O'Hara's Personism -- or, it would have been if it had not been so tongue-in-cheek. (That's not a complaint; I adore the Personist Manifesto.) I can't think of a real literary equivalent, or a musical one either.
    The art institutions have done a poor job of integrating graffiti art into the history of art. Some graffiti artists have made it into art careers, but the original stuff was impossible to collect, and so it has successfully resisted the history of art. The historians of poetry have completely ignored the textual elements of graffiti art -- even historians of visual poetry have ignored it.
    I'm reminded of Dylan's epigram:
    And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
    Fighting in the captain's tower
    While calypso singers laugh at them
    And fishermen hold flowers
    Between the windows of the sea
    Where lovely mermaids flow
    If there's an avant-garde today, literatteurs wouldn't know about it. We're in the Captain's Tower by definition.

  6. June 10, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    I rather like the idea of levitation; at the moment, I would be quite happy to levitate out of my body, but not for good (as Frost writes in "Birches," "May no fate willfully misunderstand me/And half grant what I wish and snatch me away/Not to return. Earth's the right place for love"), just for a vacation until my body is done with its little pas des deux with pain.
    I am afraid that one little typo has completely reversed the meaning of my phrase. I blame the fever and the fatigue. What I meant to write (and have since corrected the text to read) is, "the sublation of art into the praxis of life," that is, the abolition of art as an autonomous or semi-authonomous sphere. It is only art's distance from the given (or the imposed) that allows it to present other possibilities, alternatives to what is. That does not mean that art doesn't reflect the "real world" (Joseph's quotes), the material circumstances of human lives, but that it reflects upon them and is not simply a social byproduct, but an entity of its own both in and outside of the world, which speaks back to the world.
    It's true that Guy Debord et al. were rather arrogant, smug, and self-righteous. Proudly so, even.
    I have to go get my IV antibiotic infusion. More later.