I’d like to thank everyone who has commented on “Avant-Garde and Modern, Part Two.” This piece began as a response to Brent Cunningham, those scruples and whose comments are both appreciated—I do indeed enjoy principled disagreement, and am getting to the point in my recovery that I can again take pleasure in such meetings of the mind. But as it expanded I decided it would be better positioned as one or two additional posts.
As I made clear in the first part of my post, in which I discussed Peter Bürger’s idea of the historical avant-garde, the term avant-garde can be useful as a historical term referring to some movements, mainly Dada, Surrealism, and Russian Constructivism, which, however interesting in themselves, failed (inevitably?) in their aims to unite what Bürger calls the institution of art and the praxis of life. Their attempts to produce such a sublation or reconciliation revealed and helped make possible the false achievement of that aim through capitalism’s attempted subsumption of semi-autonomous art.

Though Bürger’s definitions and attributions of aims to these movements may be disputed, they have a definite teleology: the breakdown of the barriers between art and life, which would either lead to or be a model for the breakdown of the boundaries and categories of rationalized capitalism, and the production of a new world not ruled by what Adorno calls instrumental reason. Even assuming that such diverse figure as Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon, and Vladimir Tatlin shared this aim, it is impossible, if only because, given that art is only one institution among many in a complex, overdetermined society, one can hardly affect the reconciliation of the institution of art with the praxis from within the narrow confines of art. Nor can one predict the terms of that reconciliation. In other words, art can’t destroy art as an institution, and even if it could, you can’t know the results of such destruction in advance. You could just end up with a world without art.
In Bürger’s summary, “we note that the historical avant-garde movements negate those determinations that are essential in autonomous art: the disjunction of art and the praxis of life, individual production, and individual reception as distinct from the former. The avant-garde intends the abolition of autonomous art, by which it means that art is to be integrated into the praxis of life. This has not occurred, and presumably cannot occur, in bourgeois society unless it be as a false sublation of autonomous art.”
As Bürger insists, the term avant-garde has only an historical reference. It’s no longer possible for anyone to be “avant-garde” in that sense. For that matter, the Surrealists and the Constructivists were largely fooling themselves about the extent to which art and artists, as artists, could intervene in the social/political realms. The Surrealists, even given their later Communist affiliations, had an absurdist anarchist politics, while the Constructivists hitched their wagon to the star of the Russian Revolution, which set pretty darned quickly.
Coming soon: Avant-Garde and Modern, Part Four

Originally Published: June 17th, 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 18, 2008
     Brent Cunningham

    Hi again, RS,
    I like to think I'm fairly thorough, but I'm quite embarrassed to say I made my comments without reading your "part one." Pretty unforgivable really, and I apologize for that.
    "Part one" does provide much more context and grounding, as this piece does, for what you are getting at. But I think my basic objections, with only slight modifications, are still quite valid, though at the same time I look forward to your response in part 4.
    I agree Burger's book is very worthwhile, but it's really not the first or final word, as you admit. If you restrict your definition of "avant-garde" to Burger's sense of it, you're going to be right that THAT avant garde doesn't and can't exist anymore. But not everyone agrees with the lines Burger draws or especially his conclusions. In fact, curiously enough the translation I have includes a forward by Jochen Schulte-Sasse that I've always marveled at since the last eight pages are a pretty savage and successful dismantling of precisely Burger's thesis about the non-viability of the avant garde today (& keep in mind that "today" means 1974, when Burger's book was published).
    Here's Schulte-Sasse:
    "To return to Burger: His refusal to reflect on future possibilities of an art integrated into social life that were opened up by the avant-garde is striking, because he himself has helped us see the contours of a future determination of art's funciton..."
    And his concluding sentence of the entire foreword:
    "...Burger hesitates to elaborate on those aspects of the avant-garde expressed most precisely by Walter Benjamin and to use them for a theoretical and historical understanding of possible determinations of post-avant-gardist art."
    (Remind me not to ask Schulte-Sasse to write the foreword to my book, by the way. With friends like these, etc...)
    Anyways, of course the general point I'm making is there's a lot of conflicting ideas about the avant garde, historical and current (and even within Burger's book actually, which is certainly not a simple cry that the avant-garde is dead), and such a ferment of debate alone argues that the term still has energy and reality & may have uses larger than Burger's sometimes restrictive notions of it presumes. Who knows what potential some young writer may find in the notion of a dismantling of the boundaries between life and art?
    One last, much smaller point: I'm curious where you picked up this phrasing about the Russian "constructivists"? The constructivists were largely visual artists--Burger's book and most everyone I've read on the revolutionary period avant-garde russian writers tends to talk about the futurists (which it's possible to see constructivism growing out of) and the Russian formalists, sometimes thought of as the "lit crit" theorist wing of the futurists (tho like anything it wasn't that simple).
    Anyways, looking forward to next installment. Be well,

  2. June 18, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Hello Brent,
    Thanks for your quite eloquent response. I will be posting part four of this piece (written after reading your first response but before reading this most recent one) soon, and at the moment am too tired to do justice to this new response. But I did want to respond to the question at the end of your comment. I've tended to use the words "futurist" and "constructivist" interchangeably with regard to Russian avant-gardism (though I think in my first post I did refer to "futurism" in discussing Burger), in part to make clear the distinction from Italian futurism. I've thought of Russian futurism and constructivism as a continuous movement. If I'm mistaken in that understanding, I'd appreciate it if you'd clarify the distinction.
    I definitely don't think that Burger is the first or last word on the avant-garde. I've just found his the most cogent and rigorous discussion the question that I've come across. Most discussions or definitions of the avant-garde equate it with modernism or anything experimental in art (sometims even detemporalizing it, as Lyotard does with his idea of the postmodern in "Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?," in which the postmodern is a moment of rupture in the modern). It becomes so nebulous and amorphous a term as to become meaningless. I appreciate Burger's precision, even if it may be (and probably is) too rigid and narrow.
    I hope that part four, which I will post soon, furthers clarifies my position.
    Thanks a lot for commenting, and take good care.
    all best,

  3. June 20, 2008

    Hey RS,
    Normally I'd probably go on at great length after an invitation to lecture on the Russian futurists & formalists, but I think I'll try to exercise restraint this time and keep it short. There's lots of great books on the period, but I'll recommend two that I think make for very enjoyable reading since they're both by first-hand participants: one is Viktor Shklovsky's "Mayakovsky and His Circle," which despite being published under the usual pressures of mid-century Soviet Union censorship has a lot of great anecdotes and ideas; second, absolutely check out Roman Jakobson's "My Futurist Years," one of the most pleasurable memoirs of that period (the great linguist was something like 15 while hanging out with the futurists and young formalists). In addition, any intro to, say, a Shklovsky book (Dalkey Archive is heroically printing or reprinting a lot of English translations of them with excellent intros) would also establish the distinction you're looking for. Besides taking place in different art forms with different people involved (Osip Brik is the only one who seems to be named among all 3 groups), it's partly simply chronological: Futurism by 1912 certainly, Formalism founded in 1916 as Opoyaz, Constructivism by 1920-1922. That the aesthetic ideas are basically the same is a position you could theoretically take, but to call the Futurists "Constructivists" is like calling the New York School poets "Pop Artists" on the basis of Larry Rivers and O'Hara knowing each other and sharing similar aesthetics.
    Well, maybe I didn't keep it so short after all. Oh well...

  4. June 20, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Hi Brent,
    Thanks for the clarification and the suggested readings, which I will follow up when I have more energy. I love the title of Jakobson's book My Futurist Years; the only volume of his I have is Language in Literature, which is full of incredibly detailed readings of Yeats, Mallarme, and others.
    While I can still keep my eyes open (this fatigue is beating me down), I'm posting the fourth and final (?) part of "Avant-Garde and Moden" tonight.
    Take good care, and thanks for the stimulating interchange.
    peace and poetry,