Avant-Garde and Modern, Part Three
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
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...