Friday, August 01, 2008

Problems with "True Avant-Garde"

[This refers to the cfp in the post below.]

1. I don't usually pick on people cfps - lord knows I struggle doing that kind of stuff - but I feel this cfp exhibits a lot of tendencies in the recent history of the avant-garde that I find deeply problematic.

2. To begin with, "avant-garde" is not a transcendent concept that remains the same throughout time. There is no "true avant-garde"! Loosely speaking it begins with French Romanticism (which is one reason why the "anti-Romantic" notion of the cfp is very reductive in a didactic, Perloffian way) to suggest the way the artists may show the way for the industrialists and scientists towards a utopian society. This inaugurates a certain relationship between poetry and politics that have remained important to the meaning of the phrase. But often it just meant political - for example anarchists in the 19th century referred to themselves as avant-gardes, Lenin did the same. All of this can be read about in Calinscu's "Five Faces of Modernism." I won't bother you with the whole history.

3. A lot of time people refer to "the historical avant-garde" (European artistic movemnents 1909-WWII). But that "the avant-garde" contains a lot of contradictory ideas, sometimes within the same movements, within the same person. The same artists may one day be Dadaist, the next Constructivist, the next Surrealist. Especially when you move away from the centers. (As Pontus Hulten points out in his article on Futurism, the outskirts have often been more dynamic when it comes the avant-gardism than the centers, more susceptible to strange movements and changes.)

4. My main objection to "the truth avant-garde" is therefore the claim that there is one "true" avant-garde. The concept has changed through time and even in the relatively brief period of the historical avant-garde, there were tons of different ideas.

5. But there are other problems with this cfp. It seems people these days in American are very enamored of Burger's theory of the avant-garde. As interesting as that book is, it is seriously flawed. It focuses almost entirely on Duchamp and a small part of Dada for it's definition. It also makes a rather foolish claim of a separation of life and art, which I think a lot of historical avant-gardists would not agree with. In many ways it bears the imprint of its time - Germany, early 70s, and its politics.

6. So we may say like Stan Apps (in the comment field) that Burger's theory is bad and has been raked over the coals and this cfp is poor scholarship. But I think it's worth thinking about why this Burger theory now? I think it comes from a desire to separate life and art in an old-fashioned - even ROMANTIC (!) way - in order to be able to present a poetry that closes the gap. Toto, we are back to an aesthetics of authenticity and "the real."

7. A lot of the artists of the historical avant-garde move away from the auratic, the authentic, the un-translatable, toward the reproduced, the translated. Why try to find "the true avant-garde"? Why try to locate that term in near opposition to the reproduced aesthetics of the historical avant-garde.

8. What else perplexes me about this cpf is that of course that the historical avant-garde took place largely in Europe. So why does the cfp barely mention European avant-gardists? It mentions the cut-ups of Tristan Tzara - well that is a very tiny part of his total output. Most of the historical avant-garde doesn't even exist in translation in the US! How can these guys go around proclaiming true avant-gardes when they have not even begun to read the many poets and journals etc that came out of the historical avant-garde! Are we just going to do away with this era? Foreign lit alltogether? (Unless they're going to talk about foreign mimeograph revolutions, such as the one Per Backstrom will discuss in the next issue of Action, Yes, due out in a week or so.)

9. The cfp dismisses the common associations of a-g with the "groundbreaking, confrontational and even impenetrable" as somehow shallow associations. But the confrontations and the spectacular clashes with bourgeois society was a huge part of the historical avant-garde! To say that it's superficial - like Altieri's comments about Jed's paper at the Gent avant-garde conference (see previous post - is to commit an act of huge revisionism - and, again, perhaps to do away with those pesky Dadaists and Futurists.

10. Is this new "avant-garde" - which includes Wc Williams but not Huelsenbeck! Langpo but not Apollinaire! St Marks but not Henry Parland! which favors "democratic communities" over "confrontation" - a kind of revisionist idea that seeks the expel the "historical avant-garde" and return to some kind of Romantic notion of the relationship between politics and art? (I say "a kind of" because it certainly keeps certain aspects of the historical avant-garde but not others.) All the while, turning it into an American term? Or perhaps, merely to turn it into a term for American poetry of the 60s and 70s (which had previously been referred to as "neo-avant-garde")?

11. I guess the ultimate question is why are we so invested in this term "the avant-garde" and finding a true, stable meaning for it? Especially why that meaning has to be so American.


Blogger mark wallace said...

Who wrote the piece that you're responding to here? That would help me better know what to make of it and whether it indicates something all that definitive about how anybody thinks of the term "avant garde."

11:13 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

There's one point I don't follow, Johannes. While the CFP is certainly dumb, isn't its (misunderstood) aim just the opposite of a desire to preserve the separateness of art and life? Isn't its invocation of Burger an attempt to imagine art which collapses the former into the latter (despite the fact that Burger thinks this is no longer possible)?

I'm not sure I understand yr. critique of the Burger. Since it's an (anti)-aesthetic "theory" and not really a historical study, saying that it leaves out lots of figures in the historical a-g doesn't really constitute a critique. I read the Per Backstrom essay and didn't find it all that appealing. The philological stuff about modernism and the avant-garde was interesting, but that split seems well-covered already--in Foster, in Buchloh, in Krauss--and although it wasn't very clear on this point, it seemed to want to push toward a fairly formalist-technicist definition of the a-g, such that it had to do with a stance toward "tradition" (hi, Stan!), rather than an attitude about the overall makeup of society and the possibility of something else. . .

11:24 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Well, Jasper my little point there was that it's life and art is not this simple binary opposition; and it seems to me the desire to go back to Burger is a desire to want that split so that we can have poetry that undoes the split. See what I mean?

One common criticism of Burger (among many) is that his theory - while it's not a historical study - makes broad claims for the avant-garde based on a fairly narrow reading of a fairly narrow bunch of avant-gardists (Dada, Duchamp etc). Among many problems with the book, as I'm sure you're aware.

The point of bringing in the modernism-a-g split is not to bring something brilliantly new to the forefront of a-g studies but to bring it up in the poetry discussion. Most people have not read the Huyssen for example. Judging from the responses I got a lot of people had not thought about this split.

Tomorrow I'll look it up again.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

Johannes Re: #11:

Labels and catagorization is the manner used to understand that which is considered "difficult." If you can define it, put it in a category, and then refer to that category, you can either point to it easily in the future or, the regular method, dismiss it. I don't know that it's uniquely American, but yeah, probably a Western thing, though who knows. I don't know the history of Ismization.

8:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love art and think that all existence, creation, and thought is art. I believe that the act of spectating a work of art is artistic itself because the viewer adds their creative interpretation to the art.

However, I do believe in "True Avant Garde" and think it is one of the most important aspects of art. Avant Garde isn't a specific look or method. It is a function.

I believe that "True Avant Garde" is art that's primary function is to challenge society. This can be a challenge to what is art or what people wear as clothing. The integral characteristic is that it forces people to look at things in a new way. The most successful Avant Garde art presents an undeniable truth that people cannot challenge. It is persuasion and change.

Most importantly, Avante Garde presents the audience with evidence that shatters false notions about the world.

I would imagine that anything in art or any action in life, being new, is Avant Garde to some degree. But I also feel that there is less rebellion involved in more abstract concepts, such as style. I think clothes that push the boundaries of nudity or what is acceptable to wear under certain circumstances (at a professional job for instance) are the most functionally Avant Garde in fashion.

But at minimum, Avant Garde should open your eyes to something new.

10:20 AM  

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