Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Process of Avant-Garde Practice (4)

The Praxis of the Avant-Garde

At the root of these three critical theories of the avant-garde is the theory of practice and, indeed, it may be said that when one talks of the avant-garde, one is always, by implication, talking about the practice of the avant-garde. This conception of practice takes on special resonance only when considered in terms of work. It is more usual when analysing any movement to consider the work of that movement, and whether you are a hermeneutic or materialist critic, it is with work and works that you are finally concerned. This is necessitated by the retrospective temporal category which is criticism, which must, in almost all cases, make art forms into fetishised objects treated in a quasi-archaeological fashion. In calling the avant-garde a practice, one is not saying therefore that there are no avant-garde works of art, rather one is saying that the avant-garde confronts the category of “work” with the category of “practice” and, at least for a period, favours the latter over the former. Thus, it may be said, that any theory of the avant-garde which concentrates on typologies based on categorisation of collections of diverse works, is in direct contravention of the basic tenet of avant-garde art and makes out of avant-gardism another face for modernism.

Within the category of art, the conception of practice does not begin with the onset of the avant-garde at the end of the nineteenth century. It is, rather, prepared for by Romanticism and its valorisation of the conflation of the subject and the work, particularly noticeable in the figure of the alienated, Romantic genius. And it is the concept of genius which is the origin of the practical realm of the idealist Romantic philosophy. A conflation of subject and practice which is placed in a kind of simple equation, subject (of genius) + practice = Romantic work of genius, this comes from the way in which art, within the modern period, has come to be seen as the functional equivalent to religion, and is most marked during the period of autonomous art. However, it is not until the avant-garde that practice is placed at the centre of an artistic process, not to produce work, which would be a rhetoric, but to destroy the category of work as such.

Avant-garde practice is a kind of anti-rhetoric, a somewhat ascetic programme of means by which the category art can be destroyed by eliminating the predominance of work. In fact, it would be true to say that, just as there is no truly Romantic work, in that the idealist philosophies of Romanticism cannot be actuated in material form, so there is no avant-garde work of art. For the avant-garde, the primary aim was to take the practice of art production and elevate it to a position where it could replace the affirmative and ossified category of art with a more vibrant dialectic category. There is, as yet, no name for this second category for, as Burger notes, it was never attained. There are avant-garde works, just as there are Romantic works, but these are works left over from the practice of the two movements.

Within all three of the critical theorists of the avant-garde I have looked at, this element of practice is manifest as the single most important feature of the avant-garde, and is the main point where their theories could be seen to be comparable. This, then, is perhaps the best definition of the avant-garde: a movement which places the category of practice over the category of work, so as to destroy the category of art and return it to the practical realm of life. However, this presupposes the category “definition” as one which is valid and such a definition would, therefore, be a rational modernist definition of avant-gardism in Lyotard’s terms, and so another aspect of the ongoing process of the totalising of modernism by its absorption of all other art movements and periods.

Burger, Kristeva and Lyotard manage to avoid this totalising tendency by appreciating that this “definition” of practice is not a typological category with meta-narrative claims to dominance, but rather a process. It is a dynamic process of practice which is opposed to the static definition of work that typifies that category of art, and this makes it a radical challenge to the very preconditions that could tie down the central definition of avant-gardism. Further, it is a process which is ongoing, and not limited temporally to a particular period, or spatially to a particular group of already written texts. Practice, by its nature, rejects the fetishised and excavated “work” of art, in favour of a dynamic and ongoing “practice” of what should, in fact, no longer be called art.

All three theorists are able to retain this radical motility of the avant-garde, not merely because they are more acute and respectful towards avant-gardism than their counterparts, but because they have also perceived the simple concomitant result of the practice of art. As Burger makes clear, the practice of art seeks to eradicate the gap between art and life-praxis by returning art to life-praxis, destroying it as a bourgeois category. The implications of this for art are radical and well documented, but the implications for the theory of art are just as important. Increasingly, the categorisation of art resides not in the conception or production of art, but in the reception of the art object and so, the destruction of the category art proposed by the avant-garde is also the destruction of the theory of art. Practice, in this light, does not refer to the process of creating art in the traditional sense of Romanticism and modernism, but to a process of creating the category of art. In this process, criticism is central.

Critical theorists not only realise this, but they concur and embrace it. Which is unsurprising as critical theory is the result of the avant-garde. Thus, in each of the three theorists I am analysing here, we not only have a theory of practice, which I will elucidate in the following pages, but also a practice of theory which is instrumental in creating and retaining the category of art. As is the case with all criticism. What is different in critical theory is that the practice of the theory of practice is post-practice, and therefore its own practices are marked by the challenge of avant-garde practice, a practice which has generated critical theory but which critical theory also defines continuously through its practical assaults on its own categorical position.

Burger makes the point that the avant-garde’s desire to radicalise the relationship between art and life, which reached its apotheosis in autonomous art movements at the end of the nineteenth century, was not a desire, necessarily, for political “engagement.” Instead, it was a desire to eradicate, once and for all, any gap between the practice of art and life-praxis. This was, according to Burger, to be carried out on three fronts. First, in the category of conception of purpose, the avant-garde was no longer to conceive of its projects as anything other than a return to life-praxis. At no point would they consider their “work” as somehow separate from living, and from the institutions of living we all hold in common, namely society. Second, the emphasis on individual creation which sustained autonomous art through the development of the myth of the Romantic genius, would be negated. Not to be replaced by some sense of medieval collective art, but to negate such categories of creativity altogether.

And finally, third, in the realm of reception, avant-gardism looked to means by which the perceived gap between producer and audience, a gap which is the essential articulation of the category art, could be removed. The hope was to make conception, production, reception and life-praxis some kind of seamless whole, aiming for a Hegelian sublation of the perceived antinomy art/life-praxis.

Burger is careful not to get stuck in standard hermeneutic gestures of analysing individual work as this contravenes his own methodology of critical hermeneutics, however he does give a number of examples of how avant-garde artists and writers went about achieving these aims, to which I can add more examples. The emphasis in surrealism on automatic creation and objective chance, not only removes the traditional purposive impetus of artistic creation, but also gives creation over to anyone via games, slips of the tongue, chance meetings and so on. A point clearly made in Breton’s early definition of surrealism as, “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express...the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by though, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” (Breton 26). Or Dali’s conception of objective chance as “a spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations” (Breton 274), which is effectively a program for the transformation of the category “everyday life” into that of the “marvellous”: “Let us not mince words: the marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful” (Breton 14). This is especially what Lefebvre dislikes about the avant-garde, the conviction that, “existence is elsewhere” (Breton 47).

Dada performances have a similar automatic quality, and they put forward an art whose only aim was to destroy art. In the ingenious “Dada Manifesto 1918” Tzara produces a catalogue of attacks both against art and against his own weapon against art, DADA: “I am writing a manifesto and there’s nothing I want,” “DADA—this is a word that throws up ideas so that they can be shot down,” “DADA DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING,” “A work of art shouldn’t be beauty per se, because it is dead,” “I am against systems; the most acceptable system is that of having none on no principle,” and “there is great destructive, negative work to be done” (Tzara 3-12). Further, in their confrontational performances at the Cabaret Voltaire, sometimes resulting in actual conflict with the audience, they looked at means of eradicating the gap between stage and auditorium.

Italian futurism followed suit, also mounting a systematic attack on all the tropic and thematic concerns of art. A typical example is Marinetti’s essay “Against Past-Loving Venice” which begins: “Venetians! When we cried out, “Let’s murder the moonshine!” we were thinking of you, old Venice soiled with Romanticism!” (Marinetti 56). His declaration is also in accord with the futurist credos of nihilism: “Time and Space died yesterday” (Marinetti 41), and “Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice” (Marinetti 43).

Meanwhile, the more profound experiments of Russian futurism looked into the substance of creation. They tried to ascertain the structural base of all communication, hidden beneath language and shapes, so as to open the creative act of manipulation of this substance to the whole populace. While, in their desire for zaum or transrationality, they hoped to remove from art the means-ends rationale imposed upon it by bourgeois capitalism, which was seen as the category’s defining feature. Khlebnikov defines zaum, alternatively translated as “Beyonsense” or “transrational,” thus: “Beyonsense language means language situated beyond the boundaries of ordinary reason...Beyonsense language is used in charms and incantations, where it dominates and displaces the language of sense, and this shows that is has a special power over human consciousness, a special right to exist alongside the language of reason” (Khlebnikov, Letters 383). Clearly, “beyonsense,” is, in essence, the avant-garde as I have defined it so far.

Burger concludes that the project of the historical avant-garde to remove the articulating gap between art and life-praxis via their sublation, a move which sought to radicalise not only art but also life and make such differential categories irrelevant, failed. The result was not a return to praxis, for he sees the avant-garde as buying into the myth of an originary state when art and life were one and the same thing, but continuation of the practice of work towards stylistic innovation and perfection. This failure is useful first in that it marks a clearly discernible point of difference between avant-garde and modernist experimentation. Avant-garde experimentation was not stylistic innovation, but an innovation within the category of style with an aim to destroying it. When it failed to do so, it became modernist innovation. It also opens up a point of difference between the practice of artistic creation, which is the practice of modernism, and art/life-praxis. Quite clearly, the first is an affirmative renewal of bourgeois art, which is still ongoing, while the second is a periodised attempt to revolutionise bourgeois art by destroying it, which failed and no longer pertains within contemporary art.
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