Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Process of Avant-Garde Practice

This article was originally a chapter in my PhD thesis that did not make it into In the Process of Poetry.

I write because it is natural like I piss like I’m ill...We are looking for a straightforward pure sober unique force we are looking for NOTHING we affirm the VITALITY of every instant...
Tzara, “Unpretentious Proclamation”

The word leads a double life. Sometimes it simply grows like a plant whose fruit is a geode of sonorous stones clustering around it; in this case the sound element lives a self-sufficient life, while the particle of sense named by the word stands in shadow. At other times the word is subservient to sense...sound becomes merely a “name” and humbly carries out the commands of sense...
Khlebnikov, “On Contemporary Poetry”

Only the unsyntactical poet who unlinks his words can penetrate the essence of matter and destroy the dumb hostility that separates it from us.
Marinetti, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature”

After you have settled yourself in a place as favorable as possible to the concentrations of your mind upon itself, have writing materials brought to you. Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can...Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything. Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you’re writing...Go on as long as you like. Put your trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur.
Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism”

Burger’s “Category of Art”
Between the two approaches to the avant-garde I described in the previous chapter, Peter Burger’s work forms a kind of a bridge. Subject to the historical limitation of the avant-garde, which is a necessary precondition for his system of critical hermeneutics, he is however the prime theorist of the relation of the avant-garde to the return of art to everyday life. And, read critically, his work is the point of entry for a theory of the avant-garde for which I am arguing here.

Jochen Schulte-Sasse’s introduction to Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde is useful in that it attempts to differentiate Burger’s work from Poggioli’s, showing first the dominance Poggioli had enjoyed in the area up to this point, but also a certain bias in that it totally ignores the importance of Kristeva’s work which, by the time the introduction had been written, had been around for a decade. He summarises Poggioli as typical of a number of theorists who take as their basis for a definition of the avant-garde the manner in which experimental literary movements adopted a certain scepticism towards language as possible conveyor of truth, and confronted the conventional, clichéd language with experiments in form in order to dislodge those clichés.

This would mean that the history of the avant-garde would be traceable back to the point when a mass market for literature was first established; the essential precondition for a means/ends philosophy that leads to literary cliché becoming so widespread. In other words, back to the eighteenth century, with the cult of the new already in full force in Romanticism as a reaction against the mass market. While these socio-historical conditions are a necessary precursor to the development of the avant-garde, as Schulte-Sasse notes,

Poggioli’s criteria are both historically and theoretically too unspecific; his arguments cannot accomplish what must be the primary task of the “theory of the avant-garde”: to characterize with theoretical accuracy the historical uniqueness of the avant-garde of the 1920s (Futurism, Surrealism, the left avant-garde in Russia and Germany). (Schulte-Sasse X)

In contrast to Schulte-Sasse’s criticism of Poggioli’s being historically unspecific, he praises Burger for the historical and theoretical specificity with which he identifies three clearly separate periods in the history of art in bourgeois society. These are the loosening and eventual severing of the artist’s dependency on a patron, fully achieved by the end of the eighteenth century; the shift towards scepticism toward language and form which occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century, coinciding with the beginnings of European literary modernism; and finally the self-conscious realisation of art’s own position within society as a whole at the end of the nineteenth century.

Schulte-Sasse’s conclusion is similar to my own, namely that the American tradition of avant-garde criticism, which disallows any real differentiation between the avant-garde and modernism, means that the specific import of the avant-garde is missed:

Modernism may be understandable as an attack on traditional writing techniques, but the avant-garde can only be understood as an attack meant to alter the institutionalized commerce with art. The social roles of the modernist and the avant-garde artist are, thus, radically different. (Schulte-Sasse XV)

The nature of the methodology that Burger adopts, critical hermeneutics, means that his definition of the avant-garde can never be anything but historicised, and thus the three elements of the avant-garde he highlights as specific to its self-definition, tie into the three periods of the history of bourgeois art that Schulte-Sasse highlights in Burger’s work. The movement away from the feudal system of patronage, and the development for the first time of a mass market for art productions making art collectively a commodity, meant that also for the first time the “category of art” came into being. An assumption made by many critics is that this category is somehow universal and beyond question, but in fact, as Burger notes, the very idea of “works of art” is a historicised aspect of modernity, created from certain social, functional determinants based upon the material and ideational requirements of these works.

These requirements are that “works of art” can be made into a type of commodity and that they affirm the dominant ideology, and also the material conditions of their production and reception, the artist’s relative financial autonomy, and the appearance of a mass audience.[i] Burger concludes: “the singular term ‘institution of art’ highlights the hegemony of one conception of art in bourgeois society” (Burger and Burger 6). Historically, this is essential for the avant-garde for, until art became a category, it was not possible to have a movement based on questioning this category. However, it also has for us a theoretical importance that cannot be over-stressed. Once we accept as critics that art is itself a historicised category, begun in the eighteenth century and finding its full being with Romanticism, then we can begin to move on from the unspecific categories of Poggioli’s criticism, and mount a serious definition of what the avant-garde signifies for us today.[ii] The avant-garde is the first movement actually to question the very basis of the categories of “art” that we still seem to take for granted, and which certainly modernism accepted as necessary preconditions for its own experimentation.

Following the establishment of this category, a rebellion began from the middle of the nineteenth century centred around scepticism towards the mean-ends philosophy that this categorisation of art had introduced. The autonomous art movement that began with Romanticism’s adoption of Kantian intransitiveness, and of individual alienation from the mass of bourgeois society, was a definite attempt to negate the economic basis of art production and reception. The aestheticist stance of the l’art pour l’art movements at the end of the nineteenth century, were an attempt to escape the commodification of art by removing art from the social realm altogether.[iii]

However, as Burger notes through Marcuse’s work on affirmative culture,[iv] such a removal of art from the realm of the social did not undermine the power of bourgeois society, nor even remove art from the equation. Instead, it set up an essential dialectic between society and its other, which allowed for the bourgeois individual to gain legitimation by seeming to practice within a non-utilitarian realm:

All those needs that cannot be satisfied in everyday life, because the principle of competition pervades all spheres, can find a home in art, because art is removed from the praxis of life...In bourgeois society art has a contradictory role: it projects the image of a better order and to that extent protests against the bad order that prevails. But by realizing the image of a better order in fiction, which is semblance only, it relieves the existing society of the pressure of those forces that make for change. Where art accomplishes this, it is ‘affirmative’ in Marcuse’s sense of the term. (Burger, Theory 50)

This is an essential point in the history of bourgeois art, in that it reveals for the first time the two-fold nature of this category, that is that “art in bourgeois society is based on the tension between institution and individual work” (Burger, The Decline of Modernism 18). It is only after this realisation that one cannot undermine the category of art in bourgeois society by removing art from society, in fact one further strengthens this category in doing so, that an avant-garde attack on the institution as such is possible. Such an attack is based on what Burger sees as the primary aim of all historical avant-garde movements: the destruction of the category of art by removing the traditional dichotomy art/life-praxis altogether. Initially, it does this by attacking autonomous art, but it is not merely the stance of a new movement rejecting the past as traditional definitions of the avant-garde would have it, but, because of the historicised nature of autonomous art and all it represents, it is a rejection of the category of art as such. Burger concludes:

In 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... (Burger, Theory 54)

The importance of the avant-garde and of Burger’s definition is not, however, predicated on the success of avant-garde utopian aims. Rather, without it, the idea of the category of art as a historicised aspect of bourgeois society would not be available to us; the reasons behind Romanticism’s cults of the personality, novelty and artistic intransitiveness would be hidden from view; the implications of autonomy in art as affirmative of the dominant culture would not have been seen; and the necessity for self-criticism on the part of critics themselves after the avant-garde’s attack on the institution of art would be unknown to us.[v]

Without the avant-garde we are not equipped with the critical tools to define the avant-garde, nor literary modernity as a whole. It is at this point that Burger stops, relegating the avant-garde to a brief historical rebellion against the very category of art as such, which did not succeed, but, rather, produced the conditions for a complete definition of this category and in this sense strengthened its totalising dominance.[vi] The failure of the avant-garde is the point when we, as critics, come to see the success of the category of art, and in this way art remains as conservative and affirmative as it ever was. However, what has changed in a radical fashion is criticism itself which, provided with the full history of the category of art in bourgeois society, is now able to move beyond the categories of Romantic criticism into a new critical language. In this way, then, the work of the avant-garde is being carried out on a different front, that of critical theory, and Julia Kristeva’s definition of the avant-garde is testimony to this.

[i]For a fuller analysis of this process see Peter Burger, “The Institution of Art as a Category of the Sociology of Literature,” Burger and Burger 3-29.
[ii]Essentially, this is not one of my aims here, except that, because of the particular nature of the relationship between the avant-garde and the practice of criticism, it is vital to make clear to what degree my own critical assumptions are historically part of the avant-garde’s conflict with the dominant category of art.
[iii]Their methodologies were varied combining hermeticism, scandalous material, self-immersion, utilisation of non-western material particularly the oriental, wilful difficulty, exploration of taboo or occult themes, self-publishing and so on. Each was designed to stress that art existed for itself, merely by showing that it did not exist for any other use. Burger notes how, in this manner, autonomous art took on the mantle left by the collapse of religion. It did this by fulfilling three definitions of the role of religion: a separation of this world and an other world, the development of a form of independent value, and the presence of a figure beyond the quotidian demands of bourgeois society. And so, from Romanticism onwards, certain artists were stressing an essential distance between society and their own aesthetic world, attempting to develop forms beyond the demands of commodification and setting themselves up as geniuses with god-like insights.
[iv]For the full debate on Marcuse’s conception of the “affirmative,” see Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde 50-54, also Schulte-Sasse XXXV-XXXVI.
[v]Hopefully, this should make clear that the avant-garde is not one movement amongst movements, but the point where the concept of art as a series of movements, moving forward in a teleological manner, comes up against its other. The avant-garde demands that “art” question its own existence. It is the point when modernity is deconstructed by being revealed as seeking to define the set of which it is also a part. This set is everything that we consider to be “art.” All that we used as meta-categories for establishing literary history is revealed as itself a part of the historical process of modern, bourgeois art. Which throws into question the idea of a linear literary history altogether, in fact makes such a history impossible to realise, and because of this throws into question what “art” itself is.
[vi]An ironic point which Burger makes later on is, that the ingenuity and rigour with which the avant-garde set about destroying the categories of art meant that, once their utopian project failed, these categories were enriched by a whole new set of categories. This is the basis for his dismissal of the neo-avant-garde, of which the New York School is a part. He sees their experimentation in the same manner as that of modernism, that is a renewal of the power of the category of art by providing it with ever more rich affirmative others. Burger will only concede that the definition of the avant-garde, an attempt to return art to life-praxis, is a historical phenomenon tied into the three historical conditions: the category of art, the autonomy of art, the attack on autonomy. These conditions exist in time and they cannot be repeated.
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