The Avant-Garde in Babel: Two or Three Notes on Four or Five Words
by Robert Archambeau

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 Per Bäckström begins his essay “One Earth, Four or Five Words: The Notion of the Avant-Garde Problematized” by telling us that theoretical terminology wears out and needs, periodically, to be regenerated.  This is fitting, because the idea of linguistic entropy is one of the core notions of Renato Poggioli’s treatise The Theory of the Avant-Garde, the misinterpretation of which serves to illustrate Bäckström’s point about the degeneration of our terminology for avant-garde art. Bäckström has done a valuable service in pointing to the ways terms like modernism, postmodernism, and avant-gardism have lost much of their precision as they circulate through different linguistic contexts.  I’m happy to see him dispel much of the confusion wrought by different national uses of similar terms, and happy, too, to see that some of the apparent disagreements about avant-gardism have been little more than misunderstandings based on different definitions of terms.  I’m not quite sure how to feel about how easily these different uses can be traced onto our existing map of national stereotypes, though.  In Bäckström’s convincing and well-documented exposition we find laid-back denizens of the Latin America and the Mediterranean countries, happily accommodating a wide range of aesthetic activity under the broadly catholic, easy-going and somewhat imprecise rubric of (variously) “avanguardia,” “vanguarda,” or “vanguardia.”  We also find uptight and precise Germans, Teutonically policing the firm boundary between high-culture modernism and utopian avant-gardism.  And we find befuddled Americans with undeveloped political consciousnesses confounding modernism with avant-gardism (and sometimes with postmodernism), all the while bumbling through a world whose languages they can’t be bothered to learn.
            Bäckström’s analysis seems to me beyond criticism in certain respects: his inter-linguistic sensitivity is rare and necessary; his research is thorough; his exposition seems unclouded by any overt aesthetic or political agenda.  His conclusions — that we would do well to reread theories of the avant-garde with an eye open to matters of different national usage; and that we would do well in upholding the German tradition of maintaining an unambiguous distinction between modernism and the avant-garde — are very sound indeed.  If I have anything of value to add to his analysis, it is by way of pointing to two or three areas where some refinement of Bäckström’s model may be possible.  Specifically, I would suggest further interrogation of what is meant by the idea of a politicized, utopian avant-garde, and I would suggest an exploration of the complex relationship that has developed between avant-gardism and the institutions of art and literature.  I would also recommend a broadening of the scope of inquiry to include not only an analysis of the relationship between modernism, postmodernism, and the avant-garde, on the one hand, and mass culture, on the other; but an exploration of the relationship between modernism, postmodernism, and the avant-garde and what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call traditional bourgeois high culture.

The Bäckström Schema

The four or five terms Bäckström refers to in his title are modernism, avant-gardism, vanguardia (and its variants in the different Romance languages), postmodernism, and the neo-avant-garde, which I take to be his fifth, and somewhat less emphasized, term. Bäckström sees modernism as a term used in the Germanic and Anglo-American traditions to indicate an aesthetically experimental kind of art that defines itself by its rejection of popular culture’s kitschiness and clichés.  The avant-garde, in the precise usage of German theorists like Peter Bürger, refers to a movement that combined aesthetic and political radicalism, seeking to regenerate life by eliminating the boundary between art and life.  In this view the avant-gardeis less worried about maintaining a distance from popular culture than is modernism.  The neo-avant-garde, for its part, simply tries to extend the project of the avant-garde into different historical circumstances.  Although there has been much ink spilled in arguing over the definition of postmodernism, Bäckström finds its most useful definition to be one based on its complex relationship to modernism and popular culture, a relationship we could perhaps best see as a dialectical progression beyond the thesis of pop culture and its antithetical negation by modernism, since postmodernism contains within itself the formal experimentalism of modernism, even as it refutes modernism’s distaste for pop culture (Bäckström, I should point out, is above such simple Hegelian triads, but I am not, and I extrapolate this definition from his detailed exposition).  Vanguardia and its variants are terms from the Romance languages that refer to a range of experimental literary and artistic activity, including both anti-pop-cultural forms and politicized forms.

           One indicator of the precision of Bäckström’s schema is the ease with which it can be visualized.  One could construct a Cartesian coordinate system based on his schema, with the terms politics and pop culture are at one end of the X and Y axes respectively, and their negations at the other.  The overall field depicted would be that of artistic experimentalism in general, and one could plot the co-ordinates of the movements designated by the Bäckström’s terms thusly:


cartesian coordinate system

One could quibble about particular instances, or argue about areas of overlap, but this is the general schema we come to through a reading of Bäckström’s essay.

Art as Life, Art as Revolution, Art as Exhibit

Bäckström is certainly right in insisting on the Germanic tradition of maintaining a distinction between a primarily aesthetic and apolitical modernism, on the one hand, and a politicized avant-garde, on the other.  But the some further distinction between the kinds or degrees of political radicalism within the avant-garde seems desirable, especially since debate over the scope of the avant-garde’s politics proved so divisive within the historical avant-garde itself.  To assert that the avant-garde advocated a radical, utopian vision of the future is to mask the division between two forms of utopianism: one predicated on the belief in ending the division between art and life brought about by the institutions of art, and the other predicated on a the identification of the avant-garde project with political revolution.
            Utopianism of the first kind is the subject of Peter Bürger’s influential Theory of the Avant-Garde, in which he tells us that by the the 1920s “the social subsytem that is art” has entered “the stage of self-criticism,” and rejected “the status of art in bourgeois society as defined by the concept of autonomy” (22).  The problems, in this view, were the institutions (such as art museums) and the discourses (such as literature) that walled art off from the rest of life.  If these could be destroyed, art would be liberated from the stifling world of aesthetic autonomy, and be returned to the realm of life in general.  In 1920, when the Dadaists exhibited their work in Cologne with hatchets nearby, and invitations to take up those hatchets to destroy the exhibits, they were taking aim at the reverence that shrouded art and set if over against life in general.  When the Bureau of Surrealist Research issued its manifesto, the “Declaration of January 27, 1925,” it boldly declared that Surrealism had “nothing to do with literature,” and was “not a poetic form” (450).  There is a politics to this, and in some sense it does call for a revolutionizing of daily life.  But this is a very different kind of politics from that advocated by the revolutionary parties whose specters stalked Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century.
            The historical avant-garde of the 1920s was torn asunder by disputes about how closely they should identify their activities with those of political revolutionaries.  André Breton, for example, asserted the inherent identity between surrealism and political revolution, and eventually he united with Paul Éluard and others in condemning Antonin Artaud for limiting his sense of revolution to the war against aesthetic institutions.  Breton attacked Artuad for “seeing the Revolution as no more than a metamorphosis of the soul’s inner conditions...” and failing to understand its essential unity with projects of Marxist revolution (Picon 77).  Examples of this kind are legion in the debates of the historical avant-garde, and can be found in postwar neo-avant-garde circles as well (one thinks of Situationism).  Given the contentiousness within the historical avant-garde  about whether the politics of the movement should be aimed at the problem of art and life, or extend to an identification with leftist political revolution, it is unfortunate that our descriptive terminology fails to reflect the division.
            One wonders, too, if it might be unfortunate not to have a more precise understanding of the evolving historical relationship between avant-gardism and the institutions of culture.  It is certainly true that institutions such as museums, galleries, literary anthologies, academic departments of art and literature, and the like are still with us, having withstood the assaults of the avant-garde.  And it is equally true that these institutions have absorbed the very avant-gardes that challenged them, to the point where Peter Bürger can complain that “the demand that art be reintegrated in the praxis of life within the existing society can no longer be seriously made” (35).  There is a great irony in reading a statement like this, from the National Gallery of Art’s archive commemorating their 2006 Dada exhibition:

      448 works in a wide range of media, including collages, assemblages,       photographs, prints, drawings, paintings, posters, films, and audio recordings were       presented in this multimedia installation that traced the history of the Dada       movement.... Audio recordings of sound poems by Hugo Ball, Kurt Schwitters, and       Raoul Hausmann were played in listening chambers, and selected short Dadaist       films were shown in a continuous loop in a special viewing area within the       installation. An audio tour was narrated by National Gallery of Art director Earl A.       Powell III and others.

The idea of a special viewing area is anathema to the movement that despised the institutional separation of art from the bustle of life, and unless Earl A. Powell III was present during his narration, and visitors were equipped with wet sponges to hurl at him, the spirit of the movement that invited viewers to take axes to artworks was deeply violated.  Even such resolutely anti-institutional neo-avant-garde practices as Allan Kaprow’s Happenings (and his later Activities) have fallen prey to the institutions of art they were designed to challenge and circumvent.  These participatory and deliberately spontaneous and ephemeral entities have been filmed, documented, and embalmed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, whose Kaprow exhibit is called (apparently without irony) “Art as Life.”
            One of Bäckström’s most intriguing points is made only briefly and in passing, when he addresses Bürger’s sorrow at the devouring of the avant-garde by the institutions of art.  Noting that Bürger didn’t seem to understand that the very idea of art had “imploded after the assault on art as an institution put forward by the historical avant-gardes and their ‘inheritors’ in the 1960s,” Bäckström implies that in very the process of devouring the avant-garde, the institutions were changed by them.  My sense is that this is entirely true, and that comparative research into the goals, structure, and function of the institutions of art would reveal that they were deeply changed through the encounter with, and absorption of, anti-art movements of the avant-garde.  Research into this area — not only with regard to the visual arts, but with regard to such literary institutions as anthologies, academic syllabi, and the like — would be of immense interest, and would go a long way to showing us the different contexts and different functions of the prewar historical avant-garde and the postwar neo-avant-garde.

The Z Axis

I’ll end with one more indication of where I think Bäckström’s excellent analysis could be extended.  It seems to me, as I look at the chart I’ve drawn of his schema, that there’s another axis, along with the axes denoting engagement with pop culture and politics, that could be drawn: an axis indicating the relationship between vanguard activity and the tradition of bourgeois high culture.  It is certainly true that we can make some useful distinctions between, say, modernism and postmodernism based on their different relationships to popular culture; but it seems probable that we could find other, equally useful distinctions between and within such categories as modernism, postmodernism, avant-gardism, neo-avant-gardism and the like based on the relationships these movements have to the tradition of high culture inherited from the nineteenth century.  Indeed, given Bäckström’s deep familiarity with Andreas Huyssen’s work on modernism, it is surprising that he doesn’t follow up to any appreciable degree on Huyssen’s observation that “both modernism and the avant-garde always defined their identity in relation to two cultural phenomena: traditional bourgeois high culture … but also vernacular and pop culture” (viii).  It is possible that the distinction will simply break down into a modernism that sought to preserve the bourgeois tradition (whether it be through a Poundian desire to make it new, or an Eliotic project of letting the dead poets of tradition speak through the contemporary work) and an avant-garde that sought to destroy that tradition (as in Marinetti’s call for the immolation of Venice, and the desecration of its statuary).  But one imagines significant national variations in this regard, possibly across the modernist/avant-gardist divide.  How could, say, an educated German of the early twentieth century, raised with the idea of a redemptive Schillerian high culture as a birthright of his class, not differ from an American of similar background, raised in a culture saturated with liberal-utilitarian disdain for such culture?  Wouldn’t the relationship of such culture to fundamentally oppositional cultural formations such as the avant-garde appear different to them?  One imagines research in this area would yield much fruit.
I am not prepared to offer a new schema of terms, be it of two, three, or some larger number of dimensions of Cartesian co-ordinates, but I am very glad to have watched Bäckström show us our the origins of our current Babel, and to  see him point us in the right direction to get out of it.

Works Cited

Bäckström, Per. “One Earth, Four or Five Words: The Notion of the Avant-Garde Problematized.”  Action, Yes! Vol. 1 no. 7, Winter 2008.

Bureau of Surrealist Research.  “Declaration of January 27, 1925.”  Manifesto: A Century of -Isms, ed. Mary Ann Caws.  Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2001: 450-451.

Bürger, Peter.  Theory of the Avant-Garde.  Trans. Michael Shaw.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Huyssen, Andreas.  After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1986.

National Gallery of Art.  “Past Exhibitions: Dada”

Picon, Gaeton.  Surrealists and Surrealism, 1919-1939.  New York: Rizzoli, 1977.