BEFORE THERE WAS ART
The Avant-Garde as a concept and later as a tendency in Romanticism emerges
in the first half of 19th Century Europe from the ascendance of bourgeois
capitalism and the development of scientific method and it's application
in technology. These variable determinants do not constitute a Marxist or
any other kind of dialectic or binary system, rather they produce a matrix
of interlocking cultural traditions which syncretically integrate older
traditions and cultural formations.
This conceptual history follows the trajectory of Art, the Avant-Garde,
Science, Technology, Anarchy, Socialism, Popular Culture, and Underground
Cinema, the last two traditions will be omitted from my history until the
end, as they were omitted from Art history until the end of the 20th Century.
If the Avant-Garde is not the anti-Art Underground tradition neither is
it synonymous with the radical tradition of cultural communist, collectivist
and anarchist projects which begins with the Utopian Socialists and spans
the 19th Century and into the 20th. The precise definition of the Avant-Garde
depends upon a reformulation of the autonomy of Art, that is its lack of
social function; its functionlessness . Burger argues that the process
of Art's autonomy begins with the shift in Art's function, as cultural power
moves from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, a process that begins with
the dissolution of courtly power and culminates in the 'Art for Art's Sake'
movement of the mid 19th century and the Aestheticist movement of the late
The integrity of the concept of autonomy depends completely on how
you define social function ; in mediaeval Europe the arts had a primarily
sacred/ religious social function which in the Renaissance was superseded
by a political/ courtly social function . With the accession of the
bourgeoisie, Art eventually becomes detached from the "praxis of
life" , it has no function other than to be Art, it becomes
This theoretical manoeuvre obscures as much as it reveals, for of course
no human life activity can be autonomous from the 'praxis of life' anymore
than a social activity can be without a social function. Our definition
of Art's functionlessness therefore depends not upon Art's absolute
absense of function, but upon its specialisation and isolation as an institution
which has progressively eliminated all social utility and necessity. As
the bohemian pioneer of 'l'art pour l'art', the poet and novelist Theophile
Gautier pronounced in 1834:
'What is really beautiful can be no other than good for nothing; anything
that is useful is ugly because it expresses some need, and those of man
are base and disgusting, like his wretched and invalid nature. The most
useful part of a house is its latrines...I am one of those to whom the superfluous
is necessary, and I like things and people in inverse proportion to the
services they render.' 48
The autonomous Art that develops with the accession of the bourgeoisie
is not the absence of function, it is a new function: it's function is to
In its contemporary form this superfluousness is complex for not only is
it the absense of social utility, it has become also the suppression of
all meaning , since meaning is socially useful.
The question is, what is the social function of superfluousness ?
Before we answer that question we have to agree on a definition of Art.
Wollen, Burger and Poggioli share a definition of 'Art' that includes a
diversity of genre and media : painting, sculpture, poetry, literature,
music and film.
What unifies this diversity is that 'Art' excludes popular culture, folk
culture, working class culture, amateur culture and mass entertainment.
'Art' is the high culture of the bourgeoisie.
And this is a problem with a definition of 'bourgeois' Art, because there
only ever has been one 'Art' and that's bourgeois.
As Victor Burgin explains in THE END OF ART THEORY, our contemporary meaning
of Art is not essential or eternal, the meaning of art has radically
shifted in western cultural history:
'In classical antiquity, the word 'art' (Greek, tekne; Latin, ars) was
the name given to any activity governed by rules; art was that which could
be taught and as such did not include activities governed by instinct or
intuition. So, for example, music and poetry were not at first numbered
amongst the arts as they were considered the products of divine inspiration,
beyond mortal accountability. With , however, the elaboration of a mathematics
of pitch and harmony (Pythagoras), and of a poetics (Aristotle), music and
poetry took their place amongst the 'arts'- alongside, for example, logic
and shoemaking.' 49
In other words in ancient Greece a definition of the 'arts' would include
the 'sciences' of astronomy, geometry and physics. However there was a distinction
between manual arts and intellectual arts and this distinction was taken
up in mediaeval Europe as a distinction between the 'mechanical arts' (manual
crafts) and the 'liberal arts' (intellectual studies such as grammar, arithmetic,
astronomy, music, poetry etc.). During the Renaissance, painting and eventually
sculpture were recognised as liberal arts.
In the early 18th century a new conception of Science developed in
the work of Galileo, Kepler, John Ray, Linnaeus, Francis Bacon and others,
who began to formulate methods of experimental enquiry and proposition based
on a systematic observation of reality and mathematical logic. This development
of 'Science' as an experimental method and a type of knowledge however did
not limit the 'arts' to which 'science' could be applied, science was thetheory
and art was the practice . The specialised definition of 'Science'
as the study of the 'natural sciences' (physics, chemistry and biology),
the exclusion of the arts, did not develop fully until the mid 19th century.
'Science' then moved from a general meaning of 'knowledge' to a specialised
meaning as an experimental and theoretical method concerned with the study
of specific verifiable material realities. This 'Science' found it's social
function in the technological innovations of the industrial revolution.
The new conception of 'Science' and the tendency to specialisation in capitalist
production led to an incremental specialisation of the arts as they first
became the seven Fine arts ; architecture, dance, music, oratory, painting,
poetry and sculpture 50
and eventually became just ART ; the visual arts of painting and sculpture.
Throughout the 18th century the rise of the bourgeoisie and the development
of technologies of reproduction created a new consumer economy for the arts,
the artist became a producer of a commodity which was sold on the open market.
This market economy challenged the established feudal economy of patronage
and commission, 'the arts' became a site of class conflict, at stake was
the control of the standard of good taste. In this conflict Art was (re)formulated
as the creation of the beautiful, the perception and study of beauty became
the aesthetic and the appreciation of the beautiful became a question of
The Art that emerges from the 19th century is a product of the development
of bourgeois capitalism, it is at once specialised as a visual art and universal
as the bourgeois ideal of the aesthetic..it is Art. There was no Art with
a capital 'A' before the bourgeois revolution. 51
There could be no change in the social function of Art, from the mediaeval
to the renaissance to the bourgeois era, just as there can be no primitive
Art and no working class Art, because 'Art' is the autonomous culture
of the bourgeoisie. As Roger Taylor observes in 'Art An Enemy Of The
People' , this is a fact that often eludes both Artists and cultural theorists
'Art is a fetish. As this is so , so mystification becomes part of the
concept of art. From outside the form of life, one can say art is nothing
over and above what the bourgeoisie classifies as art, that is its meaning
, but, from inside the category, such a thought is intolerable because it
dismantles the beliefs that go with entering into the activities of the
Saint-Simon's concept of the Artist as vanguard for the scientist and the
industrialist could not be articulated until a distinct concept of Art had
developed; the initiation of the Avant-Garde and the development of an autonomous
Art are historically simultaneous. Our definition of the Avant-Garde follows
from this crucial insight. Whilst Burger is absolutely right about the historical
process of bourgeois autonomisation of Art, he is wrong in defining
the Avant-Garde as the movement which opposes this process. Tracing the
trajectory of Art in cultural history the only meaningful definition of
the Avant-Garde is that it is the movement which pioneers , implements and
maintains the autonomy of bourgeois Art. The Avant-Garde is the vanguard
of Art. So successful is this Avant-Garde that the autonomisation of Art
has far surpassed the 19th century Art For Art's Sake movement and Burger's
observations of 1974. So autonomous is Art in the 1990's that even the most
established functional activity or object can now be rendered superfluous.
So effective is this arcane enchantment that Art has now entered a radical
new phase of autonomy in which cultural practises formerly considered as
Art are now being separated and excluded from Art by the creation
of ultra superfluous substitutes : theatre is no longer Art since the emergence
of Performance Art and Live Art , music is replaced by
Sound Art and Radio Art etc.
(The substitute for cinema we shall come to soon enough.)
The last autonomy will be of Art from it's final specialisation as a 'visual
art', then perhaps there will Paint Art, Artists Painting and Sculpture
Which returns us to the question, what is the function of superfluousness
? or Why is Art autonomous ?