Burger and Benjamin are brought
together in the writings of Andreas Huyssen in the early 1980's. Huyssen subscribes
to Burger's model of the 'Avant-Garde' (anti-Art) but introduces two new elements.
Firstly he sites the origins of the movement in the experience of new technology
, both as an aesthetization of technology before World War I and as a horror
of the technology of war after the conflict. And secondly he proposes that
the Postmodern movement in the U.S.A. in the late sixties early seventies
( Pop Art, Op Art, Fluxus etc.) was in fact the depoliticised endgame 77
of the earlier European 'Avant-Garde' which took place later in America because
Art was not autonomised there until the 1950's. Like Burger, Huyssen also
fails to realise the essential class identity of Art, and the distinct tradition
of the anti-Art Underground. What is important in Huyssen's theory is the
determining agency he gives to technology for the Avant-Garde, this is his
'Hidden Dialectic,' and he constructs two theoretical models of it's history;
the Soviet 'Avant-Garde' of the revolutionary period, and the Dadaists/Surrealists;
'..no other single factor has influenced the emergence of the new avantgarde
art as much as technology, which not only fuelled the artists' imagination
(dynamism, machine cult, beauty of technics, constructivist and productivist
attitudes), but penetrated to the core of the work itself. The invasion of
the very fabric of the art object by technology and what one may loosely call
the technological imagination can be best grasped
in artistic practices such as collage, assemblage, montage and photomontage;
it finds its ultimate fulfilment in photography and film, art forms which
can not only be reproduced, but are in fact designed for mechanical reproducibility.'
Huyssen's contention is that the 'Avant-Garde' used mechanical reproducibility
in an attempt to destroy the aura , in a utopian struggle
to construct an emancipatory mass culture. 79
The complexities of the Soviet 'Avant-Garde' will be gauged briefly
later, for now let us return to Dada.
After Art For Art's Sake, after Aestheticism, after the carnage of the Great
War of 1914-18, Art had developed it's institutional autonomy to the
degree, that it's social irrelevance was irrevocably revealed. More than that,
the Dadaists realised that this superfluousness was in fact the complicity
of Art with the bourgeois war machine and a means to enervate radical dissent:
'The "ideal" has shifted : the abstract artist has become (if
you insist dear reader) a wicked materialist, with the abstruse characteristic
of considering his stomach and stock jobbing more honourable than philosophy.
"But that's nothing new" those people will shout who can never tear
themselves away from the old. But it is something startlingly new, since for
the first time in history the consequence has
been drawn from the question: What is German culture ?
(Answer : Shit) , and this culture is attacked with all the instruments of
satire, bluff, irony and finally, violence. And in a great common action.
Dada is German Bolshevism. The bourgeoisie must be deprived of the opportunity
to "buy up art for his justification". Art should altogether get
a sound thrashing, and Dada stands for the thrashing with all the vehemence
of its limited nature. The technical aspect of the Dadaist campaign against
german culture was considered at great length. Our best instrument consisted
of big demonstrations at which, in return for a suitable admission fee, everything
connected with spirit, culture and inwardness was symbolically massacred.'
Richard Huelsenbeck, En Avant Dada (1922).
Before Dada there had been scores of Artists and Art movements who were revolutionary
socialists and anarchist activists, the contemporaneous Italian Futurist movement
amongst it's number the anarchists Russolo and Boccioni 81
, whilst amongst the Russian Futurists Mayakovsky's involvement in revolutionary
communism began at the age of fourteen. But until the Dadaists, revolutionary
Artists had set out to transform Art, to create a new Art, an Art for the
people, a socialist Art, an Art with a social function, an Art of liberation.
The Dadaists set out to destroy Art.
It maybe possible to construct a new revolutionary culture, but it could never
be Art, there is only one revolutionary project for the radical Artist : self
abolition, the sublation of Art.
Bourgeois Art as an institution at any historical point will consist of production,
distribution/ exhibition and ideological apparatus, within these basic structures
Artists, galleries, patrons, the public, the market, educational sector, state
Art organisations etc. The interaction and diversity of activity prohibit
a rigid allocation to agents in the institution; an Artist may also be a teacher,
a theorist, a curator and a collector. HoweverArt has integrity as
a complex functioning institutional system. The production of aura as a commodity,
the development of the Artist as the producer of aura and the removal of function
from objects is not simply an historical process , it is what Art does as
a system. The paradoxical nature of a feudal handicraft in a bourgeois society,
an aristocratic elite that denies it's own class identity, a mystical ritual
in the age of scientific rationalism, makes Art both mythically fascinating
and vulnerable to subversion, Dada realised this and exploited it. In the
years between the two world wars Art was most vulnerable to subversion at
the point where the aesthetic gaze was summoned, where the ritual took place
, the site of exhibition; the gallery, the theatre, the concert hall ...Those
who attend an exhibition enter into a compact with the exhibitor , the exhibition
will provide the auratic objects, the audience will gaze with pure aesthetic
disinterest. A distance will be maintained, the audience will suspend their
social being. At the exhibition social function is transformed into meaning
. Bathed in the aura, the aesthetic gaze of the viewer interrogates the Art
object for meaning ; the trace of the Artist, the aura, form, style,
connotation, denotation, symbolism, allegory, metaphor. The moment the bourgeois
audience understands the meaning of an Art work, is the moment of insignificance.
This search for meaning is the denial of social function, it is the suspension
of the real, it is taking part in a game 82
. Dada's greatest strength was also it's greatest weakness ; rather than trying
to win the game or refusing to play the game, Dada played the game but broke
They inserted concepts and objects into Art which were designed to subvert
and expose it as arcane bourgeois ritual and so bring about it's destruction.
If we take as an example the celebrated FOUNTAIN of R. Mutt , a mass produced
porcelain urinal sent anonymously by Marcel Duchamp to the hanging committee
of the 1917 exhibition of the New York Society Of Independent Artists, we
can see in this provocation a complex technique of shock and sabotage:
a. Everyday life and Art are sublated at the very site of exhibition, an object
which has a social function but no meaning is displayed for the aesthetic
gaze. And the pure gaze which marks the superiority of the bourgeoisie over
the base and animal weakness of the lower classes, is forced to confront it's
own urine. (Gautier's latrine.)
b. Confronted with the urinal an object with no meaning , the viewer nevertheless
cannot escape the ritual search for meaning ; the sacred
and noble gallery has become a public toilet which has become a fountain,
a fountain of piss. This is what the Art audience worships, piss. This is
the transubstantiation of the gallery turning piss into Art. Or maybe this
is what the Art audience does, they piss to mark their territory like dogs,
c. The urinal has no aura. It is an industrially mass produced inauthentic
replica without history, without trace of origin or human hand except for
the scrawled signature which mocks the sanctity and nobility of the Artists
vocation. Even the name is fake.
The Dadaists subverted Art not with a new revolutionary meaning but with the
refusal to provide meaning, even the name was meaningless. Into the Art process
Dada shoved events where nothing happened, Art works without Artists, accidental
poems, every toxic substance they could imagine. But with each new outrage
Art did not disintegrate, it actually became more resistant. As Hans Richter
'The devising and raising of public hell was an essential function of any
Dada movement, whether it's goal was pro-art, non-art, or anti-art. And when
the public, like insects or bacteria,had developed immunity to one kind of
poison,we had to think of another.' 83
In it's brief and glorious rage Dada generated a powerful logic and a set
of techniques for the anti-Art Underground, but they also began a historic
conflict which far from eliminating Art has vaccinated it against subversion,
modernised it's technology and expanded and liberated the functionless gaze.
How this happened lies in the arcane nature of Art as an auratic ritual and
the Artist as the producer of aura.
The institution of autonomous Art is an integrated system, but it is not an
industry, it is a cultural institution. The production of aura as a commodity
is not an industrial process, because industrialisation of it's production
eliminates aura. The function (lessness) of Art is to maintain the social
hierarchy of the Bourgeoisie, this maintenance is performed at every level
of the Art Institution from the ritual of exhibition to magazine criticism.
The only place where this maintenance does not take place is in the 'content
' of the Art work, because the aesthetic gaze renders the Art work itself
insignificant. By opening the rift between signifier and signified, by eliminating
representation the Modernists ratified what became apparent to the Dadaists,
which is, that it doesn't actually matter what the bourgeois Art work is,
because the institution of Art is autonomous to the work of Art. This is the
incredible resilience of Art, it cannot be subverted at the level of the Artwork.
The shock tactics of Dada produced ever diminishing effects, every attempt
to break into the aesthetic gaze of the bourgeois audience simply increased
their capacity for disinterest in the face of extreme provocation. The absurd
and irrational excesses of the Dadaists may have outraged the bourgeoisie
at first, but inevitably such extremism can be contained as the sacred and
noble mythology of religious ecstasy and aristocratic eccentricity : aura.
Moreover since the bourgeoisie articulates itself as a the ruling elite by
the disinterest of its aesthetic gaze, so Dada provided a more efficient test
The insertion of mass produced objects, new technology, random products and
vulgar humanity into the institution of Art did not destroy the aura but modernised
Ever since the Romantic genius emerged out of the bourgeois revolution the
Artist had become the source of the aura, but up until Dada the aura was experienced
by the viewer as the authenticity and history of the handmade Art work, the
fetish of the mystical and noble. Dada disengaged the aura from the Art work
and projected it back onto the Artist, this projection was often encouraged
by the Dadaist, as in the case of R.Mutt. Writing in his magazine 'The Blind
Man' soon after the submission of the Fountain, Duchamp declares:
'Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance
, He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that it's
useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view-created
a new thought for that object.' 84
The trouble with Dada was that to many of it's activists, anti-Art was just
another Art movement, another Avant- Garde 85,
so that even as they subverted Art they participated in the institutionalisation
of that subversion. The revolutionary potential of inserting 'non-Art' into
the Art institution became totally assimilated as the 'found object' and the
'Ready Made' and the projection of the aura back to the Artist completed a
process that had begun in the Renaissance when the visual arts had ascended
from a 'mechanical art' (manual craft) to a 'liberal art' (intellectual occupation),
as the aura could now be experienced no longer as simply the physical trace
of the Artist but as the projection of the Artist's perception. By which I
mean that whereas the Artist had hitherto had the power to create aura, after
the 'Ready Made' the Artist became living aura, able to transubstantiate the
base and vulgar objects of everyday life into Art simply by placing them into
the Art institution. Of course being an Artist is to be within the Art institution,
Duchamp gave up painting in 1923 and lived on as an Artist till 1968, a sample
of his piss is now worth thousands in New York.
Art called Dada's bluff, and so pioneered a new realm of meaninglessness,
because many of the Dadaists didn't really mean it. The most radical
gesture is still a gesture, and so when Andre Breton of the Paris Dada (the
Surrealists) declared in 1928 .....
'The simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street,
pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into
the crowd. ' 86
...he pioneered a new realm of imagination beyond the real, the realm
of the superfluous, where the Artist priest King is allowed total autonomy
because they mean nothing. When the French State indicted Louis Aragon in
1931 for his incitement to ' kill the cops ' in his poem Red Front
, Breton stepped into the controversy to assure the bourgoisie that he
really didn't mean it. This defence put forward in Breton's The Poverty of
, despite protestations to the contrary , is essentially a justification of
19th century Art For Art's Sake and the autonomy of Art. Perhaps a member
of the crowd should have shot Andre Breton.
It was not untill the 1960's that the bastard offspring of Dada actually began
to mean what they said, and the ironic martyrdom of Andy Warhol, which we
will consider later.
The liberation of the aura, the transference from the hand to the soul
of the Artist, enabled the 20th century Avant-Garde to colonise the new cultures
and technologies without ever risking the reintegration of Art and everyday
life, because since Art was no longer defined by it's materiality but by inclusion
in the institution of Art, so aura could be bestowed on anything .
The aesthetic gaze of the bourgeois in the 20th century has left the gallery
and is now able to appreciate the formal qualities of a sleeping homeless
teenager, a tent, a car crash, a refugee camp, an internet site, a gun...
And this separation of the aura from the object accelerated a process of European
Avant-Garde colonial cultural appropriation, which began with the well documented
influence of Japanese woodcuts on the impressionists and African masks on
But the first colony and the crucial appropriation for this story is the internal
colony of all those in western society who were excluded from Art as it became
autonomous; the popular.
As the Avant-Garde has pioneered its own superflousness, so the definition
of the Avant-Garde in this text is grounded in radical utility, and it also
has the virtue of being theoretically workable.
The Avant-Garde is the vanguard of the autonomy of the institution of Art,
this is an imperative of the ruling culture of the bourgeoisie, an imperative
which in maintaining the social hierarchy of the bourgeoisie represses, appropriates
and enervates all radical projects designed to democratise and liberate cultural
production. The Avant-Garde is a paradox which is infinitely flexible and
infinitely transformable, it is a product of the bourgeois fetishisation of
both the feudal past and the capitalist future, with progress it makes everything
The Avant-Garde then cannot be simply identified as a specific historical
formation, movement or 'genius' and this is further complicated by the fact
that the process of autonomisation takes place holistically across the institution
of Art; Avant-Garde activity is conducted as much by the Art dealer, the curator,
the Art school, the theorist, the market, the public... as by the Artist.
Neither can the Avant-Garde be identified by 'content' since the autonomy
is not a style, form or medium but a social hierarchy. Although the 'purest'
expression of the Avant-Garde is Modernist abstraction, 'content' is superfluous..
even cultural work that was designed as radical Anti-Art can be appropriated
and transformed into Avant-Garde Art, even those who have worked explicitly
for the democratisation of culture have had their work appropriated by the
Avant-Garde. The only requirement of content is that it should be 'new', and
since in a society ruled by an elite caste, the idea of democracy and liberation
is always 'new', those radical cultural workers who chose to work within the
institution of Art will always serve the Avant-Garde; the more they rebel
the more they collaborate in their own superfluousness.