LORDS OF PROGRESS


The disparity between Wollen and Burger brings us no closer to a workable definition of the Avant-Garde, to that end we next examine the classic definition of Renato Poggioli in THE THEORY OF THE AVANT GARDE first published in 1962. 34

Poggioli's theory is essentially a speculation on the cultural history, psychology and symbolism of the Avant- Garde. His analysis makes use of a chain of concepts ; activism, antagonism and nihilism, agonism and futurism, antitraditionalism and modernism, obscurity and unpopularity, dehumanisation and iconoclasm, voluntarism and cerebralism, abstract and pure art.
For our purposes he makes a series of vital observations. To begin with Poggioli traces the development of the Avant-Garde to Romanticism :

'....one may legitimately assert that whereas the classical tradition is, by definition, one in which there exists no avant-garde force at all,
romanticism is-in a certain way and up to a certain point-potential avant- gardism.'
35

Moreover Poggioli asserts that both Romanticism and the Avant-Garde are aristocratic in character;

"In the aesthetic realm, as well as in the sociological, classical, romantic and avant-garde art are no more than minority cultures, precisely insofar as they are art. But whereas the first is content to distinguish itself from the majority culture, from the barbaric, uncultivated, and illiterate , romantic and avant-garde art cannot avoid displaying a certain interest negative or positive as the case maybe, in those masses which are now illiterate only in a relative sense. As against classical art, which flowered in an aristocratic climate, romantic and avant-garde are aristocracies subsisting and surviving in the democratic, or at least demagogic, era. This fact suffices to show that the sociological differences distinguishing romantic art from avant-garde art are only differences of degree." 36

Whilst Poggioli documents the radical aspirations of the Avant-Garde he constantly reaffirms the aristocratic culture of the Avant-Garde;

'We recognise that the avant-garde more often consciously adheres to, and superficially sympathises with leftist ideologies; we affirm that the anarchistic ideal is congenial to avant-garde psychology . But neither one nor the other serves to to deny what was said above concerning the eminently aristocratic nature of avant-gardism - a nature, not in turn, belied by its displays of plebeian spirit. Thus the withdrawals into individual solitude or into a circle of the few elect, into the quasi-ritualist posture of aristocratic protest, are, like the gestures of plebeian, anarchistic, and terroristic revolt, equally owing to the tortured awareness of the artist's situation in modern society-a situation we shall later describe as alienation.' 37

For Poggioli alienation is the condition of the avant-gardist, alienated from noble patronage, bourgeois culture, from mass culture, from the public, from the commercial market,they are the criminal, the prophet, the self tormentor, the Promethean, the clown, the scapegoat, the saint, the insane... above all the avant-gardist is caught in a paradoxical desire for political and moral power:

'Even though the modern artist knows that these were idle hopes and illusions lost forever, he has yet to forget completely this dream in which he can no longer believe. Such a psychological ambivalence, at once delusion and nostalgia, justifies the artist of our day in his paradoxical, antihistorical, and illogical lament over the scarcity and downright lack of a contemporary public; it is a lament uttered precisely when for the first time in history, the potential public for literature and art equals the greatest part of the population. And the one who utters the lament is exactly the type of artist who, by definition, addresses a restricted or specific public, which he himself distinguishes from the limitless general audience by a voluntary act of opposition' 38

In history Poggioli's Avant-Gardist always lives in the transitional age, between the dead past and the bright new future, always John the Baptist, never the messiah.

Poggioli agrees to a certain extent agrees with Wollen that the 'abstract' breakthrough came with cubism, but Poggioli's history of the Avant-Garde is not a linear series of breaks , it is a complex development of diverse tendencies out of Romanticism. Significantly Poggioli shares with Burger an analysis of the avant-garde Art work as dehumanised , in Poggioli this is articulated as a move from the classical (human) to the avant-garde (dehumanised), whilst in Burger the move is from the pre-avant-garde (organic) to the avant-garde (inorganic).
Wollen refuses both dehumanisation and the inorganic , for him the breakthrough is in signification.


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