The trouble with the cultural category 'Avant-Garde' is that there is no agreement
amongst cultural theorists as to its meaning.
Should it be limited to a defined historical movement ? Is it an ahistorical
activity ? When did it begin ? Is it interchangeable with Modernism ?
Certainly Wollen uses 'Avant-Garde' and 'Modernism' as equivalents, but eleven
years later Paul Willemen
29 re-defined Wollen's avant-garde binary model locating the Straub/Godard
Avant-Garde as the avant garde and the Co-op Movement as Modernist.
At its most essential the Avant-Garde is a military metaphor, the vanguard,
the shock troops of Art 30
, who forge ahead of the rank and file to capture and conquer new territory.
The Avant-Garde is colonial, they are the ground breakers, the pioneers, the
cutting edge, they lead the way through history, from the past into the future.
And even if we do not recognise them in their lifetimes ,we will encounter
their martyred corpses when we reach the path they discovered for our progress,
for the NEW.
Within this metaphor there is a system of logic :
The Avant-Garde must be historical - it is temporal, it always advances, it
occurs before, it is always new.
It must be an elite - it is always in advance of the mass, it is extraordinary.
It must have direction - a trajectory, even if the direction is only forward.
It must have authority - the Avant-Garde must eventually be followed by the
mass, by the ordinary, if it is not followed then it was not in advance.
This logic of the Avant-Garde metaphor can be our measure as we investigate
the theory of the Avant -Garde.
The principal theoretical model I shall use to de-fine the 'Avant -Garde'
is Peter Burger's influential THEORY OF THE AVANT-GARDE (1974).
Burger draws on Marx, Adorno, Lukacs and Marcuse to construct a complex materialist
interpretation of the historical Avant-Garde. Whereas Wollen sites the Avant-Garde
breakthrough as the 'semiotic shift' of Cubism, Burger sites the blow with
the anti-Art of Dadaism;
'...with the historical avant-garde movements, the social subsystem that
is art enters the stage of self-criticism. Dadaism, the most radical movement
within the European avant-garde, no longer criticises schools that preceded
it, but criticises 'art as an institution' and the course its development
took in bourgeois society. The concept 'art as institution' as used here refers
to the productive and distributive apparatus and also to the ideas about art
that prevail at a given time and that determine the reception of works. The
avant - garde turns against both - the distribution apparatus on which the
work of art depends and the status of art in bourgeois society as defined
by the concept autonomy. Only after art in nineteenth century Aestheticism,
has altogether detached itself from the praxis of life can the aesthetic develop
"purely". But the other side of autonomy, art's lack of social impact,
also becomes recognisable." 31
Burger's analysis is based on the 'autonomy' of Art , that is, its lack of
social function as anything other than Art. This autonomy developed as a complex
process within the general historical development of bourgeois capitalism.
Factors in this process would be the decline in the religious sacred function
of art, the alienation of the artist from the Court, the rise of the art collector,
the specialisation of labour in capitalist production and the withering of
the mimetic function of Art induced by the development of lithography and
"...the autonomy of art is a category of bourgeois society. It permits
the description of art's detachment from the context of practical life as
a historical development - that among the members of those classes which,
at least at times, are free from the pleasures of the need of survival, a
sensuousness could evolve that was not part of any needs-ends relationships."
According to Burger this autonomy finds its culmination in 19th century
'Art For Art's Sake', Aestheticism and Symbolism. Burger views this autonomy
as a development of bourgeois Art but also as a paradoxical protest against
the 'needs-ends' functionalism of
bourgeois capitalism, autonomous Art becomes the domain of social values excluded
With the separation of Art from social function, the separation of Art from
everyday life, Art becomes visible as an 'institution'. And with the recognition
of the separation of Art from life the Avant-Garde can begin its historical
project : the reintegration of Art and everyday life, the demand that Art
should have a social function. For Burger the techniques of the Avant-Garde
are those that attempt to negate the autonomy of Art eg. montage, found objects,
shock, chance, automatism, manifestations, elimination of the author, use
of new technology..etc. The historical Avant-Garde then can be defined as
the movements and individuals who sought to negate Art, specifically Dada
and the Surrealists.
Its apparent that Burger's Avant-Garde is fundamentally different to Wollen's
, moreover Burger's interpretation would deny Wollen's contemporary Avant-Gardes
the category 'Avant Garde' at all. Regarding the post-Surrealist Avant-garde
'....the sublation of art that the avant-gardists intended, its return
to the praxis of life did not occur. In a changed context, the resumption
of avant- gardist intentions with the means of avant-gardism can no longer
have the limited effectiveness the historical avant-gardes achieved. To the
extent that the means by which the avant-gardists hoped to bring about the
sublation of art have attained the status of works of art, the claim that
the praxis of life is to be renewed can no longer be legitimately connected
with their employment. To formulate more pointedly: the neo-avant-garde institutionises
the avant-garde as art and thus negates genuinely avant- gardiste intentions.'
The implication here is that after the failure of the Dada/Surrealist
Avant-Garde, those Artists who employ Avant-Garde techniques are not Avant-Garde
; the Avant -Garde project ended with Surrealism. In Burger's model the binary
tradition of Wollen's "Two Avant-Gardes" is spurious because neither
tradition is avant-garde.