El Lissitzky - Sketch for PROUN 6B
by Paul Brennan
Like revolution, socialism, communism, and Marxism, like any conception that would have it that there is an alternative to capitalist ontology, today the avant-garde is as extinct as the proverbial dodo. The age of militant artistic publicity seems a long, long century ago. Back then there was still a future, one that could be determined by the productive, social imagination. The historical avant-gardes, pitting themselves against the demarcation that separated the creative from the social and political, were natural allies of revolution. Not always the right kind of revolution, of course, as the example of Italian Futurism, with its militarism and misogyny, and later fascism, shows. And not always, or even often, without a large quantity of crankery and self-indulgence to go with the inspiration. Still, surveying the early twentieth century scene, it is striking how different was the conception and practice of art compared to today. True, there were painters and writers and composers for whom art remained a trade, a form of petty commodity production, but there were others, many others, at work on projects which they pursued with an idealism that would make them a laughing stock today. These could be those like Breton or Maiakovskii, for whom the creative was inseparable from the idea of a new society, or those like Joyce or Pound, politically equivocal or even downright reactionary, but who made it so intensely new that to imagine proper readers for their works was to imagine an entirely different order. Today, figures like Joyce and Pound seem to belong to an entirely different world.
Last year Penguin Books published 100 Artists’ Manifestoes: From the Futurists to the Stuckists. It is an enthralling read, at least initially; after the excerpts from Situationist writings — and surely Situationism is the moment when the avant-garde achieves its most fully realized conception of the need to erase the boundary between life and art — the sad truth begins to sink in that the avant-garde has become a joke. The movements that define the boundaries of the text tell a story. Marinetti’s Futurists represent the Ur-form of the avant-garde — the moment when it was possible to declare that “time and space died yesterday” on the front page of Figaro and not only become a subject of mockery. By the time of the Stuckists any mockery one can imagine the artist’s tracts receiving seems completely justified. It is avant-gardism — or at least an avant-garde gesture — against the avant-garde, a silly, merely reactive whinge against conceptualism and a call for a return to figuration in painting.
One reviewer of 100 Artists’ Manifestoes suggested that Alex Danchev could have improved his book by including a selection of the documents published by a group that appeared in 1999, the International Necronautical Society, which threw down its marker by publishing its first manifesto, in an homage to Marinetti, on the front page of the London Times (http://necronauts.net/manifestos/1999_times_manifesto.html). The INS deserves attention; not at all because it has rekindled the true flame of the avant-garde, impossible anyway, but because it at least evinces some ambition and does represent a focused, immersed response to the historical avant-gardes and their place in modern cultural and political history.
The INS is a “parodic” or “ironic” avant-garde, indeed it styles itself a “semi-fictitious avant-garde network,” but it is not the self-consciousness of this organization that distinguishes it from the historical avant-gardes. Self-consciousness was a built-in, preconditional quality of those movements. The classic account of this may be Peter Bürger’s, in Theory of the Avant-Garde (1972). In this now somewhat derided text (it flatters no one and is hostile to any claim that there can be a valid “tradition” of the avant-garde) Bürger charts the history of modern art as a story of autonomy achieved (in the moment of the bourgeois revolutions of the late eighteenth century) and then relinquished, when artistic self-consciousness, by the time of the late nineteenth century found itself dissatisfied with the available alternatives of artistic practice as either petty commodity production or aestheticism. The avant-gardes, for Bürger, wished to surrender their autonomy in return for an art rejuvenated by social relevance — hence the radical politicizations of art of the early twentieth century.
The self-consciousness, the reflexivity, of the INS is different. It is a organization that at once holds itself aloof from the narrowness of (particularly) contemporary British art and literature, but seems equally incapable of taking seriously the utopian projects of the historical avant-gardes. For this reason it presents itself as a kind of parody of a totalitarian state or party, merged with the attributes of movements like Surrealism and Situationism. Members can be expelled for the slightest infraction, if not shot. There are committees and sub-committees, communiques, and “agents.” The military aspect of the avant-garde is maintained, but with acknowledgment that it is more appropriate today, in our society of spectacular capitalism, to think of such activity as a kind of espionage. All of this with tongue firmly in cheek.
More striking is the death-obsession of the INS. Its members conceive of themselves as “necronauts,” travels or voyagers into death. This seems to me symptomatic of the place that the avant-garde has arrived at. It is no longer possible to think of an expansive, adventurous artistic activity, one outside of the Culture Industry, other than as life placed in a relation of perpetual adjacency to death. Its “General Secretary,” the now well-known novelist Tom McCarthy (http://www.surplusmatter.com/) gives special importance to the Freud of the Death Drive, to Heidegger, Bataille, and to Blanchot. The philosophical stance of the group (Simon Critchley is the INS “Philosopher in Chief”) is decidedly anti-humanist, with a particular hostility to Hegel and Marx. The emphasis falls on the post-structuralist “textual” author, on literature and art as networks, and on technology.
If the near-corpse of the Left is to be revived, then art will have to be revived with it. In the past leftists argued over what a healthy form for a radical art might be. In the age of great realistic fiction, Engels criticized novelists too quick to believe that they had to sacrifice verisimilitude for the sake of propaganda. Trotskii, in Literature and Revolution (1924) endorsed the idea of the avant-garde, but had many cogent criticisms to make of the artistic and cultural schools of this day. Lukács provided a defense of the realist novel against modernism in The Historical Novel (1937). In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno conducted a seminal discussion over the questions raised in the former’s “Artwork” essay (1936). Benjamin argued for an art appropriate to the “environment” which was “being prepared for us by technology” and advocated a practice that would seek to hurry along the extinction of the “aura” and that would be, at the very least, “completely useless” to fascism and its “aestheticization of politics.” Radical art would be a marriage of technology and tendency. Adorno responded by insisting on the value of artistic autonomy, emphasizing artistic technique over technology, as a last-line resistance to the onslaught of commodification. Examples could be multiplied, for Marxism has a rich legacy of aesthetic debate and discussion. (One place to look is the Fredric Jameson-edited anthology, Aesthetics and Politics, which contains writings by and exchanges between Lukács, Bloch, Benjamin, Adorno, and Sartre.)
Today art and literature mostly seem to be a business. One could be forgiven for characterizing them as merely a niche industry supplying a rather snooty form of entertainment commodity. The situation vis-à-vis the critical understanding of art is little better. Who cares, you may say, there are other priorities. But the idea of art is inseparable from the idea of the imagination and the imagination is in turn inseparable from the idea of another world, and so I ask, what would (or should) a Leftist, revolutionary art and critical practice look like today?