WHO'S AFRAID OF THE CONTEMPORARY?
Clov: Do you believe in the life to come?Hamm: Mine was always that.— Samuel Beckett, Endgame
The history of the avant-garde is a history of parallel processes, contradictions, of non-resigned and failed projects, and most of all, of disagreements. Its program has not been absent from criticism, ruthless attacks and even ostracism;however, interpretations about its nature have also been erroneous and misguided. Diverse conceptions of the world coexist in each epoch in the course of history, and varied are their interpretations about the reasons of being of the phenomena that characterise them.
After the failure of the historical and neo-avant-garde movements in their attempt to overcome the gap between art and life by questioning and challenging its aesthetic, institutional and historical dimensions, nowadays, in a world where the political power is taking over the artistic and affective spheres of life and the aestheticization of post-politics is a reality, many artists, curators, documentas and biennales are still committed to making art an advanced and autonomous field for political thought and action, following art’s internationalist vocation and ideal of resistance and confrontation, of making visible what is being ignored.
However, it is essential to bear in mind that ‘the other’ avant-garde also failed in its intention of safeguarding art from the influence of political and economical powers, and to the pressure of the Kulturindustrie with its multiple processes of reification of life. Neither the creation of a narrative and canon based on the formal dimension – differentiating high and low culture and having as inspiration the nature of the media and not the praxis of life –, or the consolidation of the notion of autonomy of art as a means for social criticism and self-reflection, helped to protect art from ‘being in the world and not of the world’, as Adorno pretended.
This is one of the multiple paradoxes of art: the concomitance of processes that at first sight seem contradictory to each other – this reflects perfectly modernity’s character. The twentieth century witnessed the struggle between two visions of the world that were antagonistic to each other: the rationalist and the philosophy of liberation. Even though both shared precepts, ideals and an aim, they differed in the means for achieving them.
Art, it is clear, was not exempt from this rivalry and it also served as an arena of confrontation; hence, the Avant-garde is only one its paradoxes. Todays contemporary art, even if the historical conditions are different, is still torn between its political and internationalist faction – politicising practices, globalising styles and universalising social causes and movements –, and its recurring tendency to thematise its own categories – by means of self-referentiality, criticism and negation beyond the ‘expanded field’.
The avant-garde is not ‘what is yet to come’, nor is ‘the new’, neither is a mere substitute of the historical movements or a repetition of the past with revisionist premises that sink in nostalgia about the originary and revolutionary moment. Instead of that, today’s avant-garde ought to be considered as a momentum: evental sites and practices of rearticulation and renewal in a post-object era that could potentialise art’s possibilities to provide an ‘anoriginal presence’.
In this order of ideas, the aim of this issue is to see and interpret the avant-garde as an open, temporal and heuristic space, rather than a failed event in history or as devitalized tradition. The avant-garde still could be a form of resistance to the interpretation of art coming from the historicist perspective, ‘end-of-art’ diatribes, and melancholic/impulsive postmodern theories.
Art has always been open to new practices and meaning and its future cannot be predicted or determined in advance. Although, each work of art proposes not only a formal content, but also the corresponding interpretive and historical context, creating genealogies and suggesting perspectives. In this sense, history and art are not puissance per se, both depend on people's potency for their realization, therefore, they offer us the possibility of discovering their meaning and sense as it unfolds and reveal.