“Clov: Do you believe in the life to come?
Hamm: Mine was always that.”
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. 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.
After the failed attempt of the historical and neo-avant-garde movements 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 aestheticisation 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 and pressure of the Kulturindus- trie 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 by having as inspiration the nature of the media and not the praxis of life—nor the consolidation of the notion of art’s autonomy 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.
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 they 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 of its paradoxes, reflected in the concomitance of processes that at first sight seem contradictory to each other.
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”.
Traditionally, the avant-garde has been defined in two ways: as vanguard, assuming the position of radical innovation; or as resistance, in a position of strict refusal to the status quo. It is also known that the avant-garde is driven by the need of transgression of a given symbolic order, or by the legitimation of a new one. Thus, the avant-garde is not “what is yet to come”, nor “the new”, neither 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, today’s avant-garde ought to be considered as a momentum: evental sites and practices of rearticulation of the given order, operating in a caustic way by tracing and pressuring its fractures—and framed in a post-object era that potentialise art’s possibilities to provide an “anoriginal presence”.
In this order of ideas, we propose to interpret the avant-garde as an open, temporal and heuristic space, rather than a failed event in history or a devitalised tradition. Art has always been open to new practices and meanings, 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 realisation. Therefore, they offer us the possibility of discovering their meaning and sense as it unfolds and reveals.