“Somos una suerte de eternidad,
un conjunto de ayeres, de presentes
y de futuros.”
—JORGE LUIS BORGES
This text is intended to outline a few references in the reading of the avant-garde, specifically the interpretations coming from a postponed or deferred future perspective, in an attempt to elucidate how some of its premises are being implemented in certain contemporary artistic practices, although, beyond the category itself. In the same way, it seeks to pave the way for recognising its potential when analysing the relationship between these practices and the social and political spheres.
NECESSITY | HISTORY | FUTURES PAST
The idea of postponed or deferred future presented here is based on Althusser‘s interpretation of the unconscious. While describing the difference between memory and the unconscious, Althusser suggests that “the structure of every genesis is necessarily teleological, [thus] every process is governed by its end”Louis Althusser | Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan | Columbia University Press | 1999 In sum: the faculty of the present resides in its puissance to modify the past, and not the other way around. This idea proposes, on the one hand, to interpret history as something contingent, just as human life is; and, on the other hand, it offers the possibility of contemplating some aspects of the artistic and political programme of the avant-garde as plausible, however, in accordance with the necessities of our time.
We can imagine a first scenario in which a society is not prepared to assimilate diverse ideas, thoughts and cultural practices. Consequently, and to some extent, it is also possible to consider that these productions are postponed for the future, meaning that if they manage to age well, or survive the course of time, they can take place at a specific moment in history, at a time where the conditions are optimal for its comprehension and practice. However, this doesn’t mean that they are futuristic per se, as if they were predetermining what is to come, no, they belong and represent their time, functioning as a mirror that shows what is needed, a necessity to be fulfilled. In this sense, necessity can be understood as the engine that drives history, “that always arises at the end, as contingent [...] through our actions we construct the necessity that will determine us retroactively.”Slavoj Žižek | A travers le reel | Éditions Lignes | 2010
The consequent scenario is to envisage that the power of a cultural production resides not in its ability to immediately modify the present, but in its capacity to influence the future, as it develops and reveals, just as history does. “Revolutions are usually the flash that registers our attention, however, every revolutionary process involves a very long chain of events that justifies and gives its meaning: revolutions take place when they have already occurred in the depths of society”Juan Esteban Constaín | La formación del mundo contemporáneo | Centro Editorial Universidad del Rosario | 2005; guillotines are only the overflowed force forged in time. In this order of ideas, what kind of role can art play when history is driven by contingency and necessity? “[...] if History is determined by some kind of necessity—if it amounts to a global screenplay in which every actor must play a part—then art can enter the picture only in a reflective capacity, as an illustration. Art’s historical function—and therefore its political function too—has substance only on a stage open to purely contingent human history; at very least, it requires the productive aporia of change necessity meeting in opposition”.Juan Esteban Constaín | La formación del mundo contemporáneo | Centro Editorial Universidad del Rosario | 2005
We must return, once again, to Walter Benjamin’s “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”, and to the figure of the Angelus Novus, who’s giving his back to the sun, facing the past concerned about releasing other time—of revolutionary futures past—into the temporality of the present, while a storm “irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned”Walter Benjamin | Illuminations | Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. | 2007, leaving behind ruins and fragments of progress. This figure suggests that the duty of a society in the course of history is to collect, to assemble and to re-register those fragments, to read them but not with the lenses of the past. “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the ways it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’ [...] The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling class.”Walter Benjamin | Illuminations | Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. | 2007 The idea of “futures past”, thus—stripped of its materialistic conception of history— can be understood as a means to rescue and restore what has been excluded in the course of history, however, in accordance to the necessities of the present.
NACHTRÄGLICHKEIT | RUPTURE | THE NEW
The avant-garde returns from the future, from its utopia(s), from its failed and traumatic moments and contradictions, in a process that Hal Foster described, based on the Freudian notion of Nachträglichkeit (Afterwardness), as “protension and retention, a complex relay of reconstructed past and anticipated future [...] the avant-garde work is never historically effective or fully significant in its initial moment, it cannot be because it is traumatic: a hole in the symbolic order of its time that is not yet prepared for it. The past of the avant-garde, then, is not held in a place by mourning for their lost efficacy, but opened up to re-inscription under changed social and political circumstances and demands”.Hal Foster | What’s Neo about the Neo-Avant-garde? | October, no. 70 | 1994
In the same direction as Foster’s reading on the avant-garde, Andrew Benjamin, in “Art, Mimesis and The Avant-garde”, proposes an interpretation based on the idea of anoriginality. That is: to interpret the avant-garde not as an obsolete tradition or a mere repetition of the past, but in terms of distance, as a plural event, as a moment of re-articulation in the present. For him, “tradition, rather than being either a positive term delimiting history or a negative term describing that against which innovation or experimentation is to be judged, becomes the site of a conflict whose aim is the search for legitimation [...] Distance will thereby emerge as an anoriginal presence. The anoriginal is the mark of an original dis-unity. Instead of taking distance and spacing as an opening up of that which had hitherto been a unity, they will be taken a primary; as anoriginal. The issues at play here rather than being stated in advance will come to be worked out. It is only once the move of reworking identity and difference is made in terms of the anoriginal that the ethical/political problem of relation can be investigated”.Andrew Benjamin | Art, Mimesis and the Avant-garde | Taylor & Francis e-Library | 2005
Contrary to the deferred future perspective, Peter Bürger, in his text “Theory of the Avant-garde”—which was one of the first attempts to theorise its program—transferred to the present avant-garde’s precepts, specifically the utopian aspirations and the idea of “class struggle”. He, unluckily, omitted the “high and low art” distinction, and consequently, this operation leads him to reduce and undermine avant-garde‘s potential by returning it to its original conditions of production. Let’s have in mind that his reading of the avant-garde was influenced by the political realism in Germany (East/West) in the early 1960s, a time where the art scene was dominated by the pre-eminence of the modern narrative and some avant-garde practices were presented as part of its own development, stripped of the political, cultural and transgressive distinction that characterises them. Hence, the historical avant-garde programme was ignored (and not only in Germany), because of its ideological content based on the idea of “class struggle” and for its radicalism. In these terms, Bürger’s interpretation lacked revisionism and critic, and sank down in ideological antagonisms, making impossible to re-articulate and to defend some of its premises under that specific historical, political and artistic scenario.
In this regard, the category of rupture, essential in avant-garde’s programme, was assimilated as part of the modern narrative, however, stripped of its radicality. In modern art, a rupture is not considered an attack to the tradition, on the contrary, it is a re-affirmation of its ideals. Consequently, each “attack” to the tradition is a prolongation of its essence that has to be integrated into a continuum of styles that were interpreted in relation with the old, with the past. In this sense, there is no rupture without the new, and the existence of the new is impossible without the recognition of the past. This is how La mode becomes modernity‘s engine, seeing from Baudelaire‘s perspective. This, inevitably, leads us to briefly address the notion of “the new”, which is one of the most important categories of modernity and a significant characteristic of our culture that still prevails.
The new has been defined and operates as nouveauté, as a shock, as a moment of renewal of procedures. In modern art, the succession of movements with its constant ruptures was influenced by the ideal of a return to the origin, that is: an attempt to reclaim for art its original moment. Each rupture seeks a connection to the past, a return to that moment where every action is considered anew, a unique beginning—to be achieved in the fugacity of the present. Hence, this return is not a return to the past itself, but to the ideal of its primal conditions. Under this perspective, the new, consequently, is what generates the transient, fragmentary and ephemeral present, and to this respect, the avant-garde seeks completely the opposite: to eradicate the new for ignoring the present. In this regard, the left sees in the new, interpreted from a critic to the modern narrative where the neo-avant-garde movements are also included, as “complicit with bourgeois culture because in its commitment to the supersession of the present it contributes to the artist’s acceptance of the market ideology of ‘the new’.”John Roberts | Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde | Verso | 2015 The new, under historical avant-garde’s premises, has to be seen as a radical break and commitment to the present. Nevertheless, for the left, the radicality has to be based on class struggle and revolution, and that leads to anachronisms.
Walter Benjamin, in his interpretation of Baudelaire, created some motifs to define modern life and its practices: the bohemian, the flâneur, the prostitute, the gambler and the ragpicker. In relation with the notion of the new and the origin, the gambler and the game of chances present us a great allegory of time: each new game offers the illusion of a new beginning, however, it creates a false experience that is not assumed, in fact, is a constant negation of the present. Eric Hobsbawm and Harold Rosenberg, in close connection to Bürger’s nostalgia of interpreting the avant-garde as a failed project, resumed, unluckily, that the avant-garde is the achievement of a style defined by particular and individual cases, now inserted as part of a narrative they sought to disrupt. Hobsbawm “rejects the avant-garde on the grounds that art today can no longer offer that heightened meeting between ‘transgressive’ and exemplary individuality that the original avant-garde secured [...]”John Roberts | Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde | Verso | 2015 This conception of the avant-garde ignores the fact that avant-garde’s artists weren‘t driven by making “something new” in art, instead, they were focusing on building the basis for a new society, for which art was to be one of its means.
Returning to Benjamin’s motifs, the ragpicker describes one of the most important roles and functions of a collector: to deactivate and neutralise the puissance of an artistic object—and to some extent certain artistic practices. This leads, inevitably, to foster the pursuit of “the anew”. Furthermore, “the strategies of the artistic avant-garde, understood as the elimination of visual difference between artwork and profane thing, thus lead directly to the building-up of museums, which secure this difference institutionally”.Boris Groys | On the New | FUOC | 2002
In his essay from 1939 “Avant-garde and Kitsch”, Clement Greenberg introduces the new terms in which the debate on art arises until the late 1950s and early 1960s. The confrontation ceases to be, as it happened until then, between academia and avant-garde, now it is between avant-garde and mass culture. For him, the real avant-garde art will safeguard our culture from the influence of the Kulturindustrie throughout criticism and not with timeless utopias. Hence, the avant-garde is considered “[...] a superior consciousness of history, more precisely, the appearance of a new kind of criticism of society, historical criticism made this possible.”Clement Greenberg | Avant-garde and Kitsch in Art and Culture | Beacon Press | 1989 Unlike Adorno, worried at the same time about similar issues, Greenberg was only interested in studying the Kulturindustrie in order to explain the nature of art. Thus, an avant-garde artist should not have as the main source the reality, but the media with which he/she works. As a result, avant-garde art, under these terms, has to be self- critical and self-referential in the process of being constructed as a language. In other words: he establishes the parameters through which a work of art should be created and judged, and that is: each of the arts was to be defined by its medium. Neither the historical nor the neo-avant-garde movements were included in his narrative. “He more or less dismissed them as what he called ‘novelty art’, (art for the sake of novelty) never realising the conceptual depth of the art of the new decade.”Arthur Danto | The Gap Between Art and Life | Fundación Ico | 2005
Under this perspective, avant-garde art has always been considered bourgeois, intellectual and elitist, and artists, critics and theoreticians as being seated in the ivory tower, contemplating how the world falls apart and they do not flinch. However, this critic goes beyond the autonomous and formal idea of art, given that “the art of the avant-garde is the art of an elitist-thinking minority not because it expresses some specific bourgeois taste (as, for example, Bourdieu asserts) because, in a way, avant-garde art expresses no taste at all—no public taste, no personal taste, not even the taste of the artists themselves. Avant-garde art is elitist simply because it originates under a constraint to which the general public is not subjected. For the general public, all things—or at least most things— could be new because they are unknown, even if they are already collected in museums.”Boris Groys | On the New | FUOC | 2002 Some critics against the role of the neo-avant-garde movements are directed in the direction of seeing these practices as ways for reproducing the modern bourgeois system throughout the repetition of the commodity form, and because “its chronological returns to the new as the same, destroys the intersection of the past, present and future, and expropriate the capacity of people to rouse themselves from the deep sleep of capitalist temporality [...] the avant-garde is over because it is unable to replenish itself as the genuinely ‘new’.”John Roberts | Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde | Verso | 2015
Still in nostalgia, the left, first, is caught in the idea of the original revolutionary moment, and second, they seem to neglect the fact that contemporary necessities have less to do with class struggle, but rather primarily with questions about migration and the sans papiers, gender, race, ethnicity, and environmental issues. “What used to be called the avant-garde has, needless to say, developed from the ideological swing of things offered by modern rationalism; but it is now re-formed on the basis of quite different philosophical, cultural and social presuppositions. It is evident that today’s art is carrying on this fight, by coming up with perspective, experimental, critical and participatory models [...] the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopias realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist.”Nicolas Bourriaud | Relational Aesthetics | Les presses du reel | 2009
DESIRE CAUGHT BY THE TAIL
Many art practices today are going beyond the fixation of the object as a commodity with market value, that has to be new, collected and assimilated into a tradition. For acknowledging this, it is important to bear in mind that most of the art narratives from the twentieth century have been dominated by visual arts, represented in medias such as painting (Clement Greenberg) and ready-made (October group: Krauss, Foster, Bois, Buchloh). Therefore, art and the categories that seek to define it, are still associated—even the mental image—with an object. This means, in Wittgenstein terms, that art’s Darstellung is caught still in the predominance of a material object. This is one of the reasons why it is also necessary to contemplate the his- tory of art—and by extension contemporary art—beyond the predominance of the object and the idea of the new, given that many artistic practices do not seek the achievement of any of this. These practices are, in fact, evental experiences that have as main focus the process- making, and many times are not documented or can last for years “in the making”.
In this regard, Claire Bishop presents an interpretation and narrative of the history of art of the twentieth century based on theatre and performance, having as main focus the spectator and the reception in the form of participation. Her lecture of the historical avant-garde movements is essential for comprehending contemporary artistic practices in a post-object and post-politics era. Even though her approach seeks to elucidate the possibility of emancipatory social relations in the context of political art based on social and artistic criticism, her thesis doesn’t seek to vindicate avant-garde’s programme. Since the origins of the avant-garde, issues such as participation, the creation of an audience and the consolidation of a community, the notion of authorship and the idea of sharing an experience, had, most of the times, an undesirable direct relation with the political sphere. However, avant-garde practices without ideology and its international vocation are not imaginable: “[...] without the project of universalism, all forms of modern and contemporary art lose their meaning, their true message; they turn into empty formalist experiments, into mere design. And in general, without political engagement, art ceases to be contemporary because being contemporary means being involved in the politics of one’s own time. It is, indeed, the only form of contemporaneity that is accessible to us under current cultural conditions.”Bois Groys | Towards a New Universalism | e-flux Journal #86 | November 2017
Participatory art practices, read under the notion of avant-garde, are still, to some extent, means for resistance and negation to the heteronomy of the instrumentalised world. And in a double operation, they refuse to be reduced to a mere social or pedagogic practice or to be considered as an instrument of ideology. Nevertheless, they move constantly between the artistic, the social and the politic spheres, willing to activate and emancipate the spectator, to create engagement and commitment, and this, inevitable, also brings its own contradictions and antagonisms. In spite of that, “art [still] exposes the world’s non-definitive character. It dislocates, dissembles and hands things over to disorder and poetry. By producing representations and counter-models that underscore the intrinsic fragility of the standing order, art bears the standard of a political project that is much more efficient (in the sense of generating concrete effects) and much more ambitious (inasmuch as it concerns all aspects of political reality) than it would be if it simply relayed a watchword or ideology”.Nicolas Bourriaud | Relational Aesthetics | Les presses du reel | 2009 To reclaim that moment of shock, of negativity in the production, reception and experience of art, is to believe in the possibility of an autonomous and political aesthetic regime. Nevertheless, “we need to recognise art as a form of experimental activity overlapping with the world, whose negativity may lend support towards a political project (without bearing the sole responsibility for devising and implementing it), and—more radically—we need to support the progressive transformation of existing institutions through the transversal encroachment of ideas whose boldness is related to (and at times greater than) that of artistic imagination.”Claire Bishop| Artificial Hells | Verso | 2012
In his lectures, Gerard Vilar constantly insisted, when addressing what he calls “aesthetic disorder” in contemporary art practices, that throughout negation—based on Adorno’s notion of negativity—art, in any kind of form or practice, has the faculty of reordering our concepts, our vision and sensitivity towards life; it rearranges, in short, our understanding of things and the world.Lectures at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, Spain (2009–2011). For further
details about the idea of ‘aesthetic disorder’, see: Gerard Vilar | El desorden estético | Labor | 2000