Avant-gardes have only one sole moment; and the best that can happen to them is, in the fullest sense of the term, for them to have made their moment – Guy Debord
I would like here for us to pause and reflect on the problematic of avant-garde art. Here, I will use the term "avant-garde" as defined by the art theorist Peter Bürger in his Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974). For Bürger, there is a necessary distinction to be made between “modernist art” and “avant-garde art.” For Bürger, the latter should be applied only to a discussion of the revolutionary avant-garde movements that emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century, such as Futurism, DADA, Surrealism, and Constructivism. What distinguishes these movements from earlier ones such as Symbolism or Fauvism, etc., is the desire of the members of these various movements to break down the barrier between art and life and, in the process, to break down the barrier between artwork and receiver. Rather than attempt to remove themselves from the commercial, market-driven world ushered in by capitalism, these groups saw that it was precisely in this terrain that the battle must take place – precisely because it was the commercial/industrial realm that worked to transform life into something shriveled and small, so that, for example, a factory worker came to feel as though his or her life only had meaning (gained value) to the extent that they worked, to the extent that they labored for another.
While modernist artists favored a retreat from the banality and alienation of everyday life, these avant-garde movements, according to Bürger, embraced elements of popular culture and attempted to re-appropriate these elements for alternative (subversive) purposes. These movements were thus less interested in promoting a specific artistic style than in formulating a series of aesthetic strategies or techniques to provoke the spectator and provoke themselves.
Let’s consider quickly one well-known example from DADA: Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. Duchamp takes an object (a urinal, which he purchases in a shop), gives it a title (Fountain) and submits it to an art exhibition. By doing so, Duchamp questions both the concept of the artist and the artwork. To the question "What is art" he says: art is what the artist says is art (and it doesn’t even need to be made by the artist, just give it a name and a signature); more importantly, art is what the museum says is art, for even if Duchamp wished to give a porcelain urinal the status of art it would have failed if the museum did not confirm his claim. Whatever we think about the various readymades and like-minded objects that would follow in the wake of Duchamp’s “sculpture”, this gesture in the 1920s (especially when combined with other DADA activities) was truly subversive, not to mention extremely funny. All our assumptions about craftsmanship and self-expression in the work of art – not to mention the supposed "neutrality" of the museum space itself as a repository of culture – are flushed down the toilet, so to speak. These were the types of questions that were meant to be provoked by this work, and they did.
But the museum space proved itself quite adept, in its own way, in transforming subversive/radical art into art proper. Even though audiences to this day stare at such works with either bemusement or (more likely) bewilderment, they still managed to enter into the canon of Western art. In these terms, Surrealism was the biggest failure of the groups associated with the 1920s avant-garde, since it was also paradoxically the most commercially successful; the Surrealists failed precisely by allowing their aesthetic strategies to devolve into a style.
It was this turn of events that led later avant-garde movements like the Situationist International (SI) to formulate new methods or strategies for combating the forces of reification or commodification. What Guy Debord, leader of SI, wanted was to extend the radical possibilities of surrealism without falling into the same traps: capitalist appropriation, absorption into the museum, reduction to style. And the way to evade these traps, he came to believe, was to do away with art, or "works of art." As long as one drew a distinction between "art" and "life," art was always assimilable to commodity exchange. As Anselm Jappe writes, “There was," – for Debord – "no longer any place for the work of art that sought to ‘fix emotions’ and strove to endure.” Instead of the creation of artworks, we have the “construction of situations,” the “conscious construction of new affective states” (1999: 57 and 65). The emphasis on concrete situations points to their main goal: the revolutionary transformation of everyday life.
In the Sixties, the SI became primarily an underground movement, a “provisional microsociety,” exhorting the populace-at-large to revolt against the alienation of everyday life and to invent experimental modes of living (Jappe 1999, 68). Although Situationists groups would briefly emerge in a number of countries including Italy, Scandinavia, the UK and the US, Debord’s group remained autonomous and inviolate. In Paris, Debord and the SI did not attempt to recruit more members. They stayed true to their belief that a revolutionary avant-garde movement must remain clandestine, must provide underground agitation. A revolutionary avant-garde movement must supply provocation without succumbing to the desire for social legitimacy. Years later Debord would say, “We did not go on television to say what it was that we had understood. We did not hanker after grants from the scientific research bodies, nor for praise from newspaper intellectuals. We brought fuel to the flames” (emphasis mine). He adds, “It is wonderful to see that disturbances with the tiniest and most ephemeral of origins have eventually shaken the order of the world” (qts. in Jappe 1999, 45 and 46).
The legendary status of SI today is the result, in part, of the instigatory role the group played in the political events that took place in France in spring 1968 and culminated in May '68. What began as student protests/demonstrations became a general wildcat strike involving ten million factory workers. The strikes and demonstrations would continue for two weeks, paralyzing the country. May 1968 was not provoked by a specific incident but by a general sense of discontent. It was a kind of spontaneous revolution. As Jappe notes, May ’68 “showed beyond a doubt that a very large number of people yearned inwardly for a completely different life and that this desire, once it found expression, could quickly bring a modern state to its knees: exactly what the SI had always said.” “May 1968 was indeed proof that something very much like revolution could occur in modern societies, and in a form very closely resembling the SI’s predictions” (1999, 100-01).
Increasingly, the association between art and politics takes on a different value or tenor in the 1960s. The SI, for their part, would assert in their journal “that Dada’s true heir was not American Pop Art but the spontaneous revolt of the Congolese people”, and other such revolutionary insurrections (Jappe 1999, 96). In the 1970s, the logic of such claims would perhaps be taken to their limit with the emergence of terrorist cell groups like Red Army Faction (RAF) who carried on the spirit of the avant-garde in their own way. (I won’t dwell on this here, but I do think that one of the better sections of Simon Sullivan’s essay on “Art and the Political” is his brief consideration of RAF in the context of political art practice and D&G’s notion of “minor literature.”)
Andreas Huyssen, in an essay about Peter Bürger and avant-garde movements, concludes his survey with this observation: “Today the best hopes of the historical avantgarde may not be embodied in art works at all, but in decentered movements which work toward the transformation of everyday life. The point then would be to retain the avantgarde’s attempt to address those human experiences which either have not yet been subsumed under capital, or which are stimulated but not fulfilled by it” (1986, 15). This, in fact, is what we find in the art practices described in Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics. The question, I suppose, is to what extent these practices are a continuation of the radical project of the avant-garde and to what extent are they merely a pale (rote) imitation of the "work" of their predecessors?
An additional question would be: to what extent was the dissolution of the object the correct strategy for the avant-garde, and, more importantly, is it the only strategy left to such politically-minded groups at a time when global capitalism steadily and inexorably colonizes the world? Is the only option left, for those who wish to bridge the gap between art and life: to choose life over art (to the extent that art is equated with a commodifiable object)? And how to do so exactly – to choose life over art – in an era when television gives us its own nihilistic version of this dissolution or merger? Television teaches us not to see life so much as a practice of art as to see life as a form of serial television (with commercial breaks!). Reality TV, indeed.
Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1986.
Jappe, Anselm. Guy Debord. Trans. Donald Nicolson-Smith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Sullivan, Simon. Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought Beyond Representation. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.