Spring 2001

Transformative Technologies

Notes towards a redefinition of the avant-garde

Sven-Olov Wallenstein

Is the avant-garde dead, defunct, an attitude belonging to a past whose bearings on the present have been lost once and for all? Or does it always await us, coming toward us from a future whose shape is as yet undetermined and open? The first option seems inevitable if we link the idea of the avant-garde to modernism as it exploded on the scene in the 1920s and 30s, and if we see it as a defined and historically circumscribed style with a definite set of questions that can surely no longer be ours within the space of postmodernity, where the artistic gestures of the early twentieth century seem hopelessly naïve. But if we try to detach the impetus of the avant-garde from what has paradoxically enough become its heritage, if we unearth its problems rather than its solutions, then we could perhaps incline towards the second option: the avant-garde is neither alive nor dead, but always there, virtually, waiting to be redefined and reinvented anew.

On the level of historiography, the advent of postmodernity above all brought about a (perhaps paradoxical) reinvigoration of the writing of modernism’s history. If we have somehow detached ourselves from modernism and modernity (concepts whose earlier evident mutual implication has also been questioned), then all writing of history becomes an acute and normative investment in the present. It tells us not only where we came from and how it all began, but is just as much meant to stake out a course for the future and to prescribe certain acts and practices as more relevant, contemporary (in the sense of being cum, “with,” the movement of time), and legitimate than others.

Surveying this literature with any exhaustiveness is an impossible task. I will present three different ways of perceiving the problem of the avant-garde in order to put my own argument in perspective. Two of them, Matei Calinescu’s and Peter Bürger’s, are fundamentally negative, whereas the third, Hal Foster’s, attempts to rethink the issue of the future of the past in a new and radical way and thus prepares for my own (modest) proposal for a redefinition of the avant-garde.

Three perspectives
In his Five Faces of Modernity (1977), Matei Calinescu provides us with a detailed analysis of the historical vicissitudes of the term “avant-garde,” from the French Revolution and the first use of the term with reference to art in the circle around Henri de Saint-Simon—where it denoted a fusion of artistic, scientific, and political radicality under the banner of the spearhead-artist—through its shifting uses in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. What Calinescu discerns in this process, however, is a conflict between modernism, where a viable and productive connection to the past is preserved, and the avant-garde, which attempts to disrupt the concept of art and its institutional framework. What began in the early nineteenth century as a quest for a constructive synthesis ends a century later with a furious negativity: Beginning as a promise and ending as almost a parody, avant-gardism constitutes an inner derailing of modernism and Calinescu does not regret its eventual demise and fade-out.

This rather negative interpretation, its finely nuanced analyses of many historical documents notwithstanding, still leaves us with the question of the status of the avant-garde in the present.1 As is often case in this type of analysis, Calinescu starts off with a kind of saturation of the concept under scrutiny—its essential variations, negative and positive, have been played out, the case is closed, and the owl of Minerva spreads her wings in the dusk of historiographical discourse.

For Peter Bürger, the genealogical parameters of analysis are rather different but his final analysis will remain just as negative as Calinescu’s. In his pathbreaking Theorie der Avant-garde (1974), he situates the his-torical avant-garde (exemplified for Bürger by movements like Surrealism, Constructivism, or Duchamp’s readymade) against the background of a gradually developing æsthetic autonomy where art only refers to itself. This was already theoretically formulated by Kant in his Critique of Judgment (1790) but reached its full-blown form in the last decades of the nineteenth century in Symbolism and l’art pour l’art, with Mallarmé’s poésie pure as the most obvious case. The historical avant-garde attempts to break with this situation and sublate the institution “art,” not just to criticize the inadequacy of some particular medium (painting, poetry, etc.), but to reconnect art and life in a program for a new æsthetico-political life-world. Needless to say, this project failed (and some of its proponents paid bitterly for this, in many cases with their own lives), but its consequences for posterior history are limitless, since it instituted what we could call the limitless expansion and solidification of art as an institution. The historical avant-garde failed in a tragic way, but the neo-avant-garde movements that Bürger traces from the late fifties and onwards failed (or perhaps even succeeded) in another way that he calls parodic (the schema for this analysis is derived from Marx’s Louis Bonaparte’s 18th brumaire). The revolt is no longer aimed at art as institution, but now takes place inside the safe haven of these now fully developed institutions—the barriers between art and life are torn down inside art itself, and the neo-avant-garde is at best naïve, at worst cynical.

Bürger’s model (which is obviously much more nuanced and richly detailed than comes across in this brief summary) might, however, lead to a kind of post-historical quietism. The neo-avant-garde, and with it all of the present, is condemned to an endless self-deception, and Bürger occa-sionally seems to retreat to a Hegelian position: What remains is not the produc-tion of new works, but an æsthetico-philosophical reflection on past works. At the end of the book, Bürger talks about the “limitless availability” of artistic means today, which puts into question the possi-bility of a coherent æsthetic theory in the sense it has come down to us from Kant and Hegel to Adorno. Neither art nor æsthetic theory seems to have any options left but to contemplate its own demise in the increasing leveling and repressive desublimation of late capitalist culture.

In the third perspective, proposed by Hal Foster in his Return of the Real (1996), there is still hope for a return of the avant-garde, although the sense of “return” will here render the historical evidence more complex. Against Bürger, Foster argues that we should not hypostatize any given moment as the origin of a full-blown avant-garde in relation to which all subsequent “neo” movements would be mere repetitions or representations. In fact, the moment of the avant-garde is only constituted, Foster argues, by being repeated and “comprehended,” as it were, in a later phase. The major piece of evidence is of course Marcel Duchamp, who only becomes the historically decisive “Duchamp” he is for us through a series of re-readings and reappraisals begun in the late 50s and extending up to the present day. In this sense, nothing is ever fully “there,” nothing is given at once together with all of its sense. The law of history becomes a deferred story, constantly told in a retroactive way.

Foster paints this rather more complex picture by way of Freud’s conception of “deferred action” (Nachträglichkeit), especially as this is (re)interpreted in Lacan’s 1964 seminar The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. The traumatic encounter with the Real, Lacan argues, can only be a missed encounter; we always arrive too late or too early, and the Real can only be that which returns through repetition. In the same way, the trauma caused by the irruption of the avant-garde in the early twentieth century can only be understood and its sense fully unfolded within the neo-avant-garde.

Against Bürger’s rather simplistically linear model, which always perceives temporal sequence as causal and the second moment as straightforwardly derived from the first, Foster’s argument is a good one. The problem is, however, that he himself hypostatizes another moment, namely the 60s and its classical conceptual strategies, as the moment of a true critical retrieval of the historical avant-garde. Even though this is not intended by Foster, his argument seems to produce the same reading of our present as Bürger’s did in relation to the 60s; the moment of truth is always already past and it becomes difficult to grasp the present. Would it be possible for Foster to argue that current artistic forms “repeat” and “comprehend” those of the 60s without stretching the argument too far? He never really addresses the issue of how, indeed if, the structure of deferred action extends into our present, and perhaps this is because such an argument tends to condemn the present to a negative afterlife.

Art’s sense of historicity indeed seems weak today, and most of the arguments which have propelled the avant-garde throughout modernity—a powerful historical logic premised in part on medium-specific self-criticism tending towards formal breakthroughs—seem exhausted. If there is radicality today, it is no doubt located in what Foster terms “horizontal” as opposed to “vertical” strategies, which use art as a means for intervention into specific debates and pay less attention to the dimension of art historical mediation and the inner workings of representation and of the “signifier.” If we remain within vertically reflexive self-criticism, art will continue to speak of its own history and inevitably end up in an ivory tower of formalism—but if we opt for pure horizontality, we will succumb to the inverse illusion of immediacy and transparency. To take us out of this dilemma, Foster proposes the notion of “parallax” as a way to keep both of these—equally necessary—dimensions in balance. This seems however more like a way of rephrasing and circumscribing the problem than solving it. Avant-garde temporality seems exhausted and we enter into a kind of “weak thought,” as Gianni Vattimo calls it, where we can only witness with melancholy (or delight, depending on one’s position) the dispersal of the idea of the avant-garde.

The time of the virtual
We noted how Foster in his critique of Bürger’s linear model of history and its latent Hegelianism proposed his own model of history derived from an analogy with the notion of deferred action in Freud and Lacan, where the trauma need not be (and in its most radical version cannot be) present at first, but is only registered afterwards, in repetition. Faced with the objection that modeling history on consciousness is too traditional a move, Foster turns the tables and proposes that we should use this objection as a spring-board and conceive of history on the basis of the most radical and sophisticated model of consciousness available. Thus we find Freud and Lacan usurping the place of Hegel.

It may be allowed to ask just how radical this displacement is, especially given Lacan’s well-known dependence on Hegel. In fact, we might find ourselves locked in an inverted dialectic (which is of course Hegel once more), where each new moment is understood as a delayed proxy of another moment, a past reconstructed and “comprehended” (one senses the closeness to Hegel’s Aufhebung in this word) in repetition. Perhaps we should attempt, especially when the idea of the avant-garde is at stake, to experiment with other ideas of time and experience more radically dissociated from dialectics. If Foster’s analysis delivers us from one kind of historicism, it may lead us into another, namely a kind of infinite analysis (which also threatened Freud), where we will live in an always displaced present. When we ask the question of the avant-garde in historical retrospective, the answer seems pre-programmed: The “historical” avant-garde is, by definition, always on its way to exhaustion, even though it may be repeated and resituated and give rise to diabolically complex forms of reception and to “infinite analyses” where the transfer between analyst and patient trigger ever new problems. Put this way, the question opens onto an abyssal complexity—repetitions of repetitions, an originary scene which recedes ever further back while also insisting to be reproduced in the historian’s own discourse as the mirage of the origin—but never onto the question of the present, let alone the question of the future.

But what could be the avant-garde’s relation to time if we abandon both the cumulative time of Bürger and negative-dialectical time of Foster? Other conceivable temporalities could be the time of deprivation and withdrawal, which Jean-François Lyotard has attempted to unearth in Kant’s theory of the sublime, or, what I will propose here: the time of the virtual. This idea has been put forth by Gilles Deleuze, partly based on a reading of Bergson but also going far beyond this original context, and has been picked up by, for instance, John Rajchman in his recent book Constructions (1998). The time of the virtual would be that which doubles the present with another untimely time, creating, as it were, a swarm of divergent possibilities; or as Rajchman puts it, “quite small ’virtual futures,’ which deviate from things known, inserting the chance of indetermination where there once existed only definite probabilities.” The question of the virtual would bear upon what is set free in the present, on new modes of thought becoming possible in the blank interstices of the present as it is wrested open— not just toward an art historical past, but towards a much more indeterminate field of forces, technologies, and social movements. Thought within this time of such a virtuality, the question of the avant-garde need not be posed within the history of forms or styles, since this is what immediately makes it old (awakening the demon of precursors) or turns it into a cynical quest for the “new,” which turn out to be the same thing.

A problem with such a re-definition is that the very word “avant-garde” has always tended to imply linear conceptions, a troop advancing ahead, going beyond a front line stretched out before us in a terrain that is essentially already known. Already in the first century A.D., Frontinus’s Stratagemata established a close connection between warfare and Euclidean geometry that has remained in our imaginary. Perhaps we need to think otherwise, the art of war having undergone tremendous changes and no longer relating to surface battles with perceptible front lines, spatially iso-lated fragments, and massings of force. Why not rethink the issue of the avant-garde based on telewars (“war in the age of intel-ligent machines,” as Manuel De Landa would have it) and current models of con-flict, with the battlefield as a function of global conflicts and much of the actual contact taking place over immense dis-tances, dislocalizing the space-time of the experiencing body? This would be a multi-dimensional space, with other and highly variable geometries, differently organized surfaces, times, and velocities, all overlaid in a new way. In such a war-space, there is no obvious “ahead,” no clear avant or arrière since what counts as the terrain is itself a function of strategy. The question would then be whether the very concept “avant-garde” here loses all pertinence, or if something else could be thought in this concept (and on what grounds could we be denied this right?). If we suppose that such new conceptual connections can be forged, then the sense of directionality would here be very different, just as the connection to a surrounding milieu would require a new permeability and topology. No matter how difficult this is to think, the avant-garde would no longer be thought of as advanc-ing into a terrain ahead of us and negating what lies behind it, but as the actualization of a different type of space, the kind of “smooth” space defined by Deleuze and Guattari in relation to the nomadic war machine, irreducible to the “striated” and sedentary space of the imperial war machine.

On the basis of such notions, which no doubt need to be defined much more clearly, I believe another formula ought to be tested: not “what is” or “what was” the avant-garde, but what could it become? If this still involves historical repetition, re-actualization, etc., then we need to think of this as a repetition coming from a still undetermined future. As Foster says, we may repeat in order to free ourselves from a present felt to be stagnant, but it should be noted that we do so to free ourselves from both the past and the present by confronting those unknown powers that approach us from the future (as Deleuze would say, the future is not of the order of the possible, where actualization takes place in the image of the idea, but of the virtual, a becoming which doubles history with a stratum of the “counter-historical,” a dimension of the “untimely”).

To think the question of the avant-garde in this way would imply seeing the devel-opment of art in its different historical con-stellations as a way of acting on extra- artistic materials (technologies, social structures) which are themselves in con-stant mutation. The unfolding of the “histor-ical” avant-garde would in this sense by no means just constitute a negative response to the solidification of the institution “art” (as Bürger would have it), but rather a way of capturing, reconfiguring, and prolonging other movements in society. The autonomy of art lies precisely in its capacity to cap-ture its outside as an inside, and vice versa. The avant-garde is the name of this trans-formation, this capture whereby the respec-tive values of the inside (the æsthetic) and the outside (that which is acted upon) both change. And the important thing is the transformation, not the name.

What would be those new forces that art attempts to capture and appropriate? With due precaution, we could perhaps point to a few of these domains. The most pervasive fact throughout the history of the various avant-garde movements, as well as in the present, is the force of technological change. Each fundamental technological mutation seems to release a corresponding transformative artistic energy. An example would be Walter Benjamin’s constructivist appraisal of industrial reproduction technologies and the possibility of new and “non-auratic” forms of art outside of the confines of classical æsthetics. In Benjamin, these possibilities seem to be deduced almost immediately out of the technology itself (which was also one of the charges made against him by Adorno). Thirty years later, Conceptual Art (and to some extent Pop Art as well) was to be propelled by similar motifs, less emphatically but also with an unmistakably utopian flavor. In the age of mass-mediatized reproduction, art was to be made accessible to everyone. As a dematerialized flow of information, it was to contribute to radical democracy, if not in relation to real economies, then at least within the symbolically-charged sphere of the production and circulation of artworks. These hopes were of course just as vain as Benjamin’s, but perhaps we should focus less on shattered dreams than on the kind of movements they make possible—an explosion of new artistic gestures and strategies that we without doubt see as “avant-garde,” and that we are still working through today (perhaps also “repeating” and “comprehending” in Foster’s sense).

That today’s information technologies release the same transformative energies is clear. The utopias—and the naïvetés—are analogous, as are the visions of a new “anarchism” predicated upon the dissolution of the system producer-consumer, the leveling of æsthetic hierarchies, the new metaphysics of networks, and an economy less and less focused on the materiality of the consumer object. (In fact, in their emphasis on the commodity as sign or mark, many models of the current economy that take as their framework the semiotic-psychic political economy of the sign rather than classical political economy seem to come straight out of Jean Baudrillard’s early work. These theories had an almost overwhelming presence in art discourse in the 80s, but were dismissed by many as too apocalyptic and dystopian. Today they seem revived almost in the guise of normality.) An artistic avant-garde—regardless of whether it would accept such a term, or perhaps precisely because it would reject it scornfully—will no doubt insert itself into this sphere of circulation, as if both to destabilize and accelerate it, just as the avant-garde in the early twentieth century broke down traditional æsthetic form in order to adapt us to a new techno-industrial plateau (the analysis of which has been undertaken in great detail by Manfredo Tafuri). But before this is determined and made recog-nizable as critical intervention, submission, ironic complicity, or something else, it is above all a place of indeterminacy, a place where art changes, and a zone of temporary formlessness which gives rise to new modes of construction, subjectivity, and experience. On an even more speculative level, we could add recent developments in biology and biotechnology. Here we encounter the limit of traditional humanism, where the form “Man” appears more dubious than ever (as was already presaged by Michel Foucault some three decades ago). The possible convergence between a biotech-nical and informational paradigm will surely have tremendous impact on the arts, some of which have been charted by Katherine Hayles in relation to literature in her recent How We Became Posthuman (1999). A visionary forerunner would here be the exhibition Les immatériaux curated by Jean-François Lyotard at the Pompidou Center in 1985, which dealt with the new sense of “immaterials,” the transformation of materiality and physicality into waves, flows, and packages of information. It is surely in this dimension that we should seek the “sublime” and the “unpresentable” that Lyotard (in his famous 1983 essay) claimed constitutes the underlying momentum of the avant-garde, and not exclusively in what made up that particular essay’s examples.2

These technological mutations have to be understood as both emanating from and reacting upon the social changes resulting from multinational capitalism in its globalized phase (which was pointed out by Fredric Jameson in his classic essay on the cultural logic of late capitalism, written the same year as Lyotard’s essay on the sublime). Today we are witnessing the rapid dissolution of an Occidental art historical narrative that has been at the basis of most theories of the dialectical movement of form and materials. This means not only the end of the traditional dialectic between mass culture and modernism but also of the mantra of the “dissolution” of the border between them, as it has been diagnosed, cherished, and feared since the Frankfurt School of the 30s. What we require is a new analysis of the situation and its possibilities after the breaking up of the mono-cultures that previously contained the high-low dialectic and whose downfalls mark the end of the idea of a unified public space, now mutating into proliferating sub-systems. Criticism, debates, and patterns of publishing will change as intellectual communities become less rooted in language, place, or nation. It would, of course, be erroneous to think that entities like the nation-state simply would disappear. As Saskia Sassen has demonstrated, these changes bring about a restructuring of the state apparatus, with new forms of centrality, control, and monitoring in a space of “electrotecture” characterized by new interfaces of physicality and informatics and by new urban forms and trajectories.

As Sassen argues, decentralization and centralization do not form exclusionary opposites, but rather complementary poles in a new world system that will not be more democratic than before, just characterized by new conflicts. To remain within the art world, these changes are reflected in the formation of a new elite of “curators.” It would be false to downplay this change by pointing to the long tradition of museum curating. Historical analogies will not help us chart this territory because the function is new: not to preserve the old, but to organize and systematize the production of new things and symbols in the circulation of the art world. The curatorial function expresses the increasing professionalization of this world, and its increasing emphasis on self-regulatory mechanisms. The system of biennials, triennials, etc., indicates the extent to which the institution produces goods meant for internal circulation and evaluation, and dispenses with the classical notion of an “audience.” (To some, this may in fact look like a perverse realization of Kosuth’s 1969 statement that, like science, advanced experimental art does not have an audience since it is primarily directed towards other artists.)

It would be easy to provide moralistic comments on this situation, but it would also be misleading. There is no reason to see the loss of earlier functions as purely catastrophic, as if our capacity to perceive and grasp works of art would be uniquely tied to certain historical modes of production and distribution. Older systems of selection and presentation—from the gradual demise of jury systems and the birth of the avant-garde in its various attempts to create new systems, both democratic and elitistic—are just as much or as little repressive as current systems. Today’s avant-garde faces the formidable task of inventing new situations, modes of production, and reception. Such an avant-garde no doubt exists, and it will be both like and unlike the one that once appeared as the “historic” avant-garde at the beginning of the previous century. Those outer forc­es—technologies, economies, and power relations—that it works over, appropriates, and transforms are themselves in constant movement.

  1. It should be noted, however, that Calinescu systematically disregards most movements from the early nineteenth century when an avant-garde position—even though the word may not have been used as such—implied a constructive renewal and reconsidering of artistic practice rather than mere destruction.
  2. The emphasis on Barnett Newman has done great damage to Lyotard’s argument, since it gives the impression that the sublime would have an essential connection to certain late modernist painting, which it does not. The question Newman relays to us is that of the now (“What is now?” “Is it happening?” etc.) and even though for Lyotard these questions are registered in Newman’s vertical “zips” of color, these questions need not be inscribed in these particular forms for us.

Sven-Olov Wallenstein is a philosopher and an art critic living in Stockholm. He teaches art theory at the University College of Arts and Crafts and philosophy at the University of Södertörn, both located in Stockholm. He is co-founder of the Art Node Foundation in Stockholm and a contributing editor of Cabinet.

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