Graphic: Zanny Begg

Mention of the avant-garde today is met with a great deal of incredulity. Where is the avant-garde? I don’t see it, point it out to me; I am unaware of any groups of artists who operate in ways that might be described as an ”ism” or a movement; art today is multiple and plural in its forms and effects, driven by the spectacle and the museum and not by revolutionary ideology; I see no radical convergence between art, technology and social transformation; art has long thrown off its utopian zeal and the mythos of human emancipation. Forget the avant-garde!

These admonitions and denials have, of course, been the backbone of postmodern art theory and philosophical aesthetics for the last twenty years, spreading their influence well beyond the confines of debates on art and aesthetics to cultural studies and the cultural left generally. Indeed, across disciplines the end of the avant-garde is held to announce a fundamental breakdown in the relationship between art and modernity. Modern art’s claims to novelty, negation and non-trivial experimentation are finally over it is claimed, or, are so diminished in their impact, as to be completely unidentifiable with the avant-gardes of the 1920s and 1930s. As Eric Hobsbawm has argued recently: The avant-garde schools since the 1960s – since Pop Art – [are] no longer in the business of revolutionizing art, but of declaring its bankruptcy. Hobsbawm may have different agenda to most postmodern cultural theorists, but he speaks for much of this milieu with these sentiments: by charging modern practice with a falling away from the achievements and ideals of the recent past, the avant-garde is judged to be an exhausted ideology. Consequently, talk of the neo-avant-garde can only prolong the agony of this decline, a desperate recuperation of what remains irrecuperable. [1]

This sense of the post-war collapse of the originary avant-garde into ideological assimilation, social irrelevance and parodic historicization, is the commonplace story of our times. However, these feelings are certainly not new to the postmodern, or to old ex-Stalinist historians. The temporalization of the avant-garde as a failed project was also, ironically, one of the recurring debates on the cultural left in the late 60s and 1970s, at the height of the reception of May 68 and the new counter-culture. Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, (1974) is a thoroughgoing critique of what he sees as the idealizations of post-war neo-avant-gardes.[2] Harold Rosenberg’s essay “Collective, Ideological, Combative” (1967) treats post-war art movements as mere substitutes for the originary avant-gardes. [3] And Nicos Hadjinicolaou – from a position to the left of both Bürger and Rosenberg – in his essay “On the Ideology of Avant-gardism” (1982) attacks the ideology of the avant-garde as such. For Hadjinicolaou the neo-avant-garde is complicit with bourgeois culture because its commitment to the supersession of the present contributes to the artist’s acceptance of the market ideology of the “new”.[4] The avant-garde should be abandoned to the defenders of the established order, he says.[5]

These critiques of the avant-garde may emerge from a very different cultural moment than late-70s postmodernism, but they point to a similar set of issues concerning the very reception and historicization of the term itself after WWII. That is, the theorization of the post-war avant-garde is inseparable from the reception of the avant-garde’s social and political defeat; and, paradoxically, in the sixties at the point where the avant-garde was being reconstituted and rehistoricized as a political project across various artistic practices (structuralist cinema, the Situationist International, conceptual art) the historical and conceptual framework of key works from the 1920s and 1930s were being made available for the first time. Thus a striking discrepancy or conflict is put in place: at the same time as the concept of the avant-garde is being made available conceptually to a new generation – let us remember artists in the sixties and the seventies had very little working knowledge of Soviet and Weimar avant-garde practice – it was also being abandoned as a viable model theoretically. The post-war neo-avant-gardes, therefore, are not simply failed rehearsals of discredited older practices, but the affirmation of what is judged to be living and productive and available to further development. As such the concept of the avant-garde is actually given work to do, rather than revisited as a “style”. This sense of the neo-avant-garde as a product of critical and productive misrecognition is absent form Bürger and Hadjinicolaou, because the category of historical failure outweighs any redemptive model of practice, reinscription and interpretation.

In this respect the contribution of Adorno in the first wave of discussion on the avant-garde in the sixties is crucial to understanding the lopsided direction this debate took, and the limitations of Bürger and Hadjinicolaou and contemporary anti-avant-gardists. In Aesthetic Theory (1970) [6] Adorno recognises the historical defeat of the Soviet and Weimar avant-gardes and the impossibility of art’s critical sublation into life. But, rather than sacrificing the negativity of the avant-garde to some untroubled notion of “political art” or conservative restitution of an older modernism, he rearticulates the question of the avant-garde on the terrain of art’s autonomy. He argues, that with the consumerist assimilation of art into the capitalist “everyday” and with the erosion of an older notion of modernist autonomy, both autonomy and the avant-garde are mutually transformed. The mediating force of this mutual transformation is what he calls the “new”. By the “new” Adorno does not mean the faddishishly latest, or novel, but the subjective agency by which art is compelled to retain its critical independence from the forces of instrumental reason, social and aesthetic. The “new”, or the differential, wills non-identity just as the drive to non-identity wills the “new”. As such the “new” is the necessary outcome of the art object itself, the “thing” yet to come that the artist wishes to bring about but does not know in what form he or she will bring it about. Autonomy and the avant-garde, then, are the codeterminate names given to the production of the “new” as the condition of art’s necessary emergence from heteronomy. On this basis, I would argue, Adorno introduces into the debate on the avant-garde a distinction between the avant-garde as Event and the avant-garde as the temporal experience of modernity. That is, rather than treating the avant-garde as the failed repetition of an original lost moment, he sees the neo-avant-garde as aesthetically and critically equivalent to the early avant-gardes. Accordingly, under conditions of the false sublation of art into everyday life in liberal democracy the avant-garde is an experience of art’s critical persistence, a continually re-www of art’s own promise, the promise of art’s reconciliation with collective social experience. In this respect, the question of the avant-garde’s vanguard role shifts from the sublation of art under the socialization of technology (as utopianly imagined by Walter Benjamin, but put to cynical work by the cultural industry) to the disaffirmation and rearticulation of modern artistic tradition itself. The “new” is the repetitive and continuous movement of art’s emergence from artistic tradition. In other words, the “new” lies not in the prospect of formal, “stylistic” breakthroughs, but in the possibility of keeping alive art’s non-identity in the face of its own institutionalization and, as such, in the face of the means-ends rationality of capitalist exchange value. As such these forms will of necessity attach themselves to those resources and practices that will requestion the traditions of which they are part.

This understanding of the avant-garde as an open temporal experience rather than as a failed Event became the basis in the early nineties for a number of revivisionist approaches to postmodernism. In response to the melancholic endism of postmodernist theories, that is, theories of the “end of modernism” and the “end of art”, Hal Foster and Andrew Benjamin both looked to the reinvigoration of the artistic avant-garde as a way of out postmodernism’s historicism. In “What’s Neo About the Neo Avant-Garde?” (1994), Foster adopts the Freudian notion of Nachtraeglichkeit (deferred meaning) in order to resist Bürger’s punctual understanding of the avant-garde. [7] Far from being a moment where the promise of art’s sublation is lost, the effects and ideals of the original avant-garde are subject to a process of deferred action. The neo-avant-garde emerges through what Foster calls a process of, protension and retention, a complex relay of reconstructed past and anticipated future. [8]
The pasts of the avant-garde, then are not held in place by mourning, but opened up to reinscription, under changed social and political circumstances. Andrew Benjamin, proposes a similar kind of Freudian model in Art, Mimesis and the Avant-garde (1991). In opposition to the notion of the avant-garde’s as an enervated tradition, he argues that the emergence of the contemporary from the modern – and therefore by definition the emergence of the avant-garde – is never simply a repetition of the past, but its rearticulation, what he calls the possibility of art’s “anoriginal difference” in the present. Because history remains open the future meanings of art cannot be determined in advance. The present then is fundamentally open to the risk of new meaning, even if the immediate social and political conditions which determine the conditions of such an action prevent such an action taking place. [9]

What unites, Andrew Benjamin’s and Foster’s, is a revision of the dialectic of the avant-garde. Both see the avant-garde as the promissory space in which art articulates and negotiates its open-ended place within artistic tradition, rather than as the agency by which the institutions of art are to be dismantled and sublated into everyday life. The content of the avant-garde’s “after life” then (the Freudian process of deferred meaning) is based on the reworking in a liberal democratic context dominated by the museum and the mass media of the constitutive cognitive and epistemological breakthroughs and strategies of the early avant-garde (montage, simultaneity, the critique of the author, the ready made). Whereas the original avant-garde identified a revolution in perception with proletarian political revolution, and therefore with the supersession of the museum, the neo-avant-garde identifies the promise of art’s difference as a task of counter-representation from within the bourgeois art institution. The neoavant-garde regrounds the avant-garde within the dynamics of capitalism’s “second-modernity”. On this score, Foster’s avant-garde is close to a counter-hegemonic model in which the “politics of representation” reroute the cognitive and epistemological strategies of the early avant-garde into a form of pluralizing cultural resistance. In Andrew Benjamin the counter-hegemonic model is absent, but the notion of the avant-garde as securing the possibility of art’s emergence from heteronomy into difference is very similar. As Benjamin, says the task of art is to affirm the possibility of the plural present

There is a superficial similarity between Foster and Andrew Benjamin’s avant-garde and Adorno’s avant-garde. All, in a sense relativize the identity of the avant-garde against the notion of the avant-garde as a failed, punctual Event. The absence of the original collective and vanguard character of the original avant-garde in contemporary neoavant-gardes is not a block on the development of the avant-garde, but the basis by which the avant-garde rethinks its function, suitably qualified. But the implications and outcome are very different between Foster and Andrew Benjamin and Adorno. For Foster and Benjamin the theory of the open-avant-garde is essentially a way of reconstituting the present and futures of art within the boundaries of a stable capitalist art institution. That is, art’s emergence from heteronomy into difference is seen as a kind of a differential handing down of the past from within artistic tradition. As Foster stresses, contemporary neo-avant-gardes enact the postmodern continuity of the early avant-gardes, just as Benjamin describes the contemporary avant-garde in terms of a kind of interdependent pluralizing of inherited tendencies and forms. For Adorno, though, the theory of the open-avant-garde is never so sanguine, because what Adorno call the “impossible tricky” of art constantly trying to identify the non-identical, is an inherently destablizing and self-negating process.[10] Accordingly, there is a strong sense in which the temporality of the avant-garde in Adorno is one riven, ontologically, by internal and external violation, by the symbolic violence of aesthetic ideology – the conflation of art with aesthetics – and the actual violence of the culture industry. The consequence of this is that the emergence of difference from heteronomy in art is subject to forces and constraints incompatible with a notion of the differential handing down of tradition. Tradition is not so much a place open to undetermined reconstitution as a place where cultural and social division is mediated and struggled through and against. The counter-hegemonic entry of the neo-avant-garde in the 1980s into the postmodern art institution, therefore, may advance a formal continuity with the original avant-garde, but it also enacts in significant sense a violation of those violations which are not emanable to aesthetic redemption or semiotic recoding: cultural and social division. In Foster and Andrew Benjamin the space of the avant-garde is essentially de-classed.

On this basis there are two things at stake in Adorno’s understanding of the avant-garde, that make it (within limits) a more suitable candidate for a defence of the category of the avant-garde today. First, by insisting on the mediation of cultural and social division as the ground of the production of art’s difference out of the heteronomy of tradition, Adorno’s theory of the avant-garde keeps faith with the “violence from below, so to speak, of the original avant-garde’s rupture with the art institution; there can be no continuity with the original avant-garde that doesn’t also recognise that the original avant-garde continues to expose the false totality of the neo-avant-garde; and secondly, by insisting on the necessary violations and self-violations involved in art’s task of affirming the non-identitical, the question of art’s formal continuity with the avant-garde is placed on a more solid subjective footing. That is, if the production of the “new” is not to be confused simplistically with the novel or the faddish, this is because the “new” is the place where the subject’s continuous “asocial” desire is produced. Namely, the sense that the subject is always “out of joint”, or in discord, with the situation in which it finds itself and consequently will continually produce aesthetic forms that match this. Adorno does not develop in any depth the temporality of the avant-garde as the temporality of the self-negating subject in Aesthetic Theory, but its significance for his theory makes its insistence all the more important for a workable theory of the avant-garde. As such we need to turn to Hegel and Slavoj Zizek’s reading of Hegel, in order to expand on this question.

In Slavoj Zizek’s recent writing on the Hegelian tradition [11] he argues for a return to the Cartesian subject. By this he does not mean a return to some notion of the self-transparent subject, but rather to the question Hegel posed in his post-Kantian analysis of the Understanding and Imagination: what is the basis of the relationship between the subject’s would-be spontaneous synthesis of the sensuous manifold into perception and the operations of discursive reason? On what side does of this divide does the temporal experience of the subject actually lie? For Kant this temporal experience lies on the side of discursive reason, of the power of the Understanding to forge the dispersive effects of Imagination into linear and homogeneous patterns. In a way it also lies on this side for Hegel, but for Hegel the Understanding is posited in a fundamentally different way to that of Kant. It is produced out of the Imagination. Hence, the synthesizing activity of the sensuous manifold in perception, which brings experience into new rational wholes, is always being torn apart by the dismembering function of the Imagination in order to be reconstituted into a another order. Kant therefore represses two related issues: the fundamental negativity at the heart of subjectivity, and by extension, the fundamental irreducibility of the subject, its excessiveness, so to speak, over and above the chain of natural and social causality in which it is embedded. There is always something, an intractable or irreducible remainder in the subject, that makes the subject resists its full absorption into its surroundings. In these terms Zizek goes one step further than Hegel in arguing that Hegel’s “dismemberment” indicates an even more primordial force at work in the subject, a pre-synthetic imagination which continually “enables us to tear the texture of reality apart”. [12] The idea therefore that there is a pure sensuous manifold unaffected by the disruptive function of the Imagination is a myth.

The implication of this for a workable theory of the avant-garde rests, accordingly, on the possible link between the temporal-spatial dismemberment of the subject and the violating and self-violating forces at work within the avant-garde’s mediation of social and cultural division. Indeed, we might develop the open-model of the avant-garde one step further and say that in a non-trivial sense the temporality of the avant-garde is another name for the irreducible infinity of the subject. By identifying temporal experience of the subject as “out of joint” with the temporal experience of the avant-garde artist as “out of joint” within tradition, the agency of the “new” in art is no more nor less than the mediating category of the subject’s resistance. On this basis the avant-garde is not something imposed on an heterogeneous community of practioners, but the space in which immanent logic of the artist’s relationship to tradition and the social world is practised. But if this connection deepens the open avant-garde model ontologically, it also has important and specific political ramifications. For by establishing the subject as fundamentally “out of joint”, the possibility of the “new” as a break from within tradition is also opened up to the possibility of the qualitatively “new”, to the Event that doesn’t just rework the already given, but emerges without precedent, to produce a rupture in the present: the Event which cannot be predicted with reference to pregiven circumstances and limits. One of the problems with the postmodernist version of the open-avant-garde model is that this qualitative break to the new within the “new” as “anorginal difference” is repressed. In fact in postmodernism there is no past or futural Event that can possibly break through the present, because every Event falls back into a homogeneous, linear, schematized time. Revolutions are always being rewritten as interruptions. As such what is absent from the open-avant-garde’s model of “anoriginal difference” is that its understanding of art’s emergence from heteronomy is unable accommodate the possibility of an artistic act that is part of an Event that “tears the texture of reality apart” without warning, and therefore breaks the preexisting symbolic network.

In these terms I want to advance a theory of the avant-garde in which the avant-garde as Event and temporal process interconnect. Or rather, I want to advance a theory in which the Event of the avant-garde imposes on the temporal avant-garde model not as the failed Event which enervates tradition and which the present simply accommodates, but the failed Event that produces a repressed potentiality in the present that stands to break open tradition. This does not mean, for example, that the failed and interruptive Event of the original avant-garde is about to return fully emergent. But, rather that to hold to the truth of the failure of the original avant-garde is to always hold on to the truth of its unfulfilled universal dimension which the untruth of capitalism holds in place. This why we need a theory of open theory of the avant-garde which identities the freedom of art with that which is not yet caught up in the web of necessity. A theory of the avant-garde which incorporates the repressed potential of the failed revolutionary Event and the “asocial” desire of the subject.


1 Eric Hobsbawm, Behind The Times, The Decline and Fall of the Twentieth Century Avant-Gardes, Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture, Thames & Hudson, 1998
2 Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde [1974], University of Minnesota, 1984
3 Harold Rosenberg, “Collective, Ideological, Combative”, in Avant-Garde Art, eds Thomas B. Hess and John Ashbery, Macmillan, New York 1967
4 Nicos Hadjinicolaou, “On the ideology of avant-gardism”, Praxis No.6 1982
5 Ibid, p. 62
6 Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory,[1970], Routledge & Kegan Paul 1984
7 Hal Foster, “What’s Neo About the Neo Avant-Garde”, October No.74 Fall 1994
8 Ibid, p30
9 Andrew Benjamin, Art, Mimesis and the Avant-garde, Routledge 1991
10 Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, p33
11 See for example, The Ticklish Subject, Verso 1999
12 Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, Verso 1999, p32