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Not too long ago that people obsessed with Marxist aesthetic problems were considered little more than ewiggestrig, eternally yesterday, strange pillars of salt on the side of the road to Deleuzian nirvana. That has changed over the last ten years, as a re-politicization of art that has fast-forwarded through all phases of so-called political art, from an analytical vulgar sociologism via activist agit-prop and multitudinal production art to a radical autonomization of the disjunctive folding-into-one-another of the political and the aesthetic. For a long time, there was a lingering post-modernist ban on any hasty identification with this modernist position or that, and it would have been tasteless to claim that central floating signifier, the ‘avant-garde.’ Any discussion of ‘the history of the avant-garde’ immediately became a retroactive narrative of catatstrophe. Angelus Novus would rustle his wings…That ban has now been lifted; in a moment of interiorization, the old sad tropes are on everyone’s lips, just like in the Seventies.
Basically, the avant-garde is a floating signifier in the debates between a broad scope of formalist and realist modernisms, and it would be historically inaccurate to give it over to one of the artistic movements of the modernist period (not only Dada or Constructivism, but counter-modernisms like neo-classicism, Neue Sachlichkeit, or the contradictory surrealist and critical realist attempts to assimilate a contradictory modern reality.) Originally a military metaphor for the forefront of a political movement (its origin in 19th century France), it became a way of talking about artistic trends, as if an army of artists were out to conquer the world. But most importantly it was a way of talking about politics. One does politics in times of revolution. Reactionary times allow us to talk about politics. To sort out who was actually ahead.
For many people, and rightly so, the most valuable moment in the historical dialectic of the avant-garde is where it negates a superficial, formalist-naturalist approach to the reification of human progress consciousness rendered objective in the framed, historicized thing rather than the processual object (Gegenstand) of human sensuous activity. The avant-gardes main purpose, the thrust of its style: to negate the jadedness (Borniertheit) of its bourgeois audience, to break down its bad objectivity. It is only through this negation of thingness and a full criticism/grasp/depiction of the object that thinkers and practitioners could dream of solving the riddle of history, or to put it politically, contributing to the realization of communism. One could think of a continuity between Hegels thing for us, Marxs human sensuous activity that is its own Gegenstand, and the avant-gardes attempts to render dialectical the things themselves. But thingness or objectivity came out as a dominant of vulgar materialist thinking. Alfred Barr visited Moscow in 1927 and asked Sergei Tretyakov when it would be possible to write about the revolution objectively. Here, one has the contradiction that would later split the avant-garde. A contradiction between abstract pragmatic-materialist thingness essentially resting upon neo-Kantian assumptions and concrete Sachlichkeit, which is synonymous to realism. Post-war formalism collapsed into negative-indexical naturalism because of materialist aesthetes like Alfred Barr. Even their pseudo-Trotskyite colleagues like Clement Greenberg were incapable of discerning the key different between thingness and Sachlichkeit. In Avant-garde and Kitsch Greenberg exhorts his readers to read Marx to the letter. Had he subjected Marx to a literal reading, he would have quickly found that it is precisely this difference that frustrated Marx the most, a difference that had come a long way since its formulaic articulation through the new science of Hegelian philosophy.
For more orthodox Marxists, it is realism that hangs in the balance whenever one speaks of the avant-garde. And not only because Marxs project as a writer was so deeply interwoven with the form of Darstellung in 19th century realism. Since Lukacs key interventions, it has been clear just how much we need realism to make sense of the garbled totality. The old struggle: to wrest away the conception of realism from the bourgeoisie, taking what is best about its narratives of decay and/or its critiques of mass culture, for example: its anthropologies, its formulations of social reality. At the same time, realism can be understood as the first modernism, the one that precedes and already contains all developments to come, the real hotbed of aesthetico-political invention before reductionist formalism really made it big. This is why books like Ulysses still contain so much potential. Lukacs devoted many pages to the critique of such modern realisms, and tried to systematize a literary canon for its inherently political use as an artistic narrative. Much of Lukacs critique targets realism itself: seen from today, what unites writers as diverse as not only Willi Bredel or Bertold Brecht, but also Kafka and Joyce is that they are still all somehow realists in a way that seems impossible today. For Lukacs, it really was about realism, a term that needed a broad definition at the beginning of the polemic to define a good addressee, then to be narrowed down. In comparison with later experiments (as irrationalist ideology becomes ubiquitous, and the high modernist autonomization of language from reality makes its impact), realism is an extremely inclusive category. Mikhail Lifshitz, the other key member of the the neo-Hegelian Tendency (Techenie, lit. current) of the Literary Critic group, includes African masks and the icon painting of the Russian renaissance. Realism becomes a codeword. For what exactly? For the high modernist aesthetic of the Stalinist style? As a mechanism of murderous inclusion?
As inextricable as the aesthetic of the Popular Front may be historically from the rise of Stalinism, it is still a mistake to conflate Lukacs efforts as a part of the Tendency with the final totalitarian sublation of the avant-garde by the Gesamkunstwerk Stalin. The Tendency and its outwardly conversative, inwardly radical aesthetic suffered heavily for its collaboration with Platonov (Lukacs holds him up as an example for truly dialectical realism that expresses the contradictions of his time), and, on the eve of World War II, was on the brink of being subjected to repression, perhaps precisely of something that was perceived as crypto-modernism by the appartchiks all along. NKVD materials have Lukacs on record at the sessions of self-criticism, as a frightened marginal figure, a certain Lukacs, a German-speaking refugee. In this light, the paeans to power read like panicked defensive measures, or as Adorno put it, recantations under duress, with rebellion still seething somewhere at their core. They belie a defensive attitude that knew all too well what could happen, precisely because his aesthetic was completely at odds with the Zhdanovism that established itself with full force. In this sense, Lukacs was quite brave, despite his professions of faith in the Great October. Even at his most Stalinist, he continues to stress that realism should not sink into revolutionary romanticism, vacillating between a naturalism of means and an idealism of content. Socialist romanticism is just as dangerous as expressionism or formalism. Socialist realism needs to stress contradiction in its inheritance of the 19th centurys mimetic devices, mediating the contradictory complexity of the transitional period. Characterization takes precedence here, quite obviously, as the organizing force of the narratives totality. Then again, Adorno makes a good point also at his pro-American, anti-communist worst: Lukacs blinded himself to the potentialities of his time, blunted his sensibilities, in favor of a resigned partisanship that often became dangerous, narrowing an aesthetic spectrum that could have otherwise remained quite broad. So one must broaden Lukacs conception of realism, and thus is back in the trap of that same old murderous inclusion.
The problem with realism as a category, however, is that it enters the picture as the category that mediates between the New of the avant-garde and the Old it supposedly negates, creating a transparent Jetztzeit that actualizes all the weak messianism of previous epoch, but only because of shared dialectical structures, new articulation of old human problems, that as we assume as Marxists will somehow be solved and have nothing natural about them. Of course, it is useful to look at history in this way, to think the anthropological universal of class struggle, at least as a weak constant hope, justified because the messiah could come through every second. Very much in the now, this archetypal expression of a time, an epoch, in ideology, makes it possible to find resonances, a secret heliotropism as Benjamin calls it, in all the details and constellations of a reality in constant becoming. But for precisely this reason, a transhistorical framing of realism (as in the theory of Mikhail Lifshitz) is suspect. Translated back into the mute language of commodities, Jetztzeit is now called contemporary art, with contemporaneity functioning as all times at once. Again, we recognize the market, which subsumes all production times, finding an expression for every temporality, even the most protracted, and accommodating even something the post-war avant-gardes rejected, namely realist painting. With such pseudo-gnoseologies (we know that the avant-garde is actually eigentlich even realism), it is only natural that the aesthetic disputes of the 1920s-30s lose their contours. The debate itself becomes a process (truth procedure) of modernity that included anti-modernists with obvious links to the avant-garde. This new lump sometimes yields new extrusions, inversions, singularities
Though we have sketched some primitive version of that old dispute (between formalism and realism), we have yet to discuss its application to contemporary reality. Because to carry out this dispute meant to engage in an appealing mimesis, to wear a toga of normal childhood, knowing full well that we are adults, and that our freedoms are bought with a completely new, post-Fordist form of productive cultural autonomy, relativized by that same-old realm of necessity, where our individual (however heroic) efforts lose their quality, to become certain more or less valuable quantities of abstract labor. All the while, capitalism continues to dig its own grave But by now, we are so blind to this gravedigger that we wouldnt recognize him if he came and hit us over the head. We dig, dig, dig away at the same old (new) aesthetic problems. It is time to come back to reality.
Our reality is one of reactionary times, a new Biedermeier: not the re-politicization of art makes the vanguard paradigm relevant again, but the de-politicization that follows. This is when the debate is comes alive again in a truly dialectical sense, rehearsed as a farce pregnant with all the gravitas of resignation The awaited instrumentalization of contemporary art through a new politics of the left has not led to a new prosumer Proletkult. Instead, the creative practices that accompany new political struggles are simply assimilated into a broader YouTube culture of embedded creativity in an increasingly irrationalized global culture industry. This, at least, is the danger, as well as artistic practices suddenly finding profitable application in other sectors of creative production, such as guerilla marketing and viral, network-based advertising. In addition, it is quite clear to most political art collectives (no matter which form of creativity they contribute to political struggle) that they are instantly reified when they hit the biennial circuit, which paradoxically, is their only venue for spreading their methodologies and ideas beyond a specific, purely relational context of locality. Even the most naïve activist art will quickly wise up to this state of affairs, and start producing more reflexive, self-critical works that focus on the forms political art uses and tries to address. It is hard today to rally any real passion in old arguments against ultra-leftisms infantile disorder, and the symptoms of half-assed, make-believe anarchism that accompany it. So-called political art ages so quickly, and the teenagers immediately go to work at the Starbucks of contemporary art, as smiling barristas. Political radicalism is no longer part of aesthetic infancy, but simply a necessary component of contemporary arts general intellect. It is part of the bourgeois bohemian toolbox, applied in virtuosic bricollage.
The result is a political formalism in both the positive and the negative sense: both as an emancipatory practice of understanding and countermanding abstraction, exteriorization through intensified estrangement, and as a real danger of fetishizing (implicitly political) language and form over (explicitly political) content that reduces ideas to their skeletons, depleting and conflating antagonisms and dissolving contradictions without gaining a sense for their dialectical possibilities of synthesis and revolution, leaving only a weak trace of what was once a dialectical image, to some historical complex we retrospectively call modernism, using a word whose meaning we have yet to discuss.
Speaking of dialectical images and their weak traces: it is impossible to repeat the debate on realism and formalism that defined the theoretical vanguard of German and Russian Marxism in the 1930s, just as it is impossible to repeat the discoveries of the historical avant-garde, whose best works anticipate a society far beyond the one we live in today. It is like Marx says about the art of antiquity: the epoch-making artwork is no longer possible when real artistic production begins. In Marxs account, this too leads to realism: the mythology behind the epic is disenchanted by the process of production itself, and the modern artist must rely not on mythopoetic models of-for reality, but upon reality itself, in a world completely disenchanted by capitalism. The quasi-mythology that production engenders may sweep away the old myths, but it stands in direct contradiction with genuine artistic sensibilities. Realism is no longer a choice, but an increasing inevitability.
We have may have somehow internalized modernitys existential fears of death by hunger or violence as something biopolitical much bigger than Angst, of course, but our societies are so very much softer in their cruelty than the ones Lukasc or Benjamin lived in. This, at the very latest, is where we are somehow reconciled with an increasingly reactionary, marginalized everyday and its hyper-material reality. The replayed dispute becomes a source of strength in moments of financial misery, and sometimes, a lesson learned and applied in self-organized, direct (though already-always shortlived) engagement or application to (cultural) politics. Only this lesson is a very painful one.
The theories of Soviet productivism from the mid-to-late 1920s, for example, are very useful to the neo-Stakhonovites among the cultural producers, whose passion for the political is fuelled by a utopianism left over from the 1990s project economy. Productivist practices allow a rationalized, aleatory workflow of total immersion in non-artistic praxis to become art, which, in turn, can become a commodity: as militant participant observation of the workflow, the cultural producer becomes an artist. But how do you know that your love for Tretyakov and for the biography of the thing isnt being exploited, that you arent aestheticizing the politics of your production? Arent you in on the game? Or would it be clearer if they really came and arrested you? It doesnt matter. All too often, there is no outside, but there is still an inside, and that inside runs risk of growing cold and lonely. So even the heated Marxist disputes of the 1920s-30s around the so-called avant-garde can be useful, if they warm you today. And since you know this, sipping your tea and grasping that beautiful little Verso volume, the study of contradiction becomes a reflexive historical materialism, a history of use and reification, driven on by swallowed rage. Capitalism will never forget our comforts, no more than our carbuncles.
The strange thing about the movement of movements that came out of Seattle and Genoa is that it drew a revolutionary romanticism in its wake, one linked to the Epicurean joys of life, a fun life style of passion and madness, mediated by pop-cultural self-irony: the movement was always-already aware of its carnivalesque stature. Films like Bernadette Corporations documentary Get Rid of Yourself show radical chic in the Black Block, prosumer folk-narratives of resistance in reality, on an anti-capitalist rampage. Strangely enough, all of this is fashionable enough for Dietrich Dietrichsen to write about it. Singularity became the new watchword, but not without the necessary dose of spleen, an awareness that singularity is already a universal structure. One can feel this in Bernadette Corporations movie too, which is still a dialectical image that both expresses the affect, the becoming-animal of thinking bodies in the act of resistance, but one that also foreshadows the onset of an even deeper, unhappier melancholia than the one it has left behind. Thus, Marxists can easily level the charge of subjectivism at the politics of multiplicity, and not because this politics no longer identifies the subject of struggle as an industrial proletariat. (In fact, Marxs conception of the proletariat is not so narrow, especially in the earlier works, where he speaks of humanity as species being, Gattungswesen). Instead, today, subjectivism is a collaborationist charge: it accuses its subject of being another singular variation of the same-old-personhood that acts so well and so stylishly.
Marx was a wonderful critic of stylization. His style was a weapon, and he wielded it well. In a rare consideration of visual art, he wrote against what, in the 19th century, counted as classicism, though strangely, in a Winkelmannian key. It is even recognized that certain forms of art, e.g. the epic, can no longer be produced in their world epoch-making, classical stature as soon as the production of art, as such, begins; that is, that certain significant forms within the realm of the arts are possible only at an undeveloped stage of artistic development. When you apply this dialectical thought to the avant-garde, it raises an interesting question: can one make avant-garde art in an art system based on avant-garde principles, an art system geared to the production of avant-garde art? The entire art system is geared toward the production of a latter-day avant-garde, but already in a mediated, sublated, neutralized form. The system of art-production really is based on cultural political gains that the second and third wave of avant-garde artists made in their battle with an older art system of salons, private patronage, etc., using the state or corporate entities (collections, foundations) to create laboratory conditions for the creation of both ilks of avant-gardism, both autonomous and engaged, both ethical and aesthetic. Despite all the differences between a white cube gallery and a discourse-concept heavy environment of research-based, institutional art, there is in both cases the claim of rationalized manufacturing of a certain product, whose use value is determined by the entire avant-gardist repertoire. De-auratization is a necessary consequence. Strangely, it is now again the salon and the private collectors Wunderkammer that seems so full of potentiality.
Then again, some of the more utopian social programs that could be associated with a properly Marxian discourse are more imaginable today than they were in the mid-20th century, certainly: high industrial capitalisms strict division of labor in a mechanized culture industry has been shaken fundamentally, not only by the theories and artistic practices of the avant-garde, but also by a broader technological universalization of artistic labor, so that one could speak of a generic activity of cultural production that eludes conventional categories and divisions. In some sense, many cultural producers today fulfill interdisciplinary functions akin to those Marx and Engels forecast in those famous passages of The German Ideology. The problem is that this happens in a hyper-capitalist society. One can speak of abstract creative labor, which is no longer ontologically resistant in the way it was in Marxs time. It only takes on some of its previous qualities when it becomes art (as opposed to contemporary art), which is when it starts to fulfill the demands that the new audiences all over the world actually would place upon it, if they had a chance to stop and think. They want to know as an immanent reality what liberals call utopia.
What is really important today: art (not all of it from distant and less-distant, i.e. modern pasts) can still provide emancipatory experiences and spark political coming-to-consciousness. Its main use is that it prefigures communism, and the emancipation of the human senses, as Marx put it in the Paris Manuscripts of 1844. Some of arts other distinctly modern features, such as its vacillation between production and consumption, are still relevant, though as moments we now see dissolved into everyday life by capitalism more effectively than by any artistic avant-garde. Though this can serve as an argument against upholding the old idea that art is, strictly speaking, not productive labor, it also justifies an orthodox Marxist return of the fetishism critique, as contemporary art begins to illustrate what is supposedly the most radical claim of contemporary capitalism, namely its invention of a knowledge economy, and what has happened to any excess utopianism in this idea. To speak less hermetically, we could say that illustrates contemporary capitalism, and almost becomes a set of plates or figures for Capital Vol. One: the big exhibition is an encyclopaedia of commodities that presupposes encyclopaedic knowledge of potential uses from its clients, in which every artwork is the mirror for every other artwork. And, just like capital, it ushers in the political movement of communism, because it gives rise to specific forms of cooperation that outgrow the general social relations at hand. In that sense, art is still ahead of its time: reason always exist though not always (yet) in a reasonable form. It is almost a miracle that art can still do this despite increasingly hostile conditions of production and reproduction. This almost is crucial. It, too, brings us back to Marx…