Marxism and the artistic avant-garde

1. US art critics are in the habit of identifying an avantgarde in the English speaking countries, but they then have tremendous difficulty in drawing any sort of line between modernism and the avantgarde. A good example would be Fredric Jameson, who in his (excellent) _Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist_ describes Lewis as "the only true English futurism" (p86), but throughout the book runs together Lewis' 'futurism' with the characteristics of the modernism of Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner and so forth.

This is a difficult problem, but it has important political consequences for Marxist theorisations of aesthetics. In particular, it impacts on the problem of a modernist political aesthetics - so it intersects with the whole 'Brecht-Lukacs' debate of the 1930s.

I'd like to explore the example of Jameson a bit further, because it illustrates where the lack of definition between modernism and the avantgarde leads, politically speaking.

Peter Bürger's _Theory of the Avantgarde_ proposes that the avantgarde is distinguished from other artistic currents by its irreconcilable opposition to "the institution art", which I take to mean the autonomy of the aesthetic. Bürger argues that the program of the avantgarde - Futurism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Brecht, and even, to a certain extent, Cubism - is the "sublation of art in the praxis of life." (Bürger's formulation, incidentally, is superior to that of Matei Callinescu, in _Five Faces of Modernity_, whose descritpion "aestheticisation of everyday life" risks being mistaken for a purely aestheticist extension of institutional art into the life of the masses, rather than a ferocious negation of the autonomous status of bourgeois art and its separation from everyday life. The program of the avantgarde is essentially the revolution of everyday life by aesthetic means.

As Bürger has argued, the avantgarde work operates on the principle of the negation of the traditional organic totality of the work of art. Alex Callinicos - in _Against Postmodernism_ - has convincingly argued that the avantgarde represents the dialectical negation of modernism * a negation of the negation, by extension of Bürger's argument. By contrast, modernism sets out precisely to salvage the "authenticity" of the autonomous aesthetic, even at the risk of transforming literary language from a medium of social intercourse into a private language of pure interiority. The similarities between, say, Lewis' Expressionism and Surrealist automatism are entirely external. The Surrealist anti-novel does not propose a reunification of meaning at some deeper, mythical level so much as simultaneously invite and refuse interpretation, sketching a gesture to be completed outside the text. Where the Surrealist anti-novel is an attempt to destroy the romantic ideology of individual cre! ativity and the hegemonic aesthetic of naturalism in the context of a collective artistic and political praxis, the modernism of both Joyce and Lewis defends the aesthetic as a privileged realm for the representation of a highly individualised ethical and existential crisis. For modernism, the crisis of capitalism will be solved by the perfection of aesthetic representation; for the avantgarde, it will be resolved in the streets.

Julia Kristeva's solution, in _Revolution in Poetic Language_, to the modernist dilemma of a political aesthetic is famously the subversion of the Symbolic by the libidinal energies of the Semiotic * that is to say, a solution that privileges the avantgarde, not unlike Callinicos' formulation. This solution is rejected by Jameson, mainly because of his prior collapse of the avantgarde into the political wing of modernism. In "Reflections in Conclusion" to _Aesthetics and Politics_, Jameson explicitly assimilates Surrealism to modernism, and concludes that therefore the 'realism versus modernism' debate between Brecht, Bloch, and Lukacs is complete in all essentials. This argument at least has the merit of making explicit what was in _Marxism and Form_ and _Fables of Aggression_ only implicit, namely, that modernism and the avantgarde are differentiated only on representational grounds as strategies of inwardness and depersonalising expressivity, respectively.

But, as Andreas Huyssen points out, in _After the Great Divide_, it makes little sense in the European context to throw in Breton with Celine and Proust. A crucial element in Jameson's work therefore betrays a certain provincialness, or even a will to locate a political aesthetic within the tradition of English speaking modernism, despite the absence of the avantgarde in England and America. In this context, Jameson's use of Lewis as a virtual stand-in for the missing Anglo-American avantgarde begins to look like a serious misreading of the period.

You can see where Jameson is heading, though. He is a defender of Lukacs and Adorno on art - both of whom are hostile to Surrealism and the avantgarde in general. So it's important to him that the 'Brecht-Lukacs' debate is essentially complete, despite the fact that by the time this debate errupted (1938 onwards, really), Surrealism had already been cast into outer darkness - equated with fascism, in fact.

I would argue that the Marxist debate - represented by collections like _Aesthetics and Politics_ and then continued in say, the postmodernism debate and the debates around the Althusserians' theories of art - is incomplete. It leaves out the avantgarde, and a tradition of interpretation by figures like Trotsky, Lefebvre and Voronsky, who stress the roots of radical aesthetics in everyday life, and attempt to break with reflection theories of consciousness and art.

So my question for Louis would be: just because Greenberg uses the term avantgarde, doesn't mean that this is really an avantgarde. The New York Abstract Expressionists might have been experimental - but so were Joyce and Kafka, Klee and Kandinsky. Can we be confident that the New York millieu was really an avantgarde, or were they modernists in the sense described by Burger?

2. A second question concerns the relationship between party politics and artistic degeneration. The account given int he first post veers towards sociology in that no direct theoretical relationship is given to explain the transformation of oppositional artists into conservative modernists. The post describes the process, but doesn't explain why.

I imagine that Louis might be relying on Guilbaut's account - but some fucker has stolen the copy from the library here, so I'll just have to ask Lou to spell it out for me.

Geoff Boucher


On Tue, 12 Jan 1999, Geoff Boucher wrote:

But, as Andreas Huyssen points out, in _After the Great Divide_, it makes little sense in the European context to throw in Breton with Celine and Proust. A crucial element in Jameson's work therefore betrays a certain provincialness, or even a will to locate a political aesthetic within the tradition of English speaking modernism, despite the absence of the avantgarde in England and America.

Jameson is far from provincial, and Breton does indeed have much to do with Celine and Proust. Surrealism was very much the aesthetic expression of the Roaring Twenties consumer culture -- cars, auto parts, film, and the ubiquitous mannequins of luxury storefront windows which had not yet become glassed-in department stores or minimalls. Proust's work is very, very complex, and is something like the missing link between Anglo-French Surrealism and Central European Expressionism; he has the intricate details of the former, but also the cognitive depth of the latter. Probably the closest parallel to Celine is Leni Riefenstahl: an aesthetic innovator in certain narrow respects, but deeply reactionary. Celine takes the bric-a-brac world of Surrealism and demolishes it, just as Fascism would demolish the shaky civil societies of the post-WW I era. It's hard to blame Celine; he was from a miserable petit bourgeois background, the same social stratum which voted NSDAP in Germany, and was badly wounded in WW I, suffering from a head wound to the end of his days. The man wasn't quite sane.

You can see where Jameson is heading, though. He is a defender of Lukacs and Adorno on art - both of whom are hostile to Surrealism and the avantgarde in general.

There's no evidence for this in Adorno's writings, where he talks quite equable about Surrealism and defends the twelve-tone musical avante-garde with legendary tenacity. He was also partial to Kafka and Klee. Lukacs simply bashes modernism in toto, it's got nothing to do with Surrealism per se; it was the Party Line, and folks who didn't toe it were shot. In mass quantities. Lukacs' own theoretical work, interestingly, is much more complex and subtle, particularly his work on the novel, where he has some interesting things to say about the problem of form and the crisis of the bourgeois or 18th-century novelic form.

-- Dennis Redmond