Thursday, February 25, 2010

Theory of the Avant-Garde

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Bürger’s critical analysis of the avant-garde situates the movement as a historically contingent moment that sought to both affect and inform social praxis. To this extent, he forwards three propositions that guide the conceptual framework of his entire argument. First, the avant-garde “can be defined as an attack on the status of art in bourgeois society” because it focused on negating “art as an institution that is unassociated with life praxis of men” (49). Moreover, such a negation was not possible before the rise of Aestheticism because the latter of these two movements was the first to conceptualize art as autonomous and not an extension of another institution (i.e. religion or government). Likewise, the avant-garde could not sustain itself as a movement after the surrealism of the 1930s because the techniques they employed, as well as those of Dada and Futurism, adhered to an “aesthetic of shock” that necessarily “loses its effectiveness” (81) relatively soon after it is initially used. Secondly, as a means of re-integration into life through shock, the avant-garde developed art manifestations that were non-organic and strove to refute myths of organic art functioning independently and disassociated from reality. Organic works of art forward the claim that the parts of a work are unified or subsumed in a totality, whereas the non-organic manifestation privileges fragmentation: the parts no longer form a whole, but contain “a much higher degree of autonomy and can be read and interpreted individually or in group” (72). This trait is most evident in collage, montage, and ready-mades. Finally, Bürger notes that the avant-garde failed in its original vision to re-integrate art into society, but did succeed in the “destruction of the possibility of positing aesthetic norms as valid ones” (87) by revealing the art institution as an ideological construct that manipulates power dynamics to forward its own agenda and notions of acceptability; although avant-garde movements may not have revolutionized life, they did revolutionize art. An important caveat to Bürger’s thesis of revolutionary art is that one should not consider specific aesthetic techniques inherently avant-garde; in fact, “the neo-avant-garde institutionalizes the avant-garde as art” (58) and necessarily negates the original movement’s intent.

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