Vanguards and Neovanguards - Anticipation and Reconstruction
Vanguard, according to the military origin of the term, is the leading division of the army encharged, in war, to push forward or assigned to anticipate something. Their mission would be, first and foremost, to create an anticipating vision, a perception. Its purpose: to confront the unknown. For many years, the vanguard arts were, to the intelligentsia, a militia role: since its history has always been confused with modernism, the vanguards were, for the modern revolutionary movements, one of the branches in the revolutionary processes, just one of the sections of a much bigger social-revolutionary mechanism (Lenin suggested). This would be one of the explanations for the fact that, in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, along the ruins of the real socialism, it was also intended to decreet the "death of the vanguards" - a little like Francis Fukuyama, in the same year, when he pronounced the "end of the history". This definitely was not the first time that the vanguards were intended to be buried in the name of history. This is the hidden meaning, for example, behind the term "historic vanguard", used to name the first vanguard movements of the 20th century: the idea, fairly disseminated, that these would be the only modern movements with enough historic legitimacy to be called vanguards.
It's the blunder that incurs, for example, Peter Bürger in his "Theory of the Avant-garde", when he considered the new vanguard of the 50s and 60s as mere post-historic repetitions of the original vanguards, acritical simulations, bourgeois and empty. A betrayal, Bürger suggests: if the first vanguards had, in their historical place, done some form of self-criticism of the art, the neovanguards would simply have to resume the original function of art in the bourgeois society, neutralizing the critic and any impulses of society’s transforming action. When he wrote his book (today something canonical), in the early 1970, Bürger rediscovers in the bosom of the school of Frankfurt, which he joined, that same discussion between two great traditions of the modern aesthetics: the one that tries to lead art back to the praxis of life, reincarnated by Benjamin's vanguard project of an post-auratic art, and the other one that gives art its "status" of autonomy, retaken by the Adornian skepticism facing the universal astheticization of the every day in the late bourgeois society. After all, would art have any social responsibility or would it be disconnected from all kind of practical purposes, asserting in itself its own purpose? Would it be a transforming force or a self-determining strength, purely dissident and without an objective? More than this irresolute contradiction, proven to us by the invariably incongruous declarations, for example, of the pope of surrealism, André Breton, this is one of the dialects inherited by the vanguards from modernity, a dialect between a Kantianian conception of artistic modernity, centered in the absolute autonomy of art, and another Hegelian, focused in the dissolution of art in life and in praxis. A contradiction that the 20th century and its vanguards have done nothing but to accentuate. Like the art critic Michael Fried would point, the modernism, its dialect, have written the true history of art in the 20th century.
Even if he tends towards the Benjamian project, reverberating the, up to a point, romantic discourse of rupture and revolution of the historic vanguards, Bürger doesn't stop trying to reconcile the two Frankfurdian tendencies when he leans over the inevitability of failure of the vanguardians' projects. There's in his "Theory of Avant-gard" a certain idealism of failure which takes a bit too serious (a bit too literal) the modern vanguards' mottos and manifests: the surrealists would have failed in reconciling the subjective transgression with the social revolution, the Dadaists in destroying the traditional categories of art and the constructivists in giving cultural meaning to the collective production, but his failure wouldn't have been just heroic, but conscientious, a tragedy that would repeat itself as farce with the new vanguard. Against this somewhat romantic vision, Jürgen Habermas, another Frankfurtian, would easily object: it's not that the vanguards have failed, it's that they were false from the beginning, a "nonsense experiment", and nothing can stand solid over a unstructured foundation, " no emancipator effect can come from there" - yet again, the old Frankurtian melancholy. In the 1990s, the American art critic Hal Foster will argues that, for the keener vanguard artist, like Duchamp, the objective would never have been the abstract denial of art, nor the reconciliation with life, but the perpetual experimentation and contesting of both of their conventions. "More than false, thus, the vanguardist practice is contradictory, movable and diabolical (...). The work of art has to support a tension between art and life, instead of trying to reconnect them", Foster says in his illustrious answer to Bürger, "Who's afraid of the neovanguards?”
For Foster, the new vanguards (minimalism, conceptual art, pop-art, situtionism, land-art... - and why not add the Brazilian neoconcretists?) not only didn’t betray the historical vanguards, but they consummated and extended their original project, almost like they understood it for the first time. Bürger wasn't all wrong: a good part of the art produced since the after war, from pop-art to contemporary art, can be seen, in good measure, as empty simulations, acritical bourgeois repetitions of the historical vanguards - even Ives Klein, in his happening, transformed the dadaists provocations in bourgeois spectacles, "a vanguard of dissipated scandals" (Robert Smithson points). But the truly innovative art, the art relevant to its time (like the land-art of Smithson himself, for instance), this art would never fail to recharge the vanguard or even reposition it - Foster compares this process to the critic re-reading that the French post-structionalists did with the works of Marx and Freud, in the 1960, recuperating the original radicalness and potency of his thoughts to oppose them to the (institutionalized) way they were read at the time. Bürger simply wasn't paying enough attention to notice what was been produced of innovative in his time (with the exception of Joseph Beuys, to whom he dedicated an essay).
What's more riveting in Foster's essay is the retroaction model that he proposed for the analyzes of the vanguards - model possibly inspired in the hermeneutics theories of the old Swiss art historian Heinrich Wolfflin, to whom the visual arts followed, in their development, a spiral movement, their understanding could only be achieved in a circular manner, in a dialectic process founded in the interaction between the points of view of the past and of the present. The vanguard's works would act in a strange and paradox temporality, a complex relationship of anticipation and reconstruction: at the same time that they would reverse to the past, the vanguard would also come back from the future. Foster sets forth from a Freudian concept, “Nachträglichkeit” (it's english translation "derrefed action", usually unsettles many Freudians) to apply it to the effects of the vanguasdists practices in time. In Freud, a traumatic event is only registered as such when evoked by another event, retroactively, by deferred action. From this the subjectivity never asserts itself once and for all, but is structured by waves of anticipation and reconstructions, by reminders. For Foster, the vanguard movements are constituted in the same way, by a complex interaction of anticipated future and reconstructed past: the trauma (the shock, the rupture) provoked by a vanguardist gesture could only be completely understood after, retroactively, through another traumatic-vanguardist event. "In this analysis", Foster will say, "the vanguard could never be historically effective or its full meaning in its initial moment. It can't be effective, because its traumatic - a hole in the symbolic order of its time, which is not prepared for this, which cannot receive it, at least not immediately, at least not without a structural change. This trauma gains a different function in the repetition of the vanguasdist events."
Everything happens as if the vanguardist project acted only by delayed effect. What's left of the historical vanguards is what's supposed the be late, from the beginning, what hasn't been immediately apprehended - not the futurism converted to aesthetic in the war on fascism nor the surrealism as a Freudian quickie, not the constructivism becoming communist propaganda (but the idea of monochrome), nor the "ready-made" dadaist becoming fetish objects, even if politically recharged - as Joseph Kosuth would say, art can only survive influencing art: "The only reason artist of the past are brought back to life again is when some aspect of his work becomes "usable" to living artists". The vanguard artist is, in a sense, and artist of time. From this, maybe, why Duchamp's work ("Engineer of Lost Time") has been growing so much in importance through the 20th century, surpassing Picasso as the main reference of vanguardism. More than any other, Duchamp was the artist that better projected the effect of his work in time. It's what Jasper Johns said about Duchamp, after his death: "He seemed to imagine the work of art as if involved by a chain reaction until it was, somehow, captured, fixated by the final verdict of posterity". Some of Duchamp's creations would take years to be properly discovered and appreciated (like his proto-installation “Étant Donné”), others saw their proposals branch off and recharge through the years by new vanguards: like the "ready-made", objects that became propositions in conceptual art, were serialized in pop-art and in minimalism (a critic to the advanced capitalism) and were rethought and redimensioned by any and all relevant artistic movement since the 1950.
More than that, with the Duchampian "ready-made", art would have started to shift is focus from form to enunciation. After Duchamp, Kosuth would say, every art is conceptual, because it can only exist conceptually. The idea becomes the machine that makes art (Sol LeWitt): the identity of the work of art is increasingly correlative to its meaning and to the interpretive hypothesis it embodies. Donald Judd would declare the tabula rasa of art. Wittgenstein would become the trend philosopher in art critic. Arthur Danto (a philosopher that became an art critic) would announce the "end of the art", the death of the history of art as the history of forms and the birth of a post-historical era - Kosuth would prefer the term "art-after-philosophy". Duchamp's "ready-made" as they were consumed in Andy Warhol works (“Brillo Boxes”), Danto suggested, "wouldn't have been works of art in any other time, they are works accomplished for the end of art". Ad Reinhardt, minimalistic artist, would argue that, in a way, every art is the end of art - a tautology, Kosuth would say, once all work of art is a presentation of the artist's intention, a affirmation that his work of art is art, every work of art could be seem as a (re) definition of art. This is particularly valid for the vanguards. The overcoming of art and the figure of the artist has always been the most genuine artistic gesture of the vanguard. And the end of art - this would have been an acquired conscience - should begin by the end of the vanguard themselves: in a way, since the 1960s, no new vanguard could assert itself as such as long as it didn't pretend to embody (and perform) the end of the vanguards. It wasn't enough to imagine the death of art, its playful dissolution in the everyday life - like the lyricist and their abandoned wanderings, the situacionists and the invention of what would be "historically the last of the crafts". Once the anti-art has always become the institutionalized art, all scale of production tending to the senses had to be stopped: let's remember the neoist manifestos in favor of a "art strike", the vanguard resumed to an empty discourse (a one way street rhetoric), to manifestos of desperation or to the pure and simple farce (if history repeats itself as a farce, let's make the farce a work of art, the last of them - here the old vanguardist despair). To dream the end of vanguard as a supreme vanguardian gesture, desperate, but without ever loosing the irony - history of doubtful proof or pure conceptual farce, the "art strike" took Bürger condemning sentence to a diabolical limit, according it the artistic gestures of the new vanguards lacked authenticity. "Today there isn't a simple expression of challenge to be made", the neoist would say. "Everything has been done, the only thing possible is to add irony to a decadent discourse through the repetition of individual acts isolated from the vanguard tradition. Nothing can be taken serious - and this is particularly true regarding the affirmation that they say it's no longer possible to be serious". How can we not remember the dadaists, Duchamps and his war declaration against seriousness? If dealing with the image of the artist-hero was already a problem for Duchamp in the 20s, how to deal with it in the era of universal anesthetization and advanced capitalism, when free Duchampian inspired experimentalism has become an activity increasingly more professionalized and the artist's creative work started to occupy the top of a production chain where the image (as Debord foresaw) embodies the exceeding capital? The art market (the art demand) is threatening to become, in its excessive growth, a cancer of art. And Arthur Danto, with his theory of the end of history, could even be seen as a sort of Fukuyama of art critic, which would be incredibly unfair with his ideas, which seem unaffected by any kind of pos-modern cynicism. Contemporary art, Danto says, has available all previous art to be used however the artists see fit, even though it lacks the spirit in which that previous art was made, the sense of a historical narrative. But from the moment there's no longer just one way to make art and that art is freed from its history, art could follow its unending laboratory of the senses, free at last to rethink itself: hence the Dantonian vision of a contemporary art marked by a "radical pluralism". Formal freedom that would imply conceptual liberty and experimentation: the end-of-art-history-as-history-of-forms would be marked above all, for Danto, by the displacement of an "aesthetic of forms" to an "aesthetic of senses".
Danto has always seen in the mutation the golden opportunity for the critic, but the fact that the formal advances in art have been, in a way, surpassed by the conceptual advances doesn't imply, actually, the increase of influential and reflective power of art criticism. This has been, in a way, obliterated by the rising of curators, mediators whose growing force in the art system is proof that the great advance in art, in the last few years, happened in the institutional level - in the radical pluralism of contemporary art, the curator's victory in the fight for the symbolic domination (in the fight for the work's meaning) represents, inevitably, the victory of the art institution, the domestication of the artist and the bankruptcy of the critic.
In a way, a hundred years of modernism, in which art has been first of all the self-conscience of art, have resulted in a contemporary art self-focused and self-sufficient ("autistic", the hasty deprecators say), constituting, more than ever, a sphere set apart from society, with the people who produce it, the institutions that disseminate it, its critics, collector and curators, a highly specialized craft, a closed environment where the common spectator can only enter provided with directions - as Jacques Aumont would notice, contemporary art is something which you can't talk with impunity without the knowledge of cause. Separated from the social, but not the capital: more than ever it's the parasite, exceeding money, laundry and evasion money, which supports art and its freedom. This association between dirty money and good art (including the vanguard) is nothing new - the pretended autonomy of art, as a matter of fact, would never have been possible without it. In a way, as Baudelaire would say without judging, art has always been a prostitution. That doesn't stop the statement that the globalization heightened this relationship to a point never before seen: freedom of art, today, is the freedom of circulation of capital (freedom of market), its fluidity, the fluidity of the advanced capitalism, its bubbles too. What happened to the vanguards in all this? The old bohemian vanguards of modernism used their iconoclasm most of all against the conventions of the artistic environment of their time, the neovanguards of the 50s and 60s attacked the art institution, employing less opposition and shock ideals and more estrangements - for them it was about, almost always, trying to reposition art outside the art institutions, towards everyday life. But just like the capitalist system, that cannibalized the 1968 critic against the utilitarian capitalism, took, by its own accord, "the imagination to power", the art system has only engulfed the vanguadist critics, process that culminates today, in the contemporary arts, in this kind of critic capitulism which is the curatorship system and in a context that the critic towards the art institution and market appears, in itself, completely banalized - even the concept of vanguard seems today frayed, its death having been decreteed along with the end of modernism by those attached to the ideal, in itself frayed, of post-modern. Today, the vanguard cliché can be identified in the artist figures that develop, in their work, a parasitic-therefore-critic relationship with the art institution - an old and banal attitude of "enfant terrible", that lacks even the unauthentic and uncomposed sense from the neoist mottos. Let's get back, therefore, to Danto's propositions: what would be the end of the art today, the art as the overcoming of art? It's still possible to make good art in today’s radical pluralism, once art finds itself more free than ever to reinvent itself, once the artists, apparently, have more power than ever in their hands. The point would, thus, be: how to operate those "symbolic holes" that Foster had said, in a context in which the symbolic finds itself an efficient instrument of the art institute? Responsible by the symbolic organization of the artistic manifestation, the curators, seen almost always as allies, could, in this aspect, be seen as the true intimate enemies of the artist - its relationship with the artist, be it conversational or parasitic, defines the contemporary art. A kind of "interpreting artist" or a mere agent, almost always a follower/intermediator, the curator is responsible for the regulamentation and institutionalization of the symbolic in today’s art - this would clearly be a limit of contemporary art: the size that the art institution acquired through the figure of the curator, that negotiates or takes from the artist the supremacy over the symbolic of his work. Soon, there would only be left for today’s artist, Nuno Ramos said in a recent interview, to be a sort of convicted and obsessive armadillo, "to dig his own world view", fixating and growing roots, by insistence, his own poetics, his own "foreignity". It would befit the artist to act stubbornly and not settle to a context not favorable to the free exercise of his art, the truth in his art, seized by the interpretation (invariably complacent and hasty) and the use the curators that regiment his career wish to give him. Otherwise, the artist would be nothing more than a glorified worker, for sure, living of his creation, but robbed of what's essential to his work, its meaning, circumscribed and manipulated by the curator and, as a last instance, by the art institution. An intuitive being. It would be worth, more than ever, therefore, a historically associated attitude to the vanguard: to the artist today befits having the conscience of the outreach and meaning of his work - and not let this be imposed from outside or simply change the flavor of demand and pressure of the market and institutions. Outreach that, as Foster would suggest, would first of all be an outreach in time, a conscience in time: between the artist and the art system (market + institutions), currently, there's inevitably a conflict of time. It would also befit the artist, therefore, to start obtaining a better grip on his time, by preserving his own creative time before the production rhythm the system foists on him - that would be the true lesson left by Duchamp. "The existence of the artist in time", Robert Smithson said, "is worth as much as the final product. Any critic that undervalues the artist's time is an enemy of art and the artist. The stronger and cleared is his vision of time, the more resentful he'll be of any offence in this area. Artists with a weak vision of time are easily deceived by this type of critic and are seduced by some trivial story. An artist is only enslaved by time if the time is controlled by someone or something other than himself".
The good artists today would be those with a better control of the time and the meaning of his work in the midst of the unrestrained rhythm of the contemporary art (capitalist-globalized) system. But, to get closer to the notion of vanguard proposed in here, it would be necessary to add to this good art of today a notion of "politicality", a meaning that would no longer be in the order of the political, but in the dimension of the sensitive. A "politicality of the sensitive": here is a potency that art will never be without. Picasso's "Guernica" didn't prevent the bombardment of World War II, but it altered the sensibility towards it", Richard Serra reminds us, he himself a perfect revolutionist of the sensitive. "Guernica" was an aesthetic bomb, one of these prodigious works that, like Hegel said, can only be compared to "a bomb falling on a lazy town, where everyone sits in front of his cup of beer, full of wisdom, and doesn't realize that it was his tedious well-being that caused such terrible noise.". What would have this effect today? When Stockhausen unwittingly declared that the terrorist attempt of the twin towers, in New York, was "the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos", his unfortunate sentence (which ostracized him for the last years of his life) reminds us that the revolve of the sensitive, in the 20th century, all the "frisson" of modernism, also generated dullness and war. The September 11 spectacle, in this sense, was also the spectacle of our numbed sensibilities.
Stockhausen's declaration would make Arthur Danto reclaim, in the pages of "The Nation", the moral meaning of beauty. He reminds us of the politication of beauty that the historic vanguard had promoted to criticized the war seeking society - let's return, then, to "Guernica", or to a Rimbaud poem (""One evening, I sat Beauty in my lap. - And I found her bitter. - And I cursed her."). Beauty wasn't referred as an ideal category anymore, for the vanguards it was about taking beauty in its Schillerian sense, as something that refuses all subordination to the outside order and at the same time updates all its virtualities. Beauty as a synonym for insubordination and refusal, that causes a rupture in the symbolic. Even though he was still stuck to the idea of an autonomy of art, Schiller didn't give up on engaging ethics and aesthetic (one word bearing the other) in his vision of art as a moral emancipator - what we live today in art, reminds what Schiller, in his aesthetic anticipation of the future, foresaw one day as "the reign of aesthetic freedom and play". An ample vision of aesthetic, as a kind of perception and sensibility, that Jacques Rancière resumes, in his way, in "The Politics Of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible". How to separate, after all, art and politics if they are a part of the same "distribution of the sensible", if both are "ways to organize the sensible: to understand, to see"? The aesthetic would thus be gifted of a double potential of emancipation: "On one hand, this potential resides in idleness, in the refusal of any form of subordination or functionality, in the resistance of control. On the other hand, the aesthetic regime advocates the self-suppression of art in favor of its full integration in the construction of the improved common life in which art and politics become indistinctable". With this Rancière ends the old fight between the two great lines of thought of aesthetic modernism: the advocates of the autonomy of art (from "art for art's sake”) and of the champions of its social-revolutionary mission, the vanguard in the traditional Benjamian view. "This strained dichotomy", Rancière says, "is the fruit of a misunderstanding of the foundation of the aesthetic regime, which takes as mutually exclusive both premises that are intertwined, despite asserting themselves in opposite directions”.
The political potency of art would not depend, after all, on the artist own will, this wouldn't stop us, however, of reaffirming the vanguard as the one that operates, consciously, the "policy of the sensible". More than ever, the vanguard would define itself by the conscious form it refuses and pulverizes the limits of the symbolic (limits today not only established, but made instruments by the art system), the leading division that explores the new frontiers of the imaginary country - that this territory is increasingly more confused today with a great market hasn't stopped an artist like Cildo Meireles to find, with his Coca-Cola bottles (the series "Insertions into Ideological Circuits"), a form of insubordination and refusal. Ruptures mended, re-mended and deepened by new branches over time, Foster suggests: the old vanguards strategies, the endurance of their delayed effects, can still be reupdated and repositioned in the contemporary art - it's the case, for instance, of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei reclaiming political potency to conceptual art in his activism against the Chinese government abuses. It's necessary to declare at the same time the autonomy of art and the identification with the creation process of life itself, not taking the negative polarity of world and art of the modern age, but remaking the path in the opposite direction - maybe, because of this, it's easier to identify today’s vanguard in peripheral nations, outside the occident axis, in which a residue of modernity (its delayed effect) is always living with its own impossibility. Deep down, the vanguard would, today, go through those few that, like Weiwei, can promote, in the lives of the population, a revolution in the sensible experience, proposing new forms of relationship with life and with sensibility, a new world perception. "Every artist is an activist and a good activist can be an artist", Weiwei used to say - how to deny the (double) emancipation potential of his art, his role in the reconfiguration of the sensible world, if the Chinese government itself is the first to dedicate its helpful persecutions? A great artist-activist or a beautiful activist-artist: the term "vanguard", its origins, finds all its meanings here.
By Tiago Mata Machado