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After the Avant-Garde

The Theory of the Avant-Garde

by Renato Poggioli, translated by Gerald Fitzgerald
Harvard, 250 pp., $6.50

The Art of Time: Essays on the Avant-Garde

by Michael Kirby
Dutton, 255 pp., $5.95

The Eclipse of the Intellectual

by Elémire Zolla, translated by Raymond Rosenthal
Funk & Wagnalls, 301 pp., $5.95


by Frank Kermode
Random House, 238 pp., $5.95

Histoire de l’avant-garde en peinture

by Germain Bazin
Hachette (Paris), 229, illustrated pp., 125 francs

The Avant-Garde in Painting

by Germain Bazin, translated by Simon Watson Taylor
Simon & Schuster, 323, illustrated pp., $29.95

Historia de las literaturas de vanguardia

by Guillermo de Torre
Guadarrama (Madrid), 946, illustrated pp., 750 pesetas

Here in the streets of Paris you can still read many of the texts from May, 1968, and the best of them have been published. “Art is dead. Godard can’t save it.” “La ville dont le prince est ETUDIANT…” If we are, in fact, going through a major culture crisis, how did we get here and where do we go?

We have the complementary diagnoses of Marxists and Freudians, whose concepts of alienation and repression seem to fit the situation better than any others available at the moment. Lately I have been reading J. B. Bury; there is much to be said for his calm analysis of how Europe weathered two earlier culture crises, the Copernican and the Darwinian. Having pushed himself out of center stage with his new cosmology, post-Copernican man responded by developing science and technology, a dazzling performance which is far from over. Then when the theory of evolution deprived him of any guaranteed supremacy in the order of living beings, he perfected the idea of progress to give him a new foothold in history.

Now mankind means us. When an anthropologist like Marshall Sahlins writes: “Culture continues the evolutionary process by other means,” he is extending the idea of progress and implying that culture arises because it reinforces, our tendencies, whatever their origin, to adapt to our environment and master it. Yet today we have good reason to wonder whether culture is progressive or regressive.

It makes good sense, I believe, to refer to our present juncture as a crisis not of culture but of progress. As Fontenelle developed the concept almost three centuries ago, progress carries the sense of building slowly upon the wisdom of the past. As we now use the term, it corresponds to a desperate exhortation: “If you stop running, you’ll fall down.” The idea that we must keep moving and growing in order to survive is writ as large in our economy as in our technology. I suppose the Bomb itself not only consecrates the reality of that progress but also demonstrates the way it has betrayed us. Referring to the earlier crises, Bury wrote that “man is resourceful…he interprets his humiliation as deliverance.” This time it is far from clear how we shall find our deliverance from the humiliation of becoming victims of the progress we created to deliver us from an earlier crisis of values.

Our habits of thought go so deep that we are still preaching industrialization to underdeveloped countries and administering larger and larger doses of that same drug to ourselves. Even the new regime in France, fearing that the country may revert to the status of an underdeveloped nation “like Portugal,” has launched a campaign of industrialization that takes priority, far ahead of everything else, culture included. Problems of pollution, congestion, and the quality of life will have to wait for later budgets. There is some grumbling. But no one, left or right, above or below, has come forward with a thoroughgoing and persuasive case against the “new society” of the present government. Even the “revolutionary” and often courageous proposals for reform with which Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber has recently fluttered the Radical Party reaffirm the principle of “continuous economic growth, without which no progress towards freedom has been made or can be made.” Is this the way out?

One of the revealing things about the arts, apart from the experience of individual works, is the degree to which they have developed a parallel dynamics of progress. We take it for granted that the artist of genius is, above all, original and has contributed some new depth to the art he practices. Innovation ranks far higher in our esteem than mastery of a traditional art form.

An awareness of this situation, let alone an understanding of its consequences, is fairly recent. Critics from Ortega y Gasset and Edmund Wilson in the Twenties to Harold Rosenberg and Louis Kampf in the Sixties have been reduced to using very crude categories. In the early decades of his century, Symbolism and Art for Art’s Sake seemed to be the only available currency. Yet Jacques Rivière demonstrated their dwindling value back in 1920 when he was one of the first to write perceptively about Dada. In the last couple of decades the term “modernism” has driven out most other coinage, even though it is a category so broad as to have no definition, only a chronology, and that often in dispute.

The absence of a set of sufficiently refined terms to distinguish different aspects of modernism probably explains why so perceptive a critic as Walter Benjamin wrote a paragraph like this in 1936.

Fiat ars—pereat mundus,” says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “L’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

Modernism” would have to include all of this indiscriminately—the inhuman estheticism and the political didacticism. Such an opposition may help us to recognize the tensions in a man like Louis Aragon or Ezra Pound. But if I have any understanding of the forces at work in a movement like Surrealism, or even in a loner like Benjamin himself, I should say that most artists worked to avoid those extremes and to clear a position where politics (in the broadest sense) and esthetics are compatible, or at least not irreconcilable. Modernism is too shapeless a concept to help with the questions that besiege us when we enter the heartland of modern art—or when we are driven to write on walls.

The six books under review deal with aspects of modernism in the arts. Several of them, however, put forward in some form the hypothesis that “avant-garde” offers us a more useful category than modernism and lends itself better to social analysis. The avant-garde is a minority institution, experimental rather than conservative in nature. It mediates between a number of contrasting elements—elite and public, the religion of art and commerce, estheticism and social concern. The little magazine and the gallery are its primary vehicles. A large international meeting, like the Writers’ Congress of 1935 in Paris, can reveal it in microcosm: writers deeply importuned by the myths of social revolution, yet unwilling to renounce their status as elitist artists.

In a time of apparent cultural crisis we would do well to understand better the significance of the avant-garde. If it contains a means of testing innovation and of living with our counter-culture, it will be immensely valuable. If it threatens to turn against us with the same destructive force that has come out of our technology, we must discover that danger before it is too late. I believe the former proposition is true. Considering Benjamin’s powerful but misleading statement, and much that has followed, that truth has not yet been demonstrated.

Poggioli’s is an important book which deserves much more attention than it has received. He picks up a fundamental yet half-neglected idea and examines it with all the resources of a cultivated intelligence. If one is at all familiar with the literary and cultural currents since 1870, The Theory of the Avant-Garde generates sustained intellectual excitement. Here is the key work of an Italian man of letters who became a specialist in Russian literature, translated Wallace Stevens, and moved naturally into comparative literature after coming to the United States. (The original edition in Italian appeared in 1962, a year before Professor Poggioli’s premature death in an automobile accident.) His mind hangs in sturdy balance between French Symbolism and enlightened Marxism. It makes for very good dialogue.

A rough précis of the book would run something like this. The avant-garde exists as a socio-cultural phenomenon. Though its roots go back at least to the eighteenth century, it took shape in the latter half of the nineteenth century when writers like Rimbaud and Mallarmé (following Baudelaire in very different ways) became conscious of their role as innovators and of their antagonism to public taste. They accepted that opposition, and the hostile conditions under which they worked, in the name of art. Yet the relation of the avant-garde to the society around it remains close and complex. Above all, it needs a tolerant regime. The adventurous avant-garde of Soviet Russia did not survive the death of Lenin. Social forces like activism and alienation furnish the clearest understanding of its vagaries. As we approach the end of the twentieth century, the avant-garde attitude has become the chronic condition of art and literature.

These may sound like common-places but they have never before been said in this fashion. Poggioli states at the beginning the scientific nature of his ambitions in studying this “already explored but not mapped territory.” He hopes to establish a “dialectic of movements,” a phenomenology of the avant-garde. His thematic approach frees him from lengthy historical preliminaries. Chapters on the nature of movements in the arts, on the romantic precedent, and on fashion lead into his central thesis about alienation: “the principle or norm of bourgeois art is to be anti-bourgeois.” (Poggioli quotes Lukács in support, but I feel sure he found the idea in Pareto.) The contrasting figures of the aristocratic dandy and the proletarian bohemian fused into a systematic and libertarian opposition to the bourgeoisie, tolerated for a hundred years now as the avant-garde. It has survived in a state of diminishing economic, cultural, and ethical tension.

There are strong factors favoring Poggioli’s approach. He has a well-informed sense of the tradition what lies behind any cult of the new. Taste, fashion, and the social dynamics at work within the world of the arts are among the subjects he handles most adroitly. Particularly in the decadent school and in Futurism, he detects a consciousness of belonging neither to the past nor to the future, but to an eternal crisis or transition. The avant-garde sense of time implies that all work is “in progress.” It will never achieve a fullness of time, as expressed by the classical moment of Versailles for example. The avant-garde artist like Picasso or Stravinsky is forever intent on undoing the old or renewing the new, never on standing still.

We should be grateful that this is an exploratory book and not the definitive treatment. Poggioli’s gusto is infectious. Still, his view of the arts will have to be checked against further data, and at times I find his analysis either redundant or fragmentary. He lists the categories of his survey as “activism, antagonism and nihilism, agonism and futurism, anti-traditionalism and modernism, obscurity and unpopularity, dehumanization and iconoclasm, voluntarism and cerebralism, abstract and pure art.” He defines his terms, of course, as he goes along. However, since the organization of the book does not include substantial illustration, the terms tend to become abstract. All those bright pieces never quite fall into place to show the picture on the puzzle.

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