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.

It is distressing to see Poggioli falling into the trap of using the names of all the standard movements, from Impressionism and Symbolism to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, as if they denoted similar entities. If challenged, he would have been the first to distinguish among them. But he fails in this text to make us aware of the enormous differences in inner organization and attitudes toward society between, say, German Expressionism and Italian Futurism. Some of the movements cited are not movements at all but merely names conjured up by publicists and accepted all too passively by critics and historians.

The hypothesis…that aesthetic radicalism and social radicalism in politics, are allied, which empirically seems valid, is theoretically and historically erroneous.” Poggioli devotes eight pages to politics and the avant-garde. In spite of some perceptive remarks on anarchism, the theory as stated above gets the better of him. True, the relation between the avant-garde and politics is complicated by personality and ideology and often collapses into mutual contempt. But in dismissing the possibility of that alliance Poggioli fails to examine carefully one of the most fascinating and significant aspects of the whole story, at least in the Twenties and Thirties.

The Surrealist movement is a case in point, and one of his weakest pages slights André Breton’s long skirmish with communism and confuses the carefully chosen titles of the two major surrealist reviews. I find it hard to understand this blindspot toward politics, for in so far as Poggioli’s thesis on alienation applies (and he himself quotes Mallarmé calling the artist “on strike against society”), the political sensitizing of the artistic avant-garde is built into his vision of events.

My final objection to this book concerns its curious “social-science” determinism. Poggioli is too sophisticated to hide behind a Zeitgeist, yet he appears to approve of Ortega’s stentorian formulation: “…the imperative of the work [is] imposed by the period.” (He quotes it three times.) The analysis in the book passes over or around any clearly identifiable agent for the developments under examination. The artist dwindles to the dimensions of a victim of social forces. In the opening pages Poggioli speaks of the “psychological condition” that precipitates the avant-garde; “By psychological, I mean that part of avant-garde art which remains a fact of nature (if only historically).” And in the closing pages where he makes a brief attempt to arrange things historically, he goes even further: “the avant-garde is a law of nature for contemporary and modern art.” The two quotations are obscure, even in context.

I believe they must be referred to another statement: “Nothing is more new and modern than the modern cult of the new.” For us, novelty is a prescriptive law. Yet that affirmation collapses the structure of the book and empties its subject of meaning. If we explain avant-garde activity by a law of nature, the tension described by Poggioli’s central concept of alienation becomes an illusion and the artist’s opposition to bourgeois society merely the subjective registering of the blind workings of law. If the avant-garde is not the cumulative product of many individual artists and writers making decisions and taking risks and reacting to their surroundings in different—not identical—ways, then I want to know just where Poggioli wishes to place the responsibility for the sequence of innovations which absorb his attention. Are chance and fate the unnamed protagonists of his tale? He is not here, alas, to tell us. He might protest that he means “law” only in a descriptive sense, the curve of accumulated behavior. But that is not what he writes.*

Interesting as they are for various reasons, none of the other books under review has the stature of Poggioli’s. I shall deal with them more rapidly in an order not determined by their importance.

Michael Kirby should have called his book “No Kidding.” An unpretentious title might have relaxed him. As it is, in the long opening essay on what he calls “situational aesthetics,” he labors a little too seriously to divide avant-garde art from everything else in sight according to its “directionality” (toward the forever new) and its lack of any reliance on an esthetic attitude even though it intends esthetic “significance.” The proper experience of art is consciousness-expanding and “enables us to live more ‘accurately’ and, therefore, more successfully.” The mixingof genres in “intermedia” that make use of dance, films, painting, electronics, etc., he believes, provides a particularly exciting enlargement of the domain of art.

These esthetic theories, verging on the therapeutic, are not fully demonstrated in the central sections of the book, where Kirby describes a series of performances of mixed media in and around New York City during the Sixties. This failure is due in part to the difficulty of finding terms with which to refer to such unfamiliar goings-on, and even more to their flimsiness. Kirby himself introduces the parallel between avant-garde artist and scientist; it might help us here.

By now we have been convinced that over 90 percent of the experimental scientists of all time are alive today. We also understand, though far less clearly, that over 90 percent of their experiments go unrecorded because they are uninteresting or unsuccessful. No one has ventured to say how large a percentage of the avant-garde artists of all time are alive and active today. Whatever the figure, however, they are rarely willing to work with the same margin of success. They insist on performing or publishing practically everything. Whence the flimsiness. At this point we could revert to another of Kirby’s metaphors: art as sport. We witness all of an athletic event, including the warmup, the workings of chance, errors, fair play and foul play. Much avant-garde activity stands closer to the development of a new sport than to rapt scientific pursuit. Yet even sport requires evaluation of quality in performance. Kirby says he is no critic, but sympathetic commentary need not exclude discrimination.

I am disappointed that Kirby does not adequately refine and apply in this book the promising distinction he made earlier (Happenings, Dutton, 1965) between “matrixed” and “non-matrixed” performances. Traditional acting is “matrixed” in so far as it projects an imaginary time and space in which the desired character takes shape. But lecturers, musicians, and athletes, who also establish a relation between performer and public, are nonmatrixed in so far as they remain within the context of their surroundings and their own character. Kirby introduces the distinction a few times, yet he could have gone further in using it to point up the increasingly close ties between theater and plastic arts. This is the heart of Kirby’s subject.

Some of his remarks on “objective dance” go jarringly astray. It is simply not true that all traditional dance asks for a “subjective empathetic relationship” by which the spectator participates in the work. Much classical ballet consists of very “objective” movement, meaning only itself or the music. The systematic rejection of technique in some experimental dance performances makes them, if anything, less objective, closer to emotional connotations of acting or ordinary behavior.

The post-happening performance arts, which Kirby describes and for which he tries earnestly to provide a coherent esthetic, seem to me a little wan. They rely heavily on techniques of shock, blood bath, and orgy to reintroduce the intensity that tends to be eliminated along with plot structure and formal coherence. Kirby keeps directing our attention to the technical possibilities in photography, tape recording, film, and kinescope to represent and manipulate the feedback factor of consciousness. Some of his own performances in this line develop through electric circuitry a kind of manipulated time sense that I find dizzying yet absorbing. Otherwise, The Art of Time is a reliable field report on current experiments in performance and kinesis. Kirby does not begin to winnow out the 10 percent of these experiments that may earn or deserve a progeny.

Elémire Zolla is concerned not so much with the avant-garde as with the modern. Two of his books, which originally appeared in Italian, have been combined in this collection of essays. His material is only slightly unfamiliar; Croce, Ortega, and Walter Benjamin have furnished him with some of his most important concepts. Beneath lies a slow-burning Catholicism that finally gives a passionate tone to his case against a culture produced by the trauma of the machine. I find myself ready to agree with Zolla on a great many points. His treatment of love in our society, and of the lost tension between youth and age, is very pertinent. His initial, though far from original, premise about the dehumanization of life by the machine strikes a sympathetic cord. But after that, he and I part company.

In spite of a long disclaimer and apology on the reality of “mass man,” Zolla all too often deals in stereotypes and finally convinces me that he is in closer touch with the printed record of our lives than with those lives themselves. Furthermore, I sense that the essays form a battleground for a series of tussles with himself over various aspects of modern life of which he disapproves, yet to which he is addicted. Films figure at the top of the list, followed by all avant-garde movements in the arts, because they are the tools of cultural manipulators.

But my primary objection concerns not Zolla’s lingering ambivalence about modern life, which might have added complexity to a somewhat shrill polemic; it concerns his fundamental obtuseness The center of his argument comes out in the essay on persuasion, where his diagnosis of mass-man reaches this point: “What is missing is the festive…in the festivals man learns to bear his joy or his sorrow with dignity, to transform them by means of grace into beauty.” Bravo. But on the very next page the sermon begins:

These are the truths mass-man must learn and cannot master:

There is no reason to life.….

There is no ideology in which we can believe….

We cannot act positively as the result of a voluntary decision….

I find it impossible to tell whether Zolla is listing these items as prescriptive cure, or whether he is sarcastically baiting mass-man into abandoning human qualities entirely. The reason for this obscurity is not only stylistic; there are other confusions loose. In several essays Zolla describes how the traditional ideal of farmer and warrior has been replaced in industrial culture by the figure of the gambler. The term is a poor one for the impassive victim of industrialized society. Zolla means that farmer and warrior have values as well as the resolve to defend them, whereas the mass-man gambler lives only by fatalism and boredom.

But there is a serious distortion here of Baudelaire, the chief source of these ideas. Baudelaire’s concept of the modern incorporates chance precisely as a means of protection against the devouring forces of social regimentation. When Zolla writes, “It is impossible for the gambler to savor and enjoy something, to pay attention to it,” he has misread Baudelaire, who is neither a pastoral nor a warlike poet, and he has confused the passiveness of the mass-man with the canniness of the gambler But there are many perils in reasoning thus by extended metaphor.

In spite of a tendency to relish his own rhetoric, Zolla frequently writes with power and is blessed with a competent translator. The last three or four essays on manners, on the novel, and on prayer, reach a deep sibylline note. But The Eclipse of the Intellectual finally seems more plaintive than convincing. I hear a man resolutely defending an intellectual position that he knows he will not be able to hold long in the face of forces to which he, more than most, is sensitive.

The approach Frank Kermode makes to the modern stays close to literature and avoids all appeal to doomsday thinking. Romantic Image, his first work, put forward a significant problem about modern literature: why is the artist, who conquers time by perceiving a radiant truth in an image, so commonly an isolated or alienated figure? Kermode disclosed no satisfactory answer, but gave us some fine sections about the unifying figure of the dancer and the critical concept borrowed by Eliot from Gourmont: the dissociation of sensibility. After a study of Wallace Stevens and an edition of Milton, The Sense of an Ending dealt in a somewhat disorganized way with the artificial arrangement of fictional time into moments of crisis, into beginning and end (tick-tock), and with the inappropriateness of applying such shapes to history. Rejecting crisis theories of recent cultural history, Kermode discriminates two modernisms, one of continuity with the past and one of schism.

Continuities, his new collection of reviews, takes its title from those earlier thoughts about modernisms and develops them with a good deal of repetition. Kermode has a widely informed mind and a number of recurrent ideas. Time and its multiple forms preoccupy him most, above all the ways in which the flux is manipulated into narrative forms and we try to carve history out of it without surrendering to eschatology. Several times he borrows from Simone Weil the concept of “decreation” to denote the major secret of modern art. It refers to a reversion from created forms to decreated (not destroyed) reality, from which presumably new forms will rise again. Yet the insight dies for want of development. He favors contemplation over methodical analysis. Despite the very English qualities of his writing, his curiosity or his natural inclination leads him frequently toward a “native American quality.” He discerns it in Stevens, in Hemingway, and in Edmund Wilson, whom he admires most among critics and reviewers.

Kermode starts out to locate two different modernisms: primary, older, or paleo-modernism which reacted to and remade the nineteenth-century tradition in the arts; and secondary, recent, neo-modernism, which breaks entirely with tradition and with communication. The dates remain fuzzy. Paleo-mod seems to have its roots back in 1880 and to begin in earnest around 1907; it includes such stalwarts as Yeats and Eliot, Pound and Proust. Neo-mod starts with Apollinaire and Dada, and hasn’t stopped yet. A few intransigents like Eliot and Duchamp fall easily into place. But not Joyce, not Breton, not even Gertrude Stein.

Kermode knows his terrain intimately and moves with great ease among the natural landmarks and obstacles. But he does not convey the sense of having a working theory either of continuity (through opposition? through incremental changes?) or of discontinuity. In the end I do not find this classification of modernisms very helpful either chronologically or formally.

Yet Kermode can be very good. I would not try to improve on his statement of how even the most obstreperous and independent movements are parasitic on what they reject.

…nihilism is meaningless without an assumption of the plenitude of the past. Thus neo-modernists tend to make the mistake they often scold other people for, which is to attribute too much importance to the art of the period between the Renaissance and Modernism. By constantly alluding to this as a norm they despise, they are stealthy classicists…

Kermode resists the modes of neomodernism, including aleatory art, happenings, found art, and spontaneous prose. He even suggests—thus flying in the face of his own rantings against eschatology—that the modern period may be almost over.

After the opening section on modernisms, Kermode assembles four reviews under the heading “Types and Times,” five under “Poets.” His discussions of Fitzgerald and of Dowson are admirable. Next come thirteen novelists, unavoidably all in a row. He is best on Lawrence, Hemingway, and Colette. There are four curious pages on Nabokov which suggest that Pale Fire may not be the greatest novel of the decade but that it remains respectable as a kind of elaborate hoax. In Beckett he accepts the allegorist and the fantast, while rejecting the horror, the hands groping from the poubelle.

For Kermode, Continuities is a book along the way. Often, in the restricted compass of these reviews, he conveys the sense of a recent past already frozen into place, cast in a pattern so clear that we are transfixed by it, and of a more distant past open to reinterpretation. Little wonder then that the last text on Goethe and Auerbach has the most to say about style and its public, about love and the sublime. But why is it so hard to “raise the question of where historiography ends and apocalyptic begins” in relation to our culture, which we should know best? One of the answers lies in the relation between imagination and alienation which Kermode himself began to examine in Romantic Image. But he has not pursued it here. In spite of his admiration for Edmund Wilson’s freelance strategy (i.e., accept only reviews that interest you; write them in such a way as to be able to collect them in a volume), reviewing may have led him too merry a chase.

The attraction of Histoire de l’avantgarde en peinture is that it sets out to rewrite the history of painting—at least since the Renaissance—in the light of a modern concept. Germain Bazin (for many years Curator of Paintings at the Louvre) has serious reservations about the value and even the existence of the avant-garde today. As he sees things, audacity has fallen into conformity, and painters have become social entertainers. He also affirms—quite wrongly I should say—that the latest out-croppings of art have eliminated “subject, expression, and idea.” But this is not his principal concern. The avantgarde that he has chosen to read back into history consists in the occurrence of “precocious predecessors.” In a short introduction he carefully separates his concept of avant-garde from any connotation of isolation or alienation from society such as Poggioli and Kermode place at the center of their interpretations. Pure innovation is his announced subject, and of course he treats it from a historical point of view: originality not for us but for the artist’s contemporaries. Raphael and Correggio come out as avant-garde painters; not so Titian and Gauguin.

I am not competent to judge the full range of Bazin’s treatment of art history, especially where he enters highly disputed contests like the ones about the attribution of paintings at Pompey or the nature of Mannerism. But several remarks will be pertinent here. Bazin fails to make explicit his concept of innovation, nor does it emerge sufficiently from his account of the evolution of styles. There are only fleeting references to the key institution of mécénat (patronage) and its slow yielding to commercial sale. In part because we lack the necessary documents, Bazin does not discuss the question of the intention of newness, the artist’s will to innovate in the face of current trends. Quite properly Kirby stresses this attitude as essential to the meaning of avant-garde. The slackness of Bazin’s thinking at certain points leads him down the garden path. “From Polygnotus to the Master of Salonika, in ten centuries, antique painting traveled along the same path that in Western art was later to lead from Giotto to Impressionism.”

Many histories have implied as much, but I find it a mistake to accept this version of things precisely in the context of developing a meaning for the word avant-garde. Bazin locates the beginning of the latest stage of avant-garde not before but after Impressionism. However the very elegance of his formulations sometimes makes them suspect. “Contemporary art springs, essentially, from a strong urge for rebellion resulting from the creative individual’s acute awareness of his alienation from his environment.” The systematic incomprehension of the nineteenth-century audience provoked this crisis, and he adds, “…the impressionists succeeded in postponing it only by seeking to establish with nature the communication refused them by their fellow men.” Communication is a weasel word here and detracts from the justness of his observation.

Bazin writes with remarkable perceptiveness of Giotto, of the brothers Van Eyck, of Dürer, of Delacroix, of Goya. I find him insensitive only on Franz Hals, whom he considers shallow. Anyone who has seen the pair of portraits in the Cologne museum could never accept that view. For at least half its length Bazin’s supple text carries the weight of the beautifully illustrated format. However, what starts as the story of innovative genius supplanting traditional craftsmanship begins to flatten out after Dürer and Breugel into simply another narrative history of art. The book is not finally tendentious enough. Too soon one loses one’s way toward the promised land: a new canon of art, a new set of features to look for and discern as we wander through the galleries of the world. At the end Bazin is complaining about contemporary art as a form of “mountaineering on the high and icy peaks of the human spirit.”

The skillfully translated Anglo-American edition of this book contains an added chapter on contemporary painting called “Beyond the Avant-Garde.” I suspect that someone was exacting enough to prod the author into making good on his sweeping title. With a mixture of animus and perceptiveness, Bazin criticizes what he sees as a new orthodoxy of originality and the danger of a revived “illustrative process” enslaving itself to science or mass media or the irrational. Many of his observations are tonic, but neither Bazin’s style nor his scholarship seems fully at home in this coda. He affirms, for example, that in their early cubist period “Picasso and Braque were doubtless unaware of the new physics.” Yet it was precisely during the Bateau-Lavoir years that they talked enthusiastically about relativity (not that they understood it!) with the mathematician Princet. Apollinaire’s references to the fourth dimension in his early writings on those two painters do not represent pure lyrical effusion. The illustrations are superb in this new section as throughout. It makes a handsome book, ultimately disappointing because it does not meet the challenge it sets itself.

Guillermo de Torre was a sometime participant in the international activities of Dada after the First World War and played a considerable role as editor and critic in Spanish Ultraismo during the Twenties and Thirties. In 1925 he published a semi-polemical work, Literaturas europeas de vanguardia, in defense of modernism. Forty years later his files are running over. The 900-page illustrated volume he published in Madrid in 1965 reprints the prologue to the “first edition” following a fifty-page introduction on the origins and meaning of the avant-garde. He divides the rest of the book into fourteen sections as follows (the approximate number of pages is shown in parenthesis): Futurism (90), Expressionism (40), Cubism (80), Dada (40), Surrealism (100), Imagism (40), Ultraism (100), Personalism (40), Existentialism (80), Lettrism and Concretism (30), Neorealism (20), “Iracundismo” (Angry-Young-Manism) and Freneticism (25), Objectivism (i.e., le nouveau roman) (50), and Epilogue and New Isms (40).

Considering the richness of the archive that fed it, this should be a useful book. De Torre has read widely in at least five languages. He has been persevering in hunting down sources and seems to have no particular axe to grind except to get the facts straight. We have here something approaching a one-man encyclopedia. The chapters on Italian Futurism and on Spanish Ultraism give a useful picture of two contrasting movements, both nationalistic, but one megalomaniac in its ambitions to overwhelm all aspects of culture, the other oriented toward lyric poetry. Why worry about the minor inaccuracies or the pages that cover the ground by merely listing names and titles?

But what, after all, are the “facts” about this subject? Russian Futurism gets seven pages; German Dada, three; Vorticism, two; Russian Formalism and Imagism, zero. Yet we are confronted by eighty pages on cubism—literary cubism—which lump Apollinaire and Max Jacob together with Ivan Goll and Pierre Drieu de la Rochelle. Before World War I there was an eddy in the stream of French poetry to which the name cubist might be given by analogy with the painters who hovered close by. But not a “literary generation of cubism,” and not between 1917 and 1920 as dated here. The book belies its purpose by trying to be comprehensive, to fit every new development into a container called avant-garde. We end up with another survey of modern literature, as Bazin gives us another history of art. The focus has gone.

I trace the difficulty back to De Torre’s prologue to the 1921 edition where, inevitably, he quotes Ortega. “Each generation has its own vocation, its historical mission.” El aire del tiempo keeps preempting the discussion. There can be no denying the reciprocal action of environment and individual talent in a historical process of endless complexity. But De Torre leaves one with a sense of a mechanical sequence of movements and generations, and states that there is little difference between the two. The final chapter refers to events occurring “against a historical backdrop in which the principal actor would seem to be the Zeitgeist.”

In a book that tries to identify and reflect upon a forward movement in the arts of the West, De Torre relies upon a confusing theory that verges on cultural determinism. All things will occur in their season, according to the biological succession of generations (why is this idea so intellectually convincing for Spanish critics?) or according to the spirit of the age in which we live. We have not strayed very far, then, from Poggioli’s natural law. Some people may find comfort in a vision that locates the agency of change outside the individual participants. That way we are protected from harm by the steadiness of the very historical processes that float us from generation to generation, from movement to movement. The critic merely fills in the chronology. But it won’t do.

In his last chapter De Torre comments on most of the critics who wrote about the avant-garde in the Fifties and early Sixties—though he omits Harold Rosenberg’s book, The Tradition of the New. He suggests the possibility that “the roles have been switched” and that many of the latest “isms” have been produced not by authors but by the demands of an insatiable public. The idea goes abegging, however, for it comes too late to help organize the materials. In the same section De Torre allows himself a paragraph in which to criticize Poggioli for relying on an idea so outdated as social alienation at a time when the cultured public is no longer a socio-economic class. He has a point. But it will take more than this to set aside Poggioli’s book, whose theory, despite its weaknesses, has far more scope and depth than De Torre’s.

Each of these six books seeks in its own fashion to map the terrain that our culture has recently traversed, a landscape we seem to have hurtled through so fast that we are unable to keep its principal features in mind. However I can report about these books, and about a dozen more on which they build, that a consensus has formed about the basic matter of chronology. Whatever their reach into the past, most authors agree that something significant for the direction of the arts came about in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. That phenomenon, whatever it is, found its second wind with the First World War—some say just before, some say during. The second interlude came to a close in 1939; we are now living on afterglow. The term modernism, though still widely used to refer to these developments, has lost its savor.

A fine essay entitled “The Concept of the Avant-Garde” by John Weight-man in Encounter (July, 1969) picks up where Poggioli stops. Weight-man points out the fallacy of confusing unreason with imagination and suggests that culture “is surely bound to be this endless dialogue between imagination and reason.” His final remarks introduce the evolution of human nature as a working hypothesis. We can never stray very far, it seems, from the idea of progress, its promises and disappointments. Weightman is still primarily concerned with time and what Poggioli called “the idea of transition.” But before we understand the avant-garde, we shall need several more pieces and a vision of the whole.

Above all, as I have already complained, no one seems to have developed a working hypothesis about originality. Until we know better what we are referring to when we speak of originality and innovation, it will be difficult to talk coherently about evolution in the arts. Kirby alone tries out a clumsy scheme based on “substracting” all previous works of art from a new work. But the operations needed here are more subtle than those of arithmetic. Poggioli provides a starting point for such an investigation when he remarks in his first chapter on “the customary confusion between the history of taste and the history of art.”

The inability to distinguish between these two disciplines is exactly what impedes us from realizing how novelty in an artistic accomplishment is something quite different from novelty in the artist’s attitude vis-à-vis his own work, and vis-à-vis the aesthetic task imposed upon him by his own era.

I believe there are in fact three disciplines. We have to deal with works of art and their history; with the history of public taste, including the evolving demands made by the public on the artist; and with the history of artists’ attitudes toward previous works of art, toward public taste, and toward their own work and behavior as artists. In spite of heresies and fallacies created to discredit it, this last item cannot be cast aside because it comes under the rubric of “intention.”

Intention denotes the fundamental relation between the artist and his work or performance, and intentions have changed as significantly as tastes and styles. Certain works of modern art—objets trouvés for example—can scarcely qualify as “works,” manifest pure intention, and attain value in proportion to their impact on public taste. We need all three elements in order to define originality. In effect this means enlarging the domain of esthetics beyond traditional art to include many aspects of life itself, including work and leisure, love and violence, and habit. One does not tamper lightly with the very definition of art. The avant-garde needs and deserves the most rigorous critical scrutiny in this regard. That scrutiny may bring us closer to answers to the impossible questions that muscled into my opening paragraphs about the cultural revolution and its identification, friend or foe.


Empathy & Dance May 7, 1970

  1. *

    Gerald Fitzgerald’s translation is for the most part correct and literate. However, “snobbism” still isn’t English. “Imagery without strings” for imagerie sans fils is no improvement on the usual version, “wireless imagination.” The chapter title, “Avant-Garde Criticism” should read, “Criticism of the Avant-Garde.” The translation of Chapter Six that appeared in The Graduate Journal two years ago stands several cuts above the present version.