The Theory of the Avant-Garde
The Art of Time: Essays on the Avant-Garde
The Eclipse of the Intellectual
Histoire de l'avant-garde en peinture
The Avant-Garde in Painting
Historia de las literaturas de vanguardia
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.