The question of the failure of the avant-garde is a perennial topic in surveys of progressive art practice. As a practice that sets its task as dismantling mainstream dominant ideology, it claims a nearly impossible position. Once it has been subsumed into cultural institutions of the museum, criticism and art historical accounts, the earlier radical content seems nullified. Without this institutional framing, its content remains unknown to all but the elect. This paradox provides a useful way of gauging not just the advance and demise of the avant-garde but also its larger context.
Because the avant-garde is ever on the hunt to topple dominant ideologies, its demise is inherent in its creation. In this arrangement their can be no ruling power but a continual succession of revolution. This ever dying, ever to-be-born status of the avant-garde is implicit in capitalist culture as described by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto as “uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation.” In this reading the avant-garde is a commodity that in a capitalist arrangement needs continual renewal to remain viable to the art consumer on the lookout for the latest new thing.
While toppling capitalist assumptions is a common goal of the avant-garde one might ask if this continual demise and renewal of the culture industry is entirely negative. If no dominant avant-garde is allowed there can be no grand narrative. So this continual failure allows for the greater project of disallowing meta-narratives from holding sway over emerging viewpoints. These smaller narratives act to destabalize an over-arching power and resist domination. This is pre-requisite to allowing the diversity of viewpoints that characterize a pluralistic society. This selection of artworks from 1957-1981 charts the progression of the avant-garde in terms of ways these works have accepted, resisted, integrated and finally perhaps transcended failure.
Guy Debord, Guide Psychogeographique de Paris: Discours Sur Les Passions D’Amour, 1957
This map represents Guy Debord’s use of dérive, a playful strategy that disrupts daily life events, like walking, and allows a person to be drawn by the spontaneous attractions and contours of the city. This emphasis on the dérive by Debord is evidence of his interest in prohibiting “art” altogether, prioritizing social change. This enforcement of art practice as intervening and organizing dissent marks the Situationist International’s key role in the avant-garde, claiming a direct link to the events in Paris in May 1968. While these events had real impact Debord’s writing privileges failure as a necessary catalyst to success. In speaking of the Paris Commune of 1871 Debord writes, “The apparent successes of this movement are actually its fundamental failures…while its failures…are its most promising successes so far, for us and for the future.”
Positioned within the context of Fluxus, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, in which audience members were instructed to cut her clothing, might be seen as an example of avant-garde success. Fluxus managed until recently to largely escape reification through its obscurity. Further, George Maciunas, its major director and interpreter rejected the signification of Fluxus as avant-garde, preferring the perhaps equally problematic term, “rear-guard”. Despite such attempts to escape the fate of the avant-garde, the reception of Ono’s Cut Piece typifies the difficulty of escaping the cultural forces an avant-garde attempts to subvert. CBSnews.com’s headline on Ono’s 2003 reprisal of the 1964 piece, “Crowd Cuts Yoko Ono’s Clothing Off” is typical of the sensationalized reception of Ono’s work clearly missing its critical intent. In this way the culture industry incorporates and neutralizes even the most radical gestures.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside, 1973. Part of Maintenance art Performance Series, 1973-4. Performance at Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT.
If the avant-garde proposes to overturn oppressive systems of domination Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside presents a challenge. By taking on the gendered work of cleaning in the public sphere of the museum Ukeles personifies stereotyped women’s roles. In miming the sterotyped woman Ukeles rejects the avant-garde’s goal of direct political intervention, becoming instead a benign simulacrum. This demonstrates how the goals of the avant-garde have complicated since Guy Debord’s dérives. Ukeles relies on stereotypes to deliver the impact of her work rendering the piece at once both complicit and critical of the culture that enforces gendered roles. This is typical of the way Feminist projects in the 1970s disrupt the avant-garde emphasis on destablazing power. While dismantling the patriarchal power narrative is essential to Feminism, it becomes complicated where integrating narratives of oppression are essential to their displacement.
This Group Material show, The People’s Choice, represents a further complication of the avant-garde project of dismantling dominant powers. As this work shows, Group Material was interested in challenging the dominance of elite constructions of culture, as exemplified in curatorial choices of art world galleries. Rather than the typically avant-garde focus on disrupting culture, their emphasis was on creating culture from the location of oppression and allowing access to those outside the art world. The works comprising this exhibit were chosen as special objects and momentos by the people living in the community where Group Material’s gallery was located. By focusing action on disadvantaged communities, the question of dissolving ideas of artistic agency and culture becomes irrelevant. If culture has opened only recently to voices of the oppressed, giving up this new found agency in the charge of dismantling culture seems a cruel irony. Just like the culture surrounding these practices, notions of the avant-garde are unstable and subject to continual revolution.
Buchloh, Benjamin. Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000.
Debord, Guy. “Theory of the Derive.” 1959. The Situationist International Anthology. Ed. Ken Knabb. Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006. 62-66.
Debord, Guy. “Theses on the Paris Commune.” 1962. The Situationist International Anthology. Ed. Ken Knabb. Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006. 398-401.
Eagleton, Terry. “Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism.” Against the Grain. Norfolk: Thetford Press Limited. 1986. 131-147.
Fischer, Lothar et al. The Avant-garde is Undesirable. Jan. 1961. Situationist International Online. 1 Dec. 2009 <http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/undesirable.html>
Foster, Hal. “The Situationist Moment.” London Review of Books 12 Mar. 2009: 6.
Foster, Hal. “Forms of Resistance.” ArtForum International Jan. 2008: 272.
Foster, Hal. “What’s Neo about the Neo-Avant-Garde?”. October: 70 (1994): 5-32
Group Material. Interview. “80s Then-Group Material talks to Dan Cameron.” ArtForum International Apr. 2003: 19
Group Material, “Caution! Alternative Space.” Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art. Ed. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz. Berkley: University of California Press, 1996. 894-895.
Huyssen, Andreas. “Back to the Future: Fluxus in Context,” In the Spirit of Fluxus. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center. 1993.
Kantaris, Geoffrey. Avant-garde/ Modernism/ Postmodernism. M.Phil in European Literature: Fictions of Modernity. 1997. University of Cambridge. 1 Dec. 2009 <http://people.pwf.cam.ac.uk/egk10/notes/postmodernism.htm>
Laderman Ukeles, Mierle. “Maintenance Art Manifesto.” Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Ed. Charles Harris and Paul Wood. Blackwell, 2003. 917-919.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. Ed. David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Molesworth, Helen. “Cleaning Up in the 1970s: The Work of Judy Chicago, May Kelly and Mierle Laderman Ukeles,” in Rewriting Conceptual Art. Ed. Michael Newman and Jon Bird. London: Reaktion, 1999. 107-122.