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Gene Ray

“Avant-Gardes as Anti-Capitalist Vector”


The artistic avant-gardes of the early twentieth century (Berlin dada, Russian constructivists and suprematists, early surrealists) were deeply involved in the revolutionary movements and events of their day. Since then, the status of the category “avant-garde” has been linked to the fate of revolution. Whenever revolution has seemed possible, the question of radical art has also appeared urgent. (The Situationist International would be exemplary for the 1960s.) Whenever revolution has suffered defeat or has begun to appear unthinkable, however, the artistic avant-gardes have also receded. Today the question of capitalism is back on the table – and with it, again, comes the question of revolution. Does this situation also revive the category “avant-garde” – as the locus of unresolved problems still linked to the inherited blockages of revolutionary theory and practice? Does the category still have relevance for contemporary social movements and critical cultural practices?

Art is a social institution that has always functioned according to a system of rules and conventions. At the core of the capitalist art system is an ideology and a set of unwritten but non-negotiable rules that can be called the “bourgeois paradigm of art.” The ideology operates by locating the values of genius, originality and authenticity in the person of the artist-creator, whose works as a result have cultural value that a market readily converts to cultural capital and exchange value. The most important and perhaps in the end the only non-negotiable rule of art is expressed in the notion of “artistic autonomy.” In this context, autonomy means that art is different from life and that this categorical difference will be enforced by the art institutions (art schools, market, critical apparatus, etc.). In some ways, artists have more freedom than do people in “everyday life.” But this freedom can be exercised only so long as it is clearly marked as “art” and is not confused with “life.” The result is an institutionally enforced powerlessness and political neutralization. The early artistic avant-gardes – above all dada and most politically Berlin dada – first brought this paradigm into view by “testing” bourgeois art’s conventions and eventually its rule of autonomy. In the decades that followed, critical theorists including Benjamin, Marcuse and Adorno elaborated the bourgeois paradigm of art and its affirmative, stabilizing and compensatory social functions. Building on this critique of artistic autonomy, Peter Bürger theorized the avant-garde “attempt to integrate art into the praxis of life.” Bürger concluded that this attempt amounted to merely a “false sublation” (falschen Aufhebung) of art into life and that the historical avant-gardes had therefore failed in their aim of abolishing the social institution of bourgeois art.

This conclusion is certainly consistent with the cultural pessimism of Frankfurt School critical theory. But can avant-garde practices in support of radical social movements and their activities in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary situations really be dismissed so summarily as a “false sublation”? This judgment implies that avant-garde practices and interventions had no effects beyond the institutionally enforced borders of art – a conclusion that is at the very least problematic and highly questionable. For a counter-example, we would only need to look at the role of the Situationist International before and in the events of May 1968 in France.

A more action-oriented theorization would grasp the avant-gardes as an always-renewable vector that breaks with bourgeois art and its affirmative social functions under capitalism. Instead of reaffirming artistic autonomy as an inescapable structure of art in the manner of the Frankfurt School, it would be more clarifying and helpful to think about the relations between artistic autonomy and the “generalizable autonomy” that is the aim of anti-capitalist revolution. Doing so would enable us to trace the avant-gardes as a vector of rupture and breakout that redirects the energies, impulses and competencies of art into politicized experiments in collective autonomy and cooperative agency. Today this vector can be seen in the practices of tactical media (Yes Men, Critical Art Ensemble, ®TMark, Yomango, among many other groups). Looking ahead, we can expect that where such experiments come into contact with social movements in struggle, new forms of radical culture – cosmopolitical and anti-capitalist – will begin to emerge.

I will be presenting parts of this argument at the Transforma conference. The argument is developed more fully (and with citations) in a longer paper of the same title. Anyone wishing a copy of the longer paper can contact me at: gray@fastmail.fm