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What is an Avant Garde - NLH Autumn 2010

What is an Avant Garde - NLH Autumn 2010

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Published by Tran Ngoc Hieu

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Published by: Tran Ngoc Hieu on May 14, 2011
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Access Provided by University Of Texas-San Antonio at 04/22/11 3:28PM GMT
New Literary History,
2010, 41: v–xv
 Jonathan P. Eburne and Rita Felski
hat is an avant-garde?
In posing such a question, this is-sue o 
New Literary History 
seeks to reexamine a category that oten seems all too sel-evident. Our aim is not to draw up aresh list o defnitions, specifcations, and prescriptions but to explorethe conditions and repercussions o the question itsel. In the spirit o analogously titled queries—rom Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” toFoucault’s “What is an Author?”—we hope to spur reection not onlyon a particular object o study but also on the rameworks and criticalaculties that we bring to bear on it. As Paul Mann notes, every criticaltext on the avant-garde, whether tacitly or overtly, “has a stake in theavant-garde, in its orce or destruction, in its survival or death (or both).”
  A reassessment o these stakes is one o the priorities o this special issue.Narratives o the avant-garde abound. Whether they come to burythe avant-garde or to praise it, these narratives are typically organizedaround moments o shock, rupture, and youthul revolt that speak tocertain belies about the unctions o experimental art and the natureo historical change. In his 1968
Theory of the Avant-Garde 
, or instance,Renato Poggioli describes two major phases in the development o the avant-garde. The frst stage is anchored in the letist politics o the1840s and the 1870s, where the notion o an advanced guard serves toauthorize the political agitations and underground activities that helpedtrigger the revolutionary events o 1848 and the Paris Commune. In thelate nineteenth and early twentieth century, the mantle o the avant-garde is transerred rom politics to aesthetics, as maniested in thenew stridency and shock value claimed by art and the sel-consciously vanguardist ethos o such movements as Dada, uturism, surrealism, andconstructivism. For Poggioli, however, such aesthetic appropriations o the insurrectionary energies o political vanguardism remained largelymetaphorical and risked bad aith in exaggerating the circumscribedeects o artistic innovation and intervention.
This narrative has been widely adopted and adapted in the our de-cades since its publication, and its insistence on the historical priority o a strictly political—and letist—incarnation o the avant-garde remainsinuential. From Poggioli’s vantage point in 1968, the meaning o past 
new literary history
 viavant-gardes reected the urgency o contemporary concerns: to what extent could the history o avant-gardes and their oscillation betweenpolitical and aesthetic goals shed light on the utopian ambitions o theNew Let? In our own moment, we may be struck by the act that thisnarrative o stages—the “political” moment o the 1840s and 1870s, the“aesthetic” moment o the 1920s, and the “theoretical” moment o the1960s—persists in imputing a single, overriding agency and intention toavant-garde activity, in spite o the historical dierences it acknowledges.Such a narrative tends, in short, to measure the successes o avant-gardeactivity—and above all, its ailures—against a singular criterion o revo-lutionary political transormation.The meanings and consequences o avant-gardes, however, cannot bededuced rom the metaphorical resonance o the term itsel. Indeed,the militarist aggression and orward movement implicit in the idea o the avant-garde have been questioned almost as requently as they havebeen heeded; the amplitude o radical artistic and political practicesconstitutes a multiaceted history o such renegotiations. And whetherthe avant-garde represents a discrete moment or series o moments inthe intellectual history o modernity or a more diuse aesthetic or politi-cal ethos, its currency resides as much in the history o grappling withits valences as in the diverse works and movements collected under itsname. This special issue proposes, then, that the question “what is anavant-garde?” remains a productive site or methodological and historicalinvention, and not merely a monument to the glorious past o radical art.For the past ew decades, the study o the avant-garde has persistentlycircled around the question o its death. The parameters or such claims were largely set by Peter Bürger’s obituary to radical art, published aew years ater Poggioli’s study in 1974 and translated into English in1984. In his
Theory of the Avant-Garde 
, Bürger pays tribute to the historicalavant-garde’s challenge to the autonomy o art, while underscoring thelessons o its ailure. For Bürger, the enshrining o the ready-made in themuseum delivers the lesson that it is the institution, rather than a work’sintrinsic qualities, that defnes what counts as art. This lesson constitutesboth the success o the avant-garde—in denaturalizing artistic geniusas the source o aesthetic value—and its inevitable limit. The ease with which the museum incorporates and subsumes all artistic challenges toits authority testifes to the utility o attempts to overcome the unctionalseparation o art and lie by eliminating the mediating presence o socialinstitutions. The heroic hopes o the historical avant-garde survive onlyas an object o present-day nostalgia or melancholy. Meanwhile, theever more calculated provocations o contemporary artists—testiyingto the seemingly limitless selling power o shock—merely underscorethe inauthenticity o their insurrectionary postures.

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