Monday, 19 March 2012

Umberto Eco on avant-gardism

"Though it is commonly believed that avant-garde artists are out of touch with the human community in which they live, and that traditional art remains in close contact with it, the opposite is true. In fact, only avant-garde artists are capable of establishing a meaningful relationship with the world in which they live.[9]"

-- Umberto Eco, 'Form as Social Commitment', p.142, The Open Work, trans. Anna Cancogni (published in Italian in 1962).

Note to page 142:

"9. Actually, the problem is much more complex than it might appear from the generalization I have resorted to here for the sake of theoretical convenience, in order to isolate a particular discourse. What I have defined above--with the exaxmple of Schonberg, an artist who finds himself at the very beginning of a new muscial evolution, at a crucial juncture, and whose validity and good faith are absolutely unimpeachable--is a "model" avant-garde act, the Ur-avant-garde (in which Ur- indicates not just a chronological order but also a logical one). In other words, my argument would be quite simple and indisputable if, in the course of cultural evolution, there had been only one instance of the avant-garde. But, in fact, contemporary culture is a "culture of avant-gardes." How can we explain such a situation? We can no longer make a clear distinction between a rejected tradition and an avant-garde that proposes a new order, because every avant-garde is the negation of a previous avant-garde, which, however, given its relative contemporaneity, cannot yet be considered as a tradition in relation to the avant-garde that is negating it. Hence, the suspicion that a valid act of Ur-avant-garde may often be the stimulus for an avant-garde manner, and that, today, "to be avant-garde" may well be the only way of belonging to a tradition. This situation is often seen as the neocapitalist conversion of artistic rebellion. In other words, the artist is a rebel because the market wants him to be one. Therefore, his rebellion has no real value, since it is only a convention. But on close inspection, it is not difficult to realize that what we are again confronting here, in this "denunciation," is the natural dialectic between invention and manner which has always existed in the history of art. Every time an artist invents a new form that involves a profound change in the vision of the world, he is immediately imitated by a legion of pseudo-artists who borrow the form of his art without, however, understanding its implications. It is precisely because of the inevitability of such a phenomenon, and of its frequency in a civilization such as ours (where things are used up so rapidly and change is so sudden that no novelty is ever new for long) that it is particularly important that every avant-garde action be immediately negated by a newer invention and thus prevented from becoming manner. The combination of these two dialectics produces a constant alternation between apparent innovations, mere mannerist variations on a theme, and real innovations, the negations of these variations. Thus, forms that have been negated by a number of successive avant-gardes often retain a power that the newer ones do not have.

"On the other hand, we should also note that if avant-garde methods are often the swiftest and most direct way of confronting and dismantling a declining artistic situation, they are not the only way. Another exists within the very order that is being negated: parody, the ironic imitation of such an order (Stravinsky's alternative to Schonberg). In other words, a worn out, alienating form of expression can be negated in one of two ways: one can dismantle the modes of communication on which it is based, or one can exorcise them via parody. Parody and irony can thus be seen as viable, subtler alternatives to the more common, revolutionary ardor of the avant-garde. There is also a very dangerous, but plausible, third possibility: one can adopt the communicative forms of a particular system in order to question and challenge that very system--critically use mass media to raise the consciousness on the part of the audience which would only feel negatively provoked by the more destructive and less accessible acts of the avant-garde."


The Editors said...


I've been thinking about this a little of late, in particular, the notion of avant tradition, which would seem to be an oxymoron, but it's not, really. A great deal of archival work has been done by, for example, Robert Sheppard on the British Poetry Revival that tries to place its activities within an historical and social framework: that is, to provide it with a tradition and, at the same time and as a necessary extension of this, to creatve a future for that same tradition. Another point: if the prevailing trend within an artistic community is experimental in character, is it possible for an avant garde to take a reactive, conservative position? Or, to put it in another (more controversial) way: "If we accept that Modernist critical and creative praxis (or some variation thereof) were the dominant, normative modes of composition and reception in the 1930s and 40s, is is possible to see the Movement's reaction to it as representing the true avant garde impetus in post-war British literature? Discuss."

I love playing devil's advocate.

Simon @ G&P

The Editors said...

Hullo Simon,

I've been thinking about this more - apologies for slow reply.

In terms of a 'tradition', I think that would refer to the mechanics of how avantism proceeds. Post-avant, therefore, implies a change in the mechanics of resistance - necessary, perhaps, when neocapitalism has absorbed the innovations not just of product, but of processes also.

The moment Don-CarolAnn-Armitage-O'Copes start using Oulipian processes, or whatever crass mannerisms they decide to snidely plunder from innovators, then the avant has to move on.

As to avants taking a 'conservative position' - are you an idiot? Have you any idea what you're saying? Avants are tuned into the now - so if a stance from 100 years ago is employed, which was /at the time/ conservative, the avant would only be employing it as a critique of the current logic system.

Your closing statement - I could take it to a full post, but hey-ho, I'll be brief - relies on the bugbear-invented notion that Modernist praxis was a 'dominant' mode in the 1940s. Which it wasn't. Circulation and curriculum presence didn't take over until the 1970s at least, when Eliot popped his clogs and celebritised certain portions of modernism.

Otherwise you'd be saying Larkin was writing against Situationism, which is absurd.

St. Michael to your devil's advocate,

George @ G&P