Moving the Avant-Gardes

Studies of the historical avant-garde in the past have focused on the theoretical impact of their experimentation in the twentieth century transition from modernism to postmodernism. At the conference "Movements of the Avant-Garde" held at Stanford University in May 1997, the participants were asked to consider the concept of movement both as artistic group and as the physical transport of bodies through space, in order to see what ruptures this might cause in the smooth fabric of theories of modernism. Following the geographical movements of the avant-garde, artists found rich, yet troubled, encounters between Europe and the Americas, East and West, an imagined modern and its designated primitive. Often, the link between the theories and the travels of the avant-garde was located in the heretofore overlooked realm of the political.

This issue contributes new questions to contemporary scholarship on the avant-garde. Can a unitary concept of the avant-garde be created—one that could embrace different disciplines, places, and times? Why do we need such a theory? As these papers demonstrate, the implementation of new media and poetic forms by the avant-garde leads almost inevitably to inter-disciplinary work. What does this imply about the nature of the relationship between these movements and the university disciplines which study them?

Wladimir Krysinski offers a panoptic vision of the state of avant-garde theories today in "Theorizing the Avant-Garde in the European Context: The Local, the Global, the Universal." Krysinski documents changing theoretical formulations of the avant-garde from group manifesto movements to more individual-centered works, and asks how to write a new theory of the avant-garde that would encompass the center and periphery, local and global. As Krysinski points out, this would be a heady task since the avant-garde is a "moving theoretical and critical target." Nonetheless in this essay he attempts to outline a new theory that embraces the local, global and universal by recognizing that through their differences they "attain a common global dimension of polemicity, projectuality, overcoming and going beyond the stereotypes of any obedience." Krysinski seems to imply that what these movements share at base is the resistance to discipline.

Local and global politics
Houston Baker's article immediately places the reconsideration of theories of the avant-garde into the political realm. Examining the African-American literary canon, Baker relocates the historical center of black modernism in Richard Wright's narrative of his lived experience in the US South, rather than in Ralph Ellison's passing acquaintance with the region from the perspective of a northerner. Baker argues that the canonization of Ralph Ellison as black modernist par excellence has in fact been based upon his complete remove from the nascent global artistic and political black community of the period. Ellison's disavowal of this movement is actually anti-modern, or more precisely, a circumscribed, apolitical version of white modernity which does not include the pre-Civil Rights black intellectual community. Baker shows that, in contrast to Ellison's Invisible Man, "Modernity, for Wright therefore—a Wright whose politics are completely alien to Ellison's philosophizing hibernation—is non–folk, industrial, and interracially proletarian." Baker characterizes the movements of the international avant-garde as simultaneously local and global, and as always already inscribed in the model of political movements.

Figuring the artist
Thinking of "movement" as the travels of avant-garde artists led a number of the contributors to this volume to consider how the figure of the artist was reconfigured in this period. Thus despite this shared investigation into movements, several of the articles examine how artistic movement became condensed into one, very public figure. The configuration of the modernist artist was achieved, it appears, through the use of a variety of new media in avant-garde art practices, from newspapers and journals to urinals in museums.

In "Futurism, Fascism and Mass-Media: The Case of Marinetti's 1926 Trip to Buenos Aires," Sylvia Saítta traces the media blitz occurring before and during Filippo Marinetti's visit to Buenos Aires. She points out that local newspapers created a marketing event of Marinetti's visit drawing attention to futurism—a movement that the Argentinean avant-garde thought was dead. Marinetti's visit polarized various debates already brewing in Argentina, and allowed the papers to bring such topics as fascism and the avant-garde to the forefront. Saítta calls into question the relationship between mass-media and the avant-garde, once thought of as antagonistic. She states: "While Renato Poggioli pointed out that it is precisely the triumph of the popular commercial press that calls forth and justifies the existence of the avant-garde review as a reaction 'as natural as it is necessary, against the vulgarity and vulgarization of culture,' the Argentinean avant-garde used the mass-circulation press in an attempt to reach audiences that were inaccessible by other means." She points out that, although it was a foreign artist who placed the national avant-garde in the limelight, it was the Argentinean avant-garde itself that created the figure of Marinetti through the new technologies of mass-media.

Marjorie Perloff finds the concept of the avant-garde movement inaccurate in describing Duchamp's relationship to Dada. Perloff counters traditional scholarship on his participation in a Dada "bund-identity" with Duchamp's own comments about the individuality of his artistic process, as well as with interpretation of the works themselves. Perloff finds that: "Dada… will continue to need Duchamp, but the time is coming when Duchamp will no longer need Dada… After some thirty years of Foucaultian author-functions, however, we may now be witnessing the artist's revenge." Unlike other Dada artists, Duchamp was never anti-art, nor simply a repeated set of negations, but rather stood against "retinal art" in favor of conceptualist art. Citing a number of references to a history of art in his first readymades, Perloff sees Duchamp composing a surprisingly traditional role of the artist as medium for the production of a transcendent object. This vocabulary, certainly not commonly used to describe Duchamp or Dada art, reorganizes the relationship between artist and movement, and suggests a new trajectory for modern and postmodern art criticism.

As an extreme of the concretization of artistic movement in one artist-figure, in "Fernando Pessoa's Mothering of the Avant-Garde" António Feijó challenges literary history's focus on the journal Orpheu as the vehicle for Portugal's avant-garde movement. He states that Portugal may be the only country with an avant-garde movement of one—Pessoa. As Feijó points out, "the only avant-garde movement in Portugal in this century lies in Pessoa's heteronyms" and that "Pessoa's intended deployment of such figures is a function of influence." In a reversal of the trend which narrows a movement into a single, representative member, Pessoa splits himself into many by "mothering" his five heteronyms. Feijó finds the model for the heteronyms in Hegel's description of sculpture in the Lectures on Aesthetics, as glossed in Walter Pater's essay on Winckelmann.

Through a close reading of Mina Loy's poetry, Susan Dunn shows how the woman poet functions as a critical intervention into the field of avant-garde studies. Dunn follows the movement of a modernist flaneuse, who maps a new geography of the artistic movement as she wanders from the new commercial space of the department store, to the less-seen underside of New York's Lower East Side garment district. Via this new poetic figure, fashion becomes a means for opening up the contradictions of the modern city—it signifies beauty and repulsion, the broad avenues and the gutter. Specifically inscribed on women's bodies, Dunn shows fashion to be a reformulation of Duchamp's concept of the readymade as the product of mass production. In Loy's poetic "travesties," the feminized flaneur is sometimes the image of a phenomenally efficient and sleek modernity, and sometimes an impoverished street-walker.

In "On an Airfield in Montichiari, Near Brescia…," Pierpaolo Antonello traces the rivalry between Marinetti and Gabriele D'Annuzio, and vividly reconstructs the events that centered on these two artists' involvement with futurism during a period that witnessed changes in the role of the artist as icon. He states: "the two authors intuited the disappearance of the social function of the work of art, which in turn had to be replaced with the social role of the artist per se… The work of art is visible only if the artist is visible and able to sell his/her own 'product.'" Antonello suggests that there is a profound disjuncture between Marinetti's imagination of modern technology and its real-world function. This rift, Antonello explains, was due to his inability to manage the very spectacle he produced with these new technologies. This series of examinations of the construction of the artist by avant-garde movements ends with a comic-tragic image of the iconic figure of modernist art. So even as the avant-garde artist created movements out of new media provided by modernization, Antonello suggests that their control over these media was troubled.

Modernity and the avant-garde
In "The Impact of the Train on Modern Literary Imagination," Remo Ceserani offers a broad view of the relationship between the technical development of new means of communication and the literary imagination. In the nineteenth century, he finds that there are two, seemingly opposed, reactions to the train—one of the innovations with the greatest impact. The train is represented as both a disturbing figure that "threatens to unbalance completely both the social landscape of the time and individual sensibility" and, more positively, as a symbol of progress. Ceserani points out that the opposition between nature and technology surfaces in countries with a strong presence of a literary Romantic movement. He sees literature as the mediating force between the two poles: "Literature, of course, as also in the case of production of experimental, innovative, provocative texts, continues its function as mediation between ideological stances and rhetorical wrappings of the human experience." In the twentieth century, the avant-garde utilizes the same polarities of the previous century but then reverses them. Ceserani's article provides the nineteenth historical precedent for the uneasy representation of new technologies in literary and artistic modernisms.

Travels to and from... where is the periphery and where is the center?
The next series of articles map a more expansive geography of the international avant-garde, not just including "peripheral" art movements in a European theoretical structure, but showing how their artistic production challenges the universality of the theories themselves.

In "Colonialism and the Avant-Garde: Kitagawa Fuyuhiko's Manchurian Railroad," William Gardner reconfigures center and periphery. His essay moves through a triangulation formed by the Japanese avant-garde's contact with Europe and Japan's own periphery, its colonies in China. He states: "Just as the exchange of avant-garde information between Japan and Europe was governed, in subtle and complex ways, by the structure of Western colonialism, the Japanese cultural engagement with mainland Asia was inseparable from the Japanese colonialist project." He offers a formalist reading of western tropes of modernity such as photography, printing, war, and the railroad in an Asian context, concluding that "post-colonial criticism must also be brought to bear in our current reexamination of modernism."

Silviano Santiago again uses the narrative of travel, of contentious encounters, in order to chart the imagined future of the avant-garde art movements. Following the Mexican journeys of Antonin Artaud and Luis Cardoza y Aragón, Santiago finds that these inter-cultural encounters were not always felicitous. Although like many European artists of the period, Artaud sought a regenerative force in his travels to the "periphery," we learn that he found exile and despair rather than hallucinatory enlightenment in Latin America. However, Santiago makes no essentializing argument about Latin American versus European identity, as Cardoza y Aragón was not spared the devastation of exile either: "Brothers in exile and artists of the avant-garde, the Europeanized Guatemalan and the Mexicanized Frenchman tried to transgress and abolish national and intercontinental borders through the explosion of culture." Santiago reflects on the cultural project of the international avant-garde, showing how dreams of a new civilization unraveled in the real travels through the periphery that these artists undertook.

Ivo Barbieri continues the examination of a unified, global movement of the avant-garde, focusing on what he sees as two distinct moments in Brazilian modernism. Comparing the reception of modernist art at the beginning and at the end of the 1920s, Barbieri locates a major shift in the national consciousness of the avant-garde. By the end of this decade, work that had been considered radical and threatening becomes accepted as a means of examining a modern Brazilian consciousness. Indeed, Barbieri argues that this movement into the interior of Brazil by the modernists was more important to the long term significance of the movement than were their travels to Europe: "If the stimuli for modernization came from Europe, the mark of authenticity came from incursions into Brazil."

Barbieri's article ends with a call for the reexamination of the avant-garde as a means for reorienting contemporary literary and artistic theory. The unravelling of the movements of the avant-garde, fragmenting a totalizing narrative into individual artists and the difficult journeys undertaken, is not simply an ironic deconstruction of myths of modernity. The shift from a triumphant picture of modernism to a critical one in each of these articles suggests a new ground for considering the relationship between modernism and postmodernism. Returning to Baker's critical rereading of Ellison as the representative Black author in modernist literary history, we see just where these interventions might lead us:

    Now perhaps what is most disturbing about Ralph Ellison's displacement of Richard Wright in American economies of race, modernity, and liking is Ellison's utter failure as a "Prophet of Tomorrow." For, in his single completed novel, Ralph Ellison missed altogether the revolutionary possibilities of black life in America as they unfolded, even while his book was in page proofs. Black revolutionary possibilities for black modernity became American realities even while a conservative Ralph Ellison seemed unable to make his narrative way beyond Trueblood and Bledsoe, missionary Christianity and incipient individualistic "slave rebellion"—a Brer Rabbit canniness of "black peasants" whose soiled likableness was genius to Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver...One is tempted to sample James Baldwin's postmortem of Richard Wright and say: "Alas, Poor Ralph!" he completely missed the real modernity of America.

We find it fascinating that the outcome of a conference dedicated in theory to theories of movements, or groups, led to a series of articles which focused on specific locations and individuals. Locating the concept of the avant-garde in this manner forces a political, as much as aesthetic, reading of their place in a history of modernity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The focus of these articles mirrors the topics of the recent publications reviewed at the end of this volume. From radio to Russian film posters to women artists of the Parisian avant-garde, recent books in the field demonstrate an increasing concern with the located dynamics of a global phenomenon.

Joy Conlon and Esther Gabara

© 1999 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.