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Dissertation abstract

by on August 9, 2010

On avant-garde art in the age of Cultural Capitalism[1].

In this paper I explore the possibilities in contemporary culture, specifically visual art, to create work which transcends the boundaries of art discourse and moves into wider discourse – work that is “twice political[2]” – by examining some particular works of art by artists who have made work which seeks to create various sorts of rupture or disruption in society: from purely personal responses, to work that sits more obviously within a broader political context. To do this I take as my benchmark Mayakovsky[3]’s imperative “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.”[4] In other words, I shall be investigating whether art can go beyond reflecting the problems in society, to actively inspiring action for change in its audience.

My theoretical framework comprises: Relational Aesthetics (Bourriaud, N); Relational Antagonism (Bishop, C); socially-engaged practice (Kester, G). I consider works from 1968 to date that reflect each of these theories, considering the opportunities and limitations of each; and I locate these art debates in a wider cultural and political-philosophical framework (Marx, K; Ranciere, J, Debord, G), looking at key concepts such as alienation; the role of the spectator; and the politics of aesthetics. I use individual case studies to illustrate these positions, limiting my area of critique to work which has a strong sense of authorship; exists within, or has a strong relationship with the formal institutions of visual art; and uses as it’s methodology a relational or otherwise performative approach.

“If the concept of the avant-garde has any meaning in the aesthetic regime of the arts, it is… on the side of the intention of sensible forms and material structures for a life to come.”[5]

[1] So Slavoj Zizek describes the period 1968-date

[2] “… Political in terms of its subject and also political in terms of its analysis of art.” Dave Beech, in conversation with the author 4 January 2010

[3] Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a leading poet and playwright of the Russian revolution of 1917, and of the early Soviet period.

[4] Although it is generally accepted that this quote is from Mayakovsky, it has also been attributed to Bertolt Brecht. Both The Times and The Guardian’s book of quotations cite Mayakovsky, but not the original source.

[5] Ranciere, J (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics p29

  1. Hi Dee,

    I have to say I have always disagreed with Sadie Plant and Peter Burger on precisely this point. In a way they seem to contradict one another – Plant is bothered that the Dada artists rejected society (and where does this leave them?) while Burger is bothered that they merged art with life (and doesn’t this make them utterly absorbed by that society?). Their position is very similar nonetheless.

    First, I simply do not see that there is any logical or practical contradiction between being utterly critical of a society and a member of that society at the same time. Isn’t this how everyone on the Left has always been? Being ‘sufficiently engaged’ actually requires us to be ‘free’ from the habits of mind, ideologies and economies of the existing society. That is, you can’t be ‘sufficiently engaged’ with it if you do not ‘live’ according to a critical methodology. Critique is a form of engagement that, at one and the same time, is immanent (in the here and now) and distanced (not accepting the given descriptions and apologies for what is here and now).

    Second, what Burger does not recognize here is that the merging of art and life is a critique both of art and life – it is a critique of art’s ideological autonomy and a critique of life’s instrumentalization of everything. An art ‘no longer distinct from the praxis of life’ is not necessarily identical with the dominant modes in which the praxis of life is lived or understood. In fact, the very refusal to be distinct from the praxis of life goes against the dominant ideologies of art and life that are present in the existing praxis of life! Burger makes his argument seem more convincing because he presents the praxis of life as homogeneous. If we think of it as riddled with controversy, conflict and struggle instead, then the question is not whether art is no longer distinct from the praxis of life, but which mode of the praxis of life that art merges with.


  2. The theoretical underpinning of the Situationists position on the relationship between art and life has been interpreted for the 21st Century by the Interventionists. The arguments of the class system of Marxism are being challenged by the concept of the multitude as advanced particularly by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their books Empire (2000) and Common Wealth (2009).

    However, as Hal Foster points out, referencing T.J Clark, “[such] artists … frequently cite the Situationists but they [the Situationists] … valued precise intervention and rigorous organization above all things.”

  3. So, can art be a radical cultural agent?

    Sadie Plant (1992) describes “Dada’s central dilemma: how was it possible to stand free of the despised values and structures whilst at the same time remaining sufficiently engaged to make some difference to them?”

    Nearly a century after Dada, this question remains unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable.

    Peter Burger makes the same point on the avant-garde (1974): “An art no longer distinct from the praxis of life but wholly absorbed by it will lose the capacity to criticize it.” And, crucially he concludes by implicitly concurring with Ranciere, asking “whether the distance between art and the praxis of life is not requisite for that free space within which alternatives to what exists become conceivable.”

  4. Hi Dee,

    sounds good. Thanks for the reference to me saying art should be ‘twice political’. I still like the phrase. I might use it sometime!

    You’ve probably finished the essay already, but I wondered if you developed Mayakovsky’s position by thinking of a shed full of tools, not just the hammer? We can shape the world in different ways if we use a hammer one day and a pair of scissors the next. What would it be like to change the world with a bucket or a sponge?


    Good luck wi

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