Rosalind Krauss. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was the first artist to assume the mantle of the avant-garde, savoring its military associations from within his outpost in the Pavillon du Réalisme he had constructed to exhibit his paintings that had been rejected by the official salon of the 1855 World’s Fair. While the largest of these works—Studio of the Painter: A Real Allegory (1855)—could be thought to constitute a manifesto of Courbet’s beliefs, he issued a written manifesto as well, in which he stated his determination to be “nothing but a painter.”
Courbet’s rejection from officialdom was institutionalized in 1863 by the Salon des Réfusés, which France had been forced to set up next to the recognized salon in the Palais des Beaux-Arts. It was to this salon of the refused artists that Édouard Manet (1832-1883) was consigned, showing his Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia to the shrieks of laughter of the scandalized visitors. Indeed, it was Manet’s own determination to be “nothing but a painter” that incensed his viewers, since his maintenance of the painterly qualities of his works led him to suppress the half-tones of representational shading and to flaunt wide expanses of percussive white paint in the eyes of his audience. “Nothing but a painter” was soon endowed with the epithet “l’art pour l’art” or art for art’s sake, another mantle willingly assumed by the growing numbers of the self-professed avant-garde.
It is the position of Peter Bürger, whose Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984) remains the best treatment of this subject, that the withdrawal of the artist into the sanctuary of art for art’s sake was the necessary condition for the formation of what he terms the “historical avant-garde,” or the first wave of intensely militant activity that characterized the movements of futurism, cubism, dada, and surrealism during the opening decades of the twentieth century. Because their militancy was aimed at breaking down the barriers separating art from the life around it, it was necessary, Bürger maintains, that these barriers really existed. By incorporating the columns they cut from their daily newspapers into works now called collage (or gluing), the cubists transgressed the sanctity of the special province of the work of art. This same principle of transgression was practiced by the dada photomonteurs, such as John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch, who extended the collage technique to include photographic reproductions from illustrated magazines in order to wage political battle against the mounting powers of fascism.
Another obvious example of this avant-garde indifference to the separation of art and life is the readymade, introduced by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1963) in the form of the urinal he entered into the New York Salon des Independents in 1917. For Bürger, these transgressive modes of operation constituted specific paradigms of avant-garde attack against the boundaries of l’art pour l’art. Further, he argued, after the historic avant-garde had come to an end during World War II, the postwar avant-garde had no ground on which to maneuver except that of repeating the already-explored paradigms of the earlier avant-garde: the readymade, the photo-montage, the monochrome painting, the assemblage. Bürger’s designation for this state of affairs and the artists consigned to it is “neo-avant-garde,” which would include the photo-montage canvases of Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925), the readymades of Andy Warhol 1928-1987), the monochromes of Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), and so forth.
The cries of rage that greeted Manet’s Olympia soon became the hallmark of the avant-garde as each new transgression elicited it own storm of protest, such as the audience that stormed out of the theater during Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) Rite of Spring or the thunder of catcalls hurled at Parade, scored by Erik Satie (1866-1925) for typewriters and other machines.
The philosopher Stanley Cavell posits that these expressions of anger, triggered by the fear of being hoodwinked by a fraudulent work, are what characterizes modernism itself, such that “the dangers of fraudulence, and of trust, are essential to the experience of art” (pp. 188-189). In relation to the avant-garde, he writes, “What looks like ‘breaking with tradition,’ in the successions of art is not really that; or is that only after the fact, looking historically or critically; or is that only as a result not as a motive: the unheard of appearance of the modern in art is an effort not to break, but to keep faith with tradition. It is perhaps fully true of Pop Art that its motive is to break with the tradition of painting and sculpture; and the result is not that the tradition is broken, but that these works are irrelevant to that tradition, i.e., they are not paintings, whatever their pleasures” (pp. 206-207).
The scholar and critic Leo Steinberg has also emphasized this problem of fraudulence dogging the most important works of modernism and striking not just the outsider or layperson, but the inner circle of artists as well. In “Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public,” he reports Henri Matisse’s anger at Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which he called “Picasso’s hoax,” and Georges Braque’s refusal of the picture with: “It is as though we were supposed to exchange our usual diet for one of tow and paraffin.”
Two important essays by the critic Clement Greenberg analyze the relation between the avant-garde and modernism: “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) and “Modernist Painting” (1960). As Greenberg defines it, in the 1939 essay, “Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy” (1986, p. 11). He gives as its examples: “popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc., etc.” (p. 11). If, as he puts it, “Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations” (p. 12), there were artists who felt the need to resist this fraudulence. These, to which are given the name “avant-garde,” “sought to maintain the high level of [their] art by both narrowing it and raising it to the expectation of an absolute in which all relationships would be either resolved or beside the point. ‘Art for art’s sake’ and ‘pure poetry’ appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like a plague” (p. 8). In order to pursue this “purity” the avant-garde artist detaches himself from bourgeois society to which he is nonetheless attached, as Greenberg puts it, “by an umbilical cord of gold.”
“Modernist Painting,” assuming the existence of the avant-garde, gives an account of how the “narrowing and raising” of a given art began historically, and what its new logic consists of. Defining modernism as an Enlightenment phenomenon, Greenberg locates its onset with Kant who “used logic to establish the limits of logic” (1993, p. 85). What then follows is that “the essence of Modernism lies … in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence” (p. 85). What each art sought, Greenberg argued, was to exhibit “not only that which was unique and irreducible in art in general, but also that which was unique and irreducible in each particular art” (p. 86). What follows from this is that “the enterprise of self-criticism in the arts become one of self-definition with a vengeance” (p. 86).
For painting itself, self-criticism produced as defining features: the flat surface, the shape of the support, and the properties of the pigment, all of which needed, under Modernism, to be acknowledged openly. “Manet’s,” Greenberg explains, “became the first Modernist pictures by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted” (1993, p. 86).
Greenberg’s avant-garde continues through the twentieth century, picking up ever-new strength and certainty. For him, Bürger’s “neo-avant-garde” could only be a version of Kitsch, the triumph of not-art in place of the real thing.