Brave New Avant Garde
Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics
Introduction: The Avant Garde Hypothesis
Chapter 1: Andrea Fraser and the Subjectivization of Institutional Critique
Chapter 2: Community Subjects
Chapter 3: In a Way We Are All Hokies:
Polylogue on the Socio-Symbolic Frameworks of Community Art
Chapter 4: A Brief Excursus on Avant Garde and Community Art
Chapter 5: Welcome to the Cultural Goodwill Revolution:
On Class Composition in the Age of Classless Struggle
Chapter 6: The Subject Supposed to Over-Identify:
BAVO and the Fundamental Fantasy of a Cultural Avant Garde
Chapter 7: The Revolution Will (Not) Be Aestheticized
Chapter 8: From Artistic Activism to Geocritique: A Few Questions for Brian Holmes
From the Introduction
The Avant Garde Hypothesis*
In an essay on the critique of institutions and the desire of radicalized artists to work outside the limits of established disciplinary structures, Brian Holmes argues that the most productive areas of contemporary critical art practice – discourse-based context art and institutional critique – have undergone a significant phase change, a shift toward extradisciplinary, transversal assemblages that link actors from the art world to projects oriented toward political contestation. The world in which networked artists and activists operate is one that is today characterized as “cognitive capitalism,” where affect and creativity, immaterial and communicative labour are held to be key components of the biopolitical engineering of subjectivity, a voluntary mechanical enslavement within a bureaucratically regulated process of continuous evaluation that is increasingly oriented towards a service economy. Such forms of critical art practice, associated with social and political movements, autonomous collectives, and alternative media, bear a striking resemblance to what was once referred to as the avant garde, which Alain Badiou associates with a “subtractive tendency,” the willingness to sacrifice art, in the artistic gesture itself, rather than give up on the real.
To pursue Badiou’s thought a bit further, we could paraphrase his critique of contemporary conservatism with the notion of an “avant garde hypothesis” that would correspond to his idea of a communist hypothesis. With this we could ask the question: must the avant garde hypothesis be abandoned? What does the idea of the avant garde have to offer us in the present moment? There is no doubt that it has become conventional for contemporary cultural workers to deny that what they do is or can be conceived of as avant-garde. Avant garde is associated with modernist notions of teleology and totality and with the Marxist view that capitalism creates its own obstacle and means of overcoming in the form of the industrial proletariat. With the growth of the tertiary middle class in the postwar consumer age, and with the appearance of the new left and new social movements from the 1950s to the 1980s, the idea of the political avant garde has by and large been replaced by constituent forms of power that act autonomously and in solidarity with one another, without the directives of a centralized political party. Yet the bourgeois state remains and prevents the full realization of progressive responses to the mercenary assault of free market ideology. In a similar way, in the art world, the operations of the “institution art,” or the field of cultural production, puts pressure on activist art practices through the normalizing effects of cultural administration and through creative industry reengineering of policy and institutions. Progressive cultural workers are thus obliged to develop forms of resistance that can allow them to act politically while still retaining in their work some legitimizing features that would allow this work to be read and understood as cultural intervention. Although the rhetoric of such artists often eschews the term avant garde, I would argue that the avant garde idea continues to operate as the repressed underside of the contemporary forms of extradisciplinary practice. And so, this book is concerned with the present form of the “avant garde hypothesis.” As such, it stands in opposition to the pieties of “new times” cultural studies and the belief that progressivism can be absorbed into strategies of postmodern complicity, social constructionism and speculative indeterminacy. If a postmodern, rhizomatic avant garde could be said to represent the “precarious inscription of new hybrid and fluid identity positions,” as Johanne Lamoureux has argued, then the avant garde hypothesis that I speak of here is one that in no way conforms to the post-structuralist doxa of a “beyond left and right” micro-politics. A contemporary avant garde is one that seeks a path beyond what Hal Foster has termed the “double aftermath” of modernism and postmodernism and responds to Mao’s injunction: “Reject your illusions and prepare for struggle.” In this, today’s avant garde represents not so much the transnational class of civilized petty bourgeois culturati, but a counter-power that rejects the inevitability of capitalist integration.
The term that I have given to the concept of struggle that best corresponds to a contemporary avant garde is sinthomeopathic practice. Whereas the transversal activists who have been inspired by the “post-political politics” of Italian workerism and the schizo-anarchism of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have called for an “exodus” from the established institutions of cultural production, sinthomeopathy does not pretend to succeed Marxism and claims, as Jacques Rancie`re asserts, that the power of the proletariat is a power that declassifies and affirms the community of equals. Sinthomeopathy does not propose an escape from institutions but works towards the egalitarian transformation of institutions, which includes the nebulous state of art discourse. As far as transversal activists are concerned, the problem of avant garde representation is cancelled by both the critique of party-based and state-oriented politics and by the current modes and relations of production, which, through their own contradictory movement and the weakening of public institutions, produce the multitude as a form of constituent power. Sinthomeapathy, in contrast, does not so much propose a counter-cultural critique of institutions, but a transformation of its mediating functions through occupation and radicalization. Any kind of prefigurative politics must therefore take into consideration rather than ignore the alienating structures that condition radical social praxis. One such structure is that of leadership and organization. In cultural terms this can take the forms of authorship and autonomy.
In its willingness to break with predecessors, today’s avant garde finds itself in the paradoxical position of not defining itself as avant-garde. This is not only due to the postmodern prohibition on meta discourses, but to the very prohibition on the prohibition since so many who are today complicit with the Fukuyaman view that there is no imaginable alternative to liberal capitalism also consider themselves progressive democrats. As Slavoj Žižek asserts, emancipatory struggle should be defined today as the struggle against liberal democracy, the predominant ideological form that is often the background of the usual topics of progressive academia. Žižek writes: “What, today, prevents the radical questioning of capitalism itself is precisely this belief in the democratic form of the struggle against capitalism.” And so, it has been much easier for the artworld to absorb the plurality of practices that speak to democratic inclusiveness than it has for it to self-comprehend itself as the byproduct of surplus value, generated on a global scale.
* The introduction that you see here has corrected the spelling of "prolatariat" on page 2 to proletariat on January 14, 2012. Obviously this is one of possibly more mistakes that have been intentionally introduced into the pdf by someone other than myself and well after such mistakes (which were probably never mine in the first place) were eliminated from the manuscript. Clearly it's impossible for me to keep up with the electronic hacking that constantly distorts my work, but I denounce it roundly. I don't make mistakes on purpose, otherwise they would not be mistakes. This sort of activity does not challenge the operations of the "centrist bourgeois ego" but rather enacts the imaginary desire for just such an impossibility. This is your mental and social problem – don't try to make it mine. The pretense that authorship and autonomy are impossible is just so much unreconstructed banality as to confuse and conflate someone else's lame-duck theory, again, with my own. I take my detractors as therefore either actually or in appearance the essence of Cold War liberalism and as such patently useless to the needs of our times.
With regard to the introduction, more specifically, on page 1, bottom of the first paragraph, the sentence reads: "...rather than to give up on the real." It should read: "...rather than give up on the real." A "to" was inserted by someone other than myself. On page 13, the last sentence reads: "... and it is to this subject that I turn to in the first chapter." It should read: "... and it is to this subject that I turn in the first chapter." You don't have to be a Baba Yaga 2 get it: 2. I'm not a two-toner -never have been, never will be. As for the claim of the book, that this work is not a work of liberal pluralism and that the anti-class politics aspects of identity politics are criticized and refuted, I remain, as ever, Marc James Léger.