From Avant-Garde to Sociologized Art, Part One

The "political" is contemporary art's idée fixe.

From Avant-Garde to Sociologized Art, Part One

The following is an abridged version of an essay that originally appeared in the first issue of Cured Quail, an art journal that focuses on the social determinants of contemporary reading and aesthetic experience—a program we share at Damage. The latter falls under what the editors of the journal understand as “literacy,” broadly conceived: the site of socio-historical, aesthetic, psychological, and political forces. If Kant’s Critique of Judgment considers the conceptual possibility of aesthetic experience, Cured Quail considers the same from the perspective of social psychology, critical theory, and art history. From the side of the object, what kinds of experience do contemporary artworks and reading media allow today? How do they shape what is possible for the subject? And, from the side of the subject, what kinds of experience are we capable of today? What can we bring to the object, in what ways have our faculties of understanding and discernment been hobbled, denatured, or destroyed?

With that broad problematic in mind, what follows is a speculative essay on the origins of contemporary arts-politics. The goal of the essay is to trace the transition, first, from the early avant-garde to so-called committed art, and from there to contemporary, “sociologized” art. The concept of “sociologization” is an invented concept that stands for a number of processes at work in the history of modern and postmodern art. The first is the instalment of a standardized set of political and social-theoretical presumptions about art’s relationship to the outside world. By becoming compulsive, these presumptions are no longer politically or artistically compelling. The second is a fundamental change to the dialectic of art and society. Artists no longer consider society primarily as a material to be infused into form, thus creating a productive tension, but rather in the opposite terms: art’s politics consists in delineating in the work itself art’s place within society. Art is supposed to provide its own genealogy and in the process apologize for not doing real work.

This is complicated history, and there are inevitably counterexamples that complicate the reading that follows. But the goal is less to provide a definitive art historical meta-narrative than to think toward the physics of art’s politics in the 21st century. By theorizing this transformation, the author hopes to articulate on a theoretical level certain dogmatic assumptions about art’s political role. This theoretical and art-historical narrative might help us understand why much political art today seems unable to escape tendencies that have become stale after decades of overuse.

The properly credentialed critic today has an obligation to equip himself with the right kind of social theory. While formerly it might have been possible to discuss a work of art without launching straightaway into considerations of the race, gender, or ethnicity of the artist in question, or into whatever socio-political issues are illustrated by the work, today such analysis would require swift censure for its identity blindness and naiveté, just another “privileged” reading out of touch with the politics of images and expression. Some artists might reject interpretations of their work along such lines as the irrelevant prolixity of cultural studies professors or the reaction formation of aesthetically inept activists. But for many today, a grasp of “critical theory” is essential, and without it artistic production and reception today would be both impossible and undesirable.

In the context of today’s international artworld, critical theory normally consists of some mashup of the remnants of post-structuralism, post-colonial theory, identity authoritarianism, the compulsion to reduce everything to who should be allowed to say or make what. How did we get here? How did the robust radical aesthetics of the 20th century collapse into a vapid, bureaucratic mentality that interprets art more in terms of the census bureau than aesthetic and historical depth?

To answer this question we must go back to the constitutive moments of advanced art in the 20th century, when reflection on the relationship between society and form became a fundamental element of the works themselves. While the early avant-garde considered social forces as only one (albeit important) material to integrate into the work itself, today the the hazy notion of “the political” has become perhaps the most important theme of art, a conscious and unconscious structuring element of huge swaths of criticism and production.

We might begin with the theoretical antinomies between autonomous and committed art. The debates between Brecht, Sartre, Adorno, and Lukacs concerned whether autonomous art was more radical than that directed by the goal of class consciousness. These debates lost steam along with the “Orthodox Marxism” that undergirded them, collapsing under the weight of the failures of the European workers’ movements to stymie the self-destruction of Europe. While similar issues were not unknown to the American avant-garde movements of the post-war years, they were not articulated in the same language or with the same intensity. It is impossible to imagine someone like Tristan Tzara receiving money from the federal government to make art.

The collapse of this debate’s stringency allowed for a generative vacuum between left politics and the avant-garde, and the artists of the post-war years began to explore art’s relation to the logic of commodity society in a more mediated way: they collected egg shells and opened storefronts, performed disappearing acts at the edges of the social world, wrote about their compulsion to manual labor, purchased worthless pieces of real estate, and constructed architectural interventions that challenged the distinction between public and private space. These otherwise historically and artistically disparate practices were united by a fusion of formalism and conceptualism that abandoned the need to clearly delineate political radicalism in the logic of the works. They did not abandon the political avant-garde of the past, but accomplished new levels of formal nuance and experimentation by picking at the remains of a previous era’s politics of art. Artists placed under the loose heading of the neo avant-garde revived the aesthetic strategies of the interwar years—collage, assemblage, constructivism, abstraction—and submitted them to another layer of intention. By placing these techniques at a remove from their expressive immediacy, the new formalism developed its own political telos. Its goal was more to eschew art’s ideological status than to erupt the raw, disruptive force of experimentation into the bourgeois public sphere.

Many artists developed strategies that either called attention to art’s compromised position as a useless luxury commodity or illustrated its entanglements with institutions of power. This tendency spanned the intellectually rigorous formulations of post-minimalist and conceptual art, the myriad forms of institutional critique (less a movement than the emerging premise of all artistic production), and the ironic anti-aesthetic modes that still proliferate today. The strident political naiveté of the early avant-garde was finally replaced by a mode of artmaking in which layers of self-referentiality were deployed to outwit the hopeless naiveté of old forms of expression. The aestheticization of bureaucracy; the turn to language as material; new perspectives on the role of identity and a focus on inclusion, equality, anti-colonialism and apolitical communalism—these strategies and others replaced the idea of a revolutionary negativity inherent in the artwork as autonomous construction. With the collapse of this idea, the corresponding ideal of the radical alterity of aesthetic experience was hard to maintain.

It might be helpful to consider the significance of this shift, which goes to the heart of what it means to have an aesthetic experience at all. The loci of aesthetic meaning in much advanced art of the post-war years was no longer underpinned by the idea of radical aesthetic experience itself, a layered shattering of bourgeois norms. This might seem like a paradox, but this fundamental change cannot be overlooked. Adorno identified this capacity as art’s “phantasmagorical” quality—its existence as a semblance. Art could give way to non-standard experience because of its potential for an (albeit illusory) sense of more-ness that exploded the abstract and repetitive forms of life in capitalism. It found inspiration in the religious art of the past as well as its new interest in what was then known as primitive art. This “more” would remain an inalienable element to be found even in modernism’s anti-aesthetic works whose “primary color is black”:

Through its appearance art lays claim to substantiality; it honors this claim negatively even though the positivity of its actual appearance asserts the gesture of something more, a pathos that even the radically pathos-alien work is unable to slough off. If the question as to the future of art were not fruitless and suspiciously technocratic, it would come down to whether art can outlive semblance.

While Adorno’s aesthetic-philosophical jargon is totally alien to contemporary ears, the point is clear. Late modern art’s new challenge was no longer to express negatively the suffering of modern experience through the autotelic coming-to-be of the work’s details through form—i.e., to articulate a formal perspective outside and against society. Rather, it set out to solve the puzzle of negotiating its immanence in society. Its new goal was to reflect the laws of society and all its ideological apparatuses, to make art less an explosive of society than its mirror.

This also changed the function of criticism and interpretation. If art is suddenly fully encompassed by its existence as a fait social, then the task of criticism is to draw conclusions about art’s role in the maintenance of the status quo. Artistic production and reception must be considered socially coded activities open to sociological analysis. Art becomes integrated—precisely what it desperately tried to prevent in the era of modernism—and emerges as a subfield of the sober, distanced perspective of the sociologist. It becomes a “field” next to politics, fashion, education, and mass cultural consumption, even as it smuggles in anti-aesthetic tendencies which had been operative since the beginning of modernism. Its ultimate aim becomes disenchantment: to uncover the vectors of power inherent in the making, viewing, and circulation of art.

This amounts to a very rough sketch of the various conflict points of the post-war politics of art. It can be read as a response to the “commitment” debate: Should art feel compelled to be political in a world on the brink of social disaster and, if so, how? It might be helpful to take a closer look, in more clearly art-critical terms, at the transformation from autonomy to sociologized art. What were the formal problems that motivated these transformations?

The social catastrophes of the last century called into question art’s naive self-regard as an autonomous realm of cultural representation. If modernity itself was not disruptive enough, two wars made the goal of providing an escape for the bourgeois untenable. The attributes that followed from art’s illusory difference from reality were problematized in the works themselves. The beauty of pre-Raphaelite expression and the clarity of neo-classicism and academic painting were submitted to aesthetic détournement. A series of alternative salons sprang up in Paris, and Modern art constantly found new ways to subject elements previously considered necessary conditions of art to a logic of transformation and reduction. “The avant-garde schism had, after all, been prompted in the first place by the surrender of the academy to the philistine demands of the modern marketplace—the call for finish, platitude, and trivial anecdote.” The challenge to figure and perspective began before impressionism and reached a classical apex in Manet and later Cézanne, whose apples and oranges nearly fly off the table. The lack of finish is another ubiquitous confrontation with aesthetic illusion, figuring prominently from Giacometti to de Kooning, but virtually integral to an entire generation. The shock of Schoenberg’s atonal composition is barely registered today, expected as the basic position of advanced music. The same could be said of Brecht’s use of the fourth wall, a technique now widely employed in mass culture, from art films to advertising. These aesthetic challenges were fundamental to modern art of the early 20th century and can by no means be reduced to the discoveries of individual artists. They registered the problem of illusion per se at a particular socio-historical moment.

But the trial of art’s semblance in heroic modernism resulted, paradoxically, in a heightening of its affective potential, an intensification of the work’s formal mechanisms and materials. Even when it flirted with depictions of social detritus and low culture, the peculiar physics of autonomy always drew it back to an ever searching formalism. “[Mallarmé] was looking back at Manet’s work of the 1860s with relief that the absinthe drinkers, dissolute picnics, and upstart whores had faded from view. Left in their place was a cool, self-regarding formal precision, dispassionate technique as the principal site of meaning, behind which the social referent had retreated; the art of painting had overtaken its tactical arm and restored to itself the high-cultural autonomy it had momentarily abandoned.”

The goal of committed art, on the contrary, was to take control of art’s demythologized status, to emancipate it from bourgeois ambivalence. Autonomous art, in the act of producing an image of something more than is the case, was able to express an altered form of life even as it was limited to the images and material of a damaged world. It solved the aporia of social critique: how to provide an image of a just society without removing oneself from the concrete socio-historical situation. This also means that it was generative of compelling experience by concealing its sociological truth. If it had any “meaning” at all, it was a result of the eloquence of formal elaboration, a taboo on beautiful images, and a turn to the raw materials of depth psychology.

That art is a product of a particular society, that it could both express and critique society’s logic in the construction of its details, and that it was perhaps doing this more forcefully than ever in the uncompromising radicalism of earl modern art—committed art wanted to take these precepts and submit them to control. The nuance of a painter and theorist like Paul Signac, who rejected the need for “a precise socialist direction in works of art, because this direction is encountered much more strongly among the pure aesthetes, revolutionaries by temperament, who, striking away from the beaten paths, paint what they see, as they feel it, and very often unconsciously supply a solid axe-blow to the creaking social edifice,” was left behind.

Committed art submitted autonomous art’s spontaneity to practicability—a dimension of the capitalist onslaught that autonomous art tried to negate by appearing to be purposeless. The desire to bring art closer to praxis could not be separated from the critique of illusion already at work in art’s autonomous development. By transfiguring art’s implicit critique—its mere existence as something outside of the logic of capital—into intention, committed art replaced the fetish of art’s autonomy with a fetish of political meaning. We have never left this fetish behind.

Another distinction turned on the relation between high art and mass culture. Committed art employed forms that brought art’s radicalism closer to the stock phrases and functionalism of mass media. By reducing form to a political idea, art opened itself to the impoverishment of propaganda. Autonomous art, by constituting itself as an autotelic appearance, punctured society as a second nature, and its power to conjure something different stood as a restorative to modern man’s stunted capacity to do so. Its hermeticism allowed for an experience beyond the horizon of everyday life, a sign that society was not the totality false consciousness took it to be. Committed art lost patience with this residue of utopianism and forfeited this task by taking the status quo, even if negatively, as its only object.

The relation between art’s autonomy and its political efficacy proved a productive but irresolvable tension from Dada to Brecht to the Situationists. The end of committed art’s heroic phase, as well as its political preconditions, had as much to do with developments in the history of society as aesthetics. The belief that art could aid in the transformation of society could not survive the dissolution of the belief in revolution itself. Artists no longer felt comfortable submitting their work to political aims, especially as society seemed to be increasingly dominated by abstractions functioning equally in capitalist and socialist countries. Art’s perennial task of unshackling false consciousness was possible only if it punctured society’s ideological totality, if it made society appear to be historically contingent. In that way, art could act upon society as well as through it. Disillusionment on the side of political action led to new perspectives removed from the goal of transforming reality through the configuration of revolutionary consciousness. Contemporary art is sociologized art, and it takes society as a fact to be explained, not transformed.

This gave political artists a new challenge: how to distance themselves from a determinate class politics without abandoning the radical function of art altogether. To do so, art’s bearing toward society underwent a subterranean modification. Techniques associated with avant-garde formalism reappeared in a changed ideological and socio-historical context. The idea of art as productive of revolutionary agency gave way to ideology critique as the most advanced political aesthetic. The new goal was to show art’s own subservience to power and privilege. While politically-minded modernists set out to combat the ideology of art as a form parasitic to social transformation, this rebellion against itself only highlighted art’s dreamlike quality next to a reality that was becoming synonymous with the absolutism of effective procedure. When art could no longer take its claims to autonomy seriously, it settled on a new goal: the illumination of all the ways it is compromised by entanglements with institutional, political, and social power.

This move was reflected in the ideological transformations of the New Left in its attempt to comprehend the failures of the international workers’ movement. These failures inspired a return to questions of ideology, a departure from the dogma of official Marxism to more fundamental reflections on the precise economic logic of capitalist society, and the emergence of a politics of social identities not based in class.

Society as an immanent force to be figured within aesthetic form was replaced first by a political telos, and then this paradigm was itself supplanted by art as a set of behaviors immanent to society. The new goal was to reflect art’s ideological position within the social totality and the vectors of power and marginalization that course through its realm of disenchanted piety. Society was no longer conceived as a structure of antagonisms but as a system of flows, networks, and institutions of cultural capital, and all the other abstractions that fill art magazines today.

While there is clearly a massive art-historical gap between Brecht and Banksy, the fact that art is a politically and socially situated fact has in the meantime become a stale dogma. The dialectic of art and society has come to a standstill. The collapse of the political movements that motivated committed art have made it difficult for “political artists” today to do more than illustrate sociological truisms or engage in squabbles about representation that are relevant only to that small part of the population that cares about the politics of museums.

In From Avant-Garde to Sociologized Art Part Two we will discuss how these transformations express deep changes within critical theory throughout the twentieth century, and how these changes imply conflicting political theories of art.

Chris Crawford is a writer coughing up construction dust in Brooklyn.