The Age of the Avant-Garde
How strange a thing it was to understand
And how strange it ought to be again, this time
Without the distortions of the theatre,
Without the revolutions’ ruin,
In the presence of the barefoot ghosts!
In his Histoire de la littérature francaise de 1789 à nos jours, published in 1936, the French critic Albert Thibaudet speaks of the three “revolutions” that the Symbolist movement brought to the writing of poetry in France. The first was a revolution in literary technique—“the liberation of verse” that exempted poetry from rhyme and syllabic scansion and thus “created a rupture between ‘normal’ poets and ‘free-verse’ poets.” The second was a revolution in the ultimate objective of poetic style—“the advent of pure poetry,” the attempt, as Mallarmé put it, “to recapture the best in music” and thereby create a poetry in which “the words take the initiative.” But it was the third of these revolutions that proved to be the most fateful—“the idea itself of revolution.” Symbolism, Thibaudet writes,
accustomed literature to the idea of indefinite revolution, an artistic Blanquism, a right and duty of youth to overturn the preceding generation, to run after an absolute. If the poets were divided into “normal,” or “regular,” and free-verse, literature was divided into normal literature and literature of the “avant-garde.” The chronic avant-gardism of poetry, the “What’s new?” of the “informed” public, the official part given to the young, the proliferation of schools and manifestos with which these young hastened to occupy that extreme point, to attain for an hour that crest of the wave in a tossing sea—all this was not only a new development in 1885 but a new climate in French literature. The Symbolist revolution, the last thus far, might perhaps have been definitively the last, because it incorporated the theme of chronic revolution into the normal condition of literature.
The “new climate” of 1885 has indeed become the “normal condition” of a good deal more than literature. It has become the basis of our entire cultural life. Thibaudet’s “What’s new?” is no longer the exclusive possession of a tiny “informed” public. It is now the daily concern of vast bureaucratic enterprises whose prosperity depends on keeping the question supplied with a steady flow of compelling but perishable answers. The “right and duty of youth to overturn the preceding generation” is an established datum in the academic curriculum, and “that crest of the wave in a tossing sea” has long been turned into a public facility drawing record crowds.
For the “normal condition” of our culture has become one in which the ideology of the avant-garde wields a pervasive and often cynical authority over sizable portions of the very public it affects to despise. That it does so by means of a profitable alliance with the traditional antagonists of the avant-garde—the mass media, the universities, and the marketplace—only underscores the paradoxical nature of the situation in which we find ourselves. It is in the interest of this ideology to deny the scope of its present powers, of course. Its continuing effectiveness—its ability to come before the public not only as an arbiter of taste but as an example of moral heroism—is peculiarly dependent on the fiction of its extreme vulnerability. The myth of the underdog, of a struggle against impossible odds with little hope of recognition, is an indispensable instrument in the consolidation of avant-garde influence.1
But this is only part of the myth that is fostered in the avant-garde scenario. Central to its doctrine of embattled and threatened virtue is the notion of what Lionel Trilling has called the avant-garde’s “adversary” relation to the larger (bourgeois) culture in which it functions. If the institutions that now serve as conduits of avant-garde claims are no longer shy about acknowledging this adversary role, it is because the role itself has acquired an unquestioned historical prestige. We have all been brought up on the legend of avant-garde martyrdom, with its celebrated episodes of tardy vindication. Nothing is more familiar to us than the literature of cautionary tales recounting middle-class resistance to and stupidity about “advanced” artistic innovation. The history of modern art abounds in such tales, which are often chronicles of genuine suffering when they are not mere comedies of cultural manners. As a result, the tendency of modern critical thought, whether sympathetic to avant-garde objectives or openly hostile to them, has been to accept without question an essential, perhaps even a metaphysical, antagonism separating high culture from the middle class—an antagonism readily confirmed in our guilty feelings over the crowded roster of abused and misunderstood genius.
But these feelings are more and more at odds with our current experience. At a time when avant-garde claims are enthusiastically embraced by virtually all the institutions ministering to middle-class taste, the old pieties about what Trilling calls “the adversary intention, the actually subversive intention” of modernist art are clearly out of date. An accommodation has obviously been reached—an accommodation that makes nonsense of established notions of cultural warfare. We have, in fact, been witnessing a startling reversal of roles. The appetite for innovation is now voracious on the part of the new public for art, but it is more and more a source of impotence and despair among artists, who recognize that this volatile and often heartless taste for the “new” can be quite as destructive of any real attachment to the objects of the artistic imagination as the old philistine resistance ever was. It is now the artists who represent “tradition,” if only the paradoxical tradition of the avant-garde, and the “informed” public that is likely to be quickly bored with what is established and familiar. Under the circumstances, we have ample reason to wonder what it is exactly that modernist art intended to subvert—to wonder what the once exacerbated relation of the avant-garde to the middle class has come to, and indeed, what it actually was in the epoch of its legendary conflicts.
I doubt if we can fully appreciate the fate that has overtaken the avant-garde in our own day without some drastic alteration in our understanding of the avant-garde as a historical phenomenon—without a clear understanding, first of all, that it is a historical phenomenon rather than an immutable fixture of cultural life. Contrary to the romance that encloses so much of its history for us, the avant-garde belongs ineluctably to the world of the middle class, and is barely conceivable in isolation from it. The avant-garde has been, from the start, a vital coefficient of bourgeois culture. Beginning as an avowal of the life of feeling that the defensive and insecure institutions of the middle class could not bring itself to acknowledge, lest its precarious hold on its own self-esteem be shattered, the avant-garde developed into the critical and increasingly combative conscience of bourgeois civilization. The cultural history of the bourgeoisie is the history of its gradual and painful adjustment to this conscience—an adjustment that made the bourgeoisie, despite its own worst inclinations, the moral and aesthetic beneficiary of the avant-garde’s heroic labors.
It is not enough to see this fateful history, which is nothing less than the history of the effort to align the interests of high art with the realities of an industrial society governed by democratic principles, as a cartoon struggle between the enlightened and the unenlightened. The actual scenario is far more complicated than that. The bourgeoisie was, after all, the first truly “modern” class. Its headlong development of industrial technology into the dominant means of production, with everything this brought in the shift of power from the countryside to the cities, had a deeper and more permanent effect on the texture and the dynamics of modern life—on the “values” that impinge on experience—than art of any sort, whether avant-garde or retardataire, could possibly make claim to. Likewise its sponsorship of democratic institutions. In short, there is a “progressive” side to the bourgeois ethos—an impulse toward emancipation from outmoded social forms as well as from outmoded means of production—that is at least as significant as the “reactionary” side, though you would never dream of its existence from the caricature of bourgeois motives that emerges from the doctrinal literature of the avant-garde.
As for the avant-garde itself, its own history is anything but a single-minded tale of revolt against bourgeois values. Cocteau may have been exaggerating when he claimed that “The ‘bourgeoisie’ is the bed-rock of France from which all our artists emerge. They may possibly get clear of it, but it allows them to build dangerously on substantial foundations.” (“With us,” he wrote in Cock and Harlequin, “there is a house, a lamp, a plate of soup, a fire, wine and pipes at the back of every important work of art.”2) But he was only exaggerating an essential part of the truth. The history of the avant-garde actually harbors a complex agenda of internal conflict and debate, not only about aesthetic matters but about the social values that govern them. If the bourgeois ethos may be said to have both a “progressive” and a “reactionary” side, the avant-garde is similarly divided. At one extreme, there is indeed an intransigent radicalism that categorically refuses to acknowledge the contingent and rather fragile character of the cultural enterprise, a radicalism that cancels all debts to the past in the pursuit of a new vision, however limited and fragmentary and circumscribed, and thus feels at liberty—in fact compelled—to sweep anything and everything in the path of its own immediate goals, whatever the consequences. It is from this radical extreme, of which Dada, I suppose, is the quintessential expression, that our romance of the avant-garde is largely derived. But the history of the avant-garde is by no means confined to these partisans of wholesale revolt. It also boasts its champions of harmony and tradition. It is actually among the latter that we are likely to find the most solid and enduring achievements of the modern era—among those tradition-haunted artists (Matisse and Picasso, Eliot and Yeats, Schoenberg and Stravinsky) who are mindful, above all, of the continuity of culture, and thus committed to the creative renewal of its deepest impulses.
This division between art conceived as a form of guerrilla warfare and art conceived as the reaffirmation of a vital tradition is by no means absolute. Many important artists—even such self-avowed Dadaists as Arp and Schwitters—identified their interests with the one camp while quietly enjoying the advantages of the other. And such a division is certainly no guide to the aesthetic quality of individual works of art. But it does describe the essential dialectic that governed the sensibilities of the avant-garde in the era of its greatest endeavors. That the custodians of bourgeois taste failed so miserably and for so long to distinguish between their genuine adversaries and their rightful allies is part of the historical tragedy of bourgeois culture. It is also part of its comedy. But neither the tragedy nor the comedy should mislead us about the actual course of the avant-garde enterprise, which in the 20th century—and even earlier—has been characterized by extreme dissensions in its own ranks.
These dissensions tended to increase, both in ferocity and effect, more or less in direct ratio to the turbulence of the political scene. The most celebrated avant-garde event of the relatively tranquil 90’s—the raucous debut of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi at the Théâatre de l’Oeuvre in 1896—was at once a sensation and a prophecy, but it could scarcely be said to have stimulated a powerful new movement on the spot. Its consequences were delayed; the requisite political atmosphere had not yet ripened. What it prophesied—not only an assault on the audience, but an assault on art itself—was not to be fully realized until events outside the realm of art, namely the First World War and the political exacerbations that preceded it, removed certain inhibiting factors in its path. Until the advent of Futurism and Dada, in fact, Jarry’s aesthetic nihilism remained buried in the subplot of the avant-garde scenario. The principal avant-garde action of the period—the main plot, if you will—was being prepared elsewhere, with no public attention to speak of, hence without scandal or violence, in the studios of Matisse and Picasso, who were working their way toward those fundamental revisions of established pictorial practice that proved to be the very basis of modernist painting in the 20th century.
There is indeed a sense in which all nihilist aesthetic programs are condemned by their very nature to remain confined to the subplot of vanguard history. Their protagonists may conduct guerrilla raids on the main body of artistic endeavor, as the Futurists and the Dadaists did in such spectacular fashion, acting out dreams of revenge and vindication in response to what the votaries of the most vital traditions have created, but the insurgents are themselves powerless to produce an art of the first importance without aligning their aspirations with these same traditions—an alignment that necessarily modifies their own intransigence. Those radical breaks with the past which constitute a recurrent claim in the literature of each successive avant-garde group and which, so far as the public is concerned, may be said to embody the essence of what the avant-garde is understood to be doing—such breaks, it seems, are easier to formulate than to implement. In theory, the break may sound complete (and it is usually theory that prominently assists in generating an avant-garde myth); in the studio, it rarely turns out that way.
The Futurists, for example, despite their cry of “courage, audacity, and revolt” and their confident assertion that “Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown,” were obliged to retrace the course of painting step by step from post-Impressionism to Fauvism and Expressionism to Cubism in order to produce an art of their own—an art that, in the end, added only a marginal increment to the monumental achievements of the Cubists. Artistically the Futurists lived off the practices—the traditions and piecemeal revisions—their ideology loudly condemned. (Apollinaire was the first to point out—in 1912—that “They declare themselves to be ‘absolutely opposed’ to the art of the avant-garde French schools, yet at this point, they are nothing but imitators of those schools.”) This was the case even where Futurist pronouncements promised genuine innovations of great consequence. Boccioni’s call, in his 1912 manifesto on sculpture, for the use of “transparent planes, glass, sheets of metal, wires, external and internal electric lights,” and other new materials, went unheeded by the artist himself. The first “Futurist Manifesto” of 1909 had proclaimed that “a roaring motor car . . . is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace,” but three years later, when Boccioni approached the sculptural task of making a striding figure he called Synthesis of Human Dynamism, “He seems to have in mind,” one of his recent (and highly sympathetic) commentators tells us, “the example of the Victory of Samothrace (of which there was a cast in the Brera), as well as Rodin’s Balzac, St. John the Baptist Preaching, and Mestrovic’s or Bourdelle’s bulgingly-muscled males.”3 Even the greatest of Boccioni’s sculptures—the figure called Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913)—reflects this classical inheritance and leaves the traditional notion of a unity of materials undisturbed. In the studio, Boccioni too was engaged in revising a tradition.
The genius of Futurism, as of many subsequent movements of aesthetic revolt, lay less in the realm of artistic innovation (which tended to remain in the hands of artists who were politically less engagé) than in the realm of ideology. The Futurists correctly perceived that only a profound social upheaval could produce conditions favorable to their cherished dream of establishing a new civilization based on violence, heroism, technology, national pride, and, as Marinetti put it in 1923, “the coming to power of the young in opposition to the parliamentary, bureaucratic, academic, and pessimistic spirit.” Hence the glorification of war (“the only cure for the world,” according to Marinetti) as the crucible in which the authority of the past could be decisively defeated. Hence, too, the incessant cry for novelty and speed, and for its inevitable corollary, the destruction of institutions—libraries, museums, academies, etc.—whose function it is to uphold the glories of the past.
That the ideology—though not necessarily the art—of the Futurists led directly to Fascism has long been recognized. (Art, after all, has a more equivocal influence.) “For anyone who has a sense of historical connections,” wrote Croce in 1924, “the ideological origins of Fascism can be found in Futurism, in the determination to go down into the streets, to impose their own opinions, to stop the mouths of those who disagree, not to fear riots or fights, in this eagerness to break with all traditions, in this exaltation of youth which was characteristic of Futurism. . . .”4 Yet Marinetti was telling the truth—part of the truth, anyway—when he declared that “Futurism is a movement that is strictly artistic and ideological. It intervenes in political struggles only in hours of grave danger for the nation.” For what the Futurists failed to perceive was the contingent and suicidal nature of their own impulse—the impulse to politicize aesthetics and to make politics itself a realm of aesthetic gratification.
The fact is, it was first the war (which it heralded) and then the victory of Fascism (which it abetted) that destroyed Futurism as a movement. It belonged, after all, to the world it despised, the world of the bourgeoisie, and could survive in no other. With Italy at war or with the Fascists in power, any further soirées futuristes—the object of which was to provoke a riot in the audience—were unthinkable. Violence no longer belonged to the realm of aesthetics; it had passed into the hands of bureaucracy. The prerogatives of Ubu were now the possession of I1 Duce.
The line, then, from the premiere of Jarry’s play to the soirees futuristes to the March on Rome is fairly clear—a line that traces “the adversary intention, the actually subversive intention” of the avant-garde in its purest political form. But this line of nihilist intent, though undeniably fateful in its historical consequences, was only one term in the dialectic of the avant-garde endeavor, and artistically it was rarely, if ever, the stronger term. The more creative, countervailing impulse cleaved to quite different values, and foremost among them was a virtual obsession with the past—with the museum, which the Futurists wished to destroy, and the extension of certain traditions, which the Futurist painters and sculptors were obliged to observe despite their protestations to the contrary. The same year that witnessed Ubu’s debut saw the twenty-seven-year-old Henri Matisse painting La grotte, a painstaking rehearsal of one of Courbet’s favorite themes. (Years later, when he could afford it, Matisse acquired one of Courbet’s masterpieces on this theme, thus reaffirming an abiding affinity.) The next year, 1897, the sixteen-year-old Pablo Picasso, already a precocious bohemian, was writing to a friend about his admiration for El Greco, Van Dyck, Rubens, and Velasquez. The young artist promptly produced in a painting called Nana an accomplished post-Impressionist “reply” (as one critic has called it) to the powerful figure of the dwarf in Velasquez’s Las Meninas, the 17th-century masterpiece that, decades later, was but one of several classic works Picasso was to paint an elaborate series of variations on. (Another was Courbet’s Demoiselles de la Seine.) Neither painter had yet produced the work that would, within the coming decade, establish him as a leader of the avant-garde; both were engaged in mastering a tradition—a tradition from which they were soon able to wrest their respective innovations, and which they never really abandoned.5 The point not to be mistaken is that these historic innovations, from which nearly everything we most value in the art of the 20th century has been derived, represented in their own eyes no essential rupture with the classic works that have nourished them. Their most radical efforts were, indeed, the only way these new masters could keep faith with their classic inheritance. The past had to be absorbed before it could be seriously extended and added to. It had to be felt if any really new emotion were to be distinguished from it and given a new form. Writing about Matisse on another occasion, I suggested that he was intent in these early years on “testing the ground in every direction, copying the Old Masters . . . assaying Impressionist color and a post-Impressionist facture, zigzagging his way from the pieties of tradition to the innovations of the avant-garde and back again. . . .”6 It was precisely through such zigzag methods, audacity alternating with acts of hommage, that Matisse and Picasso created a body of work that changed the face of modern art—work bold enough to inspire and resourceful enough to nourish buccaneers like the Futurists and yet sufficiently strong and durable to withstand their wholesale borrowings and vulgarizations. Sufficiently resourceful, too, to support the innovations of Dada, Constructivism, and the entire history of abstraction from its earliest exponents to its latest epigoni.
Thus, the impulse to act as the creative conscience of a usable tradition was as much a part of the avant-garde scenario—it was indeed, as I have suggested, its main plot—as the impulse to wage war on the past, and the artists who aligned their ambition with this tradition-oriented function faced an infinitely subtler and more difficult task. For “tradition” already had its official guardians, who, armed with an elaborate system of sanctions, were determined to resist any change that required them to reconsider the precious inheritance in their charge. But a constant reconsideration and revaluation of the past is precisely what the master artists of the avant-garde were forcing upon the official guardians of taste, and doing so not out of any conscious determination to “subvert” tradition but, on the contrary, to rescue it from moribund conventions and redefine it in the most vital terms—terms that spoke directly to the sensibility of the age. That this effort to place tradition under the pressure of a constant revaluation had an unexpected effect, that it resulted, in the end, in the virtual dissolution of any really viable concept of tradition, is, of course, at the heart of the situation in which we find ourselves today. Without the bulwark of a fixed tradition, the avant-garde finds itself deprived of its historic antagonist. Much to its own embarrassment, it finds that it has itself become tradition. With its victory over the authority of the past complete, its own raison d’être has disappeared, and it has in fact ceased to exist except as an imaginary enterprise engaged in combat against imaginary adversaries.
The classic statement of the avant-garde view of tradition is to be found in T. S. Eliot’s essay on “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” published in 1919. It is worth turning to the famous passages again in which the author of “Prufrock,” himself a leader of the literary avant-garde, sets out to defend the concept of tradition against the easy contempt of the avant-garde as well as the sterile assumptions of the academy—to make it, in fact, a foundation of the highest artistic accomplishment. In what I take to be a reference to the critical practice of the avant-garde, Eliot notes a “tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else.” He goes on:
In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavor to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed.
But there is, Eliot insists, another and more comprehensive way of looking at the poet’s work:
. . . if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.
Eliot is at pains in this essay to distinguish this concept of tradition from the practice of “following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes”; “novelty,” he agrees, “is better than repetition.” But he firmly rejects this false choice, which, by 1919, in the heyday of Dada and Constructivism, had become the motto of every new vanguard movement. “Tradition,” he writes,
is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense . . . and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.
Eliot then goes on to assert a principle of the greatest importance to the art of the modern age. “No poet, no artist of any art,” he declares,
has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism . . . [for] what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.
The aesthetic principle upheld in this essay thus placed tradition at the very center of artistic consciousness, in an intimate, symbiotic relation to the innovative function in art. This is indeed how tradition had come to be subsumed in the work of the greatest avant-garde masters, and it was, too, the way it passed, unacknowledged, into the work of the Futurists, the Dadaists, and other doctrinaire exponents of the radical impulse. But Eliot’s conception of tradition—tradition as it was reconceived by the avant-garde—was not the “tradition” of the official custodians of bourgeois culture. Their tradition was something assumed to be fixed and immutable, a barrier against novelty and change. (Or so they often claimed. In actual fact, change was cautiously admitted so long as its pace could be slowed to a barely visible trickle and its disruptive effect thereby nullified.) In revealing this static notion of tradition to be a sham, a tissue of pieties that no longer corresponded to anything real either in the past or in the present, the avant-garde was bound to incur the wrath of precisely that segment of society that had the most to fear from disruptive changes of any sort. Its resistance to this more volatile and uncontrollable conception of what tradition might be was nothing less than an attempt to isolate the realm of culture from the remorseless flux that had overtaken life in virtually every other respect—and, ironically, had done so as a direct consequence of the democratization and industrialization the bourgeoisie had itself pioneered. It was nothing less than an attempt to preserve culture in something like its former relation to power which, in aristocratic, monarchist, and theocratic societies, was a relation understood to be ornamental, functional, flattering, and morally supportive.
This legendary resistance, from which the myth of the avant-garde still draws so much energy, was often stupid. It was often cruel. It caused considerable suffering, and its basic assumption—that culture could somehow be held in a timeless reserve, quarantined from the pressures of new experience and new emotions—was completely illusory. It was, moreover, undeniably indifferent, indeed hostile, to the very standards of excellence it purported to uphold. But it cannot be denied that what was being resisted was something fundamental—a historic alteration in the relation of culture to power. Henceforth—so the avant-garde was, in effect, declaring—culture would no longer be answerable to power, it would no longer serve an ornamental function, it would no longer flatter and dissimulate in order to survive and prosper. It, too, would demand to be free—free to exercise the democratic option implicit in the bourgeois ethos and explicitly guaranteed in the bourgeois polity. The bourgeoisie thus became the first ruling class in history—I, at least, know of no precedent—to suffer the loss, the alienation, as we say, of its highest cultural constituency.
To what, we may ask, does it owe this catastrophic distinction? To its stupidity? Its cruelty? To its philistine illusions and its well-known failures of sensibility? Not, in my opinion, primarily. In my reading of history, the bourgeoisie does not have a patent on these (or any other) moral or aesthetic deficiencies. The fact is, the middle class enforced even the worst of its own prejudices with a lighter and a more diffident hand than other classes in power. No, it owed this fateful distinction to its most conspicuous virtue—to its liberalism, to its commitment to the principle of freedom and dissent, to its refusal to tyrannize or terrorize its own opposition. However distasteful it may have found the expression of that dissent, however alarmed it became in the face of the cultural forces arrayed against it, however panic-stricken it occasionally was in responding to them, bourgeois society remained more or less loyal to its liberalism. And to that liberalism, which the avant-garde so often mocked and despised, the avant-garde owed its very existence. Only where bourgeois liberalism itself was destroyed—not infrequently, with a little help from the avant-garde—did the avant-garde suffer a brutal and enforced demise.
Where bourgeois liberalism prospered, or at least survived, the avant-garde was free to pursue its headlong course of revision and revolt. To the révoltés there always accrued the greater share of publicity and a more immediate response. (Apollinaire noted, in 1912, that whereas the Futurists were “doing very nicely financially,” the Cubists were “abandoned by all, ridiculed by practically every art critic, and living at best in semi-poverty, at worst in the most abject poverty.”7 The Surrealists were to enjoy a similar advantage while Mondrian was being ignored.) An abrupt break with the past, real or imagined, was somehow more encompassable than a farreaching revision or extension of it. But it was the artists engaged in the work of revision—in the work of transforming the artistic inheritance rather than obliterating it—who ultimately effected the profoundest changes, for it was they who altered irrevocably our sense of the past; it was they who liquidated its authority in the very process of harnessing its energies. The application of what Eliot called “the historical sense” to the immediate tasks of artistic innovation had the effect—unanticipated, for the most part, by the artists who pioneered the effort—of making the past permanently hostage to the pressures of the present. History was removed from its familiar hinges, and its myriad discrete episodes laid out, museum-fashion, in a way that left them neutralized and inert to anything but an aggressive principle of selection. For what was Eliot’s notion of “an ideal order” of the “existing monuments” of art but a museum condemned to perpetual modification “by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them”? The “simultaneous existence and . . . simultaneous order” that Eliot claimed for the whole of the literature of the past and present effectively cancelled whatever intrinsic authority the past might enjoy. All authority was now to be extrinsically invested in the imperatives of the moment. Everything now was subject to the tests of immediate creative utility even as such tests were becoming increasingly arbitrary and irresponsible.
It is no accident, then, that the museum has emerged as the representative institution of the age of the avant-garde, succeeding the academy as the principal repository of whatever standards may be said to survive. For the museum, as it has evolved under the pressures of modernism, is founded on a principle of dynamism, a principle designed to keep the past under constant surveillance and revision, whereas the academy is based on a principle of stability. For the academy, history remains a hierarchy of fixed positions and “eternal” values against which the new can be measured and judged—and, if necessary, rejected. For the museum, history is fluid, without fixed boundaries, a medium of unremitting but fecund tension between past and present, subject only to what the “individual talent” deems most vital to its immediate interests. Admission of the new can be delayed, if only because claimants to the office are so manifold, but cannot be resisted on principle. In the academy, the new is admitted to a line of succession; it is accepted as a historical increment to an ongoing enterprise, which it is expected to enhance and strengthen but leave essentially unchanged; whereas in the museum the new is pitted against the inherited order in a test of strength, and strength is judged on the extent of the change it effects. In the academy, tradition can be transmitted; in the museum, it may be acquired, but only as one option among many.
Eliot’s tradition, alas, is finally a little like Tolstoy’s God—it is the name of his desire. It is certainly not the bastion against novelty and anarchy he envisioned. (Perhaps that is why, when he came to adumbrate his general theory of culture, he recoiled from the implications of what, in practice, could only be a highly solipsistic conception of tradition. The hierarchical structure of an imaginary “Christian society” had to be invoked as a control against free-thinking applications of the unruly “historical sense.”) The “tradition” of the avant-garde turned out to be something not really transmissible as tradition, after all. What was transmissible was not a “tradition” but a principle of artistic coherence, gleaned from the work itself, that might be applied to any tradition, or to none, as the artist wished. For the roots of this “tradition,” if we can still call it that, were no longer in the general culture but in the personal culture of the “individual talent,” and this personal culture—precisely because it could only be acquired at “great labor”—could easily be by-passed in favor of those properties of “style” to which a later generation of artists swiftly reduced all artistic inheritances.
It was not the traditions subsumed in Ulysses and the Cantos that were usable to the writers who placed themselves in the line of succession to Joyce and Pound, but something else—a compulsion toward the fragmentation and atomization of language that was felt (correctly, I think) to contain their stylistic essence. Similarly, it was not primarily the ways in which Picasso and Matisse “used,” say, Courbet or Cezanne in their art that proved transmissible to the artists who followed them but, on the contrary, the force with which they showed this inheritance to be expendable. Picasso’s Cubism may retain its blood ties to Cezanne, whereas a “readymade” by Duchamp, although it takes its cue from Cubist construction, deliberately orphans itself from the tradition in which it has its genesis. Picasso’s art may still cleave to the museum ambience while Duchamp’s deliberately repudiates it. But given the dynamics of modernism, where only consequences count, this difference proves to be nugatory. For Picasso prepares the way for Duchamp, and Duchamp’s art has nowhere to go except to the museum, where its presence does indeed modify the “existing monuments” in a way Eliot had not foreseen. It deprives them—and us—of their essential seriousness. Duchamp’s legendary assault on the work of art as traditionally conceived effectively demonstrates that there is no such thing as an object or a gesture that, within the magical museum context, cannot be experienced as art, and this demonstration has the effect of consigning both the idea of tradition and the museum itself to a limbo of arbitrary choices and gratuitous assertions. Which is exactly what our culture has now become.
If, then, the age of the avant-garde can definitely be said to have passed, as I believe it can, it is not because the will to innovation has abated its course—it has, if anything, accelerated its pace and grown more desperate—but because it no longer has any radical functions to perform. The avant-garde’s historic antagonist, the bourgeoisie, has been dispossessed of all its traditions—dispossessed, above all, of its faith in the idea of tradition—and now lies supine and demoralized, awaiting the next scheduled rape of its sensibilities with that mixture of dread, curiosity, and bemused resignation befitting an organism no longer in control of its own habitat.
And what of the forces that now claim to speak in the name of the avant-garde—what are we to call them? Only they are any longer in a position to invoke the pieties of a tradition. Only they can now be said to constitute something resembling an academy in the hurly-burly of the current scene. Only they are permitted to cite precedents, establish prohibitions, lay down laws, and generally behave as if there were definite rules to be followed and prescribed aims to be achieved. The will to innovation has been triumphantly institutionalized, and the inherited order—part reality, part fiction, that it was—disestablished, sent spinning, Futurist-style, into fragments we shall be a long, long time recovering and reassembling into meaningful shapes. These shapes are no more likely to be exact replications of the past than such labors of reconstruction ever are. History will have had its way with them, as history always does. But recover them we must. For the new academy of innovation, which is what the museum culture of the avant-garde has come to be, is no more able than other academies to encompass the pressures of new experience; it can only satisfy an existing taste, and minister to an empty prejudice. And the pressures of new experience—above all, the unremitting experience of the new—now point in another direction entirely, toward renegotiating our pact with the past and reexamining all those restrictive clauses that have so often rendered our commerce with “tradition” simply foolish and parochial. And this means, first of all, reexamining the great epoch of the avant-garde itself, for this is today the only part of the past that still enjoys an exemption from the critical exercise of the historical sense. The task of criticism today is, in large part, an archeological task—the task of digging out a lost civilization from the debris that has swamped and buried it.
In the poem I have quoted at the opening of this essay, Wallace Stevens wrote:
One man opposing a society
If properly misunderstood becomes a myth.
I fear the understanding.
So once did we all, but history—the history of the avant-garde—has now clearly demonstrated that we have more to fear from the myth than from the understanding.
1 A perfect example of this myth in action is to be found in the symposium called “Art, Culture and Conservatism,” in the Summer 1972 number of Partisan Review. Among its other contributions is an essay by Richard Gilman, entitled “The Idea of the Avant-Garde,” in which the former literary editor of the New Republic and former drama critic for Newsweek, now a professor at Yale University and contributing editor to Partisan Review, defends the idea of “absolute art” (“Happenings . . . John Cage’s music, Ad Reinhardt’s Black paintings, Beckett’s How It Is”) as if this has not been one of the principal prestige items of our culture for as many years as he has been observing the scene, and as if his own highly visible career as a critic has not been associated with its phenomenal success. The question never raised in this essay, or elsewhere in the symposium, is this: Would Mr. Gilman have been invited to Yale, or to Newsweek, or Partisan Review, if he had set himself in vocal opposition to such “absolute art”? This is a case where a little autobiography would have been far more instructive than a solemn display of “disinterested” critical analysis.
5 “Mallarmé is an innovator in one way,” wrote Paul Valéry, “Rimbaud in another. And the remainder in each is not new, but traditional.” In Leonardo, Poe, Mallarmé, translated by Malcolm Cowley and James R. Lawler (Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 372.