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Peter Burger, Timothy Morton, and the new Avant-Garde

by on March 21, 2013

Last semester I took a class on the theory of the avant-garde. Our main text was Peter Burger’s thoughtfully titled book Theory of the Avant-Garde, which Morton cites in his essay “Objects as Temporary Autonomous Zones”. According to Burger, the avant-garde was a specific historical moment. It was the result of art being institutionalized, and then becoming increasingly more aware of its own autonomous status (it strikes me now that Burger treats the institution of art as an object). As artists were freed from dependence on the church or noble patrons, they were freed up to concentrate more on their craft. Form increased in importance relative to content. Eventually artists desired to break their work free of its own institutionalized (museum-bound and capitalism-raped) status because they felt ineffectual toward the society that they critiqued. This led to the avant-garde of the WWI era. It failed, and Burger thought that the reintegration of art into life in bourgeois society would always be impossible. This is a pretty negative stance on art, but it remained pretty much unchallenged and accepted throughout the class. It is rather hard to imagine how artists working in today’s sterile institutionalized scene could ever recapture something like the stomach-churning, journalist-enraging gall of Zurich Dada or Russian Futurism. It seems impossible to shock people anymore, what with the internet and mass desensitization. But the writer of the preface to Burger’s book, Jochen Schulte-Sasse, gives artistic hopefuls some room to breathe by noting that Burger remains in a realm of theoretical abstraction and does not leave room for ‘concrete heterogeneous experience’. I think he’s right, and I think this is where Morton comes in.

According to Morton, shocking the bourgeoisie has become outdated and downright boring. Because of his notion aesthetic causality (which I don’t fully grasp), Morton advocates forming alliances with objects. This alliances must ethically align themselves with the facts of existence by avoiding ‘brittleness’ and ‘-isms’, which necessarily predicate themselves on metalanguage. We must do this, according to Morton, because “non-humans have so successfully impinged upon human social, psychic, and aesthetic space” (6). I believe that this sort of thinking – that we are now more in contact and mixed up with the non-human – is an illusion, and I don’t really grasp the legitimacy of Morton’s connection between his new aesthetic and objects. In fact, this has been fuzzy for me in all of the books we’ve read so far – I understand why correlationism has dried up and needs to be left behind, and I understand why anthropocentrism is dangerous, but I don’t necessarily understand the link between these ideas and objects. Why are objects so important? Why should I care what it’s like to be an Atari? Can’t I just play the Atari? Actually never mind, I have played Atari out of sheer retro-curiosity, and it’s not very fun. But my point is that I think most of the really important moves of speculative realism could be made without obsessing over objects, of whose existence I am still unconvinced is anything less than a human spatio-temporal illusion.

But to get back to my thoughts about the avant-garde, I think Morton’s thinking sans object-obsession offers a promising vision of the future of art and politics. In a move that one could possibly see as the continuation of Western art’s process of self-awareness, long thought to have ended with the historical avant-garde, artists will no longer be swayed by the ego-boosting draw of brittle -isms. We will have to stop looking for the “perfect attitude or the perfect aesthetic prescription” (6) and open ourselves to a sort of agnostic curiosity like Bogost’s wonder and awe. I can even imagine this sort of openness and curiosity in cultural terms as the rebirth of “authentic” (and those are very heavy quotation marks) individuality in the wake of the post-WWII subcultural progression and decline of ‘coolness’ into the quagmire of solipsistic, self-effacing, ironic-to-the-nth-degree hipsterism. With coolness having completely collapsed and been exposed as the illusion that it is, people will have nothing left to turn to but the kind of heterogeneous actual lived experience for which Schulte-Sasse thinks Burger leaves room. At least, that’s what I hope will happen.

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From → Quadruple Object

One Comment
  1. This is a really interesting thought. I want to go back over Bogost before commenting here, but I have been focusing on the aesthetic angle of things lately, particularly in relation to eliciting sensations of horror or the uncanny as Morton suggests (I have been independently researching horror as a genre or (as Morton refers to it) a trope for the last two years). This particular sentence struck me quite a bit:

    “In a move that one could possibly see as the continuation of Western art’s process of self-awareness, long thought to have ended with the historical avant-garde, artists will no longer be swayed by the ego-boosting draw of brittle -isms. We will have to stop looking for the “perfect attitude or the perfect aesthetic prescription” (6) and open ourselves to a sort of agnostic curiosity like Bogost’s wonder and awe.”

    I see this (and maybe erroneously so) as the postmodern malaise: the loss of the self-referential luxury, the awareness that there is no “final rebuilding” or “perfect form”, or that all of our actions tend to slide towards the same slow deterioration, and ultimately to the same dynamics of power and control regardless of whatever -ism may have inspired it.

    Very interesting line of thought to take, and again, what i see as a very practical use for OOO and SR (if critiquing can even be called practical).

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