Aesthetic Revolutions and Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Movements

Aesthetic Revolutions and Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Movements

by Ales Erjavec


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This collection examines key aesthetic avant-garde art movements of the twentieth century and their relationships with revolutionary politics. The contributors distinguish aesthetic avant-gardes -whose artists aim to transform society and the ways of sensing the world through political means-from the artistic avant-gardes, which focus on transforming representation. Following the work of philosophers such as Friedrich Schiller and Jacques Rancière, the contributors argue that the aesthetic is inherently political and that aesthetic avant-garde art is essential for political revolution. In addition to analyzing Russian constructivsm, surrealism, and Situationist International, the contributors examine Italian futurism's model of integrating art with politics and life, the murals of revolutionary Mexico and Nicaragua, 1960s American art, and the Slovenian art collective NSK's construction of a fictional political state in the 1990s. Aesthetic Revolutions and Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Movements traces the common foundations and goals shared by these disparate arts communities and shows how their art worked towards effecting political and social change.

Contributors. John E. Bowlt, Sascha Bru, David Craven, Aleš Erjavec, Tyrus Miller, Raymond Spiteri, Miško Šuvakovic

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822358725
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/09/2015
Pages: 340
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

Aleš Erjavec is Research Professor in the Institute of Philosophy of the Scientific Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts. He is the author of Postmodernism, Postsocialism and Beyond, and the editor of Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art under Late Socialism.

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Aesthetic Revolutions and Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Movements

By Ale? Erjavec

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5872-5


Politics as the Art of the Impossible

The Heteronomy of Italian Futurist Art-Action


My object in this paper is to search for what I will provisionally describe as real ugliness, understanding that its existence is open to doubt.

— Bernard Bosanquet (1889)

German expressionist poet Gottfried Benn, admittedly not an impartial commentator, once observed that Italian futurism was "the founding event of modern art in Europe." Benn's assertion requires qualification, but it highlights the importance of the advent of Italian futurism to many writers and artists outside Italy in the first half of the twentieth century. One of the first of its kind in that century, the Italian avant-garde movement introduced a new model of sorts, a shibboleth almost, that was to inspire and shape many later avant-gardes. For never before had an aesthetic movement so forcibly performed the genesis of an avant-garde. The brash histrionics and cunning force with which Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and his followers placed futurism on the international aesthetic map from the publication of the "Founding and Manifesto of Futurism" in 1909 in Le Figaro onward indeed played a vital role in creating a discursive space within which other avant-gardes emerge. For better or worse, futurism is to be thanked for the most fundamental associations and connotations now tied to the notion of the early twentieth-century avant-gardes: the foregrounding of youth and originality, the championing of experimentation, the emancipation of the manifesto as an art form, the adoption of agonistic and antagonist poses toward anything that stands in the way of change, and of course the often paradoxical, but always open-ended, future-inflected program many later avant-gardes put forth in different ways as well.

Yet many facets of the Italian movement also went largely unmatched, not least because few aesthetic revolutions in the first half of the twentieth century unfolded on so many terrains at once as that of futurism. Futurism, which originated in literature, indeed proved quite successful in realizing its attempt to finally actualize the romantic dream of changing life through art — or, as Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero put it in 1915, in realizing its ambition of a total "Reconstruction of the Universe" through art. In the course of four decades few aspects of life would not be touched upon by futurists. From clothing and fashion to food and toys, from love to sex, from modern transportation to communication and media, from interior design to advertising and of course the arts in all forms: futurism suggested changes to them all. This wide range of areas in which futurists were active marks how they went against ivory tower aesthetics, willfully sought out art's heteronomy, and always and everywhere looked for ways to question art's alleged autonomy.

The common denominator or crux of the movement's critical endeavor was an expanded notion of art: opposing the reduction of art to mere contemplation or disinterested sensuous pleasure, futurism insisted that art was (to be) action too. This inclusive approach to art did not negate older ways of looking at it; futurists continued to write, paint, and sculpt, for example. Yet their notion of art substantially added to older manners of practicing and reflecting on modern art, as I show in the first part of this chapter. With its expanded notion of art, an art that also included actions and all sorts of practices, futurism came with the suggestion that artists and writers could also intervene in society. And perhaps more than any other aspect of futurism (from its verbo-visual celebration of modern technology, metropolitan life, and violence, or its promotion of speed, vitalism, and dynamism, to its heightened sensitivity to sound and noise) that promise endowed the movement with such broad appeal. For although the consequences and full import of that promise were far from clear yet in futurism's early years, it brought the exciting prospect of a new era in which experimental artists' and writers' social roles and functions would be expanded and enlarged as well.

Consider the bellicose way that Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini recalled their first reading of the "Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting" (1910) in Turin: "We exchanged almost as many knocks as we did ideas, in order to protect from certain death the genius of Italian art." Few passages illustrate so vividly how art-action (the French term Marinetti coined for futurism's expanded notion of art) always took a central place in the movement. Yet the same passage also reminds us of futurism's distinctly Italian character. Indeed, futurism's main concern was with changing life in Italy, a country whose political culture was going through fundamental transitions, in part due to Italy's relatively late industrialization and technological modernization. Many opposing political factions (anarchist and syndicalist leaders in particular) held that Italy as a nation simply lacked a contemporary, modern cultural identity. The futurists had the same view and thus put the creation of a present-day Italy (italianismo) at the center of their project. As an aesthetic movement that promoted an experimental and thus always open-ended form of art, however, futurism differed considerably from nationalist groups in the field of politics. Whereas many sought to define italianità negatively — that is, as that which was not foreign — and others, such as the later Benito Mussolini, cultivated the memorial cult of romanità, the futurists always kept the future of Italy open and never went as far as to bring it to discursive closure. Marinetti indeed tended to look toward the immanent value of the subject to forge a new, nonessentialist Italy. Futurism envisioned an Italian nation of free subjects, then, and portrayed itself as an emancipator of Italians, its art as the key to unlock that new community.

The view that Italian culture lacked a present-day identity was widely held, so it made sense for the futurists to propose to change this situation from within art as part of a broad social and cultural movement for reform. It was not until 1902 that contemporary literature and art became a topic in Italian newspapers, and by consequence gained wide circulation in political culture. In that year the Giornale d'Italia, as the first large newspaper, introduced its terza pagina, or cultural page, and Benedetto Croce began to fill its columns, shaping a unified "national" taste. Futurists opposed the liberal humanist or "lay pope" Croce in their publications because he mainly contemplated the greatness of Italy's cultural past and disseminated German idealist views — "Against ... Benedetto Croce, we pit the worldly-wise Italian [lo scugnizzo italiano]." Yet futurists, along with a battery of intellectuals, also tried to assert their visibility through the press, aiming to follow in Croce's footsteps. With Guiseppe Prezzolini (editor-in-chief of the journal La Voce), Giovanni Papini and Ardengo Soffici (editors of Lacerba), and Enrico Corradini, among others, Marinetti began attacking Italy's adoration of its long-gone past. The verbose declamations of anti-passatismo that ensued tend to have a silly ring to them today. Yet when we recall that the aesthetic sphere in Italy only gained widespread visibility in the public space through the press beginning in 1902, those diatribes gain a different ring. Clearly, art was in part still rationalizing itself as a functionally differentiated field within the public space or civil society; its public face and function as well as its discursive and structural confines were still being negotiated. It thus appears by no means coincidental that at this very moment futurism began to advocate an expanded notion of art and thereby to engage as well in a negotiation about art's function and place in society at large.

Certain aspects of futurism's historical attempt to negotiate the function of art continue to incite fascination, if not discomfort. The movement appears particularly haunted by its inclusion of political action or practical politics into art, which was to lead to one of few political parties launched from within art in the foregoing century. One objective of this chapter is to show that this "turn to politics" was a logical consequence of its more general expanded notion of art. By zooming in on the political facet of futurism's aesthetic revolution, I aim neither to apologize for the Italian futurist aesthetic revolution nor to reduce it to politics. Rather, I wish to highlight that to properly assess both the paroxysm and the limitations of any aesthetic revolution, including futurism's, political facets remain a mandatory stop along the line.

Art as Action

Anyone who has ever read a futurist manifesto, especially one written during the movement's so-called first or "heroic" phase up and until the March on Rome, will be familiar with the often humorous, hyperbolic, and at times rhetorically inflated ways in which futurism presented itself as the absolute novum. Since the emergence of the movement over a century ago, that self-asserted novelty has been so avidly deconstructed by critics that little of it still seems to stand. This has done futurism an unpardonable injustice. For once we look beyond its verbose and exaggerated claims, it is hard to deny that the movement made a difference in thinking about art as a social practice. The common denominator of futurism's ambitious project was an expanded notion of art: while art so far had been commonly viewed as a site of contemplation, futurism began to look at it principally as a site of action. Introducing "the fist into the struggle of art," the futurist aesthetic thereby substantially added to long-sedimented ways of thinking about art, particularly about modern art. Modern aesthetics' reflection on the ugly and the inaesthetic especially warrants attention here, not least because one of the key (though often overlooked) passages in which the futurist aesthetic was fleshed out also looked at the ugly: "Bravely, we bring the 'ugly' into literature, and kill off its ritual pomp wherever we find it." As this sentence from Marinetti's "Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature" (1912) makes clear, futurism inscribed itself in a distinctly modern tradition that emphasized the ugly. Why would it have done so? And why did Marinetti put the notion in scare quotes?

Whether there is a universal ontology or a single definition of the ugly is a vexed issue, yet it is luckily one we can sidestep when dealing with futurism. To bring out the role of the ugly in futurism's aesthetic, it suffices to cast a cursory glance at the category's place and function in the work and thought of just a few predecessors. Some of the founding texts of modern art and literature deal with the ugly. One of the most famous is Friedrich Schlegel's Über das Studium der griechischen Poesie (1795). While exploring the very notion of an aesthetic revolution, Schlegel's Studium above all stressed the role of beauty in art. Yet the Studium also had a few important things to say about the ugly in this context. Espousing a view typical of Jena romanticism, Schlegel implied that art only became truly modern with authors like himself, writers who also paid attention to the ugly. To Schlegel beauty was the norm in art, and its true counterpart was neither the sublime nor the interesting, but the ugly, that which simply was not treated or seen as art. A modern artist, self-conscious of his practice, was therefore also to plunge headfirst into the ugly, to explore it, and to consider whether advances in art could be made by bringing aspects of nonart into the realm of beauty.

Hans-Robert Jauss has pointed out that with Schlegel the insight emerged that the entire dynamic of change in modern art could well be summarized by an endless exploration and domestication of nonart. Indeed, the ugly in modern aesthetics from romanticism onward came to be broadly defined as those forms and topics which, at a certain point in history, challenge what counts as art and literature. The ugly, the name given to the inaesthetic or nonart as it is introduced into art, thus came to be depicted as a category, always broadening the domain of beauty within a specific historical constellation. The most important consequence of this way of looking at the ugly is that it made way for the assertion that true change in modern art always occurs by bringing into art ugly contents and forms that at a certain point are not regarded as part of art. This is, for example, why the symbolists' turn to the city and everyday metropolitan life in poetry was received as both distasteful and groundbreaking. This is also why Marcel Duchamp's simplest ready-mades are still remembered by a wider audience as constitutive of modern art. Rupture in art, revolution even, always comes with the radically ugly.

In the course of the nineteenth century the ugly was approached time and again. What Schlegel's study of (pre)modern poetry did for German romanticism, Victor Hugo's long introduction to his play Cromwell (1827) did for French romanticism. Art portrays nature, Hugo argued, and because nature on occasion is also ugly, its seedier aspects too were to be the subject of writing. Like Schlegel before him, Hugo made beauty turn full circle: here too the ugly and the grotesque were in the end to add luster to, or to expand, the domain of beauty. This tendency to subjugate the ugly to beauty was also characteristic of Karl Rozenkranz's famous Ästhetik des Hässlichen (1853), a study that deeply influenced many French symbolists, most notably Charles Baudelaire. A student of Hegel, Rozenkranz was the first to systematically think about the ugly in all its forms. Distinguishing various such forms (in nature, in thought, and in art), Rozenkranz paid ample attention to the grotesque and to caricature. Yet for Rozenkranz too it was the beauty of the ugly in art, the way in which seemingly ugly phenomena could be made to bear on beauty, that really mattered. An avid reader of Rozenkranz, Baudelaire in turn looked to beautify the ugly. The title of his most famous book of poetry is obviously telling in this respect: Les Fleurs du mal. Thematically introducing in poetry aspects of everyday life that before had no place there — extreme poverty, subjects dying, carcasses, and so on — Baudelaire further praised Goya's portrayal of ugly, monstrous figures, because of their imaginative power. Goya's monsters did not exist in reality, and Baudelaire thereby seconded Hugo's earlier observation that the introduction of the ugly into the realm of beauty could also considerably expand that realm's imaginative horizon. Yet with Baudelaire the realm of the inaesthetic was further enlarged to include not only all given aspects of life outside art, but also all potential products of the imagination artists and writers could censor while producing art. Schlegel's contemporaries Novalis and Tieck, with their glorification of the unconscious and the dreamlike, had ventured there before.

By the turn of the century, just when aestheticism was celebrating the beauty of the ugly in unprecedented ways, some went as far as to bracket the distinction between the ugliness and beauty altogether. Perhaps most importantly, in Italy Benedetto Croce's Estetica come scienzia dell'espressione e linguistica generale (1902) quite radically broke with previous approaches to the ugly by stating that in the aesthetic process of expression or creation the ugliness/beauty opposition simply had to be bracketed. Whatever means an artist or writer draws on in the act of creation is (and remains) aesthetic, Croce's expressivist theory implied. However, there is little evidence suggesting that Croce's idealist, post-Hegelian view of the ugly left a mark on the Italian futurist aesthetic that was to develop shortly thereafter. Quite the opposite: like their modern predecessors, futurists continued to work with the opposition between the ugly and beauty, trying to domesticate the former within the latter. In his manifestos Marinetti indeed did away with all traditions except with that of the ugly. Like Schlegel, it transpires, Marinetti believed that for (futurist) art to represent an advance, it had to introduce certain forms and contents that so far had not been assigned a place in art. In a speech to Venetians in 1910, for example, he warned: "There's no use howling against the presumed ugliness of the locomotives, trams, motorcars, and bicycles, which for us represent the opening lines of our great Futurist aesthetic." Thus firmly inscribing futurism into a distinctly modern tradition, and explicitly "uglifying" art, Marinetti's efforts at first sight presented little more than a continuation of symbolism's and aestheticism's championing of modern technological advances, violence, and war. Shortly after the "Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism" appeared in Le Figaro, René Ghil not incorrectly questioned the originality of futurism in this sense: "What's new in writing about factories, machines, big cities?" Not much, it had to be admitted. "Verhaeren," for example, "did so years ago." What was in part new, however, is that the movement from the outset also bent this older and sedimented tradition into hitherto largely unexplored directions. Indeed, Marinetti did not put "the ugly" in scare quotes in his "Technical Manifesto" by accident.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

 Acknowledgments xv

Introduction. Aleš Erjavec 1

1. Politics as the Art of the Impossible: The Heteronomy of Italian Futurist Art-Action / Sascha Bru 19

2. 5 X 5 = 25? The Science of Constructivism / John E. Bowlt 42

3. Convulsive Beauty: Surrealism as Aesthetic Revolution / Raymond Spiteri 80

4. Aesthetic Avant-Gardes and Revolutionary Movements from Modern Latin America / David Craven 113

5. All along the Watchtower: Aesthetic Revolution in the United States during the 1960s / Tyrus Miller 145

6. From Unitary Urbanism to the Society of the Spectacle: The Situationist Aesthetic Revolution / Raymond Spiteri 178

7. NSK: Cricial Phenomenology of the State / Miško Šuvakovic 215

Conclusion. Avant-Gardes, Revolutions, and Aesthetics / Aleš Erjavec 255

Bibliography 287

Contributors 311

Index 313

What People are Saying About This

Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity - Terry Smith

"This is a quite remarkable collection that profiles the art/politics relationship as it was concretely negotiated at key moments throughout the twentieth century. No other study enables us to look so closely to see just what the art/politics relation amounted to—or, more exactly, what was the real relationship between artistic practice and revolutionary social transformation."

Empires of Vision: A Reader - Martin Jay

"At the crossroads of the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of art, a collision occurred that released the energy fueling the various avant-gardes of the 20th century. However unfulfilled their quest to revolutionize both art and life may now seem, the shock waves it set off still reverberate in our own time. Focusing on both familiar and unfamiliar avant-garde movements around the world, the provocative texts assembled by Aleš Erjavec in this scintillating collection demonstrate that they may still trigger new explosions in the years to come."

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