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University of California Press
Embattled Avant-Gardes: Modernism's Resistance to Commodity Culture in Europe / Edition 1

Embattled Avant-Gardes: Modernism's Resistance to Commodity Culture in Europe / Edition 1

by Walter L. Adamson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520261532
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/17/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Walter L. Adamson is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of History at Emory University where he teaches modern European intellectual and cultural history as well as modern Italian history. He is author of Avant-Garde Florence: From Modernism to Fascism. winner of the Howard Marraro Prize of the American Historical Association, and Hegemony and Revolution (UC Press), winner of the Howard Marraro Prize of the Society for Italian Historical Studies.

Read an Excerpt

Embattled Avant-Gardes

Modernism's Resistance to Commodity Culture in Europe
By Walter L. Adamson

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25270-7

Chapter One

Intellectuals, Commodity Culture, and Religions of Art in the Nineteenth Century

In one of his earliest reflections, Walter Benjamin wrote that "color is something spiritual, something whose clarity is spiritual, so that when colors are mixed they produce nuances of color, not a blur." He gave as an example the rainbow, which is "a pure childlike image. In it color is wholly contour; for the person who sees with a child's eyes, it marks boundaries, is not a layer of something superimposed on matter, as it is for adults. The latter abstract from color, regarding it as a deceptive cloak for individual objects existing in time and space." As the child views it, color allows for the creation of an "interrelated totality of the world of the imagination." Unlike most adults, artists continue to participate in this world, which is why they are able to lead us to a kind of imaginative experience in which life presents itself as just such an interrelated totality. "The order of art is paradisiacal," Benjamin concluded, "because there is no thought of the dissolution of boundaries-from excitement-in the object of experience. Instead the world is full of color in a state of identity, innocence, and harmony." Just a year before, a forty-seven-year-old Kandinsky had opened some autobiographical reflections by describing the colors that had made the most powerful impression upon him as a child. Among them was the "juicy green" that was exposed as the second layer of bark that "the coachman used to strip from thin branches for me to create a spiral pattern." Such primal experiences, he tells us, had provided him with the spiritual resources that had in turn made possible all of his art, an activity that he compared to "hunting for a particular hour, which always was and remains the most beautiful hour of the Moscow day.... To paint this hour, I thought, must be for the artist the most impossible, the greatest joy."

Despite great differences in age, background, and vocation, Benjamin and Kandinsky shared a sense that our experience of color offered special access to a kind of prereflective immediacy, that this access gave art unique value as a conduit to an absolute realm beyond finite experience, and that in such a linkage of art and spirituality lay the highest sort of happiness. For the young Benjamin, such insights quickened his sense that a new, genuinely post-Kantian epistemology was possible, one that would overcome the splits between subject and object, reason and understanding, forms of intuition and linguistic categories-splits that shut us off from spiritual experience and leave us with a desiccated conception of human existence. Because works of art were free to treat color not as "superimposed on matter" but as a medium of intuition that came prior to spatio-temporal intuitions of form, they were able to restore to us a form of experience prior to the "adult" Kantian world and, in doing so, promised a possibility of peering through the cracks and distortions in the patterns and rhythms of everyday finitude, thereby relocating lost traces of the absolute.

The dream of drawing upon prerational, "childlike" resources in order to reintegrate the modern experiential world and reestablish our access to the absolute did not of course begin with the modernist generations. Romantic, Hegelian, and a variety of postromantic attacks on Kantianism and the Newtonian worldview that underlay it were a staple of nineteenth-century intellectual life in Europe, the dialectical twin of the positivism and materialism that such critiques rightly saw as dominating the age. Yet the fact that such attacks, despite their frequent vigor, appeared to be peripheral to the main currents of nineteenth-century European thought until its closing decade suggests that the influence exerted by the Kantian worldview, and the hegemony of scientific inquiry that it sanctioned, derived from more than just Kant's own formidable intellectual powers. As Jürgen Habermas has argued in his presentation of Max Weber, the categorical separation of truth, morality, and beauty deriving from Kant's philosophy expressed the irrevocable transition away from a society based on a hierarchical, religiously sanctioned worldview linked to a single monolithic value system, a transition that is constitutive of the epistemological and experiential conditions of "modernity." Kant's conception of experience legitimated an approach to knowledge that treated natural science, morality, and aesthetics as separate domains, each with its own inner logic, each requiring a specialized form of inquiry that was autonomous from the others. In this view, truth is associated primarily with the scientific understanding of nature, but each of the spheres is rationalized in the sense that its truths no longer depend upon any relationship to some prior cosmological or metaphysical system but rather follow from inquiry proper to that sphere. The way thereby opens for science to pursue ever more specialized inquiries, which become institutionalized as distinct disciplines and professions, and whose results do not need to be coordinated with morality, aesthetic truths, or any general metaphysical understandings. Indeed, scientific truths become wholly inaccessible to everyday consciousness. As Hannah Arendt would later write, "though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, [the truths of the modern scientific worldview] will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought." In such a world, immediate experience-like a whittled branch or a Moscow sunset-becomes obsolete and probably illusory as any sort of knowledge.

It is hardly a surprise that intellectuals primarily oriented to aesthetic and spiritual experience would feel uncomfortable in a world where knowledge had not only been sundered into incommunicable bits but in which the forms of it they privileged had been rendered secondary, if not altogether suspect. Yet their sense of a sundered or fragmented experience was by no means confined to epistemology. The stripping away of recognizable and expressible qualities that Arendt had noted in the world of modern scientific understanding was paralleled in the world of nineteenth-century labor. As G. W. F. Hegel was already suggesting in his early Jena lectures, the concrete labor of peasant agriculture or artisanal crafts had given way to an abstract world of factory production in which the laborer no longer brought forth a completed product and in which the "labor of the bourgeois class" had become an "abstract trade with an individualist mindset based on uprightness." Moreover, the enormous increase in goods produced for the market, whose circulation was made possible by the abstraction of the money form, had produced a dizzying world of exchange no longer linked to concrete human needs or continuous face-to-face relationships. The world of things had ceased to manifest a space-time continuum and now appeared as a jumble of isolated moments whose connections were not immediately apparent. In the rapidly expanding urban settings in which such manufacture and commerce took place, life took on an abstraction and depersonalization that threatened a sense of enduring subjectivity, as well as a rapidity of movement and increase in scale that redefined it.

Yet there was also a more positive way to construe the changes becoming manifest in nineteenth-century urban life. One of Hegel's great insights, which philosophically informed sociologists such as Weber and Habermas would later pursue, was that the fragmentation of experience that the Kantian worldview and the material organization of modern life both implied were two sides of a single process: that of the decline of a hierarchical, religious, and metaphysical mode of organizing and legitimating a cultural order. Although the nature of the new regime of modernity that would come to replace this hierarchical cultural order was not yet fully evident, Hegel understood that the modern fragmentation of experience was at the same time the cultural democratization of experience-a process he sought to moderate in antidemocratic ways. Such efforts, however, were ultimately futile. As another of Hegel's twentieth-century students recognized in a classic essay, in the modern world "a democratizing trend is our predestined fate, not only in politics, but also in intellectual and cultural life as a whole."

Looking back upon the nineteenth century from our vantage point in the twenty-first, I would suggest that with the democratic revolutions of the end of the eighteenth century came a collapse of social hierarchies whose consequences may be summarized in four points. First, the normative basis of social structure and organization moved in the nineteenth century from the vertical to the horizontal, from a social order based on rank and honor to one based on human dignity and rights in which the "essential equality of all human beings" is affirmed as a "fundamental principle." This new normative foundation obviously did not mean that actual relationships of wealth and power were equalized or that hierarchies of class, gender, race, or nation were erased. Indeed, to many observers of modernity the opposite has seemed truer: relationships of wealth and power tend toward greater inequality, and empirical hierarchies intensify as democratization advances and system capacities expand. Still, the normative change involved in the requirement that all persons, regardless of class, status, or wealth, be addressed as Mr. or Mrs. and be entitled to equal rights under the law has had profound implications for every aspect of life-political, social, economic, and cultural. Second, the repository of the rights and dignity inherent in this new, more horizontal culture is the human individual who is conceived as a unique being-as a person with "individuality" who can be "true" to himself or herself, who demands recognition as much for his or her uniqueness as for his or her universality as a bearer of dignity and rights, and who desires to be able to express that uniqueness through creative activity. Third, in such a democratizing culture, value judgments about persons assume increasingly objective forms. Although race, class, gender, and other forms of bias continue to inform these judgments, such intrinsic or ascribed criteria come under relentless pressure, and value judgments about persons are increasingly granted legitimacy only when based on the merit of individual achievements extrinsically measured. Finally, this new democratizing culture becomes linked to the development of public spheres, which, however imperfectly realized in institutional terms, tend normatively to regard all individuals as equally legitimate participants. Similarly, this culture becomes linked to an economic marketplace in which individuals are formally free to enter into contracts that will be legally enforced without regard to the social status or economic standing of the participants; to representative political institutions based on ever-increasing (ultimately universal) rights of suffrage; and to institutions of popular culture such as film and newspapers in which "an increasing number of readers become writers" as "everyone becomes something of an expert."

Sketched in such broad strokes, modern democratic culture may seem utterly familiar, yet it contains one anomaly important for grasping the cultural life of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that is easily missed. While the normative equality bound up with the collapse of social hierarchies implied a process of homogenization that nineteenth-century intellectuals often referred to dismissively as "leveling," the romantic sense for the "individuality" and even uniqueness of individuals that began to be asserted by writers such as J. J. Rousseau and J. G. Herder opened up a space for heterogeneity that was no less palpable. Thus, even as claims to privilege on the basis of inherited status became normatively less valid, claims to recognition on the basis of individual uniqueness often took their place. Moreover, as Herder was perhaps the first to see, claims to recognition on the basis of uniqueness could apply not just to single persons but to the cultural groups from which they took their identities (nationalities, religions, ethnicities, linguistic groups, professions, and, ultimately, genders and sexual orientations). Indeed, as one student of multiculturalism points out, claims to recognition in our world generally have far more to do with allegiances to cultural groups than with the inner voices of pure individuality. In the intellectual world of modern art, efforts to assert control over the production, distribution, and evaluation of art by artists seeking special recognition as a group (e.g., futurists) were common. And even where such group claims were absent, it was arguably their sense of themselves as special persons which explains why modernists invariably tied their support of democratic culture to the idea that they would retain control over artistic standards and that art would not be reduced to a commodity.

But let us return to the nineteenth century. With his project on the Paris arcades, the mature Benjamin launched perhaps the most ambitious effort to comprehend the changing dimensions of nineteenth-century urban experience that has ever been conceived. From a mass of notes that would ultimately amount to over eight hundred printed pages, he wrote a synoptic essay in 1935 responding to a request from Theodor Adorno and the Institute for Social Research in New York. Here, in six short kaleidoscopic sections, he argued that four new phenomena had converged to produce a fundamentally changed urban world by the early 1850s: a culture of commodification; an allied entertainment industry based on exhibitions, amusement parks, newspapers, and advertising; visual imaging technologies such as panoramas, daguerreotypes, and photography; and a public architecture based on iron and glass. As he explained in a central section dedicated to the Parisian caricaturist and illustrator Jean-Ignace-Isidore Gérard (Grandville):

World exhibitions glorify the exchange value of the commodity. They create a framework in which its use value recedes into the background. They open a phantasmagoria in which a person enters in order to be distracted. The entertainment industry makes this easier by elevating the person to the level of the commodity. He surrenders to its manipulations while enjoying his alienation from himself and others. The enthronement of the commodity, with its luster of distraction, is the secret theme of Grandville's art.... Its ingenuity in representing inanimate objects corresponds to what Marx calls the "theological niceties" of the commodity. They are manifest clearly in the spécialité-a category of goods which appears at this time in the luxuries industry. Under Grandville's pencil, the whole of nature is transformed into specialties. He presents them in the same spirit in which the advertisement (the term réclame also originates at this point) begins to present its articles. He ends in madness.

Grandville's accommodation to the new commodity culture represented one artistic response to the new convergence of commodity and visuality in mid-nineteenth-century Europe. But Benjamin was keen to show that another such response in those years had been no less fervent. In the penultimate section of his essay, devoted to the intellectual as flâneur, he crystallized the two interconnected responses:

The art that begins to doubt its task and ceases to be "inseparable from ... utility" (Baudelaire) must make novelty its highest value. The arbiter novarum rerum for such an art becomes the snob. He is to art what the dandy is to fashion.... Newspapers flourish, along with magasins de nouveautés. The press organizes the market in spiritual values, in which at first there is a boom. Nonconformists rebel against consigning art to the marketplace. They rally round the banner of l'art pour l'art. From this watchword derives the conception of the "total work of art"-the Gesamtkunstwerk-which would seal art off from the developments in technology. The solemn rite with which it is celebrated is the pendant to the distraction that transfigures the commodity. Both abstract from the social existence of human beings. Baudelaire succumbs to the rage for Wagner.

Interestingly, however, market-oriented opportunism and autonomous art do not exhaust the routes that Benjamin saw for intellectuals in this new commodity culture.


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Table of Contents



Intellectuals, Commodity Culture, and Religions of Art in the Nineteenth Century
2. F.T. Marinetti
3. Guillaume Apollinaire
4. Wassily Kandinsky

5. The Rise and Fall of Design Modernism: Bauhaus, De Stijl, and Purism
6. Futurism and Its Modernist Rivals in Fascist Italy
7. André Breton’s Surrealism
8. The Critical Modernism of Herbert Read



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"This [is an] erudite, richly comparative study of avant-garde aesthetics and public engagement."—Modernism/Modernity

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