For the Avant-Garde: Notes on Art, Capitalism & Revolution

For the Avant-Garde: Notes on Art, Capitalism & Revolution
Chapter in the book ‘The Artist’s Economy’
Published by Braço de Ferro, Portugal

For the Avant-Garde:
Notes on Art, Capitalism & Revolution.1

To return to the avant-garde is not to repeat the avant-garde. What is needed today is to re-animate the project of the avant-garde: to repeat the gesture not the particular moves. It is the contention of these remarks that the avant-garde should be seen to be steeped in negativity. By this I do not mean negativity in the sense of nihilism nor refusal. Rather, it is fundamental to the avant-garde that it views art itself as negative in the face of both a world and an art that are themselves negative: founded on what is absent from them. In other words, the avant-garde did not indulge in negativity to oppose the positive in art; rather, negation was a response to that which already existed as negativity.

Today, nothing could seem more unlikely than a return to the avant-garde. Nothing would seem to be more in the past. Not only is avant-garde practice associated with a modernism that is well and truly over but the very idea of the avant-garde is conceived as belonging to a bygone era. Why? The avant-garde believed in the need for the radical transformation not only of art but of society: indeed that one was not possible without the other; it believed in a passionate commitment to truth, not as something local and contingent but universal and necessitating action; and it believed in collectivity: the agency of a movement rather than the representation of individual interests. These traits cannot but seem to be out of keeping with a hegemony in art today which privileges the detachment of such things as relativism, contingency, irony and identity. If, in an age of detachment, multiplicity and difference, the certainty of the avant-garde seems out of place, it is worth remembering what the avant-garde was certain about; the avant-garde was certain about was the need to transform art (and not, for example, about their own omnipotence). I wish to show, amongst other things, that from the point of view of the avant-garde, it is the current situation of art which seems unquestioning and positive compared to the avant-garde’s radical negativity.

It is worth pointing out that in 1914 the avant-garde also could not have seemed very likely. A succession of modernist movements had established art’s autonomy and the constitution of art’s separate disciplines was firmly entrenched. Art was progressing in the wake of a successful aesthetic revolution. It is only from a position after the avant-garde, that this expanded situation for art can be read as a kind of crisis. And could it not be that the situation of art now, in the aftermath of postmodernism, could also turn out to be a kind of crisis (whatever else it is)?

One of the ways in which communism haunted capitalism in the twentieth century was by making capitalism a thinkable totality. Today, both communism and capitalism are almost unmentionable, for reasons which are at once both distinct and the same. For today’s dominant ideology, that of liberal democracy, communism is an abhorrent aberration, whose very name must be avoided in case it conjures up its object. In contrast, capitalism is to be assumed as the very ground of possibility of contemporary society and therefore its virtues are beyond question. The removal of the word capitalism from our vocabulary makes it hard to analyse capitalism as a totality and harder still to mount any kind of sustained opposition to capitalism as such (as opposed to its various effects). In other words, capitalism and communism are unmentionable because their is an attempt to suppress critical thought from addressing capitalism at all.

For the avant-garde, capitalism was neither something separate from art nor an all pervasive condition or ground to which art had to submit, whether it liked it or not. On the contrary, the avant-garde started from a conception of art as divided by contradiction. This is to say that the divisions and contradictions within art are the inevitable result of art being formed within a divided society. For the avant-garde, the non-unity of art is not a condition of multiplicity and diversity but evidence that art is a site of struggle and conflict.

The analysis and critique of capitalism on the one hand, and the promise of communism on the other, are part of neither our political nor aesthetic discourse, as they were for the avant-garde. The fate of the avant-garde would seem to be linked to the fate of communism, in that they shared both a desire to understand the world as a whole and the desire to change it completely. It is, perhaps, this desire which seems most alien today, when a dominant liberal discourse brands any kind of passion as fanaticism. 

Identity politics is the politics of contemporary capitalism:2 a politics of representation not revolution. The dynamics of representation involves the recognition of multiplicity and difference. But recognition is reciprocal in that those seeking to be recognised themselves recognise some power or authority capable of, and legitimated to do, the recognising. This is the desire for inclusion: to participate in things how they are. The aim is to reform rather than to change the status quo. Such a politics is underpinned by a resignation to the fact that social totality is perceived to be static and immovable, if conceivable at all.

For the revolutionary, on the contrary, the social totality is dynamic and contradictory. Alain Badiou has argued that we should think the short twentieth century in terms of what he calls the passion for the Real.3 The Real, here, is to be understood in a lacanian sense as an impossibility or gap within the Symbolic: that which disturbs. This passion is both the refusal of the way things are and a commitment to a new beginning, right now, right here. If it is violent, this is born of the need to smash the limits of what is possible in the current, symbolic constitution of the world. So it is the passion for action: for the attempt to change things without guarantees. This means the desire to bring forth something absolutely new rather than to think one is fulfilling some destiny or other. It also means to act without the comfort of fictions and imaginary identifications. The logic of the Real runs against compromise, pragmatism and what is possible. For the avant-garde, this is to be against art, in the sense of what is possible within the contemporaneous symbolic world of art. It is to be for action rather than artwork; for the group; for the manifesto over interpretation. It is to keep going without art: rather than non-art it is anti-art.

Peter Bürger theorises three historical relationships between art and capitalism.4 First of all, art has a social role to play in the constitution of an emergent social order of an emergent capitalism. If, in feudal absolutist society, art is largely integrated into the life-style of the ruling class, then this model is inherited by capitalism and the bourgeoisie. An art emerges which represents the world of the bourgeoisie.

The second relationship between art and capitalism involves art’s rejection of a social role and its assertion of autonomy. Bürger dates this move to the middle of the nineteenth century and calls it Aestheticism. Aesthetic art seeks an autonomy of means, which sees it jettison much of art’s erstwhile preoccupation with content. If it is true that “it is only with aestheticism that the full unfolding of art as a phenomenon becomes a fact,”5 it is also true that the concentration on autonomy and artistic means leads to a preoccupation with style and the new.

The third relationship between art and capitalism is the rejection, in turn, of Aestheticist autonomy. But this does not involve a return to a social role for art. Rather, it seeks to fuse art and life in a process which entails the radical transformation of both. This is, of course, the moment of the avant-garde. Against Aestheticism’s defence of art’s autonomy, the avant-garde sees autonomy as sustained by art’s institutions. Thus, autonomy becomes open to critique on the grounds that art’s autonomy is its social role. For the avant-garde neither art nor society are to be accepted for what they are and the transformation of one is dependent on the transformation of the other.

It is clear that for Bürger the avant-garde is a break with Aestheticism rather than a continuation. However, it is also clear that the avant-garde is only possible at a specific historical moment. It is only after art has developed its autonomy that the avant-garde can both posit art in general categories rather than specific stylistic ones and also embark upon the self-criticism of art, which addresses art as an institution.

I wish to re-interpret Bürger’s account through the dialectic of Roy Bhaskar.6 It is fundamental to Bhaskar’s thought that the negative, or absence, has ontological priority over the positive, or presence. It is my contention that this emphasis on the negative is necessary to understand the avant-garde. It should also be noted that Bhaskar’s dialectic has four stages, rather than three, and, indeed, I wish to go on to draw a distinction between two stages within the avant-garde.

Bhaskar begins his dialectic with the category of non-identity. In the case of capitalism and art, the initial integration of art into the life-style of the bourgeoisie is not a moment of identity but of non-identity. There are two aspects to this non-identity. First, art is not integrated into the social whole. It is embroiled in, and marked by, the interests of a particular section of society. Here, art is subservient to its social role without being identical to it. And second, inasmuch as art has a social function it is not itself. This is to say that from the beginning art is characterised by what is absent from it rather than by its positive traits. 

The next stage of the dialectic is negation. The autonomy of Aestheticism is not a positive trait; rather, it is autonomy in the sense of the negation of art‘s social role. For Bürger, this process has a negative and a positive side. If autonomy means the negation of a social role it is also entails the positive constitution of aesthetic experience. In other words, it is only with the autonomy of Aestheticism that a pure aesthetic experience of the work of art can comes into being, free from the constraints of social function. However, against Bürger, this idea of aesthetic experience can be read as another negation within art rather than as a positive construction. The key is to see aesthetic experience as the particular experience of a particular kind of historically and socially specific subject. Aesthetic experience represents the particular experience of particular spectators as being disinterested, natural and universal. In other words, the aesthetic spectator is the result of a process of education and enculturation, whose function is to include the privileged and exclude others.

We should understand Aestheticism’s preoccupation with means not only as that which is left after the negation of art’s social role but also as the hook for the distinction of a particular spectator. But as Bürger points out, the more autonomy is achieved, the more art is in crisis. The alliance of autonomous production and aesthetic spectatorship encourages an adherence to style and the pursuit of novelty. The emptiness of these categories is an indication that the autonomy of aestheticism is founded in what is absent from it.

The third stage of the dialectic is totality, which is also the unity of theory and practice. It is immediately apparent how this idea can fit with Bürger’s conception of the avant-garde. If the avant-garde seeks to integrate art and life this is not in terms of a return to a social function for art but rather an attempt to make life aesthetic. Inasmuch as the avant-garde seeks to transcend the ends-means rationality of capitalism, it marks the point at which art becomes political. The avant-garde’s dissatisfaction with the autonomy of art was not just a question of art: the critique of the separation of art and life sees both art and life constrained by what is absent from them.

For Bürger, the avant-garde marks the point at which art has developed to the point where it can become self-critical. This is to say that it is only possible once art has become autonomous. This process has two aspects. The first is that art’s categories must have become general ones and not, for example, tied to a particular style or technique. The second is that art must have become aware of it its institutional status; that is, that art’s autonomy is not free floating but supported and propagated by specific institutions. So if autonomy names a fundamental contradiction of art within bourgeois society, then by working against autonomy the avant-garde is able to perceive and work upon art as a totality.

But Bhaskar has a fourth term in his dialectic, which is agency. So rather than pursue Bürger’s definition of the avant-garde, I wish to pursue a distinction within the avant-garde. In short, the avant-garde must strike twice.

Any revolution must strike twice.7 The first revolutionary moment is the sweeping away of the old order. If this is a moment of freedom, this freedom is rooted in escape: freedom from the tyranny and oppression of the old order. It is important to recognise that the oppression and violence of any order function not so much in terms of what is explicitly prohibited in Law but rather by what it is simply unthinkable or impossible to conceive: that which is necessarily absent. The first revolutionary moment is, therefore, the negation of a negation: the attempt to make absent the absences, lacks, ills or impossibilities inherent within a particular formation. This can be seen in the fact that the revolution is followed by an outburst of freedom and creativity.

If the first revolutionary moment overthrows the old order, the danger is that the old mindset will be retained: that the old order will continue in people’s habits, routines and expectations. The danger is that without something else happening, everything will return to normal. The second revolutionary moment is the hard work of building a new order: of inventing new habits and expectations. This is a process without guarantees. The new does not evolve out of the old but must be made out of nothing, without precedent nor necessity.

The second revolutionary moment is hard work because the new order must be imposed against familiar and habitual ways of behaving and thinking. The old does not simply melt away in the face of the revolution but must be destroyed. In the case of the Russian revolution, the second moment does not begin with the unprecedented release of creative energy and freedom that follows the October revolution, nor, indeed, with the popular defence of the new Soviet society against foreign invasion; rather it is with the collectivisation of the farms that the hard work begins. And it is this moment that is decried as the moment it all goes wrong by Western liberal commentators. Western liberals can often appreciate the first moment of revolution, as the imaginary explosion of freedom at the sublime moment of universal solidarity, when ‘everything seems possible,’ but baulk at the second moment, when the illusion of solidarity and consensus evaporates. This is the moment when one must take sides, when the choice is between trying not to upset anyone, which means things returning to normal and nothing really changing, on the one hand, and on the other, the revolutionary violence implicit in forging something new.

The first revolutionary moment of the avant-garde is Dada.

There are two dominant ways of looking at Dada. For the Old Art History, Dada is fundamentally nihilistic: a meaningless rage enacted in the realm of art to match the meaningless destruction in society. Dada is something of a hysterical adolescent, concerned only with provoking its bourgeois parents and transgressing the polite norms of art and society. On this account, Dada grows up to be Surrealism, with the resumption of proper artistic production. In contrast, the New Art History seeks to prise Dada apart from Surrealism and consider it in its own right: individual works and techniques are reclassified as innovative and complex. What they share is the idea that art is a set of positive characteristics. For the Old Art History, Dada sought to destroy the positive creations of art, which were unbearable in a world gone mad; for the New Art History, Dada was (really, secretly) a set of positive, radical practices and techniques for making art all along.

It is against the idea of art as a positive set of works, practices and ideas that the idea of art as a negative set of exclusions, absences and hierarchies must be thought. For Dada, art is an oppressive order, impoverished by what was absent from it and constrained by its habits, routines and expectations. Art is irredeemable. The problem is not particular individuals, institutions, audiences or so on but the very constitution of art. Art itself is the problem, in that the very idea of art is false: what lays claim to the Universal is, in fact, founded in absence, lack, exclusion, division, distinction and silence. Art itself is negative.

Dada is, thus, the negation of negation. It’s claim to be anti-Art must be read in relation to the idea that Art itself is a negative. It is only when this negative conception of Art is in place that the activities of Dada can be grasped as precise, careful and well placed assaults upon the repressive mechanisms of Art: its habits, ritual and expectations. If the express self-image of art is that it is a form of Universal experience, a totality, then the violent and repressive means by which this supposed Universality is achieved will themselves be repressed. In other words, the linguistic and practical habits of Art entail a violent exclusion which presents itself simply as impossibility. Oppression operates through assumptions about what an artist is; what an artwork is; what appropriate modes of attention are; and the ways in which one thinks and talks about art. 

Dada can be thought under the heading of totality not because it enacts any kind of positive unity in art but, on the contrary, because this is totality in the negative. Dada conceives of art as a totality whose each and every instance is marked by the absence upon which art is founded. Art is totalised through absence. And Dada is work upon this absence. Dada treats art as a totality through the process of a relentless critique of its every aspect. In so doing, it creates freedom and opportunity: Dada negativity must be understood as a sublime moment of possibility in the face of the removal of the old order. Dada was a successful revolution. It overthrew the old order of art. However, Dada could not last. Without the imposition of a new order, old habits would solidify new possibilities into the framework of the old order. In other words, things would return to normal.

The second revolutionary moment of the avant-garde is Surrealism.

Surrealism was the attempt to impose a new order in the revolutionary aftermath of Dada. As such, it is the moment of agency in the dialectic process of art in capitalism. In Bhaskar’s terms, this is the unity of theory and practice in practice. This is not to say that Dada was not practice but rather to emphasise that Surrealism was the violent attempt to impose a new order in art. This is the moment of taking sides. In the wake of the revolution that was Dada there were only two choices. The first was to absorb Dada practices within the existing structures of art; this meant treating Dada as a resource of innovative techniques and artworks. The second choice was to build new structures for art, against art as it existed, without precedent or guarantees of any form. This is an either/or choice: there is no third way and logically no possibility of compromise. Hence the Surrealists preoccupation with the collective and with the expulsion of those who deviate from the revolutionary path: preoccupations which are entirely justified by the revolutionary circumstances. The comfort of the return to art in all its familiarity is the constant temptation to be resisted and denounced.

In this light, Surrealist processes can be seen as attempts to construct new habits and expectations for art against the temptation to return to old habits. The use of such things as objective chance, automatic writing and collective authorship removed the Surrealist from familiarity. These processes were not techniques: the Surrealists were not trying to find new ways to make artworks. If modernism in general propagated the idea of the new, this is not what is at stake here. Surrealism was not after new things for artists to do but new ways of being as an artist. Hence the appropriation of Freudian psychoanalysis: the Freudian unconscious does not offer another level or depth to subjectivity but a radical displacement or negation of consciousness as such. For Freud, we are not who we thought we were. For the Surrealists, being an artist is not what we thought being an artist was. Surrealist processes were constructed against dominant ways of behaving as an artist. So even at this final stage of the dialectic, we are still steeped in negation. 

This is also the moment when art turns communist; when Dada turns red.8 In Bürger’s terms, the avant-garde can be seen as art’s point of self-critique, where art’s autonomy is seen as dependent on institutions and social structures and consequently the need arises to find a praxis that will integrate art and life. But any radical understanding of art as part of a social totality must incorporate a radical understanding of society. The Surrealists needed not only Freud but Marx. The project of the radical integration of art and life is only possible with the transformation of both art and society. Surrealism failed but the fact that it lasted so long is testament to its vitality and truth; but this failure was also the failure of communism to topple the capitalist world order. Both projects await redemption.

So why bring today’s concerns together under the call for a return to the avant-garde? In short, the ingredients are already with us. There is already a diversity of practice in art, which eschews defining itself in terms of style; there is already an awareness of art as an institution, in the form of institution critique; there is already the desire to merge art and life, in art’s dealings with its others, whether the everyday, the amateur, kitsch or so on. As it is, these phenomena seem diffuse and inconsequential but they are haunted by the idea of the avant-garde. It is the signifier “avant-garde” which can unify, transform and radicalise these commonplaces. The fact that almost everyone goes out of their way to dismiss the avant-garde as a bygone historical event shows that it retains a subversive edge: if the avant-garde were truly dead it would not need to be buried so repeatedly. We cannot repeat the avant-garde but it is to the avant-garde that we need to return.


1. This essay takes the form of notes because much is invoked without being backed up by detailed argument. Consequently it may, in parts, read like a polemic or manifesto, forms quite appropriate to the avant-garde. It should also be noted that I refrain from any kind of criticism of the historical avant-garde, not because it is not possible but because it is not my purpose here.

2. For a detailed argument on this, see Alain Badiou, Ethics, Verso, London, 1993/2001

3. See Alain Badiou, The Century, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007

4. Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 1984/2002

5.Ibid. p17

6. Here I am referring to Bhaskar’s Marxist work before his religious turn. See Roy Bhaskar, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, Verso, London, 1993

7. See the article of Slavoj ZiZek, Revolution Must Strike Twice, London Review of Books, 25th July 2002. Available online at:

8. For an excellent account of Surrealism and politics see Helena Lewis, Dada Turns Red, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1988/1990.