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  Philologica 2 (1995)  
   
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M. I. SHAPIR

THE AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE OF THE TWNTIETH CENTURY:
THE AVANT-GARDE AND POSTMODERNISM

 
 
 


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1. What is the Avant-Garde?

Thus far all attempts to answer this question have achieved little success. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that they have been doomed to failure from the very start.

It seems to me that those who have considered this subject and written upon it have been seeking the answer in the wrong place. They hoped to find something in the form and content of the global avant-garde which would be common to all avant-garde works of art and at the same time would distinguish them from all other works of art. The solutions proposed defined what was sought for either too narrowly, by relating it to certain specific artistic movements, or, by contrast, far too widely, in which case the archipelago of the avant-garde disappeared into the bottomless abyss of modernism (which from its own perspective is the same thing as postrealism). In the first case little of what has come to be associated with the avant-garde qualified for inclusion in the magic circle; in the second, by contrast, much came to be included which had no relevance to it at all. None of this, of course, has come about by chance and only goes to show that the answer to the above question must be sought at another level.

One of the most brilliant representatives of the Russian avant-garde, the poet Vladimir Maiakovskij, observed in 1914:

“What changes are taking place in the laws of words?

1. A change in the relationship of word to object: from the cipher-word, the exact designation of an object, to the symbol-word and the word-for-itself.

2. A change in the relationship between word and word. The quickening tempo of life has forsaken the complex sentence in favour of a fragmented syntax.

3. A change in relationship to the word. The amplification of vocabulary by means of new words”.

A quarter of a century later (1938) the American logician and philosopher Charles William Morris unwittingly repeated the same formulation almost word for word. Endeavouring to characterize the three basic divisions of semiotics he defined semantics as “the relationship of signs to objects” (= “of word to object”), syntactics as “the relationship of signs to signs” (= “between word and word”), and pragmatics as “the relationship of signs to their interpreters” (= “the relationship <of man> to the word”).

The syntactics of a text is that which is usually known as its form; its semantics is that which is generally termed content. But if the defining characteristic of the avant-garde is not to be found in the relationship of sign to sign nor in the relationship of sign to object, perhaps it is to be found in the relationship of sign to subject, or, which is the same thing, in a change of relationship to the sign. Is this not perhaps the reason why, despite our difficulties in resolving the issue, in specific cases we are able to identify affiliation to the avant-garde almost unerringly: the essence of the avant-garde is to be sought in our relationship to it and vice versa? In other words, the avant-garde is not a semantic phenomenon (“what?”) or a syntactical phenomenon (“how?”); it is in fact a pragmatic phenomenon (“why? for what purpose? with what aim?”). Its specifically pragmatic quality is reinforced by the name itself; it distinguishes itself from classicism, romanticism, symbolism and futurism by the fact that, whereas all established -isms (even modernism) promise some notion of art per se, the avant-garde alone points to its own social relevance.

Of course it is not simply that one must seek the defining features of the avant-garde in the area of artistic pragmatics. What is important is that pragmatics is foregrounded in avant-garde art. The efficacy of art becomes crucial: it is meant to strike home, to pester, agitate and elicit a genuine reaction from the by-stander. This reaction should be preferably immediate and momentary and not such as would provoke a sustained and concentrated experience of aesthetic form and content. This reaction must therefore produce and establish itself in advance of any more profound comprehension in such a way as to make comprehension more difficult and to hinder it. Incomprehension, whether full or partial, forms an organic part of an avant-gardist’s project, transforming the addressee from the subject of reception into the admired object of the creative artist, into an aesthetic thing.

This raises the issue of the adequate reception of the avant-garde. It is not entirely clear who produces the adequate reaction: the person who understands or the person who does not understand, the person who accepts or the person who does not accept. Given that the value of such art is directly proportional to the strength of the reaction (the optimum result is “scandal”), the “proper” receiver is the one with the stronger reaction, “a more modular” reaction irrespective of whether the sign is a plus or a minus. And since negative reactions are as a rule stronger than positive, these may be acknowledged as more “reliable”. The ideal reader, listener or spectator is the man in the street who does not accept the avant-garde; the avant-gardists’ creativity is directed towards him in the first instance and it retains its avant-garde properties only so long as it continues to elicit his active hostility (indeed it is precisely this hostility which constitutes the justification of the avant-garde). Overall the situation is somewhat reminiscent of a bullfight and its creators are figurative toreadors.

The above properties distinguish the avant-garde from politically agitational art (both are socially engaged and depend upon action for their full effect). Agitational art primarily strives for sympathy and congruence of thought, but it also wishes to specify the vectoriality of the addressee’s activity. In contrast to this the avant-garde not only “irritates” the man in the street, but does this casually and with no specific aim, simply from a love of art. The reaction it elicits is undirected and Brownian, forcing the addressee to “run on the spot”. The real avant-gardist throws pebbles into the water and watches the ripples.

Clearly it is precisely in this “ripple effect” that the quintessence of the avant-garde is to be found. Art declares war on everyday life and all the most important events take place around the field of hostilities. It is not yet everyday life — the influence of the avant-garde does not extend so far — but it is no longer art either. It is aestheticized artistic everyday life, as it were, a living space (bohème) which the avant-garde artist constantly seeks to expand. The expansion of art into everyday life inverts the hierarchy of values: the secondary becomes primary, the peripheral central, pragmatics determine semantics and syntactics. The text functions appelatively rather than aesthetically: it is not the text itself which is important, but rather the nature of its occurrence — indeed a text proper may not exist at all. Who but an avant-gardist can justify calling himself a poet while not writing verse, an artist while not painting, and a composer while not producing music? The avant-gardist’s justification lies in the fact that, in his system, behaviour — either the author’s or that of his chef-d’oeuvre — becomes text. Thus a “text of the text” is created: what happens to “a poem” or “a picture” is by far the most important thing.

The most essential feature of the avant-garde is its unusualness and occasionality. But this least of all implies unusualness of form and content: these are important only insofar as the “why” affects the “what” and the “how”. As a general rule the avant-garde is an unusual pragmatic intention, the unaccustomed behaviour of an aesthetic subject or object. The avant-garde did not create a new poetics and does not possess a poetics of its own; it did, however, create its own, and a quite new, rhetoric: a non-classical, “non-Aristotelian” system of resources for acting upon reader, spectator or listener. A person exploiting these resources is like someone who tries to attract your attention, not by any generally accepted mode of address, but by pulling your sleeve, giving you a poke, or dashing the contents of his glass into your face. These resources are based on the destruction of “pragmatic rules”: in the avant-garde the subject and object of creativity sometimes cease to fulfil their direct function. If we can define classical rhetoric as the use of aesthetic devices for extra-aesthetic ends, then we may regard the new rhetoric as the creation of quasi-aesthetic objects and quasi-aesthetic situations. The extreme manifestations of this phenomenon are as follows: either a non-aesthetic object serves an aesthetic function, or the aesthetic object serves a non-aesthetic function. Non-existent (virtual) aesthetic objects exhibit such potency because the entire emphasis is placed on extra-aesthetic effect: it is the very absence of art which arrests and baffles the attention of the public (as, for instance, in Vasilisk Gnedov’s Poem of the End which consists of a heading and a blank page).

However, the above should not be taken to suggest that avant-garde art is of necessity superficial or aesthetically inadequate. In fact it can take various, almost any forms, since the rhetorical restrictions attendant on semantics or syntactics are often correspondingly slight or have no bearing on the text. But the achievements of such art beyond the bounds of the strictly pragmatic are gained not because of its avant-garde character but indeed independently of, or even despite it.

In conclusion: the avant-garde can, of course, also encompass phenomena from other spheres of spiritual creativity than the purely artistic, i. e. religion and science. All these phenomena will have certain things in common: first of all expansiveness; secondly marginality (location on the border between spiritual culture and everyday life); thirdly a foregrounding of the rhetorical or pragmatic moment which temporally occludes the basic function of each of the three global spheres of spiritual activity: the ethical (religion), the aesthetic (art) or the gnoseological (science).

2. From the Avant-Garde to Postmodernism

The term postmodernism incorporates a temporal nonsense: it is neither the art of the contemporary (modernism) nor the art of the future (futurism). It is art intentionally deprived of temporal and social specificity. Postmodernism acquires its, albeit confused, contours only as an antithesis to the classical avant-garde: post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

In short, postmodernism is a consumer’s revenge for not having been able to fathom the essentials of avant-garde art. The pragmatics of postmodernism are the pragmatics of the avant-garde, refurbished, however, in the interests of an incensed and rebellious public. All the established authorities collapsed before the banner of the avant-garde; one remained intact: the creative position of the artist and his total superiority to the receiver or consumer. The avant-gardist is an author who claims the right to transform his addressee from the subject of reception into the object, into an aesthetic thing which can then be contemplated by the artist who has brought it into being. The postmodernist is a reader (or a listener or viewer) who has sensed, if not fully cognized, the humiliation of his position and has made up his mind to put the presumptuous author in his place, indeed into that very place which he, the reader, no longer wishes to occupy.

The swiftest way to achieve this manoeuvre was to deprive the author of his monopoly on truth. The addressee’s failure to understand the addresser was, in the context of avant-garde communication, on a fairly banal level. Postmodernism grows out of an attempt to demonstrate that the sender of the message is in no way superior to the receiver: i. e. the author himself does not know what he creates. Every effort was made to put the author in the spotlight: the hunt for inner inconsistencies in texts of every kind — artistic, critical, scientific, philosophical, legal etc. — received the celebrated name of deconstruction. Every author put to the test in this way was inevitably discredited. It became clear that authors sometimes exposed themselves: not saying what they wanted to say, saying what they didn’t want to say and, quite possibly, never intending to say anything definite in the first place. Nonsequiturs and inconsistencies (of course, uncovered in vast quantity) fuelled the assertion that the author had no understanding of his own work. And, if the author does not understand, what can be expected of the public? Nobody understands the text.

The uncomprehending reader could console himself with the unavoidability of his lack of understanding. If no correct reading exists then all readings are equally correct and valuable, but the reader, in his awareness of the incorrectness of his own interpretation, is nevertheless closer to the truth than the overbearing author, who is deluded on this point. On the above rests one of the concealed postulates of postmodernism: every true understanding is by definition untrue and every untrue understanding is, on the contrary, true. The avant-garde created a situation of adequate non-understanding (by the reader), whereas postmodernism stressed non-adequate understanding (by the author). Thus the new aesthetic required a basically insignificant shift of stress. (It is in these terms that we must view the crucial transition from structuralism to post-structuralism: those, like the later Barthes, who completed it turned the inability to understand into an ability not to understand. )

Reader, listener and viewer, having been cast in the role of the created product, now wish to try their hands at the role of creator. Since an infinite number of interpretations are theoretically possible, no one of which is worse than any other, the author of the text is reduced to the position of first reader. Conversely, every reader is raised to the level of the author: armed with the aesthetic of postmodernism, he claims his right to supplement the text without reserve and to attribute any meaning to it even if the latter could in no way have been intended by its creator. The arbitrariness of the addresser in the avant-garde was changed into the arbitrariness of the addressee in postmodernism. Revenge had been wreaked on the author but victory over the latter (”the death of the author”) became victory over the text and over its meaning.

The avant-garde began the myth of the significant absence of the text; postmodernism turned into reality the non-significance of its presence. Thus it is of no consequence to us whether we have this or that text before us: with a little skill we can draw “new” meanings out of any “old” work of literature. Neither is a variety of texts needed: everything imaginable is capable of being revealed within the compass of a single work. Strictly speaking, the postmodernist does not acknowledge the existence of a variety of texts. The text is discrete; its meaning continuous. Exploiting the absence of semantic boundaries, the postmodernist will instantly construct bridges between any two works taken at random. These unseen but suspected intertextual links uniting all with all allow the postmodernist to consider the multiplicity of texts as a constantly changing whole.

In postmodernism one’s own word is always encountered as another’s: for the postmodernist, one text exists only in relation to other texts. They are all uncompromisingly secondary because all consist entirely of genuine or supposititious quotations, allusions and reminiscences. Since no work of art contains anything which was not already in another, an unfamiliar text can easily be recognized and interpreted as a reiteration of a past text: the author, according to Barthes, “can only endlessly imitate what has been written before and written not for the first time”. Where the avant-garde trumpeted its own originality at the least opportunity, postmodernism has silently created the aesthetic of the non-original. The consumer of avant-garde art grew tired of being confused and amazed, of constantly getting the wrong end of the stick. The consumer recalled the wise admonition of the ancients — nil admirari — a recollection which preserved him from the manifold inventions of the new art. The postmodernist has soundly insured himself against all revelations: he has taught himself to approach and evaluate them as something already long familiar and thoroughly known.

The avant-garde familiarized us with the fact that the function of an artistic text can sometimes be performed by that which is not usually thought of as a text: for instance, an everyday object, the behaviour of the author or the aesthetic nothing. In an attempt to avoid the unpleasantness of the unexpected, postmodernism annihilated the last boundary between art and non-art, and simultaneously between text and non-text. As long as the author dictated the rules, art could not-exist; as soon as the reader began to make the rules, art could-not exist: if the text is forced to be aesthetically significant from the very beginning, then art can have no place. It is exactly the same where all is held to be text: the text then does not exists — its boundaries are coincident with the boundaries of our own world, and Text takes its place (as yet another synonym among such concepts as the Universe, the Cosmos or God). The content of its every part is conditioned by the general Context and is no more nor less intelligible than the entire universe. Thus from an initial correct non-understanding of the text postmodernism has imperceptibly arrived at its aprioric understanding: we see in the text only what has been recognized and understood before we have come to read it; “an image deprived of resemblance”, “a representation deprived of likeness”, — a so called simulacrum (Deleuze) — can precede the original or, at least, occur before any familiarity with the latter.

In contrast to the avant-garde, postmodernism is democratic: having swelled to the dimensions of a pan-text and having transformed itself into a non-text, the text becomes depersonalized. Every encouragement is given to the multitude of equally non-obligatory readings and the authorial I is irrevocably pushed aside by the lectorial we. Under such conditions an untroubled farewell is bidden to the illusion of the text: it is not texts in themselves which are troublesome, but those social institutions which, according to postmodernism, use texts for their own self-justification and which postmodernism both threatens and aspires to.

If the avant-garde concept of text safeguarded the author, adherence to postmodernism depends entirely on the consumer. Even if not a single artist in the world had ever created a single postmodernist work of art, this would be of no consequence: postmodernism can simply enlist any suitable relic of past or present. The art of postmodernism is everywhere and nowhere: it is as if art, indistinguishable from the as if criticism and scholarship produced by the as if collaboration between all writers and readers; in a word, it is the art of the magic als ob.

 


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