Social Intersections 09 (against autonomous art)

The European avant-garde movements can be defined as an attack on the status of art in bourgeois society. What is negated is not an earlier form of art (a style) but art as an institution that is unassociated with the life of men.1

In his mid-1970s Theory of the Avant-Garde, German art theorist, Peter Burger, stresses the avant-garde critique of autonomous art. Here a set of quotes from various artistic manifestos that demonstrate aspects of this critical stance.2 They indicate the key avant-garde interest in pushing art beyond its accepted boundaries, finding means of linking it to the turbulent flow of modern life.

We want to sing about the love of danger, about the use of energy and recklessness as common daily practice. […]
We wish to destroy museums, libraries, academies of any sort […]
We shall sing of the great multitudes who are roused up by work, by pleasure, or by rebellion […]
(F.T. Marinetti, “The Futurist Manifesto”, 1909)3

Living art draws its life from the surrounding environment. Our forebears drew their artistic inspiration from a religious atmosphere which fed their souls; in the same way we must breathe in the tangible miracles of contemporary life – the iron network of speedy communications which envelops the earth, the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts […] (Umberto Boccioni (and others), “Manifesto of the Futurist Painters”, 1910)4

Freedom: DADA DADA DADA, a roaring of tense colours, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE (Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto”, 1918)5

Worth noting that in Dada there is not only the critique of bourgeois art, but also of the rational system of industrial modernity which produces, for instance, the First World War. In this manner the Dadaist critique appears more complex than the Futurist critique. It assaults both autonomous art and the insanity of the lived world. Dadaist anger, irony and absurdity draws from the energy and twisted logic of contemporary experience in order to both scandalise art and criticise modern society.

The word Dada symbolizes the most primitive relation to the reality of the environment; with Dadaism a new reality comes into its own. Life appears a simultaneous muddle of noises, colours and spiritual rhythms, which is taken unmodified into Dadaist art, with all the sensational screams and fevers of its reckless everyday psyche and with all its brutal reality. (Richard Huelsenbeck, “First German Dada Manifesto”, 1918)6

This works less, however, to confirm the character of the existing world than to throw it into doubt (to “defamiliarise” it, in the terms of the Russian Formalists).

Dada passes everything through a new net.
Dada is the bitterness which opens its laugh on all that which has been made consecrated forgotten in our language in our brain in our habits. (Tristan Tzara (and others), “Dada Excites Everything”, 1921)7

The rejection of autonomous art is particularly prominent within Russian Constructivism.

Today we proclaim our words to you the people. In the squares and on the streets we are placing our work convinced that art must not remain a sanctuary for the idle, a consolation for the weary, and a justification for the lazy.
Art should attend us everywhere that life flows and acts…at the bench, at the table, at work, at rest, at play; on working days and holidays…at home and on the road…in order that the flame to live should not extinguish in mankind. (Naum Gabo and Anton Pevzner, “The Realistic Manifesto”, 1920)8

This also represents a rejection of traditional artistic means and materials.

A mug
A floorbrush
A catalogue
And when a person in his laboratory set up
A square,
His radio carried it to all and sundry […]
(Aleksandr Rodchenko, “Manifesto of the Constructivist Group”, 1922)9

Very interesting this mix of everyday items and then the abstraction of a square. Evident, perhaps, is the utopian hope to bring alien layers of experience into dialogue – to not dumb down, belittle or patronise the everyday, but to open it up and to position the everyday itself as an opening.

Surrealist art, in an initial phase, involves re-conceiving reality in terms of the logic of dreams:

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality. (A. Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism”, 1924)10

And this quote indicates the fundamental paradox of critical, avant-garde art – art needs to be autonomous in order to retain its critical perspective, but this autonomy is itself fundamentally problematic – socially disabling:

The independence of art – for the revolution.
The revolution – for the complete liberation of art!
(A. Breton, D. Rivera, L. Trotsky, “Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art”, 1938)11

Situationism, once again, calls for a reintegration of art and life:

Against the spectacle, the realised Situationist culture introduces total participation.
Against preserved art, it is the organisation of the directly lived moment.
(G. Debord, “Situationist Manifesto”, 1960)12

Within Fluxus, this shifts to a very explicit risking of the terms of art:

Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON-ART REALITY to be fully grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.
(G. Macunias, “Fluxus Manifesto”, 1963)13

  1. Burger, P. 1984 Theory of the Avant-Garde (Trans. Michael Shaw), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, p.49
  2. Danchev, A. (ed.) 2011 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, Penguin Modern Classics, Great Britain
  3. Ibid. pp.4-5
  4. Ibid. p.11
  5. Ibid. p.144
  6. Ibid. p.147
  7. Ibid. p.200
  8. Ibid. p.193
  9. Ibid. p.221
  10. Ibid. p.247
  11. Ibid. p.301
  12. Ibid. p.350
  13. Ibid. p.365
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Social Intersections 09 (against autonomous art)

  1. Lucas says:

    great collection of manifestos here Brogan. The desire to connect art with the run of everyday life, in tension with the desire for art to be autonomous. It’s a juicy opposition!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *