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OverviewTheories And Historiographies Of The Avant-garde

Theories and historiographies of the avant-garde have tended to emphasize one of the three dimensions of this basic ideological metaphor—political, formal, and temporal-historical—while downplaying or even excluding the others.

Examples of important formally-based theories and histories include the work of the art critic Clement Greenberg, who conceived of avant-gardism as the intensified focus of artworks on the essential properties of their media and attacked prominent avant-garde multimedial experimentation (such as minimalist sculpture) as leading to a bad theatricality akin to kitsch; Umberto Eco, who in his study The Open Work discussed the avant-garde's construction of works that require participatory completion by performers and audience; Julia Kristeva, who in Revolution in Poetic Language, sought to show how avant-garde poets such as Rimbaud and Mallarmé disrupted the grammatical means by which language functions as a vehicle of normal communication and ideology; and Marjorie Perloff, who traced out in a series of books the landmarks of a "poetics of indeterminacy," a futurist legacy, and a Wittgensteinian poetics.

Theorists of particular importance for the illumination of the political dimension of the avant-garde include Peter Bürger, whose Theory of the Avant-Garde focuses on the institutional status of art as autonomous from social life and the avant-garde's attempt to break down that autonomy and return art to its effective place in society; the urban historian Manfredo Tafuri, who considers the unanticipated role that avant-garde radicalism played in subordinating modern architecture and urbanism to big business, socialist planning, or the capitalist state; Fredric Jameson, who views the avant-garde as an intense site in which the contradictions of late capitalism were given aesthetic and experiential form; and the poststructuralist philosophers Jean-François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze, who interpret avant-garde art as postconceptual models of embodied thinking in which mind, body, and technology merge in novel, free ways.

Theories focused on the temporal and historiographic dimension of the avant-garde are rarer than the other two, more dominant orientations, but these include the writings of the Frankfurt school philosopher Theodor Adorno, especially in his studies of modern music; the poet Octavio Paz's Harvard lectures, Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde; Peter Osborne's The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde; and Fredric Jameson's A Singular Modernity.

In the early years of the twenty-first century, however, a theory that accounts holistically for the interactions of all three dimensions of the avant-garde's basic metaphor—its constitutive identification of the formal with the political and the temporal-historical—had yet to appear.


Adorno, Theodor W. Philosophy of Modern Music. Translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster. New York: Continuum, 2003.

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Translated by Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Eco, Umberto. The Open Work. Translated by Anna Cancogni. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Greenberg, Clement. "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." Partisan Review 6, no. 5 (1939): 34–49.

———. "Toward a Newer Laocoon." Partisan Review 7, no. 4 (1940): 296–310.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

———. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. London and New York: Verso, 2002.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Lyotard, Jean-François. Duchamp's Trans/formers. Translated by Ian MacLeod. Venice, Calif.: Lapis, 1990.

Osborne, Peter. The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde. London and New York: Verso, 1995.

Paz, Octavio. Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde. Translated by Rachel Phillips. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

———. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

———. Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Tafuri, Manfredo. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. Translated by Barbara Luigia La Penta. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1976.

———. The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s. Translated by Pellegrino d'Acierno and Robert Connolly. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987.

Tyrus Miller

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