Vanguard and Avant-Garde: Art, Politics, and Theory
What does it mean to be “avant-garde”? At the start of the 20th century, a heterogeneous assortment of artists undertook to explore and depict, in the words of Susan Buck-Morss, “a human sensorium fundamentally altered by the tempos and technologies of factory and urban life”—and, not least of all, world war and political revolution. The changing experience of the world demanded a radical break with traditional artistic materials, practices, and aesthetic criteria—away from realism and even figuration itself—and generated an entirely new set of ideas about what art could, and should, do. New movements and networks proliferated, from Italian Futurism to German Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Russian Suprematism and Constructivism—all of which posed, and were posed with, the question of how and even whether we can represent the experience of modernity. What kinds of social relations do works of art produce? Can new aesthetic experiences give rise to new forms of social consciousness? Is it the task of art to enter into political life—and transform it? Or does its radical potential—to shock, inspire, and critique—reside in its anticipatory imagination?
In this course, we will take up these questions through a critical examination of the cultural objects, aesthetic strategies, and theoretical texts associated with a range of early 20th century European avant-gardes. We will pair close readings of manifestos and artists’ writings with rigorous visual analysis of representative artworks. Alongside these, we will read select texts from major conceptual interlocutors of these movements—including Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Leon Trotsky—as well as more contemporary materials in order to ask: what were the material and historical conditions under which these various cultural programs consolidated, defined themselves vis-à-vis existing institutions, and eventually fractured? How did the experiences of war, revolution, technological development, and colonialism shape their artistic ambitions and imperatives? And what does the fraught legacy of the historical avant-garde have to teach us about its future as a category?
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
October 17 — November 07, 2022