Introduction: Neo-Avant-Garde, Why Bother?

This introduction written by the editors of the OELN is an abbreviated version of the introduction to the volume Neo-Avant-Gardes: Post-War Literary Experiments Across Borders (Edinburgh University Press, 2021).


New but Bad Avant-Garde

Though the term ‘neo-avant-garde’ and its concomitant reference to the historical avant-garde have become ubiquitous in art history, neither the label nor the historical linkage have yet made it into the canon of literary historiography...  Moreover, the term is sometimes used without any precise definition; hence the need for a theoretically and historically informed study of the history of the term and its creative instantiations over the last few decades.

As is well known, Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984, originally published in German in 1974) offered a fairly utopian view of the avant-garde and a rather dystopian picture of the neo- or post-avant-garde. Bürger’s historical avant-garde reacted against the modernist reification and autonomization of art; it attacked the institution of art (not via a nihilistic destruction but via a Hegelian Aufhebung or sublation) and it tried to reconnect art with life. After the Second World War, neo-artists used the historical avant-garde and its techniques to legitimize their art, banking on and enhancing the fashionable and institutionalized status of the avant-garde. The original revolutionary ethos, with its refusal of autonomous and institutionalized art, is defeated by what Bürger perceives as the necessary “institutionaliz[ation of] the avant-garde as art” (Bürger 1984: 57). The neo-avant-garde thus may seem a perfectly tuned re-enactment, but it is basically an empty rehearsal (1984: 61). Avant-garde techniques and contents that used to be shocking are turned into easily assimilated gimmicks, empty procedures that can be reproduced and grasped by all.

Benjamin Buchloh (1984), Hal Foster (1996), and Dietrich Scheunemann (2005) have criticized Bürger both for his overly positive ideas about the avant-garde and for his bleakly pessimistic conceptualization of the neo-avant-garde. In general one might say that Bürger’s claims were deemed too theoretical (i.e. not really backed up by a lot of concrete examples), too homogeneous (discarding the extreme differences between the many forms of avant-garde), too teleological (as if history was a living organism with an intention of its own) and too general, especially with regard to concepts such as ‘institution’ and ‘life’.

In 2010 Bürger published a long essay on ‘Avant-Garde and Neo-Avant-Garde,’ which directly addressed (and attacked) some of his critics. On the whole, Bürger recognizes the shortcomings in his conceptualization of the neo-avant-garde, but he sticks to the central claims of his slant on the historical avant-garde. The failure of the avant-garde project, proclaimed many times in Theory of the Avant-Garde, is integral to Bürger’s negative view on the neo-avant-garde. But whereas he seems to recognize that his take on the neo-avant-garde may be in need of some adjustment, he sticks to his idea of failure. He starts by redefining it. He says that it consists of three aspects:

(1) The failure of the desired reintroduction of art into the praxis of life. This aspect was intuited by the avant-gardists themselves and Dadaists and surrealists even made it into a component of their project. (2) The recognition of their manifestations by the art institution, that is, their canonization as milestones in the development of art in modernity. (3) The false actualization of their utopian project in the aestheticization of everyday life. (Bürger 2010: 704-705)

The avant-garde did not realize its ambitious aims, but it did have some lasting effects. It offered techniques that became part of the everyday artistic toolbox, and it destroyed once and for all the idea of one superior or universal art form: “The historical avant-garde movements were unable to destroy art as an institution; but they did destroy the possibility that a given school can present itself with the claim to universal validity” (1984: 87). Moreover, their utopian ideas are a necessary corrective to the lack of ideals in bourgeois society.

To refine the neo-avant-garde resumption, Bürger offers two characteristics that distinguish the historical-avant-garde from its post-war reincarnation: the intention and the context. The neo-avant-garde gave up the intention of the avant-garde, namely “the utopian project of sublating the institution of art” (712). In addition, “the historical avant-gardes could rightly consider the social context of their actions to be one of crisis, if not revolution,” (712) whereas this transgressive context no longer holds for the neo-avant-garde. Bürger seems to imply that the context of the 1960s is not to be grasped in terms of crisis and revolution, which is rather dubious since, even though the historical contexts of avant-garde and neo-avant-garde strongly differ, the prototypical presentation of that period tends to highlight these two traits.


New and Nice Avant-Garde

We now turn to some of Bürger’s critics with a view to describing some alternative takes on the neo-avant-garde while flagging a number of major pitfalls of avant-garde theory. Hal Foster, undeniably one of the most influential theorists of the neo-avant-garde, conceptualizes the relation between the new and the old avant-garde in psychoanalytical terms. The central term is ‘deferred action’ (‘Nachträglichkeit’ with Freud, although one can also find the terms ‘après-coup’ and ‘afterwardsness’ beside this canonical translation), the two subsidiary terms are ‘anticipation’ and ‘reconstruction’. As Foster says in the introduction to The Return of the Real:In Freud an event is registered as traumatic only through a later event that recodes it retroactively, in deferred action. Here I propose that the significance of avant-garde events is produced in an analogous way, through a complex relay of anticipation and reconstruction” (1996: xii).

The shock tactics of the historical avant-garde are thus likened to a trauma, and one could wonder with Bürger (2010: 711) to whom the avant-garde could have been traumatic and what is so traumatic about it. The idea of trauma implies an event which cannot be fully grasped or recognized at the time it is experienced. Only later, after many refractions of the initial shock have occurred, can it be comprehended and reconstructed. In between the two moments, intimations and anticipations of the enlightening go hand in hand with reconstructions of the trauma.

Foster distinguishes between two steps in the neo-avant-garde’s deferred action. The late 1950s with the return of “the readymades of Duchampian dada” and the early 1960s with the return of “the contingent structures of Russian constructivism” (1996: 4) together make up the first phase (which Foster confusingly designates as ‘two returns’). The second phase is situated in the early 1960s with artists such as Carl Andre and Dan Flavin and then in the late 1960s, with artists such as Marcel Broodthaers and Daniel Buren. The first phase is more of a “repetition” (1996: 21) than the second, which is more critical (1996: 24) because it works through the contradictions of the historical avant-garde. The first phase represses (in the Freudian sense) those contradictions by placing the historical avant-garde in an institutionalized context. The second phase involves “a critique of this process of acculturation and/ or accommodation. […] More generally, this becoming-institutional prompts in the second neo-avant-garde a creative analysis of the limitations of both historical and first neo-avant-gardes” (1996: 24).

The net effect of Foster’s deferred action is that it implies a positive revaluation of the neo-avant-garde, which is no longer discarded as a destruction of the historical avant-garde, a form of emptying and banalizing avant-garde poetics, techniques and contents. On the contrary, it becomes a first revelation of its actual meaning, function, and importance. Foster enumerates three ways in which the neo-avant-garde ‘comprehends’ its historical predecessor:

(1) the institution of art is grasped as such not with the historical avant-garde but with the neo-avant-garde; (2) the neo-avant-garde at its best addresses this institution with a creative analysis at once specific and deconstructive (not a nihilistic attack at once abstract and anarchistic, as often with the historical avant-garde); and (3) rather than cancel the historical avant-garde, the neo-avant-garde enacts its project for the first time-a first time that, again, is theoretically endless. (Foster 1996: 20)

By trying to convince his readers of the critical value of the neo-avant-garde, Foster ironically embraces the same normative frame as Bürger: art is only valuable if it is critical. Contrary to Bürger, he locates this critical power in the aesthetic (form) itself, rather than in artistic intentions. He insists “that that critical theory is immanent to innovative art, and that the relative autonomy of the aesthetic can be a critical resource” (1996: xvi).

The critical and institutional aspects are not only important in Foster’s take on the neo-avant-garde, but also in Mark Silverberg’s study of The New York School Poets (2010). Following Richard Murphy’s Theorizing the Avant-Garde (1999: 5-12), Silverberg claims that the neo-avant-garde’s “challenge goes beyond the level of institutional critique to the more general level of ideology critique.” (Silverberg 2010: 23) Only by shifting one's attention from the institutional to the ideological can one acknowledge the critical function of the neo-avant-garde. The critical function on the level of ideology and discourse may go hand in hand with an accommodation on the level of the institutions. It is not as if the neo-avant-garde can only exist in terms of institutionalized oppositions. Like the New York School, Silverberg’s neo-avant-garde does not require manifestos, precepts and groupings. Nor does it need to subscribe to the four main features of the avant-garde as described by Renato Poggioli, namely “antagonism (the need to ‘agitate against something or someone,’ especially ‘that collective individual called the public’ […]), activism (‘action for the mere sake of doing something’ […]), nihilism (‘destructive labor . . . attaining nonaction by acting’ […]), and agonism (which posits ‘the artist as victim-hero . . . a paradoxical and positive form of spiritual defeatism’ […]).” (19). Silverberg’s antidote to such aggressive posturing and self-destructive heroism lies precisely in the adoption of a more “neutral and ironic, less transgressive and more deconstructive” stance (19). The recognition of this critical dimension as a prerequisite of valuable art is also to be found in Buchloh’s voluminous study Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry (2000). With its reference to Max Horkheimer and Adorno (1947), the title already suggests that art should distinguish itself from the culture industry by being critical in its aesthetics.


Selecting the Literary Neo-Avant-Garde

Four parameters are relevant for any literary work to be considered as neo-avant-garde. Firstly, special attention will be given to texts in which artists deal with their own poetics and aesthetics vis à vis the historical avant-garde as a source of inspiration, or frustration. Indeed, in the wake of the avant-garde, the neo-avant-garde often attacks the dominant aesthetics that celebrates uniqueness and creativity, and pursues mimetic representation. A certain degree of radicalism is thus involved in the claims of the neo-avant-garde, but we can hypothesize that it includes radical forms (e.g., abstract expressionism, neo-dadaism) as well as less radical forms (e.g., lyrical abstraction) and that these forms are sometimes combined.

Secondly, and more importantly, what is at stake is the formal, material, and technical level of the (literary) work of art that is clearly exploited in techniques such as (photo)montage, ready-mades, and collage. Neo-avant-garde works will typically employ so-called experimental techniques, some of which can be connected to the historical avant-garde stricto sensu. Experimental procedures include material, stylistic, and narrative devices that cannot easily be naturalized or that exceed the boundaries of what is deemed aesthetically, culturally or morally acceptable within a given historical and cultural context. As such, what is experimental is always the result of a negotiation between text, reader, and context. One thinks here, for example, of radically unconventional language and style, disintegrated or disjunctive syntax, accumulations of absolute metaphors, enhancing the dissimilarity between the connected semantic fields, etc. Other technical hallmarks will include the frequent use of montage and collage, the incorporation of ready-mades, the exploitation of aleatoric composition techniques (as in jazz improvisation), algorithmic text production (as in so called ‘computer poems’), and the increased degree of abstraction through musicalization. Moreover, literary works of the neo-avant-garde often tend to mingle aesthetic with epistemological intentions, thus trying to refine and update a tendency already present in the historical avant-garde.

The formal dimensions cannot be separated from the social and political contexts and conflicts in which they function. That, too, is part of the negotiation. And it is a vital aspect of our usage of the term ‘neo-avant-garde’. We do not see it as a neutral idea borrowed from art history, but as an Adornoian concept that reconciles the formal with the political. More specifically, we side with Adorno’s famous claim that “art’s double character as both autonomous and fait social is incessantly reproduced on the level of its autonomy” (1947: 5). As a result, the study of literary forms is never merely conceptual or abstract. It is always an investigation into social, cultural, and political dimensions, as Pierre Bourdieu convincingly demonstrated for the work of Gustave Flaubert. His work bridges the gap between realism and formalism in what can be labelled as “formalist realism” or “realist formalism” (1992: 107-108).

A third indication that might prompt one to study a given text from the perspective of the neo-avant-garde, is to be found in its paratext, its intertext, its intergenericity and/ or its intermediality. Mottos, quotations, and pictures embedded in the literary text may point directly or indirectly to the historical avant-garde. Neo-avant-garde artists incorporated or imitated characters, words and (fragments of) texts as had already been done by Kurt Schwitters and others. Books and catalogues may even result from a close collaboration between a writer and an artist or may be the product of a double talent of the author/artist. In visual poetry, the text tends to become a work of art (see the poems of Augusto de Campos). In sound poetry (e.g. Henri Chopin), it becomes sonic art.

In the fourth place, institutional factors may point the way to the neo-avant-garde frame and label. Publication in certain journals, performances in particular venues, presentations in experimental circles or in festivals considered experimental – all of these contextual elements may induce one to approach the study of the work at hand from the perspective of the neo-avant-garde.



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Bourdieu, P. (1992/ 1995), The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Translated by Susan Emanuel, California: Stanford University Press.

Buchloh, B. (1984), ‘Theorizing the Avant-Garde’. Art in America, November 1984, pp. 19-21.

Buchloh, B.H.D., (2000), Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry. Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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Bürger, P. (2010), ‘Avant-Garde and Neo-Avant-Garde. An Attempt to Answer Certain Critics of Theory of the Avant-Garde’, New Literary History, 41, pp. 695-715.

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Horkheimer, M. & T. Adorno (1947/ 2002), Dialectic of Enlightenment. Philosophical Fragments. Ed. G. Schmid Noerr. Translated by Edmund Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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Scheunemann, D., ed. (2005), Avant-Garde/ Neo-Avant-Garde, Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Silverberg, M. (2010), The New York School Poets and the Neo-Avant-Garde. Between Radical Art and Radical Chic, Surrey/ Burlington: Ashgate.