251D: Discussion 3

The place of the avant-garde in the 20th century must be defined by its relationship to those major streams of modernity, particularly with regard to the rise of Americanism (with reference to the explanation by Wollen in Chapter 2). The rise of American technology and "a fascination with movies, soaring towers, powerful machines and speeding automobiles" (P.36) gave rise to what Wollen calls Fordism. Essentially, mass production and the machine stood for modernity and the image became the hallmark of Americanism. Such works as Charlie Chaplin's or Céline's Journey to the End of Night highlight the image. In avant-garde works the image of the machine becomes welded to a kind of redefined sexuality (e.g. the false Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis).

In music, a work such as George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique, which created riots at its 1926 premiere at the Theatre Champs-Elyseé typify the synthesis of human with the machine. The chaotic and frenetic opening of the three sections suggest the din of machines with the unpredictability of the division of time that characterizes the most disturbing aspects of avant-garde music. A brief comparison with the modernist Ionisation of Varèse with its highly organized rhythmic layers shows the essential difference within the modernist aesthetic.

Wollen cites the Walter Benjamin essay from 1935, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, to address the issues of copy and diversion in art works that have mass distribution possibilities. The ideas are allied with those of Brecht in the famous afterword to Mahagonny (In Brecht and the Theater) which sets up the oppositions of thought vs. feeling and the collective vs. the individual. There is no money in this Land, which occurs near the end of the opera paints the nihilistic and grim picture of the failure of technology ( no telephone), which ultimately cannot save humankind. Other images like the Tiller Girls and the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall show the transformation of human beings into robots in precision dance.

Post Fordism gave rise to new industries because of electronics and new technology for old products, creating a shift from the object as commodity to information as a commodity (Wollen,P.63). The new movements such as surrealism and later abstract expressionism, children of the avant-garde of the 30's saw the cancellation of image and specific transformation of recognizable objects. In the works of Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet, and Jackson Pollock, the immediate rejection of the immediately acceptable bourgeois values and a redefinition of older and more embedded tradition rekindled a new art. For use, the line between REAL tradition and convenient status quo mores is often difficult to discern; and, it is possible that the decision of what to reject or embrace is as individual as each artist. Pollock welcomed the technique and traditionalism of Thomas Hart Benton but rejected surrealism which had a closer stylistic association with Benton's neo-realistic work in favor of the more concrete abstract expressionism. There is a similar mechanism in John Cage's rejection of the overt formalism of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, in favor of a more direct and concrete expression which allows for structural flexibiity.

The Soja and Dawtry readings place emphasis on the dynamic aspect of evolving societies. For Soja, history is geography and the dynamic redefinition of space. A good explanation of its relation to art can be found in Shorsky's studies of the modernization of Vienna in which radial expansion of the roads gave rise to artistic expansion. Another important observation is that the geographic approach confirms the synchronic view of multiple artistic styles as opposed to the cause-and-effect progression of styles. Dawtry cautions that "one cannot employ a static set of ideas to look at the changing form of art" (P.6). Grasping Modernity (which is curiously not differentiated from the avant-garde in Chapter I) requires two abstract competences: 1) to recognize new kinds of social relations in modern capitalist society, and 2) to be aware that objective changes in the nature of society give rise to new forms of subjective experience. (P.9).

Abstraction and expression are two linked concepts in the 20th century and, "Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism destabiize normal relations of art in bourgeois society as part of a programme of changing those societies totally". Likewise, avant-garde works are essentially disturbing and seek to drive the social agenda by questioning the status quo. In addition, the basic perceptual mechanisms of human beings are continually challenged. ALL avant-garde works stretch out perception in ways unthinkable before the experience. There is, of course, a social paradox in that all the artists in this category were middle class men (Dawtry P.26).

Rochlitz's Adorno and Modernism (in Rahn) grapples with the apparently irrational first impression of much modern art: "If modern art is obscure and refuses itself to immediate comprehension, this is because its apparent irrationality is the inverse of instrumental reason...The novelty of the modern is at the same time a mortal parody of itself...the novelty of avant-garde is its incessant transcendence of negativity" (P.25). On the next page there is Adorno's observation that the apparent irrationality in the avant-garde [my insertion] is a form of logical reaction which denounces "false instrumental logic". The dialectic attempts to establish a relation between the artwork and "historic truth" (our definition of firmly grounded tradition as the basis for any avant-garde work).

John Cage's Bicentennial Apartment House 1776 makes a strong case for this definition: The use of traditional folk tunes, spirituals, cantorial materials, etc. in a flexible and often unpredictable overlapping cascade of events serves as a paradigm. The sonic image of the American melting pot with its chaotic elements and the apartment house image conjured up by the title create a perfect synthesis.

Another paradigm is revealed in the work of Marcel Duchamp. André Breton's Lighthouse of the Bride gives a good account of Duchamp's odyssey to "unlearn painting and drawing" (P. 126) through the ready-mades after 1914. The Large Glass with its images of the bride, bachelors, machines, etc. projects a "mechanistic and cynical interpretation of the phenomenon of love" (P.128). The loss of virginity becomes transformed in the mechanized reality of this work. Naturally, the bride and the False Maria of Metropolis occupy the same universe.

An open question regarding the permanent effect of these machine images (ergo, permanent avant-garde) in this era of post-modernism will have to be deferred until a convincing explanation of this age appears. These images of the bride, etc., continue to haunt us, gnawing at the core of our understanding of human nature.