251D: Discussion 4

We can further enlarge on our definition of avant-garde through Michael Kirby's article, The Aesthetics of the Avant-Garde. Kirby proceeds from a specific concern that avant-gardists are concerned with the historical directionality of art (P. 37). Basing his criteria on a definition of a work of art as "a manmade object which has no objective practical or functional purpose." He goes on to point out those features which have no bearing on the work; however, this definition may break down in an assessment of architecture, because of the obvious functionality of a building. Also many objects, like forks and teapots, may be useful but contain a basic design that lifts them to the level of art.

The criteria that have no bearing:

1. Acceptance or rejection of the artist's work.
2. There is no assessment of value in the term, avant-garde.
3. Beauty is a meaningless word (P.41).
4. The aesthetic experience of an artwork is different from that in nature in that "it conveys the feeling that it functions at the basic level of existence." (P. 42).
5. The key word in aesthetic theory is significance. That significance of art "ultimately depends upon the trans-sensory aspects of experience." (P. 43).

THe next issue involves the relativity of perception and value. The relationship between cultural conditioning and perception (e.g. showing a photograph to natives who have not learned perspective) is relative. There are psychophysical factors (e.g .color blindness) which enlarge upon this relativity. Art itself is not sealed off from the rest of life: "Being in a pure hermetic state of aesthetic contemplation does not mean that the unconscious is functioning hermetically." (P. 51). Lastly, the object may change in our perception of it after more knowledge of the creative process (e.g. Stoppage-Etalon of Duchamp, after knowing that 3 threads of 1 meter each were dropped for 1 meter and glued onto a canvas). (P. 57). Knowing the process produces a kind of situational aesthetics.

Avant-garde artworks always involve a alteration of consciousness, and it is necessary for the art to exist on an esoteric level in order to achieve significance (metaphysical), P. 67.

Using Surrealism as a case in point. We are now prepared to test our working definition of an avant-garde creation. Chapters 1 and 2 of Hal Foster's Compulsive Beauty provide a philosophical and aesthetic underpinning for the surrealist movement, against a backdrop of Freudian psychology. Foster's Preface sets the stage: " Surrealists not only are drawn to the return of the repressed [a Freudian paradigm] but also seek to redirect this return to critical ends." (P. xvii).

Chapter 1 develops theories of the uncanny as a kind of psychoanalytical category (refer to Breton's writings on Duchamp). For Breton, dreams and reality were psychic phenomena dissociated without symbolic values. The concept of "decentered the subject too radically in relation to the unconscious. In short, the question of the constraints of the conscious mind obscured the important question of the constraints of the unconscious mind." (P. 5). In The Return of the Repressed, Freud lays out what become some basic tenets of surrealism:

1. No distinction between the real and imagined.
2. Confusion of animate and static.
3. Physical reality is displaced by psychic reality. (P.7).

Freud discusses primal fantasies which form a kind of template for surrealist automatism. Where the argument breaks down is in the realm of the "death drive." Freud's concept seems anathema to the surrealist affirmation of love (P.11). However, the uncanny creates a link through surrealism to the death drive. "Self-preservative and sexual drives [are] overcoded by greater destructive force." (P. 12). This death drive is tinged with eroticism. Witness the Love-Death motif in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde as a prototype.

In his discussion of the marvelous as the second Surrealist paradigm, Foster uses two examples from Breton: romantic ruins and mannequins, which represent opposing definitions. The symbology substitutes these images as standins in the subconscous mind to reach a deeper reality for the unconscious mind.

For Freud there are three primal fantasies: seduction, a primal scene (witnessed sex), and castration. Many examples of the playing out of these primal fantasies can be found in the works of De Chirico, Ernst, and Giacometti. If one explores The First Papers in Surrealism all these themes will be present. One does not need scientific rigor to filter between psychology and art: surrealism is feeding on the new theories of psychoanalysis for its symbology. Thus, the next characteristic of avant-garde art is revealed: a cross-fertilization from the other disciplines to drive the social agenda. Trendy ideas are fertile ground to plant avant-garde works. Structure from other disciplines revitalizes and enhances avant-garde symbology and methodology. By definition, the avant-garde is cross disciplinary; and by definiton, aesthetic theory will always be tinged with other methodologies.