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Review: John Roberts’ Revolutionary Time and the Avant-garde

London: Verso, 2015.

Kim Charnley

Platypus Review #83 | February 2016

Famously, Clement Greenberg wrote in 1939 that the avant-garde is connected to the bourgeoisie by an “umbilical cord of gold.”1 This image has become so familiar that its peculiarities are rarely commented upon. The point is not simply the obvious one for Marxists, that art reflects the interests of a bourgeois class. The implication of this aureate biological metaphor is that a progressive bourgeoisie makes possible the gestation of new forms of culture, nurturing them in the midst of instrumentalism and kitsch. Surplus value, extracted from the lives of workers might be transfused, or transmuted, back into the lifeblood of cultural development. In 1939, this may have been a reassuring idea: but how is the avant-garde to be understood now, when art seems to bear witness to the gestation of a new kind of capitalist nightmare?

Feeding the Art Basel crowds in 2015. Rirkrit Tiravanija, Nikolaus Hirsch/Michel Mueller, and Antto Melasnie’s public artwork DO WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY, 2015.

Feeding the Art Basel crowds in 2015. Rirkrit Tiravanija, Nikolaus Hirsch/Michel Mueller, and Antto Melasnie’s public artwork DO WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY, 2015.

Artists who were once heralded for their ground-breaking work have thrown in their lot with multinational companies: Marina Abramovic’s Work Relation of 2014, a “collaboration” with Adidas that reenacts a 1978 performance created with her former partner Ulay, though with sleeker footwear, is only the most execrable example of this trend. The art market, for its part, has shown itself to be in thrall to oligarchs without the maternal instinct that Greenberg counted upon. Their needs are simple: fungible assets that can support a few “theoretical” remarks, and stand a chance of showing a healthy return on investment once they are “flipped.” Cue the remorseless rise of a species of post-conceptual painting that has been dubbed, brilliantly, “zombie formalism.”2

Museums of contemporary art have come to model themselves on global brands. Unsurprisingly, their management is susceptible to the shifting values of patrons who no longer seem content with the naming of an occasional wing in return for their public service. Now the quid pro quo tends to include the promise of more concrete returns than a reputation for civic virtue. If this means curating a show in such a way that it will add value to a prominent donor’s collection, it can be done. Or, in the case of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, if it means founding an outpost that lends credibility to an undemocratic state where flogging and stoning are lawful punishments: no problem. Frank Gehry can design the building, and workers who are denied basic human rights can build it, and the “progressive” bourgeoisie can make their obeisance to absolute monarchs in the United Arab Emirates…

Across literature from the Left that has analyzed the development of the art world since the 1960s, there has been a consensus that the globalization of art is connected to the emergence of new forms of capitalism. The art market has become a gigantic Ponzi scheme, and contemporary art a research and development arm of neoliberal culture. But the problem must be understood in its full complexity, because it is from within art that the most vocal resistance to such developments is heard. Art is entirely profaned, entangled in the luxurious machinations of a 0.1%, and at the same time it generates resistance. One of the loci of such opposition has been the “social turn” a tendency that since the 1990s has seen increasing numbers of artists and artists’ groups developing collectively-realized events or projects as art.3 Typically, in these works, the boundaries are blurred between art, social experience and political activism in a way that recalls the program of the revolutionary avant-garde of the 1920s whose goal, famously, was to overcome the gap between art and the everyday.

However, critical debates about this work have been hampered by disagreement about what it might mean for art to invoke the avant-garde today. Art, of course, is in a very different place to the one that it occupied in 1939 when Greenberg wrote “Avant-garde and Kitsch.” In fact, Greenberg’s insistence on "medium-specificity", painting as the last redoubt of high culture, was part of the neutralization of the ideas of the avant-gardes of the 1920s. The Surrealists and Constructivists had been revolutionary Marxists who had hoped to use art ‘to realize the communist expression of material structures.’4

Some commentators see the contemporary avant-garde as an entirely institutionalized category, a mere stylistic homage to the heroic phase of avant-garde experiment. Others, however, suggest that the contemporary avant-garde connects the present to an important lineage of artistic dissent.5 John Roberts’s Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde pitches in on the latter side of the argument, arguing that the social turn is an extension of an avant-garde “research project” which has intermittently recurred during the 20th and into the 21st century. Roberts maintains, however, that this avant-garde is misrecognized by art theory and art history: his book intends to clear away the deep-seated assumptions that cause such misrecognition. Revolutionary Time is therefore an art theoretical text, which offers conceptual tools that might assist avant-garde practice clearly to recognize itself as “a theoretically-driven set of practices necessarily embedded in the conflicts and divisions of the social world” (3).

The extended introduction to the book addresses the argument (heard from both the Left and the right) that the influence of the avant-garde upon art has been “a spiral of decadent self-destruction,”which must be halted by re-engagement with tradition, especially with painting (4). Such arguments hold that the experiments of the avant-garde are responsible for the depredation of art. Roberts counters that humanist complaints of this kind fail to comprehend the problem that has confronted art since the 19th century. The avant-garde is indeed symptomatic of the crisis of modernity, but it contains within it a vital and redemptive connection to this crisis. Painting, by contrast, has a “melancholic allure” but can only offer “the debilitated zones of ‘personal creativity’… as a resistance to theory and a resistance to political praxis” (2).

Roberts’s position derives from a reading of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s “end of art” thesis, which is spliced with Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory to produce a dynamic theoretical framework through which to view the avant-garde through the twentieth century and into the present. This is somewhat unexpected, because Hegel’s thesis is more commonly taken to anticipate the inexorable decline of modern art, its falling away from authentic creativity into pluralist incoherency. Roberts, by contrast, insists that Hegel actually intended to affirm “a profound expansion and renewal of art” beyond its apparent terminus (9). Art’s drift toward “conceptualization,” as Hegel put it, is part of its critical reflection upon art’s loss of contact with an embedded cultural tradition. The Adornian inflection of this point is that the avant-garde must challenge inherited forms of art, because the remorseless social upheaval of capitalism has made those inherited forms incoherent, or absorbed them into the culture industry, so that they are, incapable of authentically relating to the culture of the present. Although avant-gardes may seem to undermine the integrity of art, their challenge has become the only way for art to continue.

For Roberts, the avant-gardes of the 1920s are the key revolutionary example of the practice of art “after art”: Constructivism, Dada and Surrealism were crucial because they disconnected art from painting, or “craft-specificity,” allowing art to “place itself within the advanced technical relations of the epoch” (1). Across the twentieth century, but especially after the historical avant-garde was rediscovered in the 1960s, art “after art” crept out into other areas of cultural production. Art in general became increasingly theoretical, reflecting on its out-of-joint relation to the world, but it did so using the technical practices that were shaping that world: film, photography, publishing and the organizational forms of mass production itself.

Roberts argues for the avant-garde as an intermittent, but recurring “research project.” For this reason, he is fundamentally in disagreement with Peter Bürger, one of the most influential critics of the “neo-avant-garde”, the term he coined to describe the recurrence of avant-garde art since the 1960s. For Bürger, the “’historical’ avant-garde” failed in its attempt to transform the relationship between art and life praxis in the 1920s. Once avant-garde art became consecrated by the museum, it became just another style, no longer revolutionary, but actually endorsed as bourgeois culture. Greenberg’s version of the avant-garde was part of this process of assimilation, but even those movements of the 1960s who rejected high modernismFluxus, Minimalism and Conceptual artwere, for Bürger, a tame homage to a revolutionary attempt to destroy the art institution.6

Roberts, by contrast, argues for the enduring vitality of avant-garde practice, though he acknowledges that it must recognize its limitations. Roberts concedes that the historical avant-garde failed in its attempt to transform the everyday, but he insists that the failure is not one that can be readily assimilated by bourgeois society, or contained within narrative art history. As he puts it, the avant-garde is “a failed event that produces out of its failure a repressed potentiality that stands to open up the present and tradition” (91). The recurrence of avant-garde art throughout the 20th century is a sign that it has not been neutralized or assimilated.

In Roberts’s terms, after the Thermidor of the 1930s, when Nazism and Stalinism dispersed or liquidated avant-garde membership, the avant-garde could only be recovered as a “suspensive” form: cross-cut by tensions that enforce political and artistic limitations. The materials from which these suspensive avant-gardes are created are the incompletely understood or misrecognized artistic strategies bequeathed by a revolutionary avant-garde that was defeated. The process of this struggle to negate art, in Roberts’s argument, must take place in and through the cultural space of art, and it is inevitably marked by the contradictions of its historical conjuncture.

Art historical accounts of the avant-garde, even those that are theoretically sophisticated, tend to resort to narratives of stylistic progression. Roberts, by contrast, provides an explanation based on crisis, on the decomposition of art within the socio-economic maelstrom that is required for capitalism to function. Paradoxically, this bleak mise-en-scène allows for a kind of optimism. The avant-garde response to crisis, which must be continually reinvented, is one of negation: a negation of artistic tradition in the first instance, but also a negation that points beyond tradition toward alternative possibilities for the reinvention of social reality. This “second negation” (59–63), which was most powerfully communicated by the avant-gardes of the 1920s, because of their contact with the revolution of 1917, remains a potentiality of the “post-conceptual” art of the social turn.

Chapter two includes a lucid account of the diverse reception of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory across Anglophone as well as German debates. For a student of Adorno, this chapter alone is probably worth the price of the book. The discussion hinges on the meaning of autonomy for Adorno’s various interpreters, each of whom pursues a different trajectory through the intricate dialectic of Aesthetic Theory. Whereas some, for example J.M. Bernstein and Andrew Bowie, affirm the autonomy of art as a kind of “radical aestheticism," Roberts takes a post-aestheticist position—represented by Peter Osborne and Stewart Martin besides Roberts himself—that describes critical autonomy amid the anti-aesthetic, post-medium tumult of contemporary art.7

Chapter three teases out the absences and political cul-de-sacs, involved in any recovery of the avant-garde legacy. It does so by examining the different kinds of belatedness experienced by avant-garde collectives located in two very different national-historical contexts: conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s, especially focused on the group Art & Language in the United Kingdom and the practice of the group Chto Delat in Russia since the early 2000s. In the 1960s and 1970s in the UK, the emergence of Art & Language helped to set in place the conditions for contemporary art, though the group imploded in the mid-1970s at the point that their post-conceptual practice became most politically engaged. Chto Delat, by contrast, demonstrate the clearest articulation of how “socialized autonomy” might be realized as an avant-garde practice in the current global conjuncture. The comparison is intended to situate the political space of the avant-garde and to identify its risks. It also situates the avant-garde as a discourse that must emerge “from below.” (126)

Roberts does not suggest that art is about to complete the revolution in the human sensorium proposed by the historical avant-garde, of course. Rather, the expansion and professionalization of art education since the 1960s has had the ironic effect of building a reserve army of artistic labor, precariously employed and struggling for visibility at the very margin of the art world, caught in the contradiction between art’s promise of freedom, and the pitiless economic reality of the “art industry.” The theorist and artist Gregory Sholette has described this growing mass of artists as the “dark matter” of the art world.8 Roberts prefers to describe a “second economy” of art: one that operates outside of the art market and the established museum and biennial circuits. This, for Roberts, this is the contradictory space of the “suspensive avant-garde.”

The allusion to “revolutionary time” in the title of the book, underlines Roberts’s insistence that the avant-garde is betrayed by conventional art historical narration. The idea of revolutionary time is derived from Walter Benjamin’s theoretical project, which aimed to release “historical alertness” (49) from the numbing historicism of capitalist chronology. Roberts describes such rupture as “revolutionary futures past.” (48) They are not reenactments or academic retrievals, but instead represent moments of what Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge call “historical obstinacy”: refusal to accept the burial beneath a supposedly inevitable progression from past into future. In place of this profoundly ideological ordering, revolutionary time posits a “now” that “contains presciently prefiguratively all temporal possibilities.” (48)

In a short review of this kind, it is impossible to explore this argument in all its complexity, or its full implications. To return to the comments at the beginning of this review, one inference might be that the only art worthy of the name is now being produced beyond the market and the museum, in the precarious “second economy” at the art world’s margins. This certainly is one way that Roberts’s insistence on the renewal of art “from below” might be understood. This interpretation raises questions about how such work might be seen, or circulated beyond a primary audience, or whether indeed it need be. Throughout the book Roberts privileges the avant-garde as a kind of collective subject “for itself”: he is not interested in establishing an art critical space where works might be appraised. On the other hand, it is important that this work is art: Roberts is emphatic that to abandon art in favor of political activism is a mistake.

Ultimately, the book seems to say that the avant-garde “researches” the impossible tensions that striate its attempt to be free of capitalist subjectivity. How can this be described as an optimistic prospect? For this reader, it powerfully evokes and affirms practices that work to shift the dead weight, the nightmare, of capitalist subjectivity. Even though the book makes no promises, nor could it, its entire theoretical trajectory is intended to show that the avant-garde, though ephemeral, continues to exist as a vital potential within art. Indeed, it always stands ready to negate the neutralization that is the price of its contact with bourgeois, or neoliberal culture. The avant-garde cannot be absorbed because it founds its collective subjectivity upon the stress-points that neoliberal culture must deny. One might observe that what is true of the legacy of avant-garde, is also true of the legacy of revolution. |P


  1.  Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," in Pollock and After: The Critical Debate ed. Francis Frascina (London: Harper & Row, 1939 / 1985).  

  2.  Walter Robinson, “Flipping and the Rise of Zombie Formalism.” Artspace. <http://www.artspace.com/magazine/contributors/see_here/the_rise_of_zombie_formalism-52184>.  

  3.  Claire Bishop, "The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents," Artforum 44, no. 6 (2006).  

  4.  “Programme of the First Working Group of Constructivists” cited in Peter Osborne Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (London: Verso,2013) p.142.  

  5.  For an vehement argument against the avant-garde see: Grant Kester, The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011). For a spirited defense: Marc James Léger, Brave New Avant-Garde: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics. , Kindle ed. (Arlesford: Zero Books, 2012).  

  6.  Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).  

  7.  See, Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All : Philosophy of Contemporary Art, (London: Verso, 2013); Stewart Martin, "Autonomy and Anti‐Art: Adorno's Concept of Avant‐Garde Art," Constellations 7, no. 2 (2000).  

  8.  Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, Marxism and Culture (London; New York: Pluto Press; Distributed in the U.S.A. exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).  

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