Signals and noise: art, literature and the avant-garde
One of the most consistent features of the diverse artistic movements that have flourished throughout the twentieth century has been their willingness to experiment in diverse genres and across alternative art forms. Avant-gardes such as Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Fluxus and Pop were composed not only of painters but also dramatists, musicians, actors, singers, dancers, sculptors, poets and architects. Their works represent a dramatic process of crossfertilization between the arts, resulting in an array of hybrid forms that defy conventional categorisation. This thesis investigates implications of this cross-disciplinary impulse and aims by doing so to open out a site in which to reassess both the manner in which the avant-gardes have been theorised and the impact their theorisation has had on contemporary aesthetics. In the first part of this study, I revisit the work of the most influential theorists of the avant-garde in order to ask what the term “avant-garde” has come to signify. I look at how different theories of the avant-garde and of modernism relate to one another as well as asking what effect these theories have had on attempts to evaluate the legacies of the avant-gardes. The work of Theodor Adorno provides a connective tissue throughout the thesis. In Chapter One, I use it to complicate Peter Bürger’s notion of the avant-garde as “anti-art” and to argue that the most pressing challenge that the avant-gardes announce is to think through the cross-disciplinarity that marks their work. In Chapter Two, I trace how painting has come to be considered as the paradigmatic modernist art form and how, as a result, the avant-garde has been read as a secondary, “literary” phenomenon to be grasped through its relation to painting. I argue that this constitutes a systematic devaluation of literature and has resulted in an “art historical” model of the avant-gardes which represses both their real radicality and implications of their work for these kinds of disciplinary structures. In the second part of this thesis, I explore works which examine and question the aesthetic hierarchies and notions of aesthetic autonomy that the theories of modernism and the avant-garde explored in the first part set up. In Chapter Three, I approach by way of two cross-disciplinary works which employ literature and visual art: Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box (1934) and Andy Warhol’s a; a novel (1968). Works such as these, which slip through the gaps between literary and art history, have, I argue, important implications for literary and visual aesthetics but are often overlooked in disciplinary histories. In my final chapter, I return to the theory of the avant-garde as it emerges in the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard. I examine how his work reconfigures Adorno’s aesthetics by performing the cross-disciplinary movement that it argues is characteristic of avant-garde art works. Tracing his “post-aesthetic” response to Duchamp and Warhol, I explore how Lyotard articulates a mode of practice that moves beyond the dichotomy of “art” and “antiart” and opens out a site in which the importance of the twentieth century avant-gardes is made visible. I conclude by briefly considering the implications of the avant-garde, as I have presented it in this thesis, for contemporary debates on the twenty-first century “digital avant-gardes” and recent writing on aesthetics.