MW 2:00 – 3:15 pm
In English / 4 credits
Taught by Christopher Wood and Lytle Shaw
The avant-garde is the leading edge of artistic change, and the preview of the artistic future. An avant-garde is the picture, sketched by a gifted few, of where the many are headed. While there has always been innovation in art, not until the nineteenth century was the progressive or experimental artist expected also to point the way forward to social and political change. Some will deny that art has any single "direction," or that art should be valued on the basis of its forward-pointing quality. And yet even today the metaphor of the avant-garde—the advance scouts of an army on the move—enjoys great prestige.
This course aims to rethink the modern history and concept of the avant-garde through close study of three epochal moments in modern Western art: Romanticism in Germany (circa 1800); Dada and Surrealism in Europe and the U.S. (circa 1920); and the "New York School" in poetry and art (circa 1960). We will discover that whereas progressive art is supposedly always looking forward, avant-gardes have in fact often looked backwards and compared themselves to these and other "canonical" moments. Is such meta-avant-garde consciousness compatible with true artistic freedom? We will also consider the avant-garde as a site for the emergence of Theory—a discourse in dialogue with but ultimately distinct from literary criticism and philosophy. How might our picture of Theory change if we situate it as a component of avant-garde practice? Does the avant-garde model still retain its normative power in our own complex and multipolar society, where old distinctions between "high" and "low" art are ever more difficult to uphold? If avant-gardes have never quite achieved their frequent ambition of breaking down the distinction between life and art, does this render them failures? Or might there be other evaluative frameworks in which to understand their contributions? Is it possible, for instance, to understand some of the social and artistic relationships developed within avant-garde groups as generative models that might be exported to other contexts?
Readings by Poggioli and Bürger (on avant-gardes in general); Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, Schiller, Schlegel, Hegel, Novalis (German Romanticism); etc.; Ball, Huelsenbeck, Höch, Schwitters (Dada); O’Hara, Ashbery, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Cage, Smithson (New York School).