From Avant-Garde to Para-Garde: The Truth About Marika
Abstract: It seems today that the avant-garde has become domesticated and that its radical tendencies have been tamed. There is apparently no rival for the avant-garde paradigm—no way to reformulate radical art so that it may depart from the premises from which it emerged in the early twentieth century.1 How then can the avant-garde, as a social, political, and theoretical position and practice, revitalize itself in contemporary culture? I argue that in the field of experimental art, we are gradually shifting from the legacy of the avant-garde to a mind-set called para-garde. My theoretical discussion of both the historical avant-garde’s legacy and the para-garde is tied to an experimental Swedish project entitled Sanningen om Marika (The Truth about Marika; 2007) which provides an example of the emerging para-garde ethos. Marika constructs a space in the interstices between the vanguard and popular culture that eludes classic avant-garde definitions and theories.
The first pure critique of the avant-garde ethos emerged in the political and cultural situation of 1968. The creative crisis of 68 drove the forces of the avant-garde onto the streets, but according to Peter Bürger’s influential (and nostalgic) theory, the date also marked the wane of the vanguard project (in Theorie der Avantgarde, 1974). In his 1977 Five Faces of Modernity, Matei Calinescu argued that the historical avant-garde had been so successful that it had become a “chronic condition” of art, since the rhetoric of destruction as well as novelty had lost their former heroic appeal (2003: 146-47).2 Along the same lines, the neo-avant-garde (which ranges from neo-Dada to neo- Fluxus) can be deemed a reactionary label. For the most part it conserves the avant-garde inheritance, which is a fate worse than death for the champions of anti-art for anti-art’s sake—to quote Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist formulation. In his summary of Bürger’s theory of the neo-avant-garde and its negative achievements, David Hopkins underlines the sense of loss felt in post-1968 Europe (2006: 6). This melancholy never fully dissipated since, by and large, the 214 Antti Salminen neo-avant-garde was unable to achieve the utopian goals and artistic- political revolutions that were outlined by the historical avant-garde. And to mount a Bürgerian critique, the neo-avant-garde reversed the vanguard’s original project, recouping it for the art industry. The concept of the postmodern avant-garde remains flawed for the same reasons as does that of the neo-avant-garde. First, the term “postmodernism” has become hackneyed to the point of being devoid of content. Second, the prefixes “post-” and “avant-” are still bound to the modernist project, as well as to its traditions and cultural myths. Third, if the avant-garde is understood to be a reflection on modernity, its cutting edge, or even its unconscious parody—as Renato Poggioli suggested in The Theory of the Avant-Garde (1968: 141)—what we actually face is an anachronistic oxymoron. The avant-garde is inseparable from the phenomenon of modernity, and it therefore cannot proceed to any “post” phase without relinquishing its ties to modernism. Surely it could be argued that in one way or another we remain in historical modernity, but this Sunday-of-life argument cannot explain the crisis that the avant-garde has faced since the 1960s. There are two ways of responding to the death of the avant-garde. One would proclaim the demise of the avant-garde project along with modernism, while the other is eager to perpetuate the vanguard’s legacy by new means. Representative of the first strain is Paul Mann’s The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde:
The death of the avant-garde is old news, already finished, no longer worth discussing; but those who think so have not yet even begun to think it. There is no post: everything that it claims to be so blindly repeats what it thinks it has left behind. Only those willing to remain in the death of the avant-garde, those who cease trying to drown out death’s silence with the noise of neocritical production, will ever have a hope of hearing what that death articulates. (1991: 141)
The second can be attributed to a contemporary artist, the Neoist Stewart Home, who writes in his essay, “The Palingenesis of the Avant-Garde”:
The task of the avant-garde then, is to carry on as before by providing those still trapped within the old modes of discourse with a myth that will deconstruct itself. What is as yet particular must become general, that is to say we require the social construction of a new subjectivity so that, once belief is recognised as ‘our’ enemy, it becomes possible for everybody to step outside the frames of reference provided by art,