Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Avant-Garde, Marginalization, and the Stories of the World

I just returned exhausted from a conference in Gent, Belgium, which was dedicated to avant-garde and modernism studies. This year, the topic of the conference is "Europa! Europa?" and aimed to interrogate the meaning of "Europe" within the avant-garde movements. From my point of view, the question nearly needs no discussion: the avant-garde has always been about a critique of European/western civilization, and that Dada disregarded nationalities, Surrealism disregarded skin color. The avant-garde, as I say over and over again to others, was the moment when blacks, whites and others united against colonialism, bourgeois arrogance, and spiritual alienation under industrial capitalism. It was the last time in the western world where art and poetry could and did provide a sense of grandeur and nourished the courage for protest for a generation of men and women living under very dark times. Some members of the avant-garde made political mistakes, some perished in the wars, some in the concentration camps, some did themselves in. Those who survived, however, could testify to the fact that this artistic and intellectual elite did dismantle and renew language and symbolic forms in the west in such a way that they allow us to articulate our affective lives intelligently in modernity. Love and friendship, work and imagination, made all this possible.

Part of my exhaustion and sense of disappointment, therefore, results from the fact that this grandeur, this love for the world (as opposed to the love for "Europe") that is in my mind central to the avant-garde was barely brought out during the conference. Instead, it became the opportunity for scholars who work on the so-called minor cultures and languages (Hungarian, Bulgarian, Slovenia, etc) to re-claim their fair share of the pie - the pie being "modernism and avant-garde studies." One after another, I heard accounts by otherwise competent and committed scholars about a forgotten Lithuanian avant-garde figure, about the marginalization of Polish Cubism in the history of modern art, so on and so forth.

I sat through these conference papers patiently, though I was much perplexed. If I were to articulate my perplexity in the form of a question, it would be the following: If the minor cultures are now given microphones so that they, too, get to tell their previously marginalized stories, why is it that their stories all sound the same, since they all assume the position of marginalization itself as the main crux? In other words, what on the surface promises to open up a history to a field of heterogeneities (the opening up of the history of modernism to "alternative" stories) ends up reinforcing homogeneity, namely, the uniformly marginal status of the cultures of Central and Eastern Europe. The differences between the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Poles and the Bulgarians cede into the background as the "larger picture" surfaces: the large picture of "marginalized avant-gardes" and thereby marginalized peoples.

It was not until a panel of American scholars came on to talk about Czech, Hungarian and Slovenian contemporary art that I realized where the problem seems to be located. All three of the presentations by American speakers focused on artistic practices whose goal is to engage with the propaganda of the Soviet era or life under totalitarianism. The art forms were therefore discussed exclusively in relation to their content: how a Slovenian collective reproduces totalitarian rhetoric and techniques as parody; how Czech video artists produced a propaganda satirizing recent jouissance of consumerism in contrast to material depravity under communism; how examples of Hungarian installation art "failed" because they are supported by the right-wing government; so on and so forth. I found myself less concerned with the intellectual rigor of the presentations than with what seems to me a glaring truth: the west, namely that part of the world that did not experience totalitarianism during the 20th century and developed into the late-capitalist economies of today, continues to see the countries of the former Soviet bloc in terms of their experience under communism. In short, what is most important about the Russians, the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Slovenians and so forth from the point of view of the west is their humiliating and humiliated experience under Stalinism. What would these hip, young American intellectuals think, if I were to tell them that that Eastern Europe for me and my childhood friends in Taiwan meant Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chopin, Dvorak and Bartok? Could they understand that we, at the age of 10 or 11, read War and Peace tirelessly not because it was Russian and exotic, but because it was a great epic that swept our youthful souls away, for the sake of which "Twuo-Er-Si-Tai" (how we translate "Tolstoy" phonetically into Chinese mandarin) was to remain our teenage idol?

I was deeply affected by this experience at the Ghent conference precisely because it is not an issue that touches the central and Eastern Europeans alone. Gale recently posted a conversation about race in the United States, where the same scenario is reproduced. To a great extent, the whites and the blacks essentially work together unconsciously to reinforce the notion that the most important component in black American identity is the humiliating experience of slavery and segregation. So long as those on the "guilty" side continue to apologize neurotically for institutional racism, colonialism, global capitalism over and over in order to save their own souls, the "victims" will remain victims in body and spirit. Conversely, so long as the "victims" continue to reinforce the fact that they had been marginalized, forgotten and oppressed, the "guilty" ones shall more and more fetishize the victims and "their stories," which, as Gale implies, can only be stories of not so much suffering but of humiliation and perversion. There will be a kind of endless jouissance of collective sadomasochism: the "master" gets off on being flagellated by the "slave," meanwhile, he remains the master and the slave remains the slave. Admittedly, it is difficult recognize suffering and simultaneously resist the temptation to reduce the people to their predicament. I myself have made the same slip over and over again, and recently I had to be reminded by my friend Ronen that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are reducible to their condition under the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What are the means, then, to resist our compulsive bad conscience (Nietzsche, after all, must be credited for recognizing it as a form of post-Christian mediocrity)?

While I was listening to these American scholars on art about Soviet life, a vivid episode during my undergraduate career suddenly came to me. I went out of curiosity to an enormous conference in the Ryan auditorium, put together by scholars from the department of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern in collaboration with all the most important poets in central and eastern Europe. My motivation for going was not very profound: I was taking a modern poetry seminar with the Russian poet Ilya Kutik, and I liked Klebnikov and Mayakovsky. The poets at the conference included many Russians and Poles, but many Balkan poets also participated - most importantly, however, the entire auditorium was packed with the Slavic communities in Chicago-land. It was the first time in my life to see poetry playing such a central role in the lives of the common people, people who did not necessarily consider themselves intellectuals. When the poets began to recite, I began to understand why. The poets often recited long poems by heart; they barely looked at their papers. Never have I seen such rich yet natural idioms performed with such energy: at times, they whistled, sighed, shouted. I don't know any Slavic language, but all of the sublime fury of Mayakovsky seems to have made sense to me in one moment. As an American, I also had the impression of being re-taught Walt Whitman, whose free verse I did not understand until I understood it through the eyes of the central and eastern European avant-gardes. Even more moving was the overwhelming response of the audience - people clapped, laughed, cried - at the sight of which I said to myself that the Slavic peoples, who often intimidate me with their dry directness and mystify me with what seems to me an infinite capacity for suffering, are have poetry in their fibers, making it all the more unacceptable that such deeply creative and spiritual communities should have had to suffer the "moral extermination" of Stalinism.

Obviously, it would have been naive of me to simply reiterate the Romantic doctrine that art and poetry constitute the space of universality, as if there were no linguistic differences, differences in religious traditions and symbolic forms that separate one community from another. Nevertheless, insofar as poetry allows a language to become vehicles of people's emotions and experiences, it can be said to be the bridge between the individual's own sufferings and a world of open-ness. Art therefore transforms the particular into the universal, allowing the story of Hungarians, for example, to be simultaneously the story of the rest of us. It seems to me that the stories of particular peoples must be told in such a way that they become part of the stories of the world. Only then can we be genuinely prepared to listen to the "stories" of others without hearing the story that we actually want to hear, namely the story about ourselves. Then, one day, we might hope that the number of western scholars with a morbid fascination for Maoist China or Stalinist Russia would gradually diminish, and that we can all read Crime and Punishment and listen to Bartok together as the stories and songs about the world and of the world.


gale said...

Not only is it philosophically problematic to focus on a figure's importance because of his marginality, it's lazy. Marginality alone, or perhaps better said, the fact that no one else has studied Writer X or Artist Z, does not justify your project.

If marginality is your sole way in . . . then you need to think harder about your work.

The USSR problem is an interesting one, I think. Do you get a sense that anyone you heard was traced a longer history of artists/influences that spanned beyond 1917? I would think that for the generation of artists working in the 1940s-50s, the pre-USSR period would not be so distant - Tolstoy might still be a looming figure, even if in a post-Stalin era.

Feuer said...

I, too, attended the founding conference of the EAM ( European Avant-garde and Modernism) association at Gent, and was struck by its grand scope and particularly fascinated by the program's intention to integrate the scholarship on the avant-garde cultures of Eastern Europe, of the former Soviet satellites. I was disappointed, however, by the fact that the very sessions addressing the Eastern European avant-garde, where also scholars from these regions freed from totalitarian repression and victimization saw their chance to speak to an undivided Europe, were somewhat marginalized by relatively low attendance. This unfortunate circumstance brought to my awareness once again that specific energy that comes from marginalization which somehow speaks more to our most intimate feelings and hidden desires than any representative culture. In fact, the very history of the avant-garde is based on that energy.

By contrast there is, of course, the continued significance of representative humanist culture, for example of Tolstoy, as addressed by Joyce Cheng' s comments on the conference in order to question a reduction of the discussion of the Eastern European avant-garde to political constellations. We all can still connect our hearts minds with great masters of the 18th and 19th century; in fact, somehow we still sense our identity as individuals being formulated and put into form by them ( while we are unable to relate in such personal terms to the mannered creativity of the Baroque, for example). Yet, do we not sense that our continued intellectual affinity and what appears to be a significant emotional bondage to the great literary men may be "naive," if not understood critically ( as "sentimentalisch," for example). Is this experience perhaps not tied to a kind of "oceanic" fixation on our cultural ancestry which we rationalize as "universal," "timeless," and "sans frontiers." Indeed, we cannot easily forgo such ancestral father figures as we offer sacrifices to them that may, in the extreme, be the abdication from connecting with a world that has changed, is changing and will change all along. Yet there remains our empathy with young Werther's suicidal torments of love or with Hoelderlin's visions of the gods in the phenomenon of a great river or of a forest descending like a divinity on a forgotten town. The historical avant-garde was not free of that experience either: the surrealist experience of convulsive beauty appears to be still tied to the apparition of the female torso as a trace of a classical image - experienced in the midst of the flow of informes. The German expressionists, too, were part of a culture in the maelstrom of modernization which brought about new forms in all life worlds: Janus-faced, they ruptured the old syntax while reaching for the depths, the space of interiority where they somehow felt closer to the Romantics. Nevertheless, one was aware of the widening gap that lay between oneself and the great masters of the past.
A modernist writer like Kafka in multilingual Prague or an avant-garde poet and artist like Hans/Jean Arp in multilingual Strasbourg - in other words authors representing the cultural predicaments of marginalized regions - were most aware of the politicization of the great writers and artists of the past as national, if not nationalist monuments in the European culture centers threatening the uniqueness of the outlying regions. However, their view of the great masters was "sentimentalisch, " "sentimentalisch" in the sense that one knew of the profound creativity they represented for the self-understanding of the Western man at the time, while critically sensing, as Kafka put it in regard to Goethe as a national monument, that the genius ' writing in the name of the individual had become an obstacle for a much needed creativity in their own era at the brink of unparalleled disaster. Hence these critical minds and creative spirits of the marginalized regions were to excavate, as it were, from below the strata of the ruling culture of metaphor the images fitting not only Western modernity, riveted by one political catastrophe after the other, but attesting to a global experience as their images traveled like nomads from the regions to the metropolis, to Paris, Berlin, on to New York and beyond, to Asia or Africa.

Shall we therefore not also think about the significance of the marginalized, indeed victimized, avant-garde of Eastern Europe before, during and after Soviet imperialism? And why not talk specifically about the avant-garde as victimized by the ideology of the power of a state that had so terribly perverted the creative messages of international communal social thought with which many avant-garde writers, artists and intellectuals had identified. Why not then review the aesthetics of the avant-garde in terms of the extreme stress test of totalitarian politics based on the ideology of Socialist Realism. Or shall we rather escape the issues and join a quasi-religious convocation of a nostalgic, isolated emigre culture of interiority that finds its identity more likely in the exalted embrace of classics of the past? Our feelings, do they not rush to such refugium and sanctum? Yet, critical historical analysis tells us, there is no such alternative: Marginalization which as such is always already a form of victimization needs to be reviewed as a site and source of creativity, of a vital creativity which included a resistance against all forms of control and alienation that marked the 20th century.
In short, the relationship of avant-garde' s creativity to the creativity of humanism and idealism is rather one of a family tragedy, in which the key protagonists are "art" and "life" ( where "art" is always already a historical phenomenon), the individual and the collective. On the one hand, the avant-garde 's aesthetics had to stand up against the terror of 20th century politics, yet it cannot be measured in categories of politicization (wherever they come from), I agree. On the other hand, we cannot conflate its creative vitality with the suprahistorical stasis of a contemplative artistic evangelium. Aesthetic autonomy after all, has been the cultural insignium of European domination while claiming universality. Is not our predicament then the experience of a "the simultaneity of the untimely," the rift between the contemplative experience of the totality of perfect form and the simultaneous awareness of the impossibility of such a moment as a political form, in which Augenblick the images of the avant-garde release us from traditional aesthetic and cultural constraints while articulating an experience of freedom that is always already political?