Wednesday, April 26, 2006
The Politics of the Avant Garde
With notable exceptions, studies of the Russian avant-garde have become, in a Kuhnian sense, "normal science. And yet the work to which it adverts is anything but. This is not an insignificant matter, though it is a not very widely acknowledged one. It is a problem that has always existed and that has never gone away but just seems to have become invisible. Like some otherwise defenseless creature in a hostile environment, the question of the politics of the avant-garde has blended into the tangled undergrowth of facts and names, research grants, footnotes, and scholarly paraphernalia....
The revolutionary avant-garde is not of interest for its normativity. Aleksandr Blok wasn't joking when he summoned Europe to the "bright feast of peace and brotherhood and labor" with the "strings of a Scythian lyre": "Are we to blame if your rib cages burst/beneath our paws' impulsive ardor?" Blok's warning could doubtless be written off as a romantic evocation of the Revolution's most backward aspects--all slave girls , wild horses, and Asiatic jubilation--when the Revolution was really about tractors and planning. But a revolution is a revolution, and the academic researcher padding noiselessly through carpeted libraries or, indeed, faxing documents from one interntional center to another would do well to remember that Aleksandr Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Maiakovskii, Dziga Vertov, Gustav Klutsis, and the rest, working in conditions of privation to begin with and harsh censorship later, were all, without exception, explicitly commited to working-class revolution--out of which a new order of international socialism would arise. One should not overlook the paradox that the very research which progressively reveals the contours of the Soviet avant-garde is predicated on the defeat of the avant-garde's social vision. By whom, by just which forces, is not quite so easy to say. To echo the sentiments of a thinker little acknowledged in these late days of cultural studies: "What is to be done?"
It is an irony upon a paradox that in setting out to answer the question, in attempting to clarify the politics of the avant garde, there is no other starting point than this unglamorous one, this place where we are. Our starting point consists of these apparent conclusions, this pile of books, this trail of articles: not, after all, the soul of revolutionary Petrograd but the "soul" of the bourgeois academy. The Russian avant-garde, Constructivism, Socialist Realism even, are what they have been made to mean in these pages, in the play of their silences and their affirmations. To ponder the paradox is, in effect, a question of resistance: resisting various normalizations enforced by the history our own culture is writing.