Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde

The few discursive notes are indicated by numbers in brackets. Parenthetical references are to the list of Works Cited.

Intellectuals are comforted by the philistinism of the remark sometimes attributed to Goebbels, “When I hear anyone talk of culture, I reach for my revolver,” [1] but the noted dada poet, anti-fascist, and psychiatrist Richard Huelsenbeck provided its lesser-known complement: “to make literature with a gun in my hand [was] my dream.” (Motherwell 28) In rhetoric, the two balance; in practice, of course, only one of the speakers was armed, and the other was lucky to escape his homeland with his life. We remember, fifty years after the defeat of German fascism, the meaning of the Nazi gun, but what is the meaning of Huelsenbeck’s dream?

The late seventeenth century trope of the “battle of the books” simply provided an image for the long-familiar pattern produced by the dialectic of tradition and innovation in the procession of literary generations. Before long, the metaphor was embellished through the association of literary styles with “progressive” or “reactionary” attitudes and movements. With the coming of industrial capitalism and the Romantic era the link between new artistic practice and political revolution became considerably stronger.

The very term avant-garde appears in the late eighteenth century with a purely military meaning. It was first used in the cultural sphere by utopian socialists for whom artists were likely “forward troops” who could educate the masses through the dissemination of radical ideas through their work. (Russell 16) This is plausible, of course, only if one assumes a mass audience for the arts. Raymond Williams notes that, though Shelley’s calling poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the World” is very frequently quoted, the helplessness implied by the term “unacknowledged” is rarely explained. (See Russell 19)

Since the Romantics artists have been expected to consistently oppose the status quo. Thus the young Wordsworth and Shelley admired the French Revolution; Baudelaire and Rimbaud flirted with the revolutions of 1848 and 1870; and the Nixon White House was chagrined to find that no cultural figure was a guest on whom one could depend to behave. [2] Even on the right, poets have often been fierce social critics, tending even, like Marinetti, Celine, and Pound toward the fascist extreme. While there has been considerable “charitable” poetic sympathy for the humanitarian ideals of progressive causes, there has also been a particular fascination with the destructive content of the radical agenda, the cry to do away with the old. Thus Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau all praised John Brown whose apocalyptic rhetoric and fearless uncompromising acts were the logical end of the antislavery imperative, though more pragmatic abolitionists might question his tactics or his sanity.

The militant rhetoric of the avant-garde is familiar to us all: Rimbaud calling for the death of the wealthy, chanting the powerful “Perissez! Puissance, justice, histoire, a bas! . . .Le sang! Le sang! ., . . Tout a la guerre, a la vengeance, a la terreur.” (noted in Russell 42-3); Marinetti’s flat declaration: “We will declare war” (quoted in Russell 88); Tzara’s proclamation, “There is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished” (Russell 103); Desnos’ idealization of terror (see Russell 154); Artaud’s denunciation of “all writing” as “pigshit” as his slogan “shit to the spirit” (anticipating the Weather Underground’s trope on a Maoist line: “serve the people . . .shit”); Jolas’ declaration of cultural war; Diane di Prima’s smash and burn rhetoric in Revolutionary Letters which counsels, “avoid the folk/ who find Bonny and Clyde too violent.” (di Prima 12); and Baraka’s dictum: “The Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. (Baraka 382)

It may seem as though in these last examples the putative political values have come to dominate the cultural content. It is true that, quite often, as Berkman found after his attack on Frick, the workers don’t get it. Whole movements have arisen in which the philosophic and artistic formation outweighs the political calculation: Russian anarchists, Goldman’s Mother Earth, The Masses, the rock and roll revolution of John Sinclair, Baader-Meinhof, the Weather Underground in certain phases, the punks and squatters of Berlin and the Lower East Side.

It is surely not surprising that the very groups most lacking a mass base and a plausible political strategy are those with the most absolute and nihilistic rhetoric. Clearly trade unions, resistance groups, and guerilla armies must address the desires of the population (including their own cadre) for a peaceful and productive life. Those formations which lack a mass base, whose appeal is to alienated intellectual rather than to workers are infallibly the ones producing the noisiest and most violent rhetoric.

Whereas real politics is a matter of compromise, an aesthetic party with no real following need make no concessions. The ecstatic celebration of destructive rage is a direct reflection of powerlessness. Thus the first signifiers of upheaval are generated by weakness as the language of combat replaces genuine struggle. Politics becomes then a spiritual or symbolic enterprise, as valuable as other such rituals. Civic action becomes self-conscious performance art instead of a technology for influencing the lives of the people, and the Trotskyites split into ever more minute and dogmatic sects, each convinced that the grace of its correct political line will compensate for lack of a constituency and will lead eventually to salvation.

From the artistic side of the dialectic, art which lacks social and academic authority, which lacks an audience and an economic base, will embrace and intensify its own powerlessness by veering toward the extreme, the unintelligible, the arbitrary. The lack of readers becomes the guarantor of the work’s validity. In Tzara’s phrase, dada “sets up inconsequential bayonets.” (Motherwell 75)

Once the position of the avant-garde in literature has been imaginatively constructed, through a series of tropes, into the structural equivalent of the military, a number of propositions become available. An array of possibilities opens out, just as such an array always emerges when any figure of speech enters the realm of the conventional: the original figure occurs, accompanied by its ironic double, by its reversal, by any number and variety of twists – the process is evident not only in high art, but also in heavy metal lyrics, graffiti, and bumper stickers. Thus, if the avant-garde is the equivalent of the military, it may assume the posture of a threat that may overthrow the ruling class. It may on the other hand spotlight its own inadequacy. It may seek to reinforce the state’s genuine military power or it may be aggressively antiwar. The Vietnam era slogan “Bring the war home!” indicated not pacifism but the ambition to pursue armed insurrection. The artist may indulge in self-caricature (or may be ridiculed by opponents) as an absurd and impotent force. (Compare the vision in Dharma Bums of a generation of enlightened backpackers with the contempt with which the Beat were received during the 1950s.) All these mutations and many other point back toward the same basic convention and arise in the first instance from a sense of the irrelevance of art in modern society.

The definitive moment of the avant-garde is dada. At no earlier time did artists so radically challenge the conventions of artistic creation, and much of what has passed for avant-garde since has merely replicated the dada gestures. The Dadaist movement was born, though, in political struggle in the real world, in resistance and repulsion against World War I and in particular against German imperial culture.

The word culture has been highly politicized especially in German usage since the late eighteenth century when Herder protested the claim of superior culture as a justification for imperialism. Many of dada’s practitioners, especially in the German branch, were active revolutionaries. It is said that Huelsenbeck was made Commissar of Fine Arts in the Bavarian Revolution of 1919. He did, at any rate, feel sufficient distaste for Kultur to define it as “shit,” to call for its violent destruction, and to compose the presceient call to arms Deutschland muss untergehen! In 1920. For Huelsenbeck, “Dada is German Bolshevism.” (Motherwell 44)

The same malaise and alienation which led to dada’s birth brought many artists of the avant-garde to political activism as communists, socialists, anarchists, or at least antifascists. The Second Surrealist Manifesto, for example, promises (with a revealing use of the future tense) “we shall prove ourselves fully capable of doing our duty as revolutionaries.” (Lippard 141)

The Nazi state responded with official denunciations of dada by Hitler years after whatever influence it had once possessed had waned. Prior to the infamous exhibition of “degenerate” art the Reich sponsored a show of “Dadaistic Works of Shame and Filth.” (Hitler’s exalted idea of the danger presented by the avant-garde was feebly echoed by Jesse Helms’ absorbed interest in a few works of art that have received public funding.)

The extreme rhetoric of the Dadaists was generated, though, not by the fascist threat in Europe alone, but in the first instance by their marginalization in modern society which they saw as proceeding ever further into mass cultural forms which obscure rather than enlighten. The same reaction represented in Horkheimer and Adorno’s declaration that modern mass “culture now impresses the same stamp on everything” (120) producing a culture without satisfaction where the promise of pleasure is an illusion. (139) Even the “ecstasies” of jazz dancing are mere “pseudoactivity” and “mimicry” (Adorno 292), while high culture has only vestiges of an audience. Lukacs decried a modernism which had displaced the authentic grand European tradition. For him the new style “leads not only to the destruction of traditional literary forms; it leads to the destruction of literature itself.” (45) Like Marx himself, these critics feel powerful nostalgia for earlier days and, doubtless, their own excellent German classical educations, but is the “totality” Lukacs seeks not identical to the “uniformity” that Adorno and Horkheimer lament?

If popular art is false and high art suicidal and elitist, if society at large regards uncommodified art with placid indifference, art responds by cocking a snoot, which is to say by drawing its metaphorical gun, aggressive language. In its most extravagant forms this desperate appeal for attention approaches the language of total war: “TO THE PUBLIC: Before going down among you to pull out your decaying teeth, your running ears, your tongues full of sores, before breaking your putrid bones . . .Before all that, we shall take a big antiseptic bath, and we warn you, we are murderers.” (Ribemont-Dessaignes in Motherwell 109)

The posture of this statement indicates not only a rejection of the established social and cultural order, but a profound philosophic skepticism as well. It creates a dead end in thought and artistic practice. This has stalled the avant-garde ever since, rendering it useless as a gadfly to the state and unproductive in new aesthetic ideas. The chief techniques of the Dadaists, abstraction, aleatory composition, performance art, ethnopoetics among them, are still the leading methods today, eighty years after the Cabaret Voltaire. The practitioners of these forms receive foundation grants and university appointments, and it has become virtually impossible to épater les bourgeoisie.

Evidence of this motif of adversarial militancy, increased rather than calmed when ignored, is abundant and familiar. Janco: “a purifying and scandalous force to consume the past,” Breton’s claim that “a volley shot into the crowd” is “the surrealist act par excellence,” Desnos: “REVOLUTION means TERROR,” Artaud: “I foresee a destruction by fire,” not to mention the very concept of the Theater of Cruelty, di Prima: “The vortex of creation is the vortex of destruction,” and “SMASH THE MEDIA . . . BURN THE SCHOOLS,” Michael McClure: “Revolt necessitates destruction.”

As the rhetoric of militant revolt is the dominant form of the figure, I will simply note in passing the possibility of significant variations, ironic uses, inversions, and reversals. Among the avant-gardists who came to identify their revolutionary artistic powers with the interests of the state are Mayakovsky (who described himself as a guerilla warrior), Marinetti (whose futurist manifesto declared, “We will glorify war . . . the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and the scorn for women” [Russell 88]), and the poets of “socialist” states such as Cuba, Sandinist Nicaragua, and China (especially during the era of the Cultural Revolution).

The militant pretensions of the avant-0garde were ridiculed by Baudelaire (who preferred dallying with dandyism and sin, though he did, of course, support the 1848 Revolution. “On the Frenchman’s passionate predilection for military metaphors. In this country every metaphor wears a moustache. The militant school of literature. Holding the fort. Carrying the flag high . . . More military metaphors: the poets of combat. The literature of the avant-garde.” (Baudelaire 188-9)

The program of the avant-garde have very frequently been attacked by critics from the left such as the Frankfurt School theorists already cited, and by such Marxists as Caudwell for whom surrealism, for example, is self-negating and anarchistic. (110)

Self-parody is sometimes difficult to define in self-important circles, but it surely includes the burlesque of war in Sloan and Duchamp’s storming of the Washington Square Arch and in the showers of produce tossed at Dadaists and then at Futurists and later reenacted by Carl Solomon in the scene memorialized in Howl. The real crime of the musical Hair was not its cooptation of the counterculture, but the way in which it unashamedly reveals the triviality of coiffure as militance, but also the hollowness of confrontation in their bathetic repetition of the nudity of cast members of the Living Theatre.

A more thorough review of the forms of the figure of the poet as militant is impossible here. But even the examples cited will suggest that the imagery of the avant-garde artist as destructive warrior has not consistently, simply, and stably signified its opposite: impotence. The rhetoric has claim on further semantic territories which I can here only suggest: art which claims to attack and destroy may simply provide a dream-like wish fulfillment for the aggressive component in human nature. It may satisfy the same fantasies in the minds of intellectuals for which the Mexico Coty civil servant may turn to bloody tabloid newspapers or American youth to the car-in-the-air-shoot-‘em-up school of Hollywood. The same impetus is the realm of art rather than psychology would point toward the critical role of literature, so celebrated since the Romantic era, the tendency of art works to point to problems, tensions, and contradictions in received ideas, in other words to disturb complacency. This is undeniably a function of poetry, though no more than the function of restating the central cultural assumptions and reassuring the reader of the rightness of the status quo.

The extreme of that critical role is the vatic idea of the poet as a seer whose vision is wholly unlike most peoples, in fact higher, wiser, and more sublime. His task is to shake up his listeners, to undo shortsightedness and replace it with a higher truth. This is the archaic poetic vocation, familiar to students of ethnopoetics, and often conscious invoked in the last few centuries. Indeed the topos of the poet as priest reaches a sort of culmination in recent times when the higher truth the poet reveals may seem nihilistic, bringing news of nothing beyond the signifier’s distress at its own inadequacy, its declaration of epistemological bankruptcy, its self-destroying candor. Benjamin regarded fascism as the force that shaped l’art pour l’art to an end in which the convulsions of violence in war seemed the definitive object of beauty. But his communist alternative has fared little better in history. Beyond the polarities of twentieth century politics lies the final term of interpretation for the images of avant-garde militance: the writers rage not against their weakness in the structure of society, but against the weakness of the word itself.

The death of the avant-garde has been announced many times,[3] most memorably perhaps by Leslie Fiedler and Hans Magnus Enzensberger during the 1960s. Its resuscitation seems unlikely in a culture whose government can sponsor programs of jazz music and abstract expressionism and instruments of foreign policy and whose advertisers sell blue jeans and cologne with techniques devised for the derangement of the senses. The literary world, including its establishment of editors, foundations, and universities is quick to coopt any radicalism, while art is ever more commodified; those formation and phenomena that seem to resist are marginalized, and non-artistic radical social challenges seem exhausted. Under these conditions an active avant-garde is a wandering corpse, lamenting its own enervation. The imagery can march no further forward.


1. The actual quote is "Wenn ich Kultur höre ... entsichere ich meinen Browning!" [“Whenever I hear 'culture'... I remove the safety from my Browning!"]. It is sometimes attributed to Goering or Streicher as well, though it comes, in fact, from the first scene of the play Schlageter, written by Hanns Johst and first performed in April 1933, in honor of Hitler's birthday. The leader of the Hitlerjugend Baldur von Shirach, speaks the line as he actually draws a gun in Frederic Rossif’s documentary De Nuremberg à Nuremberg.

2. The experience was repeated during the Bush White House when in 2003 plans for a symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” had to be abandoned.

3. Including my own “Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde.”



Works Cited


Abrahams, Edward. The Lyrical Left. Charlottesville (Va.): University Press of Virginia, 1986.

Adorno, Theodore. “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. by Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New York: Continuum, 2005.


Baraka, Amiri. “State.Meant.” The Poetics of the New American Poetry. New York: Grove Press, 1973.

Baudelaire, Charles. My Heart Laid Bare, trans. Norman Cameron. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1950.

Caudwell, Christopher. Illusion and Reality. New York: International, 1937.

diPrima, Diane. Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: City Lights, 1971.

Horkheimer, Max. “On the Problem of Truth. Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. by Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New York: Continuum, 2005.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodore Adorno. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder, 1977.

Lippard, Lucy, ed. Surrealists on Art. Englewood Cliffs (N.J.): Prentice Hall, 1970.

Lukacs, Georg. “Art as Self-Consciousness in Man’s Development.” Marxism and Art, ed. B. Lang and F. Williams. New York: David McKay, 1972.

Lukacs, Georg. “The Ideology of Modernism.” Realism in Our Time. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

Motherwell, Robert, ed. The Dada Poets and Painters: An Anthology. New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1951.

Poggiolo, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1968.

Russell, Charles. Poets, Prophets, and Revolutionaries: The Literary Avant-Garde from Rimbaud through Post-Modernism. New York and Oxford: Oxford University, 1985.

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