The New Modernist Studies emerged in response to intellectual, critical, and institutional pressures that threatened to marginalize early twentieth-century work that had once been considered revolutionary. Postmodernism, in particular, sought to differentiate itself—as both a literary-historical period and a school of critical thought—by focusing on popular culture, semiotics, and the deconstruction of value hierarchies. In doing so, it effectively began to reduce modernism to a collection of antique formalisms that were both elitist and premised on the exclusion of women, people of color, and almost all of mass culture.
Andreas Huyssen helped set the terms of this debate in 1987 with the publication of After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, which drew on the cultural criticism of Frankfurt School critics like Theodor Adorno. He argued that modernism had successfully carved out a distinctive place for itself by creating and then vigorously enforcing a strict boundary between its own carefully cultivated practices and the explosive growth of popular culture. Thanks to the interlocking effects of mass literacy, the availability of leisure time, and the creation of technologies like cinema, entirely new cultural industries took shape. These typically catered to broad yet carefully segmented audiences whose ever-changing standards of taste, judgment, and pleasure often diverged from those of elite critics and practitioners. This, Huyssen argued, led to the growing sense of a “great divide” between highbrow art on the one side and mass culture on the other.
We open this anthology with a pair of chapters from Huyssen’s book precisely because it helped constitute fully the transformative debates that would lead to the demand for a “new” modernist studies freed from the narrow corner in which postmodern theorists tried to confine it. “The Hidden Dialectic” argues that twentieth-century media technologies contributed simultaneously to the rise of both mass culture and to the radical new artistic practices associated with modernism. This produced a powerful paradox: the same technologies that seemed to be producing an increasingly homogenous art for mass audiences were also enabling the creation of increasingly revolutionary practices like montage. These twin revolutions served to disrupt the cultural authority of art itself as an autonomous reservoir of cultural, ethical, and national value.
Modernism consequently arose, Huyssen argues, by carefully distancing itself from radical attacks on the idea of art as such (associated with the avant-garde) as well as from the dull homogeneity of mass culture. And it did so through a misogynist gender politics in which male artists and writers pitted themselves against popular art forms they associated with women viewers and consumers. This produced a “powerful masculinist mystique” that helped canonize writers like Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and Flaubert, turning their commercial failure and lack of wide popularity into a paradoxical sign of their success as artists able to resist the presumed depredations of mass culture.
After the Great Divide is a foundational pivot between the old and new modernist studies. Although the book goes on to explore how postmodernism sought to reactivate the revolutionary potential of the avant-garde, its incisive critique of modernism’s collapse into a husk of masculinist elitism launched a fundamental reassessment of the early twentieth century. In some ways, the myriad attempts to resist Huyssen’s influential arguments have become the groundwork for much of the work included in this anthology, ranging from the media-centric pieces by Goble and Pressman to the pieces focused on gender (Felski), the marketplace (Rainey), and theory (Saint-Amour). Although the “great divide” might still persist as a heuristic for thinking about high modernism and mass culture, the New Modernist Studies developed largely as an attempt to explore the complexity of a revolutionary era that could not be so easily divided against itself.
Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from conformism that is about to overpower it.
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
THE HIDDEN DIALECTIC: AVANTGARDE! TECHNOLOGY! MASS CULTURE
When Walter Benjamin, one of the foremost theoreticians of avantgarde art and literature, wrote these sentences in 1940 he certainly did not have the avantgarde in mind at all. It had not yet become part of that tradition which Benjamin was bent on salvaging. Nor could Benjamin have foreseen to what extent conformism would eventually overpower the tradition of avantgardism, both in advanced capitalist societies and, more recently, in East European societies as well. Like a parasitic growth, conformism has all but obliterated the original iconoclastic and subversive thrust of the historical avantgarde1
of the first three or four decades of this century. This conformism is manifest in the vast depoliticization of post–World War II art and its institutionalization as administered culture,2
as well as in academic interpretations which, by canonizing the historical avantgarde, modernism and postmodernism, have methodologically severed the vital dialectic between the avantgarde and mass culture in industrial civilization. In most academic criticism the avantgarde has been ossified into an elite enterprise beyond politics and beyond everyday life, though their transformation was once a central project of the historical avantgarde.
In light of the tendency to project the post-1945 depoliticization of culture back onto the earlier avantgarde movements, it is crucial to recover a sense of the cultural politics of the historical avantgarde. Only then can we raise meaningful questions about the relationship between the historical avantgarde and the neo-avantgarde, modernism and post-modernism, as well as about the aporias of the avantgarde and the consciousness industry (Hans Magnus Enzensberger), the tradition of the new (Harold Rosenberg) and the death of the avant-garde (Leslie Fiedler). For if discussions of the avantgarde do not break with the oppressive mechanisms of hierarchical discourse (high vs. popular, the new new vs. the old new, art vs. politics, truth vs. ideology), and if the question of today’s literary and artistic avantgarde is not placed in a larger socio-historical framework, the prophets of the new will remain locked in futile battle with the sirens of cultural decline—a battle which by now only results in a sense of dèjà vu.
Historically the concept of the avantgarde, which until the 1930s was not limited to art but always referred to political radicalism as well,3
assumed prominence in the decades following the French Revolution. Henri de Saint Simon’s Opinions littéraires, philosophiques et industrielles
(1825) ascribed a vanguard role to the artist in the construction of the ideal state and the new golden age of the future,4
and since then the concept of an avantgarde has remained inextricably bound to the idea of progress in industrial and technological civilization. In Saint Simon’s messianic scheme, art, science, and industry were to generate and guarantee the progress of the emerging technical-industrial bourgeois world, the world of the city and the masses, capital and culture. The avantgarde, then, only makes sense if it remains dialectically related to that for which it serves as the vanguard—speaking narrowly, to the older modes of artistic expression, speaking broadly, to the life of the masses which Saint Simon’s avantgarde scientists, engineers, and artists were to lead into the golden age of bourgeois prosperity.
Throughout the 19th century the idea of the avantgarde remained linked to political radicalism. Through the mediation of the Utopian socialist Charles Fourier, it found its way into socialist anarchism and eventually into substantial segments of the bohemian subcultures of the turn of the century.5
It is certainly no coincidence that the impact of anarchism on artists and writers reached its peak precisely when the historical avantgarde was in a crucial stage of its formation. The attraction of artists and intellectuals to anarchism at that time can be attributed to two major factors: artists and anarchists alike rejected bourgeois society and its stagnating cultural conservatism, and both anarchists and left-leaning bohemians fought the economic and technological determinism and scientism of Second International Marxism, which they saw as the theoretical and practical mirror image of the bourgeois world.6
Thus, when the bourgeoisie had fully established its domination of the state and industry, science and culture, the avant-gardist was not at all in the forefront of the kind of struggle Saint Simon had envisioned. On the contrary, he found himself on the margins of the very industrial civilization which he was opposing and which, according to Saint Simon, he was to prophesy and bring about. In terms of understanding the later condemnations of avantgarde art and literature both by the right (entartete Kunst)
and by the left (bourgeois decadence), it is important to recognize that as early as the 1890s the avantgarde’s insistence on cultural revolt clashed with the bourgeoisie’s need for cultural legitimation, as well as with the preference of the Second International’s cultural politics for the classical bourgeois heritage.7
Neither Marx nor Engels ever attributed major importance to culture (let alone avantgarde art and literature) in the working-class struggles, although it can be argued that the link between cultural and political-economic revolution is indeed implicit in their early works, especially in Marx’s Parisian Manuscripts and the Communist Manifesto
. Nor did Marx or Engels ever posit the Party as the avantgarde of the working class. Rather, it was Lenin who institutionalized the Party as the vanguard of the revolution in What Is to Be Done
(1902) and soon after, in his article “Party Organization and Party Literature” (1905), severed the vital dialectic between the political and cultural avantgarde, subordinating the latter to the Party. Declaring the artistic avantgarde to be a mere instrument of the political vanguard, “a cog and screw of one single great Social Democratic mechanism set in motion by the entire politically conscious avantgarde of the entire working class,”8
Lenin thus helped pave the way for the later suppression and liquidation of the Russian artistic avantgarde which began in the early 1920s and culminated with the official adoption of the doctrine of socialist realism in 1934.9
In the West, the historical avantgarde died a slower death, and the reasons for its demise vary from country to country. The German avantgarde of the 1920s was abruptl y terminated when Hitler came to power in 1933, and the development of the West European avantgarde was interrupted
by the war and the German occupation of Europe. Later, during the cold war, especially after the notion of the end of ideology took hold, the political thrust of the historical avantgarde was lost and the center of artistic innovation shifted from Europe to the United States. To some extent, of course, the lack of political perspective in art movements such as abstract expressionism and Pop art was a function of the altogether different relationship between avantgarde art and cultural tradition in the United States, where the iconoclastic rebellion against a bourgeois cultural heritage would have made neither artistic nor political sense. In the United States, the literary and artistic heritage never played as central a role in legitimizing bourgeois domination as it did in Europe. But these explanations for the death of the historical avantgarde in the West at a certain time, although critical, are not exhaustive. The loss of potency of the historical avantgarde may be related more fundamentally to a broad cultural change in the West in the 20th century: it may be argued that the rise of the Western culture industry, which paralleled the decline of the historical avant-garde, has made the avantgarde’s enterprise itself obsolete.
To summarize: since Saint Simon, the avantgardes of Europe had been characterized by a precarious balance of art and politics, but since the 1930s the cultural and political avantgardes have gone their separate ways. In the two major systems of domination in the contemporary world, the avantgarde has lost its cultural and political explosiveness and has itself become a tool of legitimation. In the United States, a depoliticized cultural avantgarde has produced largely affirmative culture, most visibly in pop art where the commodity fetish often reigns supreme. In the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, the historical avantgarde was first strangled by the iron hand of Stalin’s cultural henchman Zhdanov and then revived as part of the cultural heritage, thus providing legitimacy to regimes which face growing cultural and political dissent.
Both politically and aesthetically, today it is important to retain that image of the now lost unity of the political and artistic avantgarde, which may help us forge a new unity of politics and culture adequate to our own times. Since it has become more difficult to share the historical avantgarde’s belief that art can be crucial to a transformation of society, the point is not simply to revive the avantgarde. Any such attempt would be doomed, especially in a country such as the United States where the European avantgarde failed to take roots precisely because no belief existed in the power of art to change the world. Nor, however, is it enough to cast a melancholy glance backwards and indulge in nostalgia for the time when the affinity of art to revolution could be taken for granted. The point is rather to take up the historical avant-garde’s insistence on the cultural transformation of everyda...