Feminist Challenges

As we argue in the previous section, histories and theories of the avant-garde have tended to focus on male-dominated movements, erasing or marginalizing contributions of women and people of color. In recent years, scholars have sought to clarify women’s contributions, while articulating the importance of gender, sexuality, and race to the avant-garde, in studies such as:

  • Futurist Women: Florence, Feminism, and the New Sciences (Paola Sica, 2016)
  • The Women Artists of Italian Futurism: Almost Lost to History (Mirella Bentivoglio and Franca Zoccoli, 1998)
  • Mamas of Dada: Women of the European Avant-Garde (Paula Kamenish, 2016)
  • Women in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender, and Identity (Naomi Sawelson-Gorse, 1998)
  • Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (Penelope Rosemont, 1998)
  • Surrealism and Women (Mary Ann Caws, Rudolf E. Kuenzli, and Gwen Raaberg, 1991)
  • Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (Whitney Chadwick, 1991).

While these studies have transformed our understanding of the avant-garde, scholars have yet to offer a comprehensive theory of the avant-garde that accounts for the distinct experiences of women and people of color, who were often ambivalent about claiming affiliation with white, male-dominated movements.

cubist inspired painting possibly by Mina Loy
Oil painting, possibly by Mina Loy (c. 1914?)

Mina Loy’s innovative art and writing lay the groundwork for feminist theory of the avant-garde. As Sarah Hayden observes in Curious Disciplines, Loy did not merely overlap with Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism, “she actively intervened” upon these movements “as arch theorist of avant-garde artist identity” (2). She theorized the avant-garde in and through her experimental writings, creating new ideas and forms even as she critiqued them. As both a product and critique of their times, “Loy’s theories of avant-garde artisthood can and should inform our understandings now of the history of the (historical) avant-gardes” (Hayden 5).

Loy recognized early on that the term “avant-garde” was problematically militant. She interrogates the “martialised” nature of what she terms the “avant guard” in a 1925 essay on Braque and Picasso, “Gate Crashers of Olympus” (Crangle, Stories and Essays 231). Loy observes of Picasso:

Every new object to which he applied his disruptive aesthetic has had an extra crack knocked into it by his rabid opposers, i.e. disciples.

For although modern warfare is not responsible for our revaluation of values, modern art which is the actual cause is martialised to the extent that he who steals a stunt from its originator, does so, for the redemption of the aforesaid art.

Picasso’s “disruptive aesthetic” provocation was echoed and intensified with violence by his “opposers,” who, Loy suggests ironically, became Picasso’s “disciples” by repeating his stance of violent opposition. This oppositional “revolt” of the masculine avant-garde became predictable and was easily absorbed into the commercial logic that fueled the need for the “new”, as Loy points out: “This disjuncted guitar has in every ‘avant guard’ every year, in every land re-re-re-represented the imminent intellectual revolt for one quarter of a century. […] Magazine slogan — / Art is always ‘new’ to the uninitiate—” Loy suggests that this martialized stance does not generate real innovation or change, but becomes replicated and recirculated under the false guise of the “new.” Truly original modern art, she implies, does not violently oppose precedent in knee-jerk fashion, but constructively stimulates a “reevaluation of values” (231).

Loy understood that transforming values and conventions need not entail strident opposition, violent rupture, or breakage. It might, for example, accommodate strategies of renovation or rehabilitation. At the “moment” of her artistic awakening by the Italian Futurists, for example, Loy exalted the power of new artistic forms to disrupt habits of perception and thought, and in the process to transform consciousness. She asserted in “Aphorisms on Futurism” that:

CONSCIOUSNESS cannot spontaneously accept or reject new forms, as offered by creative genius; it is the new form, for however great a period of time it may remain a mere irritant—that moulds consciousness to the necessary amplitude for holding it.

Loy’s “Aphorisms” call a rehabilitation of consciousness—a gradual expansion of the mind as it is stretched and reformed by new and unfamiliar art forms.

Loy invites us to rethink the avant-garde in terms of rehabilitation and expansion rather than revolution and rupture. Her peripetic career calls us to theorize the avant-garde more broadly as a diverse array of strategic poses or moves, rather than a structural position (Clement Greenberg), psychological condition (Renato Poggioli), or sociopolitical stance (Peter Bürger).  Among others, Griselda Pollock and Cynthia Park Hong have instigated such revisionary feminist theorizing in groundbreaking essays.

Pollock’s Feminist Redefinition

Griselda Pollock
Griselda Pollock, Professor of Social and Critical Histories of Art, University of Leeds

In her 2010 essay “Moments and Temporalities of the Avant-Garde ‘in, of, and from the feminine,'” Griselda Pollock resists monolithic, linear models, reconceiving the avant-garde as an assortment of “diverse and discontinuous avant-garde moments at which the defining collision of social and aesthetic radicalisms occurred” (796). Whereas the Greenberg, Poggioli, and Bürger’s male-dominated theories operate on a linear trajectory, positioning the avant-garde both ahead of its time and as the salutary end of an artistic teleology, Pollock turns away from linear historical time. In order to suggest a cyclical notion to time and less violent relation history, she draws attention to the second meaning of “revolution,” not as an overthrow or rupture, but as revolving.

Pollock does not reject historical time altogether, but instead redefines the avant-garde as “a concrete cultural phenomenon that is realized in terms of identifiable (though never predetermined) practices and representations through which it constitutes itself in relation to, and at a distance from, the overall cultural patterns of its time” (800). This definition is strategic, social, and historical. Individuals in particular historical moments identify with others in a self-selecting group to imagined themselves as creating or effecting some form of difference that distinguishes them from cultural norms. Such a definition allows for multiple, revolving, discontinuous, overlapping, intersecting, parallel, and conjoining currents or moments of avant-garde practice, with variable motives, attitudes, targets, and publics. Feminist avant-garde strategy might be understood as assuming a pose of self-conscious differentiation within a particular spatiotemporal setting: a difference, defiance, or critique of social norms or artistic conventions.

Hong’s Racial Critique

By emphasizing plurality and diversity, Pollock broadens the definition of the avant-garde to make room for women and writers of color. But for Cathy Park Hong, the avant-garde is irredeemable. In her 2014 essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” (Lana Turner Journal 7), she rejects the term “avant-garde” altogether as representative of a fundamentally and continuously white, “racist tradition”:

Cathy Park Hong
Cathy Park Hong, poetry editor of the New Republic and professor at Rutgers-Newark University

To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition. From its early 20th century inception to some of its current strains, American avant-garde poetry has been an overwhelmingly white enterprise, ignoring major swaths of innovators—namely poets from past African American literary movements—whose prodigious writings have vitalized the margins, challenged institutions, and introduced radical languages and forms that avant-gardists have usurped without proper acknowledgment.

For Hong, the provocations, interventions, and innovations of the avant-garde are the product of white privilege. For example, Marcel Duchamp could afford to challenge the institutions of art by overturning a urinal, signing it “R. Mutt,” and submitting to the Independents Exhibition, precisely because he already had access to those institutions. His “readymade” could supplant “author” with “finder” because he had the authority to do so. As a white, European man, he was at liberty to joke, play, and assume pseudonyms ranging from R. Mutt to Rrose Sélavy, and still be recognized for his distinctive, individual genius. According to Hong, artists of color neither enjoy such liberties nor operate under such delusions:

The avant-garde’s ‘delusion of whiteness’ is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be “post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are. But perhaps that is why historically the minority poets’ entrance into the avant-garde’s arcane little clubs has so often been occluded. We can never laugh it off, take it all in as one sick joke, and truly escape the taint of subjectivity and history.

For Hong, the avant-garde’s celebrated subversion of authorial identity, its disavowal of subjectivity, and its evasion of history are extravagant forms of white privilege that remain unavailable to writers of color. The avant-garde has become a “petrified” institution, “enamored by its own past, and therefore forever insular and forever looking backwards.” She sees no benefit from expanding the category to include artists of color: “Fuck the avant-garde,” Hong concludes, “We must hew our own path.”

If redefining the “avant-garde” to encompass a more diverse array of strategies cannot overcome a century of biases and exclusions, and if we truly want to “hew our own path,” perhaps a new term is in order.