Mina Loy is not alone in her exclusion from avant-garde theories, histories, and anthologies. As Griselda Pollock observes, “women are generally missing from conventional stories of the avant-garde”—despite their active, formative participation as artists, writers, editors, patrons, and publishers. The gender ratio in the photo below—six women and nine men—provides evidence of women’s prominence in the Parisian avant-garde of 1923, and stands in marked contrast to the dominance of men and erasure of women in subsequent histories and theories of the historical avant-garde.
Pollack argues that the “initial institutionalization of modernism not only failed to acknowledge the centrality of gender to both modernity and its modernisms; it actively fabricated a monogendered, selective narrative of modern art, even in the living presence of the women who defined their moment of modernity through their massive participation in all areas of culture” (795). What results is a “heroic and exclusively masculine legend of the avant-garde.”
This masculine legend has roots in three foundational theories of the historical avant-garde:
- Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939)
- Renato Poggioli’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1968)
- Peter Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1980)
These theories are intelligent, insightful, influential—and almost exclusively based on white, male artists. To theorize the avant-garde is to construct a history and a canon: the theory arises from observations about a select canon of writers and artists, and then serves as grounds for ignoring those whose work does not conform to the theory. A brief overview will suffice to show how and why these seminal theories of the avant-garde do not adequately account for Loy’s avant-garde practices. By noting how Loy does not fit the mold, we may begin to see how other innovative artists and writers from the same period may also be marginalized by these theories.
Greenberg’s Formal Approach
In his seminal 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Clement Greenberg takes a formal approach, arguing that the avant-garde “detaches” itself from society, turning its attention to its own medium. The resulting avant-garde art is characterized by reduction, abstraction, and purification of form. “Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cezanne, derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in,” Greenberg argues, noting that “poets like Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Valéry, Eluard, Pound, Hart Crane, Stevens, even Rilke and Yeats” similarly focus on the act of poetic creation. Note that all of these artists and writers are white men, and most of European origin.
Greenberg might have included Loy in his list of poets, as poems like “Brancusi’s Golden Bird” and “Joyce’s Ulysses” explicitly focus on acts of artistic and literary creation, and nearly all her writing in some way turns attention to the structures of language itself. But for Loy, language is not a pure, abstract medium; it is deeply embedded in social and sexual conventions. Her poem “The Effectual Marriage of Gina and Miovanni,” a satire of a conventional marriage, is the antithesis of “reduction, abstraction, and purification of form.” Long, sprawling, and unstable, the poem is unable or unwilling to detach itself from its social context, as its concluding note attests:
(This narrative halted when I discovered that the house which inspired it was the home of a madwoman. —Forte dei Marmi).
Poggioli’s Psychological Approach
Renato Poggioli’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1968)—the first book-length study of the subject—takes a psycho-social approach that is better able to accommodate Loy’s complex psycho-social investigations. Whereas Greenberg defines the avant-garde as a structural position in which the artist distances himself from mass culture, Poggioli views it as a psychological condition—a social mentality characterized by alienation and opposition to mass culture.
Poggioli offers a taxonomy of avant-garde “moments” that encompasses a range of positions, attitudes, and strategies. Although they may last “only a morning” (223), these “moments” are more temperamental than temporal, however, closer to psychological dispositions:
- activistic: “the sheer joy of dynamism”
- antagonistic: “spirit of hostility and opposition”
- nihilistic: pleasure in destruction
- agonistic: welcoming self-destruction as a sacrifice to future generations
This array of psychological dispositions can better account for the various attitudes and postures Loy assumed in her varied career, but the detachment and alienation from mass culture both Greenberg and Poggioli see at the heart of avant-garde practice does not hold true for Loy. She went to New York seeking an audience for her work, her Dada experiments court the public, and her entrepreneurial efforts reflect an ambition to succeed in the mass cultural marketplace. Poggioli’s taxonomy does not account for the constructive, transformative “moments” in Loy’s artistic practices—the ardent desire to expand individual minds and transform cultural values through art.
Bürger’s Sociopolitical Approach
In reorienting the avant-garde toward mass culture, Peter Bürger’s influential Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974, 1980, English translation 1984) seems to align better with these aspects of Loy’s avant-garde practice. Burger takes a sociopolitical approach, conceiving of the avant-garde as groups as committed to artistic experimentation and innovation and opposed to bourgeois society rather than to mass culture. The avant-garde rejects the bourgeois institution of art and its idealization of artistic autonomy because they effect a separation between art and everyday life. For Burger, the avant-garde attacks bourgeois institutions and values in an effort to reconnect art with everyday life and make it available and accessible to the masses. Marcel Duchamp exemplifies this stance. His “ready-mades” insert quotidian objects (a overturned urinal, a shovel, a bicycle wheel) into the hallowed realm of art, thereby subverting its institutional pretensions to grandeur.
Some of Loy’s work resembles Duchamp’s, especially her 1917 contributions to the Dada little magazine The Blindman and the constructions made from cast-off objects she collected while living in the Bowery in the 1940s. But other work, such as her celebrated 1923 poem “Apology of Genius,” revile the uncomprehending masses and elevate the artistic genius to a position of isolation and alienation. Loy’s stance toward mass culture is thus inconsistent, changing throughout her career.
In addition, subverting the hallowed realm of art is a privilege available only to those who have access to that institution. While Loy gained access primarily through her relationship to influential male figures, such as Carl Van Vechten, Ezra Pound, and Marcel Duchamp, many writers and artists of color were excluded from the organizations and publishing venues that gave recognition to artists and endowed their work with value.