August 9th, 2011 / 11:45 am
Power Quote

Power Quote: Andreas Huyssen

In traditional bourgeois culture the avantgarde was successful in sustaining difference.  Within the project of modernity it launched a successful assault on 19th-century aestheticism, which insisted on the absolute autonomy of art, and on traditional realism, which remained locked into the dogma of mimetic representation and referentiality.  Postmodernism has lost that capacity to gain shock value from difference, except perhaps in relation to forms of a very traditional aesthetic conservatism.  The counter-measures the historical avantgarde proposed to break the grip of bourgeois institutionalized culture are no longer effective.  The reasons that avantgardism is no longer viable today can be located not only in the culture industry’s capacity to co-opt, reproduce, and comodify, but, more interestingly, in the avantgarde itself.  Despite the power and integrity of its attacks against traditional bourgeois culture and against the deprivations of capitalism, there are moments in the historical avantgarde which show how deeply avantgardism itself is implicated in the Western tradition of growth and progress.

–Andreas Huyssen – After The Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Indiana University Press, 1986)


  1. JosephYoung

      the avantgarde and the middel class are largely the same thing, with the same goals. art has been middle-classed, with emphasis on professionalism, product, brand, the same types of production values as ‘mainstream’ culture productions. the content of the avantgarde may (or may not) be different but the values are largely the same.

  2. Guest

      Love this.  I’ve been reading “The afterlife of the avant-garde” by P. Mann lately and the sentiment is quite similar.  Going to have to scope some Huyssen, thanks for posting.

  3. deadgod

      I think what postmodernity – especially that of, say, Derrida – does is to neutralize “difference” by making of differential economy an Everything Concept (albeit, yes, a paradoxical one).  The “difference” reproduced by political economy, or that by racial theory, or that by assumptions of gender inequality–all these “differences” are dissolved into an ‘everything is different from everything else’ smear. 

      –I mean that, if “difference” is universal, what can be appealed to to argue – or fight – against injustice?  – increasing the power of the oppressed? –why, ‘increasing power’ is the reason to oppress ‘them’ in the first place.

      I think the “shock” of a Nietzschean anti- or de- or dis- metaphysics of “difference, alterity, becoming” – a philosophy of ‘what does one want?’ as opposed to ‘what is it?’ – threatens, at least, to rob even aesthetic, what, adventurism of the sense that there’s even something stable ‘there’ (in transmitted forms and in their conservation) in the first place that’s ripe for destabilization, as well as draining from aesthetic destabilization any glamor of really ‘new’ novelty.

  4. deadgod

      I also think that “attacks against traditional bourgeois culture and against the deprivations of capitalism” are rooted partly in exactly the soil of “the Western tradition of growth and progress” (as well as in intractably materially changing circumstances).  Marx remains avant the garde of accumulation and market rationalization.  That there be an aesthetic medium or technique or whatever that’s peculiarly suited to revolutionary effect — ??

  5. Guest

      i’d say that the avant-garde isn’t the middle class (at least not in spirit) – that’s just what the middle class cynically/lazily tells itself in order to feel better about itself in the midst of its inability (and utter lack to practical desire, usually) to break away from an emphasis on professionalism, product, brand in the art it produces. avant-gardist production doesn’t place an emphasis on these values, which is why it doesn’t appear on the radar of most middle class art production to begin with, imo

  6. Guest

      in other words, middle class art production that insists on emphasising professionalism, product and brand will ‘naturally’ be interested in following, supporting, reproducing, collaborating with, encouraging (etc.) other art that also insists on emphasising similar behaviors. after supporting and reproducing this attitude toward art for so long, it’s no wonder that these people suddenly look up, wonder where an ‘avant-garde’ might be, don’t see any visceral evidence of it in themselves or anyone they know, and then proceed to deny its existence. they have no concept of it because they’ve never seen it, never been it, have likely made little to no effort to discover, create, or theorize it, and probably would not recognize it if it slapped them in the face. seems like the denial of the existence of avant energies often appears as a class defense mechanism re: middle class attitudes and behaviors that have no interest in changing themselves, and dislike when other, ‘less middle class’ forms of production reveal, by contrast, class demarcations for what they are. that said, avant production, in short = tendencies toward déclassé production, imo, rather than middle class defense mechanisms and denial of a life beyond professionalism, product, brand, property, etc. people think this doesn’t exist and have never seen it because creativity that emphasizes déclassé aesthetics and/or explicitly avoids reproducing middle class production values is not rewarded in our culture, is mostly irrelevant, and is mostly invisible

  7. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Guest.  Is that essay part of Paul Mann’s Masocriticism book?  I tried looking it up and could only find that title there…?  I’ve read with great interest Mann’s Theory Death of The Avant-Garde, but have yet to read any of his other work.

  8. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Joseph. 

      I’ve been thinking about your comment here.  I disagree, because it seems to me that the avant-garde impulse is to produce something other than what is held as the middle class value. 

      For instance, one could easily argue that popular literature (Harry Potter, Twilight, Sookie Stackhouse) echoes middle class values; but are those values equally conveyed by William Burroughs’s Nova Express, Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, or Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget? 

      I would say: no.  The goals of Harry Potter and Twilight and Sookie Stackhoue are not the same goals as Burroughs, Acker, and Goldsmith. 

      The former values sales, the later can’t be said to share that goal…can it? 

      The former values clarity, the later can’t be said to share that goal…can it? 

      The former values closure, resolution, reinforcement of preexisting cultural paradigms, the later can’t be said to share that goal…can it?  

      This list of distinctions could go on and on, which is one of the salient reasons why I spend so much time trying to unpack “experimental literature.”  It is different.  It has different values.  At least this is what I keep telling myself :)

      At any rate, thanks for commenting.  Good to hear from you.

  9. deadgod

      something other than what is held as the middle class value

      Joseph distinguishes “content” from “values”.  In other words, while the “content” of a text embodies or enacts one bundle of “values”, the social position of that text might embody or enact other, and perhaps competing, bundles of “values”.

      For instance, the “content” of Burroughs’s writing seems designed not to gain sales, not to be clear in a conventional way, and not to make or entail the priorities of closure, resolution, or reinforcement of preexisting cultural paradigms.

      Burroughs’s writing is elite, appealing to the few who select themselves to get to it and to get it.

      This elitism seems to be in conflict with the “middle class value” of conformity, of behaving so as to constitute (for others) normative behavior.

      But what this elitism does is to maximize the “value” of a thing – not necessarily a commodity – proportionally to its rarity.

      What is “experimental” about Burroughs’s books – their many difficulties – makes them exclusive–I think:  deliberately so.

      This maximizing of “value” itself is a ‘middle class” aspiration…isn’t it?

      And the academic-industrial complex that values, not (necessarily) the exclusivity of Burroughs’s writing, but certainly those aspects of the writing that make it an exclusive taste–that political-economic complex is thoroughly “middle class”…isn’t it?

      At any rate, it is fun carefully and patiently to discern the “values” of a text’s “content” from the “values” that that text might otherwise embody or enact or participate in and especially to make this discernment together.

  10. Guest

      Yes, the essay is in “Masocriticism” which is chock full of rad stuff incl. “Stupid Undergrounds” which is available on-line & prompted me to pick up the book in the first place.  He writes “The afterlife of the avant-garde” is a sort of extension or wrap-up of his “Theory Death…” book which acts as a spring-board into the rest of “Masocriticism.”  I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of that one yet but look forward to checking it out.  

  11. c2k

      JosephYoung makes an interesting comment – when one realizes that Huyssen published his book in 1986 and JosephYoung is responding in 2011, and in 2011. In considering the distinction (“the content of the avantgarde may (or may not) be different but the values are largely the same”), I can’t help but note this 25-year difference. What has happened to “the avantgarde” in the intervening years? (Also to “bourgeois culture”?) What was Huyssen seeing? I think JosephYoung is talking about the present, whereas Huyssen was a witness.

  12. JosephYoung

      as soon as you (i) say art is ___, you are wrong. it’s too big for that. so, yeah, i’m wrong. yet the middle class having taken up more space within art making seems pretty clear, accelerated by the growing mfa etc, bringing with it and normailizing those values, even at the advance. which isn’t a critique, or is only partly one, since it partly describes me.

  13. Guestagain

      Mr Higgs, you list the values of sales, clarity, closure, resolution, reinforcement of preexisting cultural paradigms, then assert that experimental work must have different values, but what are those in addition to merely opposing all of the above? Ongoing épater le bourgeois has really become a predictable comedy, and somewhat to Mr. Young’s point above, the mass culture industry has become very agile at absorbing and mainstreaming art influences, at selling the cool. Investigation and analysis to discover a set values in art experimentation seems to contradict the postmodern or vanguard endgame in any case because values are clear, closed, resolved, stable, etc. So, it appears we seek criteria and value assessments (and cred and props and respect and… sales?) for work that is in direct confrontation to systems that are criteria and values assessment-based. It might be worthwhile to consider that the bourgeois beat to shit middle class with its hypnotized consumer values should no longer be the target of the avant guard (a quaint 19th century French notion anyhow) and attention should now be shifted to the elite political and academic classes who create nothing tangible but interesting plasticized hypothesis and division.

  14. Guest

      i agree re “as soon as you (i) say art is ___, you are wrong”

      that said, i would argue that most conscious avant energies have probably abandoned the desire to reproduce the idea/concept of “art” itself, consider it a relic, and have little interest in it at all beyond deconstructing it for the sake of other aesthetic purposes that don’t seek to feed back into its definition

  15. Guest

      agree re: “the Western tradition of growth and progress”. anyone who takes an interest in ‘the avant-garde’ quickly discovers that avant-garde art is always just the avant-garde of capital. hence the desire to pursue a seemingly impossible aesthetic that abandons art, careerism, class (etc.) entirely. in other words, no, kenneth goldsmith et al. has nothing to do with anything even remotely avant imo, sorry mr. higgs

  16. deadgod

      What would be an “aesthetic purpose” that does not grow out of and return those whom it ‘purposes’ to “the idea/concept of ‘art’ itself”?  I ask because, for me, ‘art’ is mightily close to a defensible Everything Word–at least:  Everything Human.

  17. Guest

      anything that is ‘art’ contains within it the most reactionary forms and collusions of creative energies ever known

      the only interesting forms of creativity are those that somehow managed to avoid getting caught up in the idea of art

  18. deadgod

      the only interesting forms of creativity

      For example, . . .?