In Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde, critic and theorist John Roberts justifies the advance of a contemporary avant-garde, conceived as an open-ended research program. Weaving together a theoretically heady prescription of its conceptual methodology, analyses of exemplary praxes, and an account of the dynamics of art production and reception in late-capitalism that demand the advance of a contemporary avant-garde, the book is an ambitious one.
Roberts inevitably confronts the nearly hundred-year-old conceptual problems embedded in the historical avant-garde, along with the plethora of pertinent critical and art historical scholarship that has emerged in the meantime. Though the breadth of this material comprises his greatest challenge, it likewise affords Roberts the opportunity to demonstrate the theoretical practice he advocates, which befits both his subject and his position. Negotiating "Art" and "Life" often precipitates a basic opposition, namely between leftists who decry the visual arts’ elitism and artists and critics who feel visual art is diminished as it draws closer to "Life." Though these positions are simplistic, they comprise a fairly common understanding of the avant-garde, which dismisses it on the grounds of its naïve impossibility. Roberts’ method is well suited to flesh out the complexities these opposing views obscure. The bulk of Revolutionary Time therefore counters and reworks extant criticism, theory and art history scholarship that demonstrate and underscore these views and the pervasive dismissal of the avant-garde project on the whole. Thus, from its outset, the book self-consciously adopts the same negational and intertextual strategy it advocates.
Roberts makes an early and crucial appeal to Hegel’s aesthetics to refigure the history of the advent of modernist art. He decenters painterly abstraction and instead identifies the move toward conceptualization, or in more Hegelian terms, the ascendance of pure idea, as its most essential feature. Roberts claims that the avant-gardist extension of this conceptualization subsumes “art under the logic of ‘general social technique.’” The conceptualization of visual art precludes painting’s status as “the supreme arbiter of value … [as] its open syntax … is underdetermined … and has an attenuated relationship to the extra-artistic real” (2). Following this shift, the artwork becomes “an evental process determined by its social and political conditions of emergence and possibility,” irreducible to its fixed objects, though it may still include them. Roberts claims art as evental process “is theoretically driven insofar as making sense of these conditions means that practice and theory are coextensive,” (3) justifying his conceptualist leanings and likewise carving out his own place within the program. Though Roberts’ modified conception of modernism dethrones painterly abstraction as its exemplar, he nevertheless incorporates it by explaining how its advance constituted a negational, deflationary tactic crucial to the shift toward conceptualization.
Roberts’ tenuous engagement with art historical scholarship is illustrative of his conception of first and second negation, articulated in more detail later. The dominant art historical account of modernism and its formalist veneration for painterly abstraction is upheld by a focus on individual artists, fixed objects, and formal visuality. Though histories of modernism increasingly include the Russian Avant-Garde, for example, its reductive method catalogs its individual participants and the stylistic character of the fixed objects they produced. This scholarship thereby erases avant-gardist praxis, the locus of both its political thrust and its contemporary relevance. This dominant, “humanist” scholarship precedes Roberts, and thereby comprises the critical heteronomy he breaks away from. His historiography critically highlights its methodological problems, while his refusal to engage in a humanist art history removes what he sees as its most diminishing feature. Though Roberts’ adherence to his negational methodology is impressive, his disdain for what he calls ‘humanist’ art history seems both misguided and extreme. Countering ‘humanism’ with a very theoretical and intertextual method renders the book unnecessarily abstract. Moreover, Roberts neglects important features of the avant-gardes’ historical and social contexts and lets formalism off the hook. I wonder what politically and conceptually salient insights might be gleaned, for example, from a "humanist" comparative history of the conditions faced by women working in the Russian Avant-Garde versus Weimar era German Dada groups. I suspect that a humanist account of these conditions might more coherently identify the ways in which avant-garde groups held to and broke from their purported political principles in their collaborative praxes.
Central to Roberts’ methodology is his adoption of another Hegelian principal, negation. In the context of his argument, the first negation is the “general recursive and intertextual condition of art’s autopoiesis.” In describing the second negation, Roberts appeals to Marx; noting that its challenge “lies not just in the critique and removal of the old capitalist forms, but in the universal harnessing of free creative power, of the transformation of the universal idea into the realm of free particulars … it is not just the outcome of political transformation of capitalism, but the promise of total revolutionary praxis” (59). The negation emerges here as means by which dominant contemporary modes and conditions might be upended in a “leap to freedom.”
Roberts identifies the anti-Hegelian bent seen across a range of leftist theorists, attributing their positions to their conceptions of the negation and the Hegelian Absolute that diverge from his own. He nevertheless engages and refigures these interlocutors in order to bolster the negation’s significance to revolutionary praxis. By breaking down extant leftist theory and incorporating its resultant parts into his argument, he performs negation to demonstrate the value of the negational strategy itself. This is indicative of Roberts’ adherence to an internal logic he attributes to the avant-gardism he advocates, which perhaps offers a promising, if abstruse model for cohering splintered leftist thought.
Following this address of negation, Roberts takes on autonomy, one of its most crucial features. He reframes and defends Adornian autonomy, claiming its undertheorization engendered its confused relationship to both art criticism and the left. There is on the one hand, the new aestheticist appeal to Adorno in defense of a “modernist aesthetic integrity,” and on the other, the contempt of “orthodox Marxists” who dismiss it as “elitist and aesthetically transcendentalist”(94). Roberts refigures autonomy as “art in a social relation … [wherein] art must define itself against … institutional arrangements” (92). Autonomy is the “experience of disjunction with the traditions and institutions which have brought [the art] into being,” (95) and is thus essential to negation and avant-gardist praxis.
Roberts’ conception of autonomy might be elucidated through his notions of a/inter/disciplinarity. Categorizing this work isn’t particularly easy, as it feels variously situated in the vicinity of art history, historiography, theory and criticism. Eschewing interdisciplinarity, Roberts self-consciously fosters an ambiguity and resists the aims and methods of any fixed scholarly tradition. He attempts to adopt the kind of avant-gardist adisciplinarity he advocates, research that “functions interstitially and aporetically under the non-identiary demands of the avant-garde’s open-ended research program.” An interdisciplinary strategy problematically “subsumes artistic practice under the given discipline … [or] treats the artist as a … highly heterodox ‘independent researcher’” (118). An adisciplinary, autonomous praxis, however, better positions the artist/work group to describe and counter the circumstances and social conditions from which they have emerged.
Art & Language, Chto Delat?
In order to more concretely explicate how this open-ended avant-garde program adapts antecedent methods to address contemporary social and cultural conditions, Roberts offers two pertinent case studies. Though the influence of the avant-garde in the 20th Century is obviously wide reaching (if not always totally acknowledged) — his exemplars adopt its conceptual tenets and collectivist praxes to address their own social contexts. The reverberation of prewar avant-gardes is thus belated, uneven, atemporal, and dependent on avant-gardist renewal as a means of reflecting upon earlier avant-gardes’ various demises.
Roberts first describes British conceptual artists that drew upon both French theory and avant-gardist traditions, with particular sensitivity to their own social and cultural climate. Given that modernist art in Britain was “underdeveloped” in the 1960s, and was constrained by a broader, populist anti-intellectual ethos, Roberts conceives of British conceptualism as breaking from its own domestic traditions in a capacity that refers directly to its own social and cultural context. He eventually focuses in on Art & Language’s scriptovisual work, for breaking from the imposing influence of American modernism, and for adapting a “collegiate dindividuation of artistic production” (150).
The second case study Roberts takes on is Chto Delat? (What is to be done?) a contemporary Russian working group responding to post-Soviet social conditions in a capacity that thoughtfully draws upon conceptual avant-gardist principles. Roberts notes that in the post-Soviet era, there is a “residual collectivist ideology,” especially in art and culture, which has defined the response to a deepening “chronic social dislocation”(165). He notes that its iteration in Chto Delat? does not constitute Bolshevik, Soviet or constructivist nostalgia, but rather gleans conceptual tenets from the historic avant-garde’s praxis to address contemporary conditions and meditate on Russian historical memory. There is a unique belatedness at play here, given the import of French theory, the Stalinist suppression of the avant-garde and its history, and what Roberts calls “post 1990s, post Burgerian Western Avant-Garde Theory” (176).
Given Roberts’ notion of adisciplinarity, I can’t help but wonder how carefully he considered his audience. Roberts can only address a reader with a workable knowledge of and, more significantly, an investment in the extant leftist theory he cites. The entire first half of the book so wholly revolves around his canonical interlocutors that he must presume his audience takes the canon very seriously. Further, though he seems to distance himself from art history, Roberts nevertheless draws meaningful conclusions that productively refigure an art historical methodology, especially with reference to modernism. His writing is not stylistically unlike modernist art history and criticism, and it is too abstruse to conceive of its extra-academic salience. As an academic text, Revolutionary Time is appropriate in its intertextual and theoretical form. But if Roberts meant for this book to live in an academic context, why doesn’t he address the conditions of academia in late capitalism?
Roberts’ adoption of a tight internal logic adherent to the tenets of the program he promotes suggests he intended the book to be a component of the avant-garde program itself. Chto Delat’s working group includes critics, and Roberts has himself published work under their moniker. Given Roberts’ notion of theory and practice as coextensive within the avant-garde program, it is crucial to consider his relation to the program’s other projects to evaluate Roberts’ work and better understand his position.
Revolutionary Time’s efficacy as an avant-gardist project is called into question when compared to some of Chto Delat’s various works. Their 2006 Angry Sandwich People or in Praise of Dialectics, for example, presents politically radical questions upon a familiar, legible form appropriate to its content and the context in which it was executed. Its participants wore sandwich boards, a common advertising form literally embodied by working class laborers to advertise local businesses in public spaces. Chto Delat’s sandwich boards, however, displayed excerpts of Brecht’s In Praise of Dialectics and a handful of other questions, such as “Are You Being Exploited?” What stands out is the negotiation of familiar and legible forms and politically transgressive content. Chto Delat managed to render an intellectual and intertextual material into a form that is legible, pertinent to its content, and well suited to its context. Similarly, Dmitry Vilensky’s ‘Theses on the Soviet Experience,’ addresses and revives the revolutionary histories suppressed under Stalin and in post-Soviet Russia. Though the text has been translated, and therefore reaches outside Russia, it is most meaningful within a Russian context, and remains legible in spite of its intellectual bent. Because Roberts advocates adisciplinarity yet justifies the contemporary avant-garde from a staunchly theoretical art historical point of view, the intended context of Revolutionary Time is unclear. Chto Delat’s projects are fundamentally situated in a Russian post-soviet context. Where is Roberts’ work situated?
Though it perhaps precludes its successful ‘embeddedness’, Revolutionary Time’s most impressive feature is its double engagement with its methodology. It simultaneously performs and advocates the intertextual conceptualism it attributes to a successful contemporary avant-garde program. Though Revolutionary Time’s intertextual breadth, consistent internal logic and conceptual rigor demonstrate Roberts’ intellectual mastery, it likewise inhibits the book’s efficacy and foreshortens its possible audience, and I’m not convinced it is necessary.
In the last sections of the book, Roberts attempts to tackle the immense subject of art production and reception in late capitalism. This section seems geared toward a leftist artist. For all my frustration with Roberts’ esoteric and circuitous theory circle-jerking, I found his account of primary and secondary art economies surprisingly empowering. The primary economy is the rarified art market comprised of museums, auction houses and elite galleries held up by the immensely rich. It is typically, and often almost unconsciously accepted as the arena that properly validates an artists’ work. The secondary economy is comprised of all the artists working outside this sphere, who utilize working groups and alternative gifting economies to manifest and distribute their work. Though some members of this second economy participate in the primary economy through exhibitions (and wage labor), Roberts explains their membership in the second economy is contingent upon their work’s most meaningful existence outside the primary economy’s rarified halls.
As an experienced art institution wage laborer and MFA student, I found this section centering, and at the very least emotionally emancipatory. Many artists have so wholly internalized the notion of participation in the primary economy as the zenithal harbinger of artistic merit that they take for granted its arbitrary value systems and moreover its financial foundations. Artists working as wage laborers in the lowest rungs of institutions that measure (and effectively always deny) the import of their work are both demeaned and disempowered. The claim that this primary economy is at least conceptually behind, out of touch and in some abstract sense subservient to the secondary economy was therefore revelatory. Roberts’ notion of a rupture between these economies is compelling, and controverts any "leftist" curatorial threads taken up in the primary economy. No matter how it holds up, Roberts’ destabilization of popular notions of “making it” in the art world is encouraging at the very least.
Danica Radoshevich is an artist working in St. Louis, and is an MFA candidate at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Fine Art and a contributing editor at Red Wedge.