Do we need a new avant-garde?

All too often in contemporary art discourse, the word “we” risks covering up a fairly homogenous group of actors believed to share common values, origins, a history perhaps. Likewise, the idea of an “avant-garde” is itself closely tied to European narratives of the Enlightenment, the belief in modernity and progress whose premises are caricatured today – or rather, have been brought to a logical conclusion – in the nexus of neoliberalism, the threat of planetary war, the rapid exhaustion of resources and actual environmental disaster. There is a lot to be unlearned here, if not straightforwardly refuted.

A rephrasing of the question might begin with the line in Hans Haacke’s poster and billboard work we presented in Documenta 14, which declared, in multiple languages, “We (all) are the people”. His parenthetical addition to the phrase “We are the People” (Wir sind das Volk) – used by East German citizens demolishing the Berlin Wall in 1989, and recently stolen by Pegida’s xenophobic hate speech in Germany – is necessary in a time when fascism has once again reared its ugly head in the ruinous and darkening landscape of Europe and America, which are increasingly characterised by exclusion and violence (racial, gender and other).

So if we rephrase the question to ask, instead: “Do we (all) need a new avant-garde?” the answer could be: Yes – it already exists, and at the same time it is always yet to come. Rather than emerging from the literary circles and artistic milieus of Europe, it is a transnational movement of movements – including artists as actors among many – engaged in dispersed processes of new social, political and institutional becoming on global scale. It is a stateless multitude, premised on unconditional solidarity and conviviality, rejecting the power rhetoric that pitches a concrete (and constructed) “us” versus a constructed (and concrete) “them”. It stands for attitudes that did not, so to speak, bother to become form, and if they ossify into standard and more “identifiable” forms of political representation, such as political parties or committees, they lose their avant-garde edge. The Greek Syriza, originally an alliance of social movements, now a government party, is a case in point. Spain’s Podemos might be another.

No avant-garde ever descended from the sky, no transformation of everyday life can be accomplished by miracle. A second coming is not in sight. But a new avant-garde is already an active, present force in societies, a tremor in a large and near-inert body.

ADAM SZYMCZYK was the artistic director of Documenta 14 in 2017.

– This text appears in Spike #54 . You can buy it in our online shop