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In his influential 1987 study After the Great Divide, Andreas Huyssen argues that the political-aesthetic impulse of the European avant-garde found little purchase in American culture until the 1960s, when it erupted as the first wave of postmodern aesthetic practice. Walter Kalaidjian disputes this account in American Culture Between the Wars, proposing that an “historical avant-garde” did take root in American culture in the teens and twenties, and indeed flourished through the thirties in a rich and varied tradition of populist aesthetics. This tradition, Kalaidjian argues, simply has been elided by the institutional hegemony of High Modernism; his recovery of the interbellum avant-garde thus participates in the ongoing project of “revisionary modernism.” Like Huyssen, however, Kalaidjian also proposes direct continuities between avant-gardism and postmodernity, arguing that the avant-garde tradition in America—though “now largely forgotten”—offers a highly relevant analogue to “contemporary debate over the cultural politics of postmodern representation.”
Kalaidjian’s recovery project elaborates on Peter Burger’s concept of the avant-garde as a radical critique of High Modernist ideology. For Kalaidjian, High Modernism fetishizes the individual artist, refuses political engagement, and offers a supposedly universalist aesthetic which is actually white, male, Anglo-European, and elitist. As the negation of this ideology, the American avant-garde is collective and multicultural in its articulation; Leftist, but also localized, in its politics; and engaged in a Gramscian “war of position” within and against the aesthetic of consumer capitalism. This is a fairly daunting set of aesthetic [End Page 846] criteria, and one which Kalaidjian seems to find most completely realized in a small group of interbellum figures: the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, the Left-feminist poet Muriel Rukeyser, and the Left-satirical poet Kenneth Fearing. On the other hand, Kalaidjian can delineate a much broader avant-garde by including interbellum figures and groups who answer to any of his stated criteria: proletarian poets and artists appearing in The Liberator, New Masses, Anvil, and other Left journals; artist collectives working for the WPA Murals Project in the 1930s; and certain figures—Bruce Nugent, Angelina Ward Grimké, Charles Cullen, and others—associated with the “vernacular poetics” of the Harlem Renaissance.
Rather than insisting on the cohesiveness of his reconstituted avant-garde, Kalaidjian emphasizes the ideological rifts among its various constituents—most notably between the advocates of Soviet-style “proletcult” and the more culturally diverse or formally sophisticated avant-gardists. At times, however, this emphasis on internecine quarrel contributes its own instability to Kalaidjian’s recovery effort: for example, by the time he has finished detailing their assaults on Rivera, Rukeyser, and Fearing, the champions of proletcult come to seem very little like avant-gardists in their own right and very much like the dogmatic party hacks that Kalaidjian has earlier insisted they were not. Moreover, some of Kalaidjian’s “internal debates” are less obviously internal than others. While Mike Gold’s quarrel with Fearing and Rukeyser took place within the context of clear political affinities, the same can hardly be said for Gold’s earlier polemic with the Harlem Renaissance: few of Kalaidjian’s Renaissance figures were significantly Left-identified in the 1920s, and the recruitment of groups like the Fire!! collective to a socialist-populist avant-garde tradition may strike some readers as historically unjustified.
These difficulties testify, I think, to a tension between three distinct imperatives which animate Kalaidjian’s study: the recovery of a theoretically compelling (and thus at least minimally coherent) strain of American avant-gardism; the general rehabilitation, as an object of scholarship, of “political” art and poetry in America between the wars; and finally the elaboration of an essentially prescriptive poetics—postmodern, populist, and multicultural—through a “dialogue” between historical avant-gardism and postmodernism. This tension emerges more clearly in the final third of the study, where Kalaidjian turns [End Page 847] directly to investigating the continuities between his interbellum avant-garde and postmodern socioaesthetic practice. Chapter 4 considers the LANGUAGE poets of the 70s and 80s, arguing that Kenneth Fearing’s textual praxis finds...