- Avant-Garde Performance: Live Events and Electronic Technologies, and: Theatre, Performance, and the Historical Avant-Garde
Chacun à son avant-garde. One of the charms of the avantgarde is its protean nature; it can be defined in myriad ways depending on the lens through which you view it. And, of course, how it is defined may also answer the persistent question of whether the avantgarde is dead or alive. In two complementary but overlapping books, Theatre, Performance, and the Historical Avant-Garde (henceforth TPH) and Avant-Garde Performance: Live Events and Electronic Technologies (AGP), Günter Berghaus sets forth a specific set of criteria that is more exclusive than many studies of the avantgarde. In the largely identical introductory chapters of each book, Berghaus takes great pains to distinguish the avantgarde from the much more inclusive though related phenomenon of modernism. (TPH is more expansive in its discussion of 19th-century roots of the avantgarde, but otherwise the introductions repeatedly match line for line.) In one of the many informational boxes interspersed throughout both books, Berghaus also distinguishes modernism from modernity, but then seems to use the terms interchangeably and throws in the adjective modernist for good measure, which is then distinguished from modern.
For Berghaus, modernism was a late-19th-century response to the "crisis of modernity" caused by the astonishingly rapid changes brought about by new technologies, modes of transportation, and communication. But modernism remained part of the bourgeois culture, tied to existing media and institutions. The avantgarde, he explains, emerged more or less simultaneously with modernism, and with many shared characteristics, but "took a far more transgressive and subversive stance toward the institutional framework of the production, distribution and reception of cultural artifacts" (AGP 14). For Berghaus, the defining factor of the avantgarde was its commitment to social and political change. Avantgarde artists "established a critical distance from the reified and alienating life praxis in middle-class society and confronted the bourgeoisie with a distorted, fragmented, decentred image of reality" (AGP 17). The goal was nothing less than the eradication of "the instrumental rationality of the capitalist system" (AGP 18). Using these criteria, Berghaus must exclude from the avantgarde anything that is not ostensibly intended to rupture the political or social status quo. Thus, the more formalist movements that are often considered part of the [End Page 183] avantgarde are here rejected as "self-absorbed and self-sufficient," (AGP 18) while symbolism, another usual member of the avantgarde family, is categorized as a predecessor of the avant-garde, but not part of it.
TPH, as a history, includes surveys of expressionism, dadaism, and constructivism. Interestingly, Berghaus includes the Bauhaus in that latter movement, identifying the personal and artistic links and certain similarities of style. AGP likewise begins with the Industrial Revolution, but presents a much more condensed history before moving on to the emergence of the postindustrial information society and the evolution of the electronic culture. This is followed by chapters on happenings and fluxus, body art, video and multimedia performance, and performance in cyberspace. By the chapter on cyberspace, however, he seems to lose the thread of his argument and launches into somewhat petulant attacks on "frivolous consumers" and the invidious effects of computer gaming. It turns out that the capitalist system has not been eradicated; it has co-opted the avantgarde. Berghaus's discomfort with this state of affairs is perhaps evidenced by his confusion of Star Trek and Star Wars.
Ultimately, these are textbooks. Indeed, Berghaus acknowledges that they had their origins in lectures given over some 10 years at the University of Bristol and Brown University. Along with the myriad tables and boxes on such topics as "Growth of railway networks in selected European countries 1840–1900," and "Some key characteristics of Fluxus," the diction of the texts is often equally professorial: "As I outlined in the previous chapter…" Given that these...