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New Literary History 33.1 (2002) 89-107
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The Turn of Art:
The Avant-Garde and Power
Talk of machines, technologies, capabilities, costs, markets, infrastructures, offers no guidance and is inadequate and irrelevant to the development of our inner lives. This is why art today, traditionally the articulation and expression of the "why" side of life, is now so important and so vital, even though it remains confused and inconsistent in its response to the new demands and responsibilities placed on it in this time of transition.
--Bill Viola, "Between How and Why"
At the turn of the new millennium, almost a hundred years after the modernist explosion and the great promise of the avant- garde, art appears to have lost whatever meager vestiges of force and importance it still might have held in the increasingly technological culture of the twentieth century. This crisis in aesthetics, which began in the nineteenth century, has been exacerbated by the rapid growth of mass culture with its corollaries, the entertainment industry, commercialization, and rapid development of new information technologies. In the process, art has become increasingly marginalized, as contemporary reality has come to be determined by technoscience and various technologies of power, while the aesthetic plays at best a secondary role, as it is most often reduced to a tool in cultural, ideological, and identity wars. What underlies this sense of the powerlessness, even irrelevance of contemporary art is the determination, firmly embedded in the fabric of modern society, that reality is elsewhere, as one might say, and that its centers of power are digital technology, economic globalization, and increasing commodification. With the rapid advances of informational technologies and the internet, even cultural and aesthetic changes and innovations seem to lie more in the domains of the informational and the virtual than the aesthetic. Thus, what was experienced at the beginning of the last century as the crisis of aesthetics has apparently resolved itself into the problematic contained within technology, which has incorporated the advances of modernist aesthetics into itself, [End Page 89] transformed them, and often dulled and popularized these new techniques for the sake of profit. With the annexation of modernist aesthetics by advertizing and popular culture, aesthetic issues have come to be disclosed, as the commercial collages of Web pages make amply evident, as essentially technological issues, that is, as a matter of advancing informational technologies and their increasing ability to translate reality and experience into data, codes, and programs. The problem at the turn of the millennium is, therefore, less that the radical aesthetics of the avant-garde has become "cheapened" and popularized but, rather, that the aesthetic itself has become exposed as intrinsically technological--a situation, which, ironically, may be taken to represented precisely the fulfillment of some avant-garde dreams, especially those of Marinetti and Picabia.
With those intensifying social and cultural changes in view, it seems almost inevitable that art would continue to lose its social and cultural status and find itself even further marginalized in relation to technoscientific, consumer-oriented, and entertainment-driven society. It is, therefore, not surprising that aesthetics at the beginning of the new millennium is dominated by visions of the end and exhaustion, and that, as a reaction, many critics, most recently Richard Shusterman in his Performing Live: Aesthetic Alternatives for the Ends of Art, 1 turn toward areas marginal to traditional aesthetics--popular music, film, mass media--in search of vitality and significance. Taking an overall view, contemporary theoretical approaches to art can be roughly divided into three categories: (1) scenarios of art's death and exhaustion, (2) attempts to revive the old terms of the beautiful and the sublime in order to define the essence of art, (3) conceptions that put art on the "back burner" and concentrate on the instances of subversiveness and aesthetic import in popular culture and mass forms of entertainment. Though often quite different in their assessment of contemporary art, these views, whether trying to refurbish "classical" aesthetic terminology or shifting aesthetic concerns and critical legitimacy to popular culture, all but confirm...