The Artistic Space:

On the Usefulness of Post Avant Garde Art



Anthony Öhnström, 2021


The question of whether or not a social function can be assigned to art has long been of interest to  artists and scholars alike. This vast inquiry can, in a somewhat crude manner, be separated into two  distinct questions. Firstly, there is the ‘prescriptive question’ which asks if art should to be used for  expressing shared truths and experiences, or if it ought to be free of any such responsibility.  Secondly, there is the ‘descriptive question’ concerned with the extent to which art possesses the  means necessary to have such a role to begin with. The ‘descriptive question’ lies at the heart of  Peter Bürger’s book Theory of The Avant Garde, which this text is responding to.

Following in the footsteps of Friedrich Hegel, Bürger describes a progressive decline in the  usefulness of art, which he characterises by an inability to arrest meaning and, consequently, an  inability to reflect on shared experiences. He argues that this decline has happened as a result of  artists continuously neglecting the content of their work in favour of form. Bürger’s central thesis is  that avant-garde artists sought to counter this decline by reintegrating art into people’s communal  lives. Interestingly, he claims that this attempt was never successful. This is interesting because it  frames contemporary avant-garde art (henceforth “post avant-garde art”) as being void of purpose  or function. I think that such a conclusion is mistaken. In this text I shall therefore argue that post avant-garde art can be thought of as having a similar function to the movement that inspired it.  Furthermore, I shall suggest that by reflecting on the nature of post avant-garde art, we can further  develop our notion of what it means for art to be “useful”. In so doing I will draw upon Jenefer  Robinson’s paper “Expression and Arousal of Emotion in Music” and, for the sake of brevity, I too  will focus my attention specifically on music.

II 

Before one can begin to decipher the question of how form, content and use relate to one another, it  is first necessary to define the terms themselves. Aesthetician James Shelley defines form as the  perceptual properties of art. It is worth noting that, whilst perceptual properties are generally [1] understood as the things people see and hear, it can also apply to emotional responses like feelings  of pleasure and displeasure. On the other side of the coin there is the concept of content, which is defined by Bürger himself as the “statement” of a work of art.[2] Take for example Edward Munch’s Scream.[3] Its ability to represent anxiety is its content, whereas its form denotes structural qualities  like proportions, lines and shapes. That said, content is not exclusively associated with the  communication of philosophical ideas, for it also manifests the cognitive-representational value of  art. If one were to imagine a painting depicting a castle, then its content is “it being a castle” while  its form is the manner in which being a castle is expressed. By viewing the distinction in this light it  is easy to see why art’s ability to express anything is generally defined in terms of content. As we  will see, however, a conceptualisation of form as being expressive is not impossible.

Eleni Ieremia, ”Everyday Relics”, 2021

III 

As for usefulness, Bürger suggests that art has come apart from our praxis of life, by which he  means that experiences of art are no longer contained within people’s engagement with the rest of  the world. Rather, art is something which today is experienced in an autonomous manner, in what  Bürger calls art’s special sphere of experience. This, he continues, makes art functionally non-representational, as it can no longer be used to communicate between people or give a critical cognition of reality (i.e. criticise society).[4] It is in relation to this development that Bürger  conceptualises the Avant Garde movement of the 20th century: He suggests that this movement was  upheld by a cluster of artists who reacted against content loosing its agency. Instead of being bound  together by a specific style, Avant Garde artists – Bürger writes – were loosely grouped together by a  shared dominant principle: defamiliarisation. Their work was often associated with experimental concept art, i.e. art created by artists seeking to represent or stimulate ideas,[5] thus emphasising the cognitive aspect of art rather than the immediate sensations that may be produced through form. In  Bürger’s view, the movement should be thought of as an attempt to intervene in social reality. He  summarises this project as follows:

“The avant-gardiste work neither creates a total impression that would permit an  interpretation of its meaning nor can whatever impression may be created be accounted for  by recourse to the individual parts, for they are no longer subordinated to a pervasive intent. This refusal to provide meaning is experienced as shock by the recipient. And this is the intention of the avant-gardiste artist, who hopes that such withdrawal of meaning will direct  the reader’s attention to the fact that the conduct of one’s life is questionable and that it is  necessary to change it. Shock is aimed for as a stimulus to change one’s conduct of life; it is  the means to break through aesthetic immanence and to usher in (initiate) a change in the re cipient’s life praxis.”[6]

As mentioned above, Bürger maintains that the Avant Garde movement failed in reintegrating art  into our praxis of life. This raises the question of whether or not art will forever be plagued by a  fundamental ineffectiveness. I will now begin to reject this notion. In so doing I will make use of a  spatial metaphor describing the “three-dimensional space” in which a work of art is experienced.  This I will call its artistic space.

IV 

The purpose of this metaphor is to examine how the conditions constituting experiences of art  (referred to as “dimensions”), changes art’s ability to influence people in different ways (referred to  as “volume”). The “dimensions” of an artistic space are the following: (i) the number of people  taking part in a work of art’s reception, (ii) the function of the artwork, and (iii) the time-interval  during which the artwork is experienced. The volume of such an artistic space determines its ability  to exist as integrated into the practical struggles of everyday existence. This, broadly speaking, is  how Bürger defines usefulness in relation to art. We can compare the usefulness of art from the  middle ages with contemporary art by utilising this metaphor: Art of the middle ages involved (i)  multiple people experiencing it together with one another by virtue of it (ii) having a sacral purpose,  and thus it was (iii) experienced by people in a continual manner as part of their everyday life.  Consequently (volume), such “sacral art” had a social role which was integrated into the collective  struggles of the members of a community. In comparison to this, art is now experienced in a much  more local and individual manner. For (i), the reception of contemporary art is made up by  individual acts, because (ii) its function is to provide solitary aesthetic experiences, meaning (iii) its  presence in our shared consciousness is only fleeting. As a result (volume), the influence of  contemporary art in our practical lives is severely limited.

Now, whilst I too find art being attached to practical life contexts a sufficient condition in labelling  it “useful”, I do not believe it to be a necessary one. Moreover, I reject the idea that art loses its  ability to communicate universal experiences as a result of its content no longer existing within our praxis of life. Instead, I believe that universality can be thought of as a property of form as well, and  that this function is sufficient in calling art useful to some degree. Because, whilst art may indeed  be incapable of effectively commenting on shared external experiences, it can arouse internal emotions that are universally shared among different people. For it is certainly the case that all  people experience the same emotions of sadness, nobility, aggressiveness, tenderness, etc. Of  course, one could respond to this premise by stating that art, in arousing emotions, does not  communicate something universal to us in the same way that content is able to do, the reason being  that emotions are not found within the artworks themselves. However, turning now to Robinson’s  text, we will see that form is indeed itself capable of expressing emotions to us and can thus be said  to communicate universal experiences.

In her text, Robinson examines the relationship between music arousing emotions and music  expressing those same emotions. In her theory, content is reduced to a kind of “guide”, giving the  mind some idea of what complex emotions an artist is trying to evoke (such as angry despair,  unrequited passion, etc). Consequently, it is not the content of a song that actually expresses emotions, but rather its large-scale formal structures.[7] She writes:

“Just as the formal structure of a piece of music can be understood in terms of the arousal of  such feelings as uncertainty, uneasiness, relaxation, tension, relief, etc., so too can we  understand the expressiveness of that piece of music in terms of the arousal of those and  similar feeling. […] Emotional expressiveness in music frequently corresponds to or mirrors  its formal structure”.[8]

Her theory stands out among representational theories of art, most of which argue that cognitive  aspects grounded in content determine the expressiveness of all art. Unlike Peter Kivy, for example,  who argues that music evokes emotions in so far as it has qualities that resemble something we already find emotional (meaning that the emotional qualities are projected through perception rather  than discovered by feeling) , Robinson suggests that sounds express emotions directly onto us. As a result of Robinson’s emphasis on emotions being caused by form rather than content, art is able to express these universal experiences without its content having to be submerged in our praxis of life.[9]  This view is therefore compatible with content’s subservient role in contemporary art.

VI 

Returning now to my previous metaphor: I want to suggest that, by making the dimensions of an  artistic space smaller, its “volume is concentrated”, not only metaphorically but also practically.  What I mean is this: An artwork, being consumed individually in its special sphere of experience, is  in a position to affect people emotionally in ways it cannot do when it has to adhere to determined  social functions. The ways in which people engage with art today allows for experiences that –  seeing as they are not guided by some overarching function or principle – speak only to the  situations that perceiving subjects are in. This, in turn, allows for people to “invest” their personal  dispositions in their experiences of art. Art’s ability to influence individual people is in this way  concentrated specifically on them. For example, if a person listening to a sad song is hurting  because of a breakup, then that person will find their emotional state intertwined with the music  itself. This kind of intimate relationship to art is not possible when the dimensions of the work’s  artistic space are broad and interpersonal. Therefore, it is inconceivable that sacral art, whose  content is completely determined by its social function, could ever engage people in such highly  personally charged, emotional ways.

Eleni Ieremia, ”Everyday Relics”, 2021

Now, I think that this concept of artistic space – which describes the opposing forces between that  which allows art to be submerged in people’s communal lives (through content) and that which  enables art to directly affect people’s emotional lives (through form) – can help us understand post  avant-garde art. On the subject of such art, Bürger writes the following: “[A]rt has long since  entered a post avant-gardiste phase. We characterize that phase by saying that it revived the  category of work and that the procedures invented by the avant-garde with anti artistic intent are  being used for artistic ends.” His proposition can be separated into two premises: First, that post avant-garde artists seek to make their work distinct from non-artistic objects (in comparison to much Avant Garde art which often blurred the line between a work of art and a mere object).[10]  Second, post avant-garde artists create their work with the intent of providing aesthetic experiences  in the Kantian sense, which is characterised by the experience of pleasure through form. From this it can be deduced that post avant-garde artists seek to weaponise form – very much unlike artists  belonging to the original avant garde movement who had little interest in it.[11] I do not mean to say  that they try to discover new ways of constructing form. Instead, I want to suggest that they seek to  examine how far form can be taken with regards to creating art that, through disagreeable or foreign  feelings, still generate’s something people find valuable. Thus, post avant-garde art is dependent on  art in general existing within these smaller artistic spaces.

How can all this be used in understanding post avant-garde art? To take an example, there is the  “music” of Masami Akita (a.k.a Merzbow), whose abrasive use of sound is almost painful to listen  to. Having no content, his work cannot be thought of as having any determined social function. As a  result, it could not have been created before art was decidedly moved into its special sphere of  experience. Consequently, the reason for experiencing Akita’s art must be discovered by each and  every person in a wholly individual manner. Yet – for reasons I soon will make clear – his music can  still, through form-induced-shock, reflect on universal (internal) experiences – most notably on the  sadomasochistic relationship people may have to pleasure. Just as with the original Avant Garde  movement, then, shock and defamiliarisation is fundamental to post avant-garde art. As we will see,  however, there are clear differences in how this plays out.

In showing these differences, I want to draw attention to one of the most distinguished examples of  avant-garde “music” there is, that is to say John Cage’s 4´33. 4´33 is a composition which instructs  performers not to play their instruments during the duration of the piece. Hence, 4´33 consists only  of the sounds of the environment. However, although 4´33 is a near silent work, it still has content by virtue of it making a statement through that silence: That we should strive towards liberating  ourselves from the ways in which we project restricting relationships and structures onto sound –  and that we can come to elevate sounds that lack structure, meaning or formal qualities and thus  appreciate them in ways generally reserved for music. However, whilst the work is indeed legitimately profound, 4´33 was initially met with much in the way of blind rage.[12][13] People were not only confused by it; they were shocked ways that forced them to reevaluate themselves in ways in  line with Bürger’s account of avant-garde art.

Akita’s music, too, enrages people. However, in contrast to 4´33, people are shocked by the explosiveness of its sound rather than the ideas it represents. This explosiveness forces participating  subjects to face their relationship to sound and pleasure. Can these abrasive sounds still arouse  feelings of pleasure? With regards to the original avant-garde movement, then, artists sought to  shock people by manifesting concepts in their art that were foreign to the spectators, challenging  them on a cognitive level. post avant-garde art, on the other hand, creates shock-value through  tension between that which is pleasurable and that which is oppressive in form. We can therefore  see that – even though post avant-garde music is in many ways different from the work of Dada,  John Cage, etc. – it is cut from the same cloth and adheres to the same end: To question the very  people experiencing it.

Of course, there are other post avant-garde artists who still make use of content but give it a  subservient role. For example, on the climax of her song “MAY FAILURE BE YOUR NOOSE”,  the lyrics of musician Kirstin Hayter (a.k.a Lingua Ignota), repeatedly recite the same line:  “Everything burns down around me, everything burns down”. The message is clear: Hayter is  referencing the state of mental turmoil that she had previously gone through. Now, in line with  Robinson’s theory, these words only serve as a loose guide regarding her wish to communicate  crushing emotional distress to the listener. The emotions are, to a much greater extent,  communicated by the form of the song – its harrowing distorted noise which is manically folding in  on itself. Similarly, much of Hayter’s music contains themes of social issues like domestic violence.  These themes are not only complemented by the songs sound or form, but are rather subordinate to  them. The emotions induced by the form are so intense as to shock listeners into becoming  personally affected by the subtext of the music. The lyrics thus provides a direction for the  emotions, but the the overall impression left upon the subject owes its force and vivacity to the  sound of the music. Hence, whilst the effectiveness of music to act as models of political action and  social understanding is indeed limited today, post avant-garde music tells us that art can still be used  to transfer feelings of experiences onto others. I believe that this example, together with the  discussion on Akita’s work, has shown that post avant-garde art can be said to mediate between  people, even as it is experienced in a special sphere of experience.

Conclusion 

I have defended two claims in this text. The first one is that post avant-garde art, by utilising form, is able to communicate universally experienced emotions. The second and concurrent claim is that  such art, similarly to the avant-garde movement of the 20th century, is able to shock people into engaging with their own lives. I conclude from this that post avant-garde art is not void of  usefulness in the way that Bürger’s theory implies it must be. Moreover, by utilising the concept of  artistic space I have argued that Bürger’s concept of usefulness is too narrow, as it is limited to the  critiquing the social structures in which individuals operate, and consequently neglects the  usefulness affiliated with emotion, passion and empathy.


[1] Shelley, James. The Default Theory of Aesthetic Value.

[2] Immanuel, Kant. Critique of Judgement.

[3] Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant Garde, p19

[4] Ibid, p23

[5] Ibid, p18

[6] Ibid, p80

[7] Robinson, Jenefer. The Expression and Arousal of Emotion in Music, pp19-20

[8] Ibid, p19

[9] Kivy, Peter. Emotions in Music

[10] Bürger, Peter, Theory of the Avant Garde, p57

[11] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement.

[12] Herwitz,Daniel A. The Security of the Obvious: On John Cage’s Musical Radicalism.

[13] Dodd, Julian. “What 4’33 ”Is”. Australasian Journal of Philosophy

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