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The Historical Avant-Garde from 1830 to 1939: l’art pour l’art, blague, and Gesamtkunstwerk

For a book weighing in at just under 100 pages, not counting various forewords and introductions, Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde has had an enormously outsized influence. How many books can claim to have engendered an entire volume of responses just two years after their initial publication?[1] However, as the book’s many critics have noted, Bürger oversimplifies the complex and multifarious phenomenon of the avant-garde, pays scant attention to the specificities of individual works and artists, is overly restrictive in its selection of artists and movements, and, most infamously, dismisses the neo-avant-garde as a mere empty repetition of the historical avant-garde. Yet despite all this, Hal Foster, one of Bürger’s sharpest critics, called Theory of the Avant-Garde a “central text” on the avant-garde, and its ideas have had a lasting impact on the scholarship of the early twentieth-century avant-garde, which Bürger terms the historical avant-garde.[2] Many scholars have rejected Bürger’s reduction of the historical avant-garde to a single factor, the negation of the autonomous status of art through a unification of art and the praxis of everyday life.

Although this criticism is valid up to a point, it has been overused as a justification for the wholesale dismissal of Bürger’s argument. While the fusion of art and life was certainly not the sole concern of all the individuals and groups of the avant-garde, it was nevertheless a significant unifying factor across a wide variety of movements. Recognizing the importance of this insight does not mean accepting Bürger’s theory in its entirety, but rather raises the need to revise and expand his concept of what it means to unite art and life.[3] The timeline of the avant-garde needs to be pushed back almost a century, to the origins of l’art pour l’art in the 1830s, which in turn requires recognizing that the avant-garde was not simply a negation of l’art pour l’art but rather both a negation and continuation of it.[4] The range of movements encompassed by the avant-garde likewise needs to be expanded to include not only futurism, Dada, surrealism, and constructivism, but also the arts and crafts movement, aestheticism, art nouveau, the Secession and Werkstätte movements, expressionism, the Bauhaus, and de stijl, among others. While much work has already been done to apply Bürger’s analysis to these movements, and on related issues such as the corrosive form of satirical mockery known as the blague, this research has not previously been brought together into an interconnected historical narrative or used to theorize a revised account of the unification of art and life.

Bürger’s argument, in brief, is that by the nineteenth century art had been separated from its earlier social functions in service to the church or the aristocracy, becoming an autonomous institution invested with purely aesthetic value. This situation was embraced by proponents of l’art pour l’art, the practice of art for its own sake rather than for any social, political, moral, or other purpose. Modernism was the continuation of l’art pour l’art in the twentieth century.[5] Emmett Stinson has argued that the autonomy of modernism was not an actual separation of art from life, which never existed, but rather “a rhetorical strategy or gambit.”[6] While this analysis usefully complicates our understanding of modernist autonomy, it does not lessen the importance of the avant-garde’s attempt to negate this autonomy. In Bürger’s account, the avant-garde attempted to accomplish this task by uniting art with everyday life, but it failed to achieve its goals and after World War II its tactics became institutionalized as the neo-avant-garde. According to Bürger, this made any further critical role for art impossible, a position that has been universally rejected. This argument was immediately and unanimously rejected by other scholars, and Bürger himself soon moved away from his initial outright condemnation of the neo-avant-garde. He recanted this position in a 1987 essay, in which he wrote that judgments about the neo-avant-garde must not remain “caught within the logic of the either-or.”[7] This essay has gone largely unnoticed by Bürger’s critics, who continue to condemn his earlier position without acknowledging that he quickly abandoned it. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that there is no expiration date on the avant-garde project of the merging of art and life, and that it has been attempted using a wide variety of techniques from the early 1800s to the present, i.e., the period conventionally used to delimit the era of modernity. This recognition revises Bürger’s original theory but does not negate the validity of its core concepts. This essay focuses on the earlier portion of that history since its later developments have been studied extensively but its formative period remains little recognized or understood.

The criticism most often levelled at Bürger’s analysis of the historical avant-garde, as opposed to the neo-avant-garde, is that any theory that attempts to present a single, unified explanation of the avant-garde oversimplifies a very complex, contradictory group of individuals and movements. As Foster puts it, “his very premise—that one theory can comprehend the avant-garde, that all its activities can be subsumed under the project to destroy the false autonomy of bourgeois art—is problematic” (Return of the Real, 8; emphasis in original). Other scholars have objected to Bürger’s theory for similar reasons, including Benjamin Buchloh, Patricia Leighten, Andreas Huyssen, Maud Lavin, Jeffrey Weiss, and Leah Dickerman.[8] Bürger himself was quite aware of this problem, writing that “‘the present work . . . is not meant to replace essential individual analyses but to offer a categorical frame within which such analyses can be undertaken” (Theory, xlviii). This acknowledgement notwithstanding, Bürger’s analysis of the historical avant-garde is far too pat. As Foster writes, “For the most acute avant-garde artists such as [Marcel] Duchamp, the aim is neither an abstract negation of art nor a romantic reconciliation with life but a perpetual testing of the conventions of both . . . avant-garde practice at its best is contradictory, mobile, and otherwise diabolical” (Return of the Real, 16). Bürger’s account makes the divisions between avant-garde manifestations and autonomous art seem clear-cut and obvious, an impression that his detractors have seized on to discredit his entire account. In actual lived experience these distinctions were always hazy, obscure, and hard to pin down. It is both to Bürger’s credit and his deficit that he solidifies these unclear boundaries into hard lines and borders: to his credit because he locates a common thread beneath the tangled surface of lived experience, which is precisely the purpose of theoretical analysis, and to his deficit because he then extracts and separates this insight from messy reality rather than testing and complicating it by returning it to the muck of history from which it originated. This shortcoming, while real, does not render Bürger’s entire analysis moot. As Foster writes, Bürger’s “important thesis is too influential to dismiss out of hand. Rather I want to improve on it if I can, to complicate it through its own ambiguities” (13). Many other scholars, including Andreas Huyssen, Helen Molesworth, Gail Day, David Hopkins, and Gavin Grindron, have similarly recognized that, despite Bürger’s shortcomings, they can make use of his analysis without accepting it as the exclusive, universal truth about the avant-garde.[9] Perhaps the ultimate success of Bürger’s analysis is the extent to which it has slipped into casual scholarly usage, usually with no explanation required.[10]

Although Bürger simplifies the messy reality of the avant-garde, the unification of art and life was a widely shared goal across a swath of avant-garde groups and individuals. Alexander Rodchenko, for instance, wrote that “It is time that art entered into life in an organized fashion,” while Theo van Doesburg, El Lissitsky, and Hans Richter declared, “Art, just like science and technology, is a method of organizing our shared life in general. . . . We must recognize that art has ceased to be a dream world that opposes itself to the world of reality . . . Art is a universal and real expression of the creative energy which organizes the progress of humanity.”[11] André Breton wrote in the first surrealist manifesto that surrealism “tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.”[12] Unsurprisingly, the Dadaists were less given to definitive statements, but Tristan Tzara concluded the first Dadaist manifesto with the words, “Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE,” thereby setting up a three-way equivalence between Dadaism, freedom, and life.[13] Benjamin Buchloh once asked whether Bürger’s definition can be applied to John Heartfield, but Heartfield’s goal of using his art “to politically oppose authority, in a way useful to the [communist] party” was precisely an attempt to use art to intervene in everyday life (Buchloh, “Theorizing,” 19).[14] Maud Lavin similarly dismisses Bürger’s thesis with the argument that “[t]he burning issue for the German avant-garde from 1922 until Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933 was not a rebellion against art institutions at all, but rather a serious and prolonged engagement with mass culture.”[15] However, this ignores the obvious point that engaging with mass culture precisely does break art out of its autonomous separation from everyday life. Lavin’s objection is based on a misreading Bürger’s concept of art as an institution, which for him refers not to literal institutions such as museums, academies, and so on, but rather to the social function of art.

The Historical Avant-garde in an Expanded Frame

Criticism of Bürger’s theory of the historical avant-garde has focused so heavily on the monolithic nature of his theory and its lack of historical and critical specificity that many of its other shortcomings have passed with little if any comment. One of the largest of these is the narrowness of Bürger’s understanding of the ways in which the avant-garde sought to unify art and life, which he limits to the readymade, chance, and montage (Theory, 51–52, 64–82). But these are far from the only techniques that can be seen as negating the purpose, mode of production, and mode of reception of art as an autonomous institution, which Bürger cites as the defining features of the avant-garde (50). To these should be added performative practices, the merging of art and craft (or, later, art and technology), the creation of functional artworks and total environments, and the transformation of life into a work of art.

Concomitant with an expanded account of the range of practices encompassed by the concept of the avant-garde is an expansion of the range of movements included in it. According to Bürger, the historical avant-garde was limited to Dada, surrealism, and constructivism, with futurism and expressionism as partial members and cubism as a precursor.[16] The effort to expand this list has been underway by art historians for the past several decades, as art historians have applied the concept of the unification of art and life to movements excluded by Bürger, including the arts and crafts movement, art nouveau, the Nabis, expressionism, the Bauhaus, and de stijl. In order to accommodate these movements within the avant-garde, the idea that movements can be either wholly included or wholly excluded from the avant-garde needs to be abandoned. Jill Lloyd’s observation regarding expressionism applies equally to many other movements:

Bürger refers primarily to Dada and Surrealism in his discussion of avant-garde practice. But his distinctions also help us to understand an earlier rupture in German modernism, between the late nineteenth-century Secessionists and the Expressionists. Expressionism, which in many ways occupies a transitional position in the history of modern art, also spans across Bürger’s categories, relating to aspects of both.[17]

Any movement or even any individual artist is going to include a plurality of practices that are never going to be completely homogeneous. Even in Dada, modernist artworks continued to be produced alongside avant-garde manifestations and the doctrine of l’art pour l’art continued to be affirmed by some adaists. Thus, Hans Richter wrote that “we were practicing art as art—and this was our concern morning, noon, and night,” while Kurt Schwitters stated that ‘[a]s a matter of principle, Merz aims only at art.”[18] More than simply recognizing that l’art pour l’art and the avant-garde were frequently mixed together in the same movements, it is necessary to go further by reconsidering the character of l’art pour l’art itself and recognizing that it was always already internally contradictory, containing a revolt against art’s autonomy as well as a celebration of it. As Elizabeth Prettejohn has argued within a different conceptual framework, l’art pour l’art was not a coherent concept but rather the statement of a problem.[19]

The concept of l’art pour l’art can be traced back to Kant’s notion of a free beauty unencumbered by truth or morality, which was in turn summarized and adapted in 1810 by Madame de Staël in De l’Allemagne—which introduced Romanticism and German idealism into France—and in a series of influential lectures by the philosopher Victor Cousin given at the Sorbonne in 1818, which were published as a book in 1836.[20] In the early 1830s, l’art pour l’art was adopted as the artistic philosophy of the Romantic novelist, poet, and critic Théophile Gautier and his circle. Dubbed the Jeunes-France by Le Figaro in 1831, they were one of the earliest and most archetypal of bohemian groups and originated many of the strategies for combining art and life that continued to play a key role in avant-garde activities into the twentieth century. The group first attracted attention in the infamous “‘battle of Hernani,” the fracas that broke out at the premiere of Victor Hugo’s controversial Romantic drama. They arrived at the theatre wearing outlandish clothing, most famously Gautier’s red waistcoat, and shouted down the boos from the play’s conservative detractors.[21] Gautier proclaimed the doctrine of l’art pour l’art in the preface to his 1835 novel, Mademoiselle du Maupin. Although he did not actually use the term l’art pour l’art in the preface, his advocacy of the concept it represents is clear in his oft-quoted statement that “There is nothing truly beautiful but that which can never be of any use whatsoever; everything useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and man’s needs are ignoble and disgusting like his own poor and infirm nature.”[22] One of the most striking features of the Jeunes-France’s advocacy of l’art pour l’art is how it paradoxically exceeded the bounds of the artwork it was intended to apotheosize to encompass, in Bernard Gendron’s words, a “‘bohemian’ aestheticization of life.”[23] As Gendron writes:

On the one hand, this particular aesthetic required a separation of art from life, in the sense that the raison d’être of art was not to come from any goals outside of art, whether religious, political, or moral. Art is an end in itself and thus generates its own values. But by sanctifying art as a high and pure end in itself—in effect, turning art into a quasi-sacred practice—the Jeunes-France could not easily separate art from life in another sense, that is, could hardly desist from introducing the “pure” values of art into the very conduct of their leisurely lives. In effect, they turned life into a form of art. (Between Montmartre, 34)

Both modernism and the avant-garde can thus be traced back to l’art pour l’art, as two halves of a contradictory whole.[24] The twentieth-century avant-garde did not emerge as the negation of l’art pour l’art, or rather not simply as its negation, but as both its negation and continuation. This contradictory relationship was captured by the bohemian poet Georges Fragerolle, who stated that “fumisme carries its own reward: it makes art for art’s sake” (quoted in Weiss, Popular Culture of Modern Art, 143).

Blague, Fumisme, and Mystification

Some of the key practices of the nineteenth-century avant-garde included the use of blague, fumisme, and mystification. Roughly defined, a blague is a deadpan, ironic joke, fumisme (also known as fumisterie) describes a disruptive antic or prank, and a mystification is a hoax.[25] Although their exact meanings differ, they share a kindred spirit and intent. The Goncourt brothers described the blague as “the great Joke, that new form of French wit, born in artists’ studios . . . raised amid the downfall of religion and society . . . the modern version of universal doubt . . . the great sapper and revolutionary, poisoner of faith and murderer of respect.”[26] The journalist and critic Francisque Sarcey wrote that the goal of blague was “to disparage, to mock, to render ludicrous everything that hommes, and above all prud’hommes, are in the habit of respecting and caring for” (quoted in Weiss, Popular Culture of Modern Art, 120). In Bürger’s terms, they are “manifestations” because they operate outside of the traditional definition of the artwork. As the nineteenth century progressed, blagues, fumisme, and mystifications took on a life of their own, eventually culminating in the scandalous performances, readymades, and other manifestations of Dada. Thus, while it is fair of Gendron to describe the blagues, fumisme, and mystifications of the Jeunes-France as “secondary aesthetic practices,” by the time one gets to Alfred Jarry in the 1890s these practices have moved from a secondary status to a primary one, becoming quasi-aesthetic manifestations in their own right that continued to exist in tension with more traditional artworks (Between Montmartre, 18). This continuity between the nineteenth-century blague and the twentieth-century avant-garde was well recognized by contemporaries. Le Parthénon grouped together “the unconscious fumisterie of the unanimists, the futurists, and the progeny of washed-out symbolism” while Tristan Tzara declared simply, “I am a fumiste” (quoted in Weiss, Popular Culture of Modern Art, 149).[27]

The Jeunes-France were pioneers of the blague, fumisme, and mystification, although the terms weren’t yet in common usage in the 1830s. Gérard de Nerval famously walked a lobster on a leash in the Tuileries gardens, saying that “It does not bark and knows the secrets of the deep,” an act that helps explain why André Breton later claimed that Nerval “possessed to a tee the spirit with which we claim a kinship” (“Manifesto,” 25).[28] On one occasion the Jeunes-France set up a dressmaker’s dummy in the street and claimed it was a corpse, on another they staged a brass band concert although none of them could play the instruments, resulting in a racket of noise.[29] The writer Théophile Dondey used an abstract sound poem as the preface to one of his books:


Eh he

He! Hi! Hi!


Hu! Hu! Hu!

Profession of faith of the author. (quoted in Graña, Bohemian versus Bourgeois, 77)

This “profession of faith” constitutes one of the earliest examples, if not the first, of the sound poem, a technique that was later employed by the futurists and Dadaists, although it’s unclear how seriously it was meant. As Sarcey said of the blague in general, “this raillery is characterized by the fact that he who takes it up does so more in play, for a love of paradox, than in conviction: he mocks himself with his own banter” (quoted in Weiss, Popular Cutlure of Modern Art, 120). The criteria of seriousness is an inherently problematic one for blagues, however, since its absence is precisely one of the blague’s distinguishing characteristics. Furthermore, blagues sowed confusion and undermined the security of art’s status as a cultural institution even if their perpetrators later disavowed them.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1893.
Fig. 1. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1893. Lithograph, 129.1 x 93.5 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1932, Accession Number 32.88.15.

In the late nineteenth century, the culture of the blague found an institutional home in the artistic cabaret. The Club des Hydropathes, which organized and promoted readings of modernist poetry, was founded by the poet Émile Goudeau in 1878. Fumisteries were performed between readings of modernist poetry and in public, both as publicity for the Hydropathes and Chat Noir and gratuitously, for their own sake. The performances at the Chat Noir quickly became notorious and began attracting a broader audience, giving birth to the artistic cabaret.[30] The artistic cabaret that included all kinds of unconventional performer, such as the avant-garde dancer Jane Avril, who was famous for her energetic, highly syncopated version of the cancan (fig. 1). Blagues, fumisme, and mystifications remained a major presence in the bohemian art world of Paris throughout the last decades of the nineteenth century and into the first of the twentieth century, most notoriously in Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), which served as a direct precursor and inspiration for the Dadaists and other twentieth-century avant-gardists. Jarry was also known for his eccentric personal behavior, which included painting his hands and face green, wearing yellow high-heeled shoes to Mallarmé’s funeral, referring to himself as Ubu, and speaking in Ubu language.[31] Breton summed up Jarry’s importance by stating that “beginning with Jarry . . . the differentiation long held to be necessary between art and life has been challenged, to wind up annihilated in its principle” (quoted in Seigel, Bohemian Paris, 310).

The culture of blague continued unabated into the twentieth century. Erik Satie, Félix Fénéon, André Salmon, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Francis Picabia all engaged in various forms of blague, fumisme, and mystification, often consisting of absurdist announcements, articles, and advertisements placed in newspapers and other periodicals. Apollinaire and his circle held a number of half-sincere, half-hoax celebrations of pseudo-artists and -intellectuals, including the painter Henri Rousseau in 1908 and the amateur linguist Paul Reboux in 1913, in which both the fête and the honorees’ work occupied an ambiguous position between serious avant-gardism and mystification.[32] The artistic cabaret pioneered by the Chat Noir was taken up in Munich, Berlin, Barcelona, Vienna, Kraców, and Moscow. The Elf Scharfrichter (Eleven Executioners), which operated in Munich from 1901 to 1903, served as a bridge to the most famous example of artistic cabaret, the Cabaret Voltaire, which opened in Zurich in 1916 and for six months hosted its famous Dadaist mélange of poetry, music, dance, art, and provocation. Even after the Cabaret Voltaire’s closure, the cabaret tradition continued to be a vital part of the Dadaists’ activities.[33] Lastly, Duchamp’s whole career was firmly rooted in the culture of blague. Louise Norton, an associate of Duchamp’s in New York, wrote in explanation of Fountain that “there is among us today a spirit of ‘blague’ arising out of the artist’s bitter vision of an over-institutionalized world of stagnant statistics and antique axioms” (quoted in Weiss, Popular Culture of Modern Art, 125). Summing up Duchamp’s practice, Roger Shattuck described blague as “the central axis of Duchamp’s ethos – more important even than love or language” (Innocent Eye, 291).[34]

Craft, Ornament, Gesamtkunstwerk, and Life as a Work of Art

As with blague, fumisme, and mystification, it was the Jeunes-France who first explored the merging of art and craft, the creation of total environments, and the transformation of life into a work of art, which were later taken up by many other individuals and groups, including the arts and crafts movement, art nouveau, expressionism, the Bauhaus, and constructivism. Breaking down the divide between art, defined by its autonomy and intellectualism, and craft, defined by its everydayness and functionalism, represented a frontal assault on art’s autonomy. Walter Gropius’s 1919 program for the Bauhaus concisely sums up many of these groups’ goals:

Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts! . . .The Bauhaus strives to bring together all creative effort into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art—sculpture, painting, handcrafts, and the crafts—as inseparable components of a new architecture. The ultimate, if distant, aim of the Bauhaus is the unified works of art—the great structure—in which there is no distinction between monumental and decorative art.[35]

This program is in one sense the polar opposite of blague, since it aspires to the practical and useful rather than the absurd and meaningless, but both attempt to negate art’s status as autonomous from the rest of social praxis and everyday life. The creation of functional objects also appears to run counter to the central idea of l’art pour l’art, that it should fulfill no practical function of any kind, but here again the relationship is more ambivalent and complex than it first appears. Like blagues, fumisme, and mystification, the creation of total environments was an attempt to organize social praxis around the principles of art rather than those of normative bourgeois society.

The unification of art and craft was closely related to the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which was first introduced in 1827 by Karl Friedrich Eusebius Trahndorff and was championed by Richard Wagner beginning in 1849.[36] The Gesamtkunstwerk’s potential to negate art as an autonomous institution is revealed by Wagner’s statement that it “must encompass all kinds of art in order to exhaust, to destroy, as it were, the means of each individual art in the interests of achieving the overall purpose of them all.”[37] In Wagner’s conception, the Gesamtkunstwerk broke down the boundaries between different mediums, not between art and life, but it was a small step to reach the latter by relocating the Gesamtkunstwerk from the stage to non-art spaces such as the home or the street, thereby bringing it into everyday life. One version of the avant-garde Gesamtkunstwerk was the Bauhaus’s vision of architecture as the synthesis of art and craft or art and technology. Until 1923 Gropius emphasized the importance of craft, the handmade creation of household objects by skilled artisans. In 1923, however, he shifted the Bauhaus’s emphasis from hand craftsmanship to machinery, technology, and mass production, as described in an address he delivered entitled “Art and Technology: A New Unity.”[38] Thereafter, the Bauhaus focused on inventing a new form of modern design appropriate to the modern industrial world, encompassing household objects, factories, artworks, architecture, and in fact the entire built environment. This was the Bauhaus’s vision of the technological Gesamtkunstwerk.

Another version of the Gesamtkunstwerk also sought to create an environment for a new kind of living, but rather than technology and machinery, it based itself on a bohemian lifestyle of sexual freedom, emotional expressiveness, spirituality, and primitivism. This vision was more intimate than that of the Bauhaus and was designed to create a space in which alternative forms of life-praxis could be acted out, transforming life itself into a work of art. It was closely tied to the discourse of the decorative and ornamental in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the period from around 1880 to 1910, the decorative or ornamental were used to describe the treatment of the picture plane as a flat surface, the handling of visual form as an entity in itself rather than a vehicle for naturalistic representation, and the fusion of art and craft in the creation of environmental Gesamtkunstwerks, primarily in domestic settings.[39] But around 1910, with the advent of cubism and the rise of abstraction, the decorative and the ornamental became objects of censure. In order to maintain the elevated meaning of abstraction and its separation from craft, the ornamental or decorative had to be disavowed.[40] As Clement Greenberg put it, decoration was “the specter that haunts modernist painting” (quoted in Anger, Klee and the Decorative, 2).

The Jeunes-France began this development by creating an environment and adopting personal adornment that self-consciously distinguished them from bourgeois society. Gautier, Nerval, and other members of the group, including briefly Eugène Delacroix and Alexandre Dumas, had lodgings for a time in the Impasse du Doyenné, which was located in an abandoned area awaiting demolition to make way for an expansion of the Louvre. These environs, which functioned as an embodiment of the Romantic ideal complete with ruins and frescoes by Corot and Chassériau, served as the setting for the Jeunes-France’s bohemian lifestyle.[41] The Jeunes-France were also known for their unconventional dress, which typically consisted in ragged, pseudo-medieval bohemian attire, but they also pioneered the opposite style of the dandy, which substituted pseudo-aristocratic luxury for pseudo-gypsy rags. Both bohemians and dandies shared the desire to turn life into a work of art, and so, despite their opposite styles, it was not uncommon for bohemians and dandies to form friendships and alliances.[42] Later in the century, Baudelaire and Wilde were among those known for their flamboyant, outrageous dress.[43]

The creation of domestic Gesamtkunstwerks was taken up as one of the primary goals of the English arts and crafts movement from the 1860s on, from which it spread to a range of other European movements in the final decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. As Nikolaus Pevsner demonstrates, there was a direct continuity from the design reform efforts of William Morris to those of Gropius.[44] Although Morris did not use the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk to describe his goals, it is nevertheless an apt description of his work.[45] Morris’s Red House, one of the first creations of the arts and crafts movement, demonstrates how arts and crafts efforts were intended ideally to extend beyond design to bring about a larger transformation of everyday life. The Red House was a cooperative effort designed as not just a home but a gathering place for like-minded utopian artists, craftsmen, architects, socialists, feminists, and advocates of vegetarianism, communal living, nude bathing, sun worship, and sexual non-conformism.[46] The arts and crafts movement was closely linked to aestheticism through shared influences and ideas and through the friendship and collaboration between Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Edward Burne-Jones.[47] Both movements embraced the goal of uniting art and craft and transforming the surroundings and daily life of modern society and were part of the House Beautiful movement in England.[48]

Philip Webb (designer) and Sir Edward Burne-Jones (painter), cabinet with painting of The Backgammon Players, 1861.
Fig. 2. Philip Webb (designer) and Sir Edward Burne-Jones (painter), cabinet with painting of The Backgammon Players, 1861. Painted pine, oil paint on leather, brass, and copper, 185.4 × 114.3 × 53.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1926, Accession Number 26.54.

The desire to use art, craft, and ornament to construct an alternative lifestyle was very widespread in the late nineteenth century. Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 novel Against the Grain describes the attempt of its protagonist to create a private world shielded from the vulgarity of bourgeois society, in large part through the meticulous design of his idiosyncratic and highly aestheticized house. Paul Gauguin sought to create a new life, first in Brittany and then through his emigration to Tahiti, which he accomplished in part through the creation of decorative objects, which were a major part of his artistic practice.[49] Under the influence of Gauguin and Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the group of artists known as the Nabis designed integrated domestic interiors in which painting was an integrated part of the overall environment, which were created collectively and intended as vehicles for new forms of community.[50] The Gesamtkunstwerk was equally important to art nouveau and the associated movements of Jugendstil and the Munich and Vienna Secessions. Many of the shops and galleries that popularized art nouveau were conceived as environmental installations and displayed their wares in entire room settings, including Edmond Picard’s Brussels gallery La Maison d’Art, Siegfried Bing’s Paris store L’Art Nouveau, and Gustave Serrurier-Bovy’s Paris store L’Art dans l’Habitation.[51] The Vienna Secession, Wiener Werkstätte, the Glasgow school, Henry van de Velde, and Frank Lloyd Wright all likewise made environmental Gesamtkunstwerks central to their practice.[52]

In the twentieth century, expressionism continued the fin-de-siècle ambition to create total environments. Ralf Beil has written that:

“total artwork in Expressionism” particularly includes—along with paradigmatic studio mise-en-scènes (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner), residential ensembles (by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff for Rosa Schapire), and artists working comprehensively between art and life (Rudolf Belling, Wenzel Hablik, Hans Poelzig, Bruno Taut, Ernst Toller, etc.)—collective works of art, which were forever being planned afresh thanks to the enormous number of interdisciplinary networks that existed at the time. (“Total Artwork,” 14).

The expressionists placed a high value on the transformation of life into a work of art. As Beil notes, expressionism “was more of a ‘pattern of experience’ than a clearly definable style” (17). This pattern of experience drew on the ideas and practices of the hygiene movement, primitivism, mysticism, Buddhism, Hinduism, nature retreats, nudism, vegetarianism, and free love.[53] The artists of the Brücke group turned their studios into total environments in which, as Leonie Beiersdorf writes, the art included “not only the multifaceted material furnishings, but also the activities [that took place] in these locations . . . painting, drawing, carving, posing, dancing, discussing, copulating” (“Life and Work,” 70). Beiersdorf thus calls these spaces “showplaces for the reciprocal interpenetration of life and art” that constituted attempts to create a “lived utopia” (70).[54] A different side of the arts and crafts legacy was carried on in the early twentieth-century Germany by the Deutsche Werkbund, which attempted to elevate the quality of German manufactures. Two of the key founding figures of the Deutsche Werkbund, Hermann Muthesius and Henry van de Velde, were strongly influenced by Morris and the arts and crafts movement as a whole.[55] The Bauhaus was in many ways the fulfillment of the Werkbund’s ambitions, and Gropius and Mies van der Rohe were both actively involved in the Werkbund prior to their positions at the Bauhaus.[56] The shift in the Bauhaus’s orientation announced by Gropius in 1923 to the “new unity” of art and technology represented a shift from hand craftsmanship to mass production, but it preserved the earlier goal of reforming and improving the conditions of everyday life (Campbell, German Werkbund, 168–69).

Although Gropius and the Bauhaus are most commonly associated with modernist, machine-oriented design rather than expressionism, they were in fact closely linked and both shared the desire to unite art and life in many of the same ways. One point of contact between them was the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Work Council for the Arts), which included Gropius as well as the expressionists Bruno Taut, Erich Heckel, Käthe Kollwitz, Max Pechstein, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Lyonel Feininger. The Arbeitsrat was strongly committed to transforming the praxis of everyday life through art, declaring in 1919 that “art and the people must form a unity . . . The coming together of the arts under the wings of Baukunst is the goal.”[57] Another point of overlap was Johannes Itten, an expressionist painter who was a leading figure at the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1923 and whose art and life were both governed by his esoteric mystical beliefs. Itten was a follower of the Mazdaznan religion, a modern version of Zoroastrianism, wore simple, loose-fitting robes, and shaved his head, giving him an appearance reminiscent of a Buddhist monk, ate a macrobiotic vegetarian diet, and practiced meditation and ritual purification through fasting and enemas. He attracted a small but devoted following of students who adopted many of his practices before Gropius eased him out of the school.[58]

Not only did artists and designers at the Bauhaus seek to merge all the arts into an architectural Gesamtkunstwerk, but this Gesamtkunstwerk bled into the everyday life of the school. As Itten wrote, “[o]ur play should become work; our work, a celebration; and our celebration, play. I regard this as the supreme excellence of the human tasks.”[59] Although Itten was in many respects not representative of the Bauhaus as a whole, in this case he was. Frank Whitford writes that:

The Bauhaus parties (which had begun in Weimar) were regular and spectacular. By the time of the move to Dessau the school jazz band had become famous even in Berlin . . . The parties were regarded almost as extensions of the school curriculum. Each had a theme, invitations were designed and produced, costumes and masks were made. The proceedings were stage-managed by Schlemmer and the theatre workshop. (Bauhaus, 163)

Schlemmer’s theater workshop was itself another part of the school’s project to create a total work of art. Thus, “[t]he school’s ambition to unite all of the arts into a Gesamtkunstwerk . . . found its outlet in the Bauhaus stage workshop, established in 1921,” which “combined architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance and poetry to create, as Kandsinky noted, ‘a monumental abstract art.’”[60] Sport at the Bauhaus was another part of this Gesamtkusntwerk, which is not surprising given that at the time it was closely associated with the larger revolution of modern life that the Bauhaus aimed to further.[61]

If the Bauhaus was linked to expressionism in its early years, it was linked even more closely with constructivism, De Stijl, and Dadaism after the Bauhaus’s 1923 shift from craft to technology. The network of collaboration between El Lissitzky, Schwitters, van Doesburg, and László Moholy-Nagy was so interconnected that it is difficult to see them as belonging to separate movements.[62] These artists and movements not only sought to merge art and craft in the creation of functional objects intended to transform everyday life, they also extended this transformation to their own bodies and lives. Rodchenko and Moholy-Nagy wore outfits inspired by industrial workers, while Vladimir Tatlin, Lyubov Popova, and Varvara Stepanova designed clothing that would be appropriate to the new socialist utopia they envisaged.[63] Schwitters’s Merzbau was an even more highly integrated project combining the Gesamtkunstwerk, the readymade, and the treatment of life as a work of art. As Schwitters wrote, “My goal is the Merzgesamtkunstwerk, which brings together all the arts into an artistic unity.”[64] Dadaists and surrealists also adopted incongruous clothes and grooming in their daily life and their art, as in the robotic cardboard outfit worn by Hugo Ball while performing Karawane and Duchamp’s Rrose Sélavy persona and “tonsure.”[65] The goal of uniting art and life even extended, at least in part, to some consummately modernist artists. Piet Mondrian, for instance, remained an easel painter first and foremost, but he nevertheless created his own version of the architectural environment, at least within his own studio, by combining colored cardboard squares with his canvases on the wall to create a neoplastic environment, just as van Doesburg and Gerrit Rietveld did in their buildings. Mondrian explained that he hoped for the day when his neoplastic style would fuse with modern life, writing that “The abstract-real (or neoplastic) picture will disappear as soon as we transfer its plastic beauty to the space around us through the organization of the room into color areas.”[66] Kazimir Malevich’s 0.10 exhibition similarly displayed easel paintings so as to transform them into an environmental, site-specific installation.[67] At their extremes, the blague and the environmental Gesamtkunstwerk appear to be polar opposites. Gautier and Morris, for instance, respectively declared that “everything useful is ugly” and “[n]othing can be a work of art which is not useful” (Gautier, “Preface,” xxvii–xxviii; quoted in Stansky, Redesigning the World, 58). But one can find many cases in which the blague, aestheticism, the Gesamtkunstwerk, and autonomous art objects commingled within the same movement, the same artist, and the same work. As with all historical labels, the lines between these categories was far from airtight. But that does not invalidate the usefulness of the categories. Rather, it impels us to acknowledge their imbrication and the complexity of their attraction and repulsion.

Modernism and the Avant-garde in Dialogue

Given that one of Bürger’s failures was his lack of attention to specific works, I want to conclude with an examination of two artists who exemplify some of the issues raised by the interaction of modernism and the avant-garde in the messy conditions of actual historical reality. The work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Schwitters demonstrates that the avant-garde fusion of art and life was often entangled with its opposite, art’s autonomy from everyday life. Although this contradicts Bürger’s view of the avant-garde and autonomous art as inevitably counterposed, this mixture was in fact quite common. Understanding how and why these seemingly opposed principles were combined is essential to understanding the phenomenon of the avant-garde as a whole.

Two works by Whistler, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room and Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, exemplify this mixture. Whistler was an American-born artist who helped inspire the aesthetic movement, although he rejected the label of aestheticism, most likely due to his attitude of elite condescension towards anything that attracted a mass following.[68] These works, produced at almost exactly the same time and among his most celebrated works, contain elements of practically every artistic tendency discussed in this essay, including autonomy, aestheticism, the Gesamtkunstwerk, the fusion of art and craft, and blague.

The Peacock Room was produced in 1876-77 and consists of Whistler’s complete redecoration of a room belonging to his patron, Frederick Leyland, in which an earlier painting of Whistler’s, La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine, was on display. Whistler’s interventions included painting gold peacocks on the shutters and the wall opposite his painting, gilding the shelves holding Leyland’s collection of Chinese porcelain, and covering the ornate ceiling with Dutch-metal leaf and more peacocks. The fact that Whistler gave the room a title and inscribed his signature butterfly monogram in four places around it indicates that he regarded the room as a cohesive artwork combining architecture, ceramics, and painting, or in other words a Gesamtkunstwerk.[69]

The following year, Whistler exhibited Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, which was a nearly abstract painting depicting a night-time exhibition of fireworks.[70] The work achieved notoriety when John Ruskin, England’s leading art historian and critic, infamously wrote of it that “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now, but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” (quoted in Merrill, Pot of Paint, 1). In effect, Ruskin was accusing Whistler of perpetrating a blague, a view that was seconded by the Examiner, which reported that:

The general notion has been that Mr. Whistler, cunningly perceiving how much a silly portion of the world nowadays is given to the worship of the Incomprehensible, and to profess enthusiastic admiration for aestheticism upside down, had taken advantage of the craze and produced a series of pictorial jokes—exceedingly bad ones from an artistic standpoint, but remunerative in inverse proportion to their merit. (quoted in Merrill, 247)[71]

Whistler responded to Ruskin’s denunciation by suing the critic for libel, literally putting the definition of bourgeois art on trial. Whistler won the case, but the jury awarded him a single farthing and the judge refused to make Ruskin pay the court costs, which forced Whistler into bankruptcy.[72] Whistler’s witty, barbed repartee at the trial can be seen as a further extension of the original blague, which serves as a forerunner to the many hostile interactions with the press that later avant-gardists both invited and deplored. The painting technique used by Whistler in The Falling Rocket provides another link between Whistler and the avant-garde. Whistler’s use of rapidly flecked dots, swift vertical strokes, and numerous swirls of paint involved a significant element of improvisation, prefiguring the use of chance that Bürger identified as one of the defining traits of the avant-garde.[73] On one level Nocturne in Black and Gold can thus be considered an avant-garde work, but on another it is a prime example of an autonomous artwork.

The painting’s physical frame is the most obvious marker of its autonomy, serving to mark the work’s separation from the surrounding world. Further evidence of the work’s autonomous status can be found in Whistler’s overall artistic philosophy, which he articulated at his trial in relation to this work in particular. Whistler’s highest ambition for his work was that it would achieve a state of aesthetic harmony and completion, a formalist attitude that is typical of what Bürger identifies as modernism. As Whistler explained at the trial, “By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form, and color first” (quoted in Merrill, 144). Whistler’s invocation of the purity of art and the removal of any external significance or purpose are textbook descriptions of aestheticism and autonomy. Far from being anomalous, the combination of autonomy and avant-gardism in The Peacock Room and The Falling Rocket is quite common in the history of modern art. In the late nineteenth century, Gustave Courbet, Charles Baudelaire, Édouard Manet, and Oscar Wilde, to take just four prominent examples, also made use of blague both within the bounds of autonomous works and in their public behavior.

Such combinations continued into the twentieth century, with the Dadaist Schwitters serving as a prime example of this ongoing tendency. Schwitters saw all of his work, including his art and his work as a commercial graphic designer, as belonging to a single, holistic project, which he dubbed “Merz.” As we have already seen, he sought to create a “Merzgesamtkunstwerk” that would combine all the arts.[74] One of the art forms Schwitters is best known for are his multimedia works combining collage and painting, many of which included Merz in the title. By incorporating found objects they merged art and life, but by remaining framed works hung on a wall, they retained a large measure of autonomy. Another work by Schwitters, his Merzbau, went further towards the fusion of art and life. The first Merzbau was Schwitters’s house in Hannover, which he turned into an environmental sculpture through extensive modifications to every inch of its interior, much of it in a cubist style and incorporating found objects. Like Whistler’s Peacock Room, this was an environment conceived as a unified work of art, but it was also a kind of blague, a rambunctious repudiation of the bourgeois domestic interior. On a broader level, Schwitters’s conception of his entire body of work as Merz, including the building in which he lived, represents one of the most complete attempts at a fusion of art and life. Yet Schwitters was not averse to producing very traditional oil paintings, which he did in the 1940s while a refugee in England. While it’s true that he produced these out of the need to earn a living in dire circumstances, this is a step that many avant-gardists would likely never have taken, and it was not out of step with his artistic philosophy.[75]

Schwitters shared with Whistler a devotion to a purified vision of art, writing in 1920 that “Merz stands for freedom from all fetters, for the sake of artistic creation” and that art was a “primordial concept, exalted as the godhead, inexplicable as life, indefinable and without purpose.”[76] This devotion to a spiritual calling for art caused him to be described as a “latter-day romantic” by Richard Huelsenbeck, a Marxist with strong anarchist impulses who led the Berlin Dadaist group (Dietrich, “Hannover,” 159). On one level Huelsenbeck was right, given Schwitters’s passion for art as a spiritual calling, but his total dismissal of Schwitters’s avant-garde credentials was overly hasty. Both blague and the fusion of art and life were central components of Schwitters’s work, as can be seen in his description of art as inexplicable and indefinable but nevertheless exalted. In fact, for Schwitters, it is precisely art’s lack of rational purpose that accounts for its spiritual potency. The avant-garde status of Schwitters’s work can also be seen in the term “Merz,” which was, like Dada itself, a nonsense term. The word originally derived from the words “Kommerz- und Privatbank,” meaning Commerce Bank, which appeared on a scrap of paper in one of Schwitters’s assemblage paintings (159). Schwitters transformed this meaningless syllable into an umbrella term for his art as a whole, suggesting again how Schwitters’s glorification of art was grounded in its absurdity.

What Huelsenbeck, like Bürger, did not recognize was that, although inconsistent and paradoxical, it was entirely possible, and not at all uncommon, for a devotion to art’s autonomy to be combined with the desire to negate that same autonomy. Although contradictory, this dynamic was not arbitrary but rather a result of the contradictions of autonomy itself. Gendron’s assessment of the Jeunes-France, quoted earlier, applies equally to Whistler and Schwitters: “by sanctifying art as a high and pure end in itself—in effect, turning art into a quasi-sacred practice—[they] could not easily separate art from life in another sense, that is, could hardly desist from introducing the ‘pure’ values of art into the very conduct of their leisurely lives. In effect, they turned life into a form of art” (Between Montmartre, 34). The sanctification of art (or, to use Walter Benjamin’s term, its aura) was both a cause and effect of its autonomy. The separation of art from life intensified the already existing sense of sanctity that attached to art, but this sequestered aura then chafed at the boundaries that circumscribed it. Some artists sought to break art out of this autonomous, sequestered state in order to more effectively amplify its aura, which was, ironically, at least partly a product of that same autonomy. This impure mixture of aims and techniques runs throughout the history of modernist art and provides a final example of how Bürger’s conceptions of the avant-garde and the unification of art and life have repeatedly exceeded the limitations that he attempted to impose on them. Despite the many failures of Bürger’s analysis, his concepts have proved enduringly useful beyond the bounds that he himself set for the concept. Contrary to those of Bürger’s critics who have held that his analysis is stifling and narrow, and indeed contrary to his own intentions, the greatest strength of his analysis is its openness, its ambiguity, and its ability to raise more questions than it answers, which is the best justification that one can offer for doing theory.


[1] See “Theorie Der Avantgarde": Antworten Auf Peter Bürgers Bestimmung von Kunst und bürgerlicher Gesellschaft, ed. W. Martin Lüdke (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1976).

[2] Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 8.

[3] It should also be borne in mind that Bürger’s definition of the avant-garde does not simply replace previous definitions (or critiques) of the avant-garde, of which the most notable are Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1985), 48–59; Donald D. Egbert, “The Idea of ‘Avant-Garde’ in Art and Politics,” The American Historical Review 73, no. 2 (December 1967): 339–66; Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1968); and Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987). Rather, all these definitions, counter-definitions, and critiques create a sedimented, evolving historiography that gives the term a very rich and polyvalent meaning. Some writers, such as Astradur Eysteinsson, prefer to use the terms “modernism” and “avant-garde” rather loosely in acknowledgment of their discursive complexity and historical overlap (Astradur Eysteinsson, “What’s the Difference? Revisiting Concepts of Modernism and Avant-Garde,” in Europa! Europa? European Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009), 21–35). This is a reasonable position that will undoubtedly continue to be practiced by many scholars. For the purposes of this essay, I do not seek to establish a definitive and universal definition of these terms, but rather to have some means of distinguishing art grounded in notions of autonomy from art grounded in the intent to fuse art and life.

[4] In place of Bürger’s preferred term of aestheticism, throughout this essay I will be referring instead to l’art pour l’art, since the latter term appeared earlier and encompasses a broader range of movements than the former. The term l’art pour l’art was first used in a series of influential lectures in 1818, whereas aestheticism did not come into use as a synonym for l’art pour l’art until the 1850s. In the late 1860s, aestheticism became the name of a specific art movement in England, giving it a more specific meaning than the broader concept of l’art pour l’art, as documented in Elizabeth Prettejohn, Beauty and Art, 1750–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 65–77; Jason Edwards and Imogen Hart, “The Victorian Interior: A Collaborative, Eclectic Introduction,” in Rethinking the Interior, c. 1867–1896: Aestheticism and Arts and Crafts, ed. Jason Edwards and Imogen Hart (London: Routledge, 2010), 1–24, 6; and Stephen Calloway, “The Search for a New Beauty,” in The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900, ed. Stephen Calloway and Lynn Federle Orr (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2011), 10–23, 15.

[5] The term “modernism” acquired this meaning despite the fact that Bürger uses it infrequently and ambiguously in Theory of the Avant-Garde. In one case he uses it to refer to works in which the organic unity of the work has been fragmented, which is a feature of avant-garde art, while in two others he uses it in a way that appears to include both the avant-garde and twentieth-century autonomous art (see Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press], 1984, 55, 59, 61). The term’s now-predominant meaning was established by Jochen Schulten-Sasse, who wrote the foreword to the English translation of Theory of the Avant-Garde, titled “Theory of Modernism versus Theory of the Avant-Garde.”

[6] Emmett Stinson, Satirizing Modernism: Aesthetic Autonomy, Romanticism, and the Avant-Garde (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 8; emphasis in original.

[7] Peter Bürger, The Decline of Modernism, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1992), 153.

[8] Benjamin Buchloh, “Theorizing the Avant-Garde,” Art in America, November 1984, 19–21, 19; Patricia Leighten, “Revising Cubism,” Art Journal 47, no. 4 (1988): 269–76, 273; David Bathrick and Andreas Huyssen, “Modernism and the Experience of Modernity,” in Modernity and the Text: Revisions of German Modernism, ed. Andreas Huyssen and David Bathrick (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 1–16, 8; Maud Lavin, Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 50–51; Jeffrey Weiss, The Popular Culture of Modern Art: Picasso, Duchamp, and Avant-Gardism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), xvi; and Leah Dickerman, “Dada Gambits,” October 105 (2003): 3–12, 7.

[9] See Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 7, 9; Helen Molesworth, “From Dada to Neo-Dada and Back Again,” October 105 (2003): 177–81, 178; Gail Day, “Art, Love and Social Emancipation: On the Concept ‘Avant-Garde’ and the Interwar Avant-Gardes,” in Art of the Avant-Gardes, ed. Steve Edwards and Paul Wood (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 307–38, 322–38.; David Hopkins, “Sameness and Difference: Duchamp’s Editioned Readymades and the Neo-Avant-Garde,” in Avant-Garde/Neo-Avant-Garde, ed. Dietrich Scheunemann (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 91; and Gavin Grindon, “Surrealism, Dada, and the Refusal of Work: Autonomy, Activism, and Social Participation in the Radical Avant-Garde,” Oxford Art Journal 34, no. 1 (2011): 79–96, 81–83. Huyssen was initially supportive of Bürger in After the Great Divide (7, 9), but reversed himself three years later in Bathrick and Huyssen, “Modernism and the Experience of Modernity” (8). Jacques Rancière develops a similar analysis in Aisthesis, although he does not mention Bürger or use his terminology. Rancière writes that art in the late 1800s and early 1900s creates “its own domain by blurring the specificities that define the arts and the boundaries that separate them from the prosaic world” (Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis, trans. Zakir Paul [London: Verso, 2013], xi).

[10] To take just three examples, references to Bürger’s theory appear in the titles of Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life: Early-Twentieth-Century European Modernism (Chicago, IL: Art Institute of Chicago, 2011); Art into Life: Russian Constructivism, 1914–1932 (Seattle, WA: Henry Art Gallery, 1990); and Bauhaus: Art as Life (London: Koenig, 2012).

[11] Alexander Rodchenko, “Slogans,” in Art in Theory, 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, trans. Selim Omarovich Khan-Magomedov (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 339–40, 340; Theo van Doesburg, El Lissitsky, and Hans Richter, “Declaration of the International Fraction of Constructivists of the First International Congress of Progressive Artists,” in Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 314–15, 315; emphases in original.

[12] André Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Paperback, 1972), 1–48, 26.

[13] Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto 1918,” in Dadas on Art, ed. Lucy R. Lippard, trans. Gabriele Bennett (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971), 13–20, 20.

[14] John Heartfield, “John Heartfield, Life and Work,” in Dadas on Art, 90–97, 91.

[15] Maud Lavin, Clean New World: Culture, Politics, and Graphic Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2001), 45.

[16] This categorization is contained in a footnote that is very significant and also very puzzling. Bürger writes that Italian futurism and German expressionism can also be seen as part of the historical avant-garde, “[w]ith certain limitations that would have to be determined through concrete analyses,” but then ignores these movements for the remainder of the book (Bürger, 109n4). One oddity in this footnote is the statement that “[t]he concept of the historical avant-garde movements used here applies primarily to Dadaism and early Surrealism but also and equally to the Russian avant-garde after the October revolution” (109n4). If the concept applies “primarily” to Dadaism and early surrealism, how can it also apply “equally” to constructivism? He also says that cubism is “part of the historical avant-garde movements” because of its destruction of Renaissance perspective, but “it does not share their basic tendency (sublation of art in the praxis of life)” (109n4). How exactly can cubism be part of the historical avant-garde without sharing its basic tendency?

[17] Jill Lloyd, German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), ix.

[18] Hans Richter, “Dada Art and Anti-Art,” in Dadas on Art, 39–44, 40; Kurt Schwitters, “Merz (1920),” in Dadas on Art, 99–106, 103.

[19] Elizabeth Prettejohn, Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 2.

[20] See Elizabeth Prettejohn, Beauty and Art, 1750–2000, 65–77.

[21] See Richard B. Grant, Théophile Gautier (Boston, MA: Twayne, 1975), 24; F. W. J. Hemmings, Culture and Society in France, 1789-1848 (Leicester, UK: Leicester University, 1987), 228–30.

[22] Théophile Gautier, preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (Paris: Société des Beaux Arts, 1905), xxvii–xxviii.

[23] Bernard Gendron, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 35.

[24] Emmett Stinson similarly argues that the avant-garde dates back to Romanticism, which he regards as “deeply problematic” for Bürger’s theory (Stinson, Satirizing Modernism, 39). I would argue that there is no reason to see this historical origin as so devastating for Bürger’s theory, and that this earlier point of origin in fact only expands and emphasizes the importance of his ideas.

[25] See Weiss, Popular Culture of Modern Art, 119–23, 142–43.

[26] Roger Shattuck, The Innocent Eye: On Modern Literature and the Arts (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984), 70.

[27] Quoted in Jerrold Seigel, Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830–1930 (New York: Viking, 1986), 373.

[28] Quoted in César Graña, Bohemian versus Bourgeois: French Society and the French Man of Letters in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Basic, 1964), 74.

[29] See Joanna Richardson, The Bohemians: La Vie de Bohème in Paris, 1830–1914 (South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1969), 30.

[30] See Gendron, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, 38–46.

[31] See Seigel, Bohemian Paris, 310–22; Werner Spies, Max Ernst-Loplop: The Artist in the Third Person (New York: George Braziller, 1983), 9–10.

[32] See Seigel, 325, 330–1; Weiss, Popular Culture of Modern Art, 43–45, 152–53.

[33] See Gendron, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, 70–78.

[34] In a rather different way, Thierry de Duve has also traced the origins of the readymade back to the nineteenth century in the modernist drive to abolish juried exhibitions, another case of l’art pour l’art doctrine migrating to an avant-garde position. In de Duve’s account, the drive for total artistic freedom—that is, freedom from any social function—led directly to Duchamp’s creation of the readymade (Thierry De Duve, “The Invention of Non-Art: A History,” Artforum, February 2014, 194, 199).

[35] Walter Gropius, “Programme of the Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar,” in Bauhaus: Art as Life,  15–17, 15. Architecture had always produced total environments so the environmental Gesamtkunstwerk was thus not conceived as a new idea but rather as a return to the past, in opposition to the industrial revolution’s impact on art, craft, and daily life. The Gothic period in particular stood as an idealized image of a past time when art and craft had been united through architecture for a shared communal enterprise created by craftsmen work in in healthy and fulfilling conditions. This highly influential line of thought runs through the work of A. W. N. Pugin, John Ruskin, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, and William Morris, as documented in  Rosalind P. Blakesley, The Arts and Crafts Movement (London: Phaidon, 2006), 11–25; Stephen Escritt, Art Nouveau (London: Phaidon, 2000), 26–35; Frances S. Connelly, The Sleep of Reason: Primitivism in Modern European Art and Aesthetics, 1725–1907 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 63–65; Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 130–58.

[36] Ralf Beil, “The Total Artwork in Expressionism: Foreword and Acknowledgments,” in The Total Artwork in Expressionism: Art, Film, Literature, Theater, Dance, and Architecture, 1905–25, ed. Ralf Beil and Claudia Dillmann (Darmstadt: Institut Mathildenhöhe, 2011), 12–22, 14.

[37] Quoted in Barbara Steffen, “Vienna 1900: A Total Work of Art,” in Vienna 1900: Klimt, Schiele, and Their Times, A Total Work of Art, ed. Barbara Steffen (Basel: Fondation Beyeler, 2010), 9–24, 10.

[38] See Frank Whitford, Bauhaus (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984), 139.

[39] See Katherine M. Kuenzli, The Nabis and Intimate Modernism: Painting and the Decorative at the Fin-de-Siècle (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010), 1–10, 69–71; Connelly, The Sleep of Reason, 62–77; Jenny Anger, Paul Klee and the Decorative in Modern Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 17–19.

[40] See Markus Brüderlin, “Introduction: Ornament and Abstraction,” in Ornament and Abstraction, ed. Markus Brüderlin (Basel: Fondation Beyeler, 2001), 17–19; Anger, Paul Klee and the Decorative, 1–2, 19, 30.

[41] See Richardson, The Bohemians, 42–43, 49; Gendron, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, 34.

[42] See Seigel, Bohemian Paris, 98–105; Richardson, The Bohemians, 57–59.

[43] See Richardson, The Bohemians, 63; Christopher Breward, “Aestheticism in the Marketplace: Fashion, Lifestyle and Popular Taste,” in The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900, ed. Stephen Calloway and Lynn Federle Orr (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2011), 192–205, 201–203. Josephine Guy has previously argued for the inclusion of Wilde within the avant-garde, albeit along different lines (see Josephine M. Guy, The British Avant-Garde: The Theory and Politics of Tradition [New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991], 139–55).

[44] Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius (London: Penguin, 1975), 19–39.

[45] See Blakesley, The Arts and Crafts Movement, 7.

[46] See Fiona MacCarthy, Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860–1960 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 19–57.

[47] See Edwards and Hart, “The Victorian Interior,” 7–8; Prettejohn, Art for Art’s Sake, 29, 246–49, 253.

[48] See Calloway, “The Search for a New Beauty,” 12, 19; Peter Stansky, Redesigning the World: William Morris, the 1880s, and the Arts and Crafts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 34.

[49] See Connelly, The Sleep of Reason, 69; Christopher Gray, Sculpture and Ceramics of Paul Gauguin (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1963).

[50] See Kuenzli, The Nabis and Intimate Modernism, 4–10, 15–19.

[51] See Escritt, Art Nouveau, 68, 72.

[52] See Escritt, 69, 161, 165–67, 187, 286; Steffen, “Vienna 1900,” 11; Kuenzli, The Nabis and Intimate Modernism, 149–52.

[53] See Lloyd, German Expressionism, 102–21; Rose-Carol Washton Long, Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1980), 13–41; Cornelie Usborne, The Politics of the Body in Weimar Germany: Women’s Reproductive Rights and Duties (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 75; Leonie Beiersdorf, “‘. . .That Life and Work Are One’: Lived Utopias with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Rosa Schapire,” in The Total Artwork in Expressionism, 68–79, 70.

[54] See also Lloyd, German Expressionism, 21–49.

[55] See Joan Campbell, The German Werkbund: The Politics of Reform in the Applied Arts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 12–13, 22–24.

[56] See Campbell, German Werkbund, 4ff.

[57] Quoted in Ralf Beil, “‘For Me There Is No Other 'Work of Art'": The Expressionist Total Artwork—Utopia and Practice,” in The Total Artwork in Expressionism, 26–45, 35.

[58] See Whitford, Bauhaus, 51–59, 121; Stephen J. Eskilson, Graphic Design: A New History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 217.

[59] Johannes Itten, “Our Play, Our Party, Our Work,” in Bauhaus: Art as Life, 175–80, 175.

[60] C. Raman Schlemmer, “Stage, Space, Architecture,” in Bauhaus: Art as Life, 190–95, 191.

[61] See Whitford, Bauhaus, 162; Christina Lodder, Russian Constructivism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 151.

[62] Victor Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917-1946 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1997).

[63] See Lodder, Russian Constructivism, 25–28, 146–55; Whitford, Bauhaus, 122–23.

[64] Quoted in Thomas Anz, “Setting the Soul in Vibration! Expressionist Concepts of the Total Artwork,” in The Total Artwork in Expressionism, 50–67, 52.

[65] See RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001), 60–61; Amelia Jones, “‘Clothes Make the Man’: The Male Artist as a Performative Function,” Oxford Art Journal 18, no. 2 (1995): 18–32, 22–32; Dawn Ades, Neil Cox, and David Hopkins, Marcel Duchamp (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 133–40; and Giovanna Zapperi, “Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Tonsure’: Towards an Alternate Masculinity,” Oxford Art Journal 30, no. 2 (2007): 289–303.

[66] Quoted in Mildred Friedman, “Mondrian’s Paris Atelier, 1926–1931,” in De Stijl: 1917–1931, Visions of Utopia, ed. Mildred Friedman (Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 1982), 80–86, 81.

[67] See Christina Lodder, “Malevich as Exhibition Maker,” in Malevich, ed. Achim Borchardt-Hume (London: Tate, 2014), 94–117, 94–95.

[68] See Linda Merrill, A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics on Trial in Whistler v Ruskin (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 286–87.

[69] See Merrill, Pot of Paint, 33–34.

[70] See Merrill, 1, 36.

[71] The word had been introduced into English by Carlyle in 1839, in a book on the French Revolution no less (OED Online, June 2017, s.v. “Blague, n.”

[72] See Merrill, 197.

[73] See Merrill, 152–53.

[74] See Anz, “Setting the Soul in Vibration!” 52.

[75] See Jennifer Powell, “Schwitters Interned with Friends,” in Schwitters in Britain, ed. Emma Chambers and Karin Orchard (London: Tate, 2013), 32–41, 33–34; Emma Chambers, “Schwitters and Britain,” in Schwitters in Britain, 6–31, 15–16.

[76] Quoted in Dorothea Dietrich, “Hannover” in Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris, ed. Leah Dickerman (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2005), 154–78, 159.