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? 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.
Fernand Léger’s curious throw-away line linking cinema and aviation appears in an essay he wrote in 1931 titled “Speaking of Cinema” (“A Propos du cinéma”), one of only a few short pieces that the artist, arguably the modernist painter most obsessed with the cinema, devoted entirely to film.
Vegard Vinge and Ida Müller’s performance series, the Ibsen-Saga (2006–), is an extraordinary limit case for staging Henrik Ibsen’s expansive internal temporalities. The Saga uses Ibsen’s works, in the words of Heiner Müller, as “an instrument of deceleration against the general acceleration of life” (Barnett, “Müller’s Hamlet/Machine,” 197). The Saga slows the sense of the present through a dramaturgy of open-ended performances in which the content and length are rarely predetermined, with works lasting upwards of two weeks without intermission or ending after forty-five minutes. The unpredictability of the Saga’s performances—inspired by the latent Romantic idealism of Ibsen’s plays—challenges the ability of institutions to regulate time in relation to labor and the larger economy. The Saga declares art’s autonomy from institutional oversight by confronting the temporal limits of theatre production in the twenty-first century. Like its antecedent in the historical avant-gardes, the Saga employs time as a tool to differentiate itself—and art—from the realities of the world. Attending to the idealism of Ibsen’s plays, the Saga conjures the avant-garde inside Ibsen to challenge the institutional regulation of time, illuminating the limits of contemporary theatre.
What distinguishes modernism’s legacies from the afterlives of other literary or cultural movements? To begin to answer this question, let’s glance back to 1941, when several writers of transatlantic renown composed what we might call obituaries for the modernist arts. Djuna Barnes’s “Lament for the Left Bank,” for example, an elegiac piece published in the American periodical Town and Country, memorialized a Paris made brilliant by overlapping arcs of collaborative innovation: Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes; George Antheil and Ezra Pound; Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Coco Chanel. The essay ends with the line, “The dreadful thing is not that all these things were done, but that they are over.” The things that were done and the things that are over: Barnes identifies the tensions that would come to mark modernism’s legacy in the twenty-first century, the dialectical occurrences of cultural continuity and discontinuity, of originality and repetition. For Barnes, Left Bank artists in the 1920s and 1930s did “things”—a single, compact word for modernism’s kaleidoscopic transformations—that were over by 1941, a conviction varied and echoed in other coeval “art-historical post-mortems,” to borrow from Richard Meyers, by Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Anaïs Nin, and Cyril Connolly.