Notes on Peter Burger’s Theory of the Avant Garde

Three months ago I did a similar post on Poggioli’s early study which can be found HERE.

These notes again are mostly based on Burger’s notions but occasionally I pass comment and/or look for further examples to put in his model. There are two tables in this set of notes which are readable if you click on them.

Notes from Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant Garde

Genres are illusory although there is the study of what is called poetry/art

The audience is never passive but prejudiced

The interpreter applies his prejudice to the situation

It is inevitable that we interpret the past in terms of our own epoch

Social function of religion: religion alleviates misery but on the other hand it stops happiness

When man realised religion was illusory he redefined it as philosophy and not faith

Adorno – avant-garde art is functionless (Burger admits it has a function of leisure or to trigger discussion)

Avant-garde works only help to stabilise whatever is in place – the conditions against which it protests

“Art allows at least an imagined satisfaction of individual needs that are repressed in daily praxis.”

Individual movements should not be easily stitched together. If they are stitched together they change their function

Dada has no style, it has an ethos – is the true owner of the term historical avant-garde, attempts in this way to be outside the institution

Benjamin –reproduction in the mechanical age changes the reception of the work of art

When art takes the place of religion art generates ritual rather than existing for the ritual

WB of Dada – ‘Their poems are a ‘word salad’ containing obscenities and every imaginable waste product of language’

Art nowadays is made with profit in mind. How does poetry, the anomaly fit in?

The written word does not have a moment like painting does with photography because literature can never take a snapshot – although people have tried like say the imagists but even this is a version. Of course realist photography is a version too

Art differs from everyday life; it is magical. Therefore all arts a jumbled together as a whole. Like the vile notion poets must stick together

When art loses its functional value it gains educational value (the furtherance). But it is often light education disguised as furtherance

Model (Function, production, reception):

Thick line = major break
Thin line = minor break

In courtly art the artist becomes aware of his uniqueness

“The citizen who, in everyday life has been reduced to a partial function (means-ends activity) can be discovered in art as ‘human being’”

The institution has defined art as things which are in the institution – this happens because of a sociological rather than an aesthetic reason. Similar ideas in Return of the Real, Foster.

For Burger the true avant-garde artist wants to break with the system. This is often difficult for a modern day artist after Duchamp, as when he broke the system the art then became the system – think also L.H.O.O.Q. key-rings at The Tate.

The culture industry has brought about the false elimination of the distance between art and life

Any argument that a readymade negates the notion of the art work being produced by the individual is unfounded as it is his idea and ideas are now what art is

Tzara and Breton give instructions on how to make art. This is an attack on the notion of an individual making art – i.e. the artist is simply a worker when making a cut up poem from an arbitrary newspaper

“Today the only works which really count are those which are no longer works at all.” – Adorno

But lots of the bourgeoisie favour Jack Vettriano, photo of a dog with a speech bubble going woof, etc. How is this art given back to us from the institution?

The Flarfists treat their action as the first time in poetry rather than as the umpteenth hackneyed time in art. The problem of splitting disciplines in art: in terms of intention and manufacture

Much conceptual art (including poetry) does not give enough attention to form

The famous Flarf story that Sullivan tells of a vanity publisher accepting his Google mumbo-jumbo.

This is a peculiar notion. The vanity press, the same as the institution, does not take experimental unless there is to be money to be made in it.

Anti-tradition became tradition. So did it not win then? It did not as Fountain is now treated as part of our leisure and separate from our life praxis

The argument that arts and crafts, and cookery and gardening is art, as it is the people’s truly

“The neo avant-garde institutionalizes the avant-garde as art and thus negates genuinely avant-garde intentions.”

To remain in silence?

Things always become new but what is meant by new by the avant-garde is total newness – a radical shift.

Adorno belives that the artist’s drive to be new is analogous to the consumption of new goods by buyers in capitalist governments

Warhol and the abstract expressionists accept this and is not therefore avant garde

Just as consumption has need of fads so too does art need them. There are perhaps today many more movements and they become replaced as king movement at a quicker rate of transition – think of the coming and going of minimalism but did it really go? Was it exhausted aesthetically?

Are there ‘more’ movements because of globalisation and media coverage?

The results of some Dada works is that they are free of ideology. Say for example chance pieces but the alleatory action is not free of ideology; in fact it is heavily conceptual

For Burger Cubism isn’t anti-tradition (therefore is not the avant-garde) as it does not represent a true shift. i.e. we can all read the painting (a collective, sociable experience; see model)

In non-avant-garde works the whole needs its parts and the parts needs its whole. This is not the case in avant-garde works – think about the Jason Rhoades large detritus sculptures/installations

For the avant-garde, process and outcome are more important than content

“This refusal to provide meaning is experienced as shock by the recipient.”

Avant-garde hopes that the:

Refusal to give meaning = recipient is shocked = recipient reconsiders their life praxis / realises life praxis is separate from art


The shock is generally non-specifically directed and therefore the recipients respond with blind fury, do not know how to read the work and therefore do not change their life praxis or even consider it as separate from life

Is a solution to direct the shock? Not to tell the audience the meaning but to tell them it is OK to have an individual reading and that one can be part of a collective within individual readings – think presentation of The Other Room, if p then q

I remember reading somewhere about someone getting a Salt catalogue through their door and disliking the way it was marketed, saying it was pointless to package Alan Halsey in a glitzy way. The reason being that since Halsey’s current audience are above such marketing techniques and there is therefore no need to market the book in a glitzy way. The answer is simple they are trying to create an audience and not shock people so much so that the audience doesn’t consider the prospect of approaching the work. We must remember the Salt list is very strange now with their publications over the last two years

Burger’s book essentially ignores Futurism – both Russian and Italian. Is this because Futurism never became institutionalised as did Dada and surrealism; it simply died

The institution is happy to play Duchamp’s games as he signals that all is to be consumed and sold and therefore the institution can sell what it wants – everything

The avant-garde destroyed the notion of aesthetic hierarchy. This can often be misread as the need to consider everything

Brecht attempted to change the institution from within

Is this what innovative poetry attempted but instead weakly became part of a sub-culture of tradition in the universities and then shut shop in terms of its responsibility to tell people about the distinction of life art praxis; letting slam and story-telling (prose written in stanzas) to remain the institution in terms of festivals and media coverage?

The Other Room attempts to change the system from within, slow as that may be and with the little power it has

Is the internet an institution of sorts?

Key Differences between Poggioli and Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde:


Both reach a theory of types of significant change and characteristics of a certain type of grouping. They could be labelled with different terms than avant-garde perhaps

Burger lays claim to being correct with the proof coming as his is a hermeneutical study whereas Poggioli’s theory is based on general knowledge and vague definitions

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