[As this is a comparatively long article, it will appear in 3 parts]
The first part of a recent volume, Avanguardia e neo-avanguardia,1 confronts some crucial points of the complex problem of the two avant-gardes as they have begun to delineate themselves in Italy over recent year, since the formation of Gruppo 63 onwards. The debate aims to clarify the interrelations between new tendencies and the ‘historic’ avant-garde, so as to establish, among other things, whether the two moments should be understood as separate phenomena or as two aspects of one and the same phenomenon. Fortini’s essay (‘Two Avant-gardes’), which opens the book, resolutely takes the issue by the horns. Fortini distinguishes the two avant-gardes sharply and at the same time identifies their common origin, envisaging them as two moments, two distinct stages linked by a single process of dissolution of bourgeois Reason. In the final instance, the two avant-gardes are but one, and the new stands in relation to the earlier one somewhat as an adult in relation to a youngster, in the sense that the exasperated anti-bourgeois rebellion of the former is answered by the rebelliousness in the shadow of power of the second, where the no longer authentically contestatory irrationalism ends up coinciding with the rationalism of organised capitalism and with scientism, which is its reflection in thought. The iconoclasticism to the limit of the first avant-garde is succeeded by the second’s suspect light-hearted wisdom, a self-deprecating jokey attitude, of which the tell-tale signs are the increasing irony and the acceptance of the contest, which is to say, the omnipotence of the museum-market, and the conversion of the delirium of transformation into the delirium of immobility.
[1Author’s note: Avanguardia e neo-avanguardia [Avant-garde and Neo-avant-garde], Sugar, Milan 1966. In addition to Ferrata’s introduction, the volume contains essays by Fortini, Scalia, Sanguinetti, Debenedetti, De Maria, Barbato, Quinzio, Pini, Venè, and Bortolotto….]
According to Fortini, the ‘historic’ avant-garde bases itself on the repudiation of the category of mediation. The historic delusions of the bourgeoisie, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, pushed part of the European intellectuals to highlight the irreparableness of contradiction and conflict in place of the dialectic (which is refused as an effort to overcome and conciliate contrasts); from this is derived the conception of contradiction as polar alternation between two absolutes (that are therefore necessarily unrelated): a subjective and an objective one. An abstract irrationality, reclaiming the unconscious, is matched by a positivist rationality, which is in some ways equal and contrary to it. The two moments are rigidly opposed to one another, mixed up and lived simultaneously, giving birth to a sort of delirious hybrid which can only issue in mysticism. The antithesis rationality-irrationality is insuperable in the circle of bourgeois culture which carries it around like a curse and cannot be resolved by the avant-garde, which is the bourgeoisie’s neurosis, other than through the bad simultaneity of opposites. The flight of mediation, which marks out the avant-garde, was a reaction to the hegemonic culture of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie, which believed in real mediations and consequently tended to suppress the contrasts that seemed to it to be irreparable and to negate that which rendered them as such, which is to say the class division of society – a patent negation of the universalist ideology that characterised it intimately.
According to Fortini, the first avant-garde (which can be located between 1905 and 1930) poses itself against the divorce between democratic-capitalist ‘prose’ and aristocratic-symbolist ‘dream’, and derides it; unmasking it, unveiling, beneath conflict, the reality of a profound accord, a fundamental complementarity of a hidden reciprocation with respect to which it posits itself as a decisive rupture. The experience of the avant-garde is valid to the extent that, in order to tear the veil that prevented one from glimpsing ‘the abyss that it bores under the feet of civilisation’,2 it has been able to do violence to the foundation of aesthetic creation, to the demystification of the sacredness of the role that rests with art in that society it aspires to contest. The avant-garde thus represents the suicidal moment of art as sacred sphere. Art, discovering itself to be the unwitting apologia and ideologico-mystificatory cover of that state of affairs to which it stands opposed, tends to overcome itself in revolutionary praxis, thereby ratifying the end of the institution of art and poetry within bourgeois capitalist society.
[2Author’s note: the cited phrase is from the Cesare Cases (introduction to the Italian edition of L’opera d’arte nell’epoca della sua reproducibilità, W. Benjamin, Einaudi, Turin 1966, p. 15).]
In the light of this, the neo-avant-garde does not represent a further unfolding of the old (whose logical conclusion consisted in self-destruction) but presents itself as a pure and simple reprise, but in different historical and socio-cultural conditions, that end up perverting its chief characteristics. The reprise is therefore a perverting of the old avant-garde that comes to an almost complete overturning, a radical transformation of its demistfying, destructive and self-destructive will. The half century that now separates us from the most vigorous moment of the old avant-garde has seen the consolidation of capitalism that has stood up very well to the tests to which it has been subjected and has been able to overcome the threat of a mortal crisis so as to ‘organise itself’ as a system able to administer society as a whole, predetermining its movements and subordinating it totally to itself. Fortini finds in organised capitalism the tendency to disappear the dimension of history itself. The tendency to the pure and simple coincidence of opposites takes the place of mediation, such that all attempts at opposition run aground in an undifferentiated unity. The avant-garde cannot posit itself as rebellion to mediation: the tendency of society of the new capitalism does not present itself as different from what primarily characterises the avant-garde. The technico-scientific universe is perfectly in accord with, and in fact tends to coincide with the liberation of instincts (which is necessary for a society in which the sphere of consumption, in its positing itself as immediacy, is subsumed by omnipotent production). Anarchic negation is thus paradoxically subordinated to the so-called neo-capitalist order and happily prospers in accord with efficiency, productivity, and the ethics of profit. ‘The unpronounceable avant-garde is the other face of mass chatter. The soldering together of neo-avant-garde and bourgeois-capitalist order becomes organic and explicit after having been only implicit and indirect for the historic avant-garde’ (Avanguardia e neo-avaguardia, p. 11).
According to Fortini, the tragic ‘pathos’ of the old avant-garde makes way for an ironic and self-ironic attitude; de-sacralisation degrades itself to a game, a parody, a gesture jealous of its pure gratuitousness. The commitment to demystification turns against itself and contestation is replaced by neutral experimentation which now only derides the palingenetic-liberatory pretences of the old avant-garde. The playful nihilism that follows ultimately means a re-entry into order, a restoration of that poetic and artistic institution that the first avant-garde aimed to destroy.3
[3Author’s note: Fortini exemplifies this restoration of the literary institution with reference to the formalist-structuralist tendencies that, by accentuating the idea that literature is nothing but a function of language, end up revitalising the values of classical-medieval rhetoric, within which neo-surrealist extremism can happily coexist with traditionalist [tradizionaleggianti] positions.]
The return into the Order of Literature, with the full acceptance of the rules of the museum-market is accompanied, in Fortini’s judgement, by the disappearance of the differences between mass and élite culture. The only culture effectively in existence today is that of capitalism, which feeds the apparent distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature, because it is necessary to industry. The distinction operates only in the sphere of consumption, whose very autonomy is equally a pure appearance. The expressions of the neo-avant-garde find themselves inserted into that museum-market against which the first avantgardists rose-up, from the very start; and the activism that accompanies them, finds a ready response in mass behaviour, since now the forms of the historical avant-garde have become consuetude, fashion, mass consumption (the ‘beatnik’ phenomenon, certain types of political neo-anarchism, etc.). The resolution of avantgardist forms into mere mass behaviours today, renders superfluous the production of artistic works that continue to hark back punctiliously to those same forms that have for so long ceased to be innovative, having also lost their authenticraison d’etre.
(in Nuova Corrente, n. 45, 1968)
[Part 2 and 3 to follow]