‘Avant-garde and Mediation (apropos of a recent essay by Franco Fortini)’ Part 3 – Tito Perlini (1967)

         In History and Class Consciousness, utopia tends to be theorised as postulating the rationality of history and mediation is posed as a rigorous endeavour of totalisation. The post-1930 Lukács, repudiating his youthful masterpiece, regresses to the stage of the [earlier] tragedy, which he had in any case overcome, and, not wanting to admit such a retreat, he teaches himself to disguise that tragedy which lies unresolved in the deep stratum of his thought by resorting to a ‘mediation’ as a mere defence from an insoluble underling contradictoriness. He thereby renounces the youthful conception of the dialectic as the pris de conscience of the unfreedom of the existing state of things, which is to say of the negativity of the positive.

         The avant-garde, in Marcuse’s conception (who in this way shows himself to be a faithful disciple of the young Lukács), qualifies itself as such through the effort to overcome the deadly power of the facts, of speaking a language which is not that of those who succumb  [to such a power of the facts]. Avant-garde art poses itself as the Great Refusal, as the desperate contestation of a false totality. Poetry reveals itself as the presence of the absent because it is in the absent that resides the truth that the false totality falsifies. From the moment that that which is refuses that which is not, art, inasmuch as it is contestation of the present state of things, affirms what is negated and refused, positing itself as the refusal of refusal

         To say that the avant-garde is related to the dialectic means that it poses itself as the negation of the negative, which is to say, that it is entirely driven by a rebellion against a fetishized reality, one that suffocates that consciousness of the negativity of the positive. This is the central point of any discussion of the avant-garde that aspires to the plane of a non-illusory dialecticism.  

         Now Fortini, by maintaining that the avant-garde is the repudiation of mediation, speaks a half-truth. He tells the truth in the sense that the avant-garde repudiates a non-dialectical mediation that aims to conciliate in illusory form the contrasts on the plane of an intimately mystificatory closed totality; but he does not speak truly when he appears to infer that the avant-garde is thus a repudiation of an authentically dialectical mediation, one that is open to a non-mystified totality in thought. The weak point of Fortini’s discourse is, to our mind, to be found in the opposition between irrationalism and the dialectic, which he draws from The Destruction of Reason. The fact is that what escapes a framing in the terms of the old Lukács, is the precise sense today of the divorce between rationalism and irrationalism. The thorough critique of irrationalism as anti-humanist nihilism inevitably leads to the hypostasis of the concept of meta-historical Reason, which is fated to coincide with the bourgeois-Enlightenment concept of rationality. Today, the condemning of irrationalism (presented as unreconcilable with the dialectic) ends up compromising that protest and rebellion to the present state of things that inheres in the tendencies that Lukács stigmatises as the destruction of reason.

         By considering the avant-garde as irrationalism, as conceived by the Hungarian philosopher, Fortini is fatally led to negate the possibility, today, of a protest against unfreedom and alienation through artistic labour, other than as one that is destined to to be undermined and become absorbed by that which it aspires to contest. In contrast to Lukács, who condemns the entire avant-garde as a block for being an empty and abstract – indeterminate – negation, Fortini tends instead to save the first avant-garde, seeing in the irrationalism that characterizes it intimately, an authentic impulse of revolt that is destined to turn against itself and become converted into a suicidal drive. It is precisely this that the ‘historical’ avant-garde consists in: in its negating all future for itself, in its consuming the institution of art, in codifying the impossibility of an autonomous artistic sphere in late capitalist society. The ‘historical’ avant-garde is the suicide of art that has become conscious of its incompatibility with capitalist society, which in effect degrades its sacred autonomous sphere to the status of a commodity. Art’s suicide is a protest, the denunciation of the brutal and inhuman character of capitalism and of the abyss that it ‘burrows under the feet of civilisation’. The resurrection of art (no longer institutionalised but as free, living game) will be able to take place in a liberated society where human relations, extracted from universal reification, are posited in wholly and radically different ways. To contribute to the advent of such a society, free of every form of alienation, art is put in the difficult position of alienating itself voluntarily, renouncing itself, its illusory autonomy, so as to be converted into a liberatory praxis. The great avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century accomplish an irrevocable act, they fully accept their absence of a future, leaving a scorched earth behind them. In that sense, according to Fortini the new avant-garde presents itself as the clumsy and counterproductive attempt to replay from the beginning an experience that is irrevocably exhausted.

Un chien Andalou

         Fortini has been unable to nor, in truth, has he wanted to adhere to such a radical position in the way he experienced and ‘practiced’ poetry. His obstinate faith in poetry as anticipation fits poorly with the crudity of the implicit assumption contained in the work we are examining. 

         In a page of L’ospite ingrato,7 with reference to Hegel, Schiller, and Lukács, he envisages the successful work of art as an exemplum in its being a form able to escape causality, affirming the freedom of a where that founds a whence. In the case of form the essence transpires through the phenomenon. Such transpiring is not only the result that artistic labour arrives at, but it is also the aim to which men and women [l’uomo] tend in their effort to realise their essence in liberated society. ‘In the final analysis, the work of art does not posit as its content anything but itself, which is to say a particular relationship of phenomenon and essence, which is not that of life and daily experience but that has in common with it the adventitiousness of phenomena’ (ibid.). In light of such a utopic character of art in positing itself as ideal anticipation that aims to realise itself and convert itself into fact (the Schillerian-Hegelian motif of the death of art beats here), Fortini can cite Schiller’s famous phrase according to which art is the copy from which one day the original will be reconstituted.

[7Author’s note: F. Fortini, L’ospite ingrato. Testi e note per versi ironici, De Donato, Bari 1966, p. 58]

         Fortini senses profoundly the need of values (which art realises in itself as formed form) that can become a final horizon. His unhappy consciousness of an intellectual conscious of a society that tends increasingly to become estranged from humanist values, perplexes him, it imprisons him in a tormented contradictoriness, oscillating between faith in poetry as ideal anticipation and a radical devaluation of the hopes and illusions that fundamentally undermine such a conception in a society of organised capitalism, where the commodity tends to become total. He thus presents himself as torn between an obstinate attachment to the values that are expressed in art as affirmation of the absent and the opposite tendency to liquidate such faithfulness as a mythological residue, an obstinate illusion which it is urgently necessary to throw off in the name of a radically demystified vision that aims to resolve itself in praxis.  

         The avant-garde is posited as the conscious realisation of the commodification of art and Fortini envisages this moment as the last stage of art in bourgeois-capitalist society; on the other hand, he continues obstinately to cultivate an image of art that presupposes a stage that precedes this prise de conscience, continues to love – in Schillerian fashion – art as a sphere that escapes alienation and as critique of alienation, as ideal anticipation, as promesse de bonheur.

         We do not think we can concur with Fortini in considering the conscious realisation of commodification by the ‘historical’ avant-garde along the lines of a thorough liquidation of the illusions that art maintained on behalf of the nascent bourgeois civilisation. The pretence of being able to convert itself into action, into liberatory praxis, in a direct political commitment concealed (as Fortini himself shows in other writings) the final illusion of the old avant-garde, at least in those currents that tended to the Left (German expressionism in its activist wing, Russian futurism, surrealism, etc.), escaping the shoals of mysticism: the illusion of being able to save and renew the world by virtue of the word, of finally being able to resolve logos into praxis. This hope destined to failure hid the pride of the artist, of the bourgeois intellectual who felt himself to still be the depository of a special, sacred mission, invested with the capacity, by transmuting the Word into flesh, of redeeming the world. The word, by renouncing itself, to its pure uncontaminated purity, converting itself into the action of salvation, had to vitalise the hard world of praxis. It was the final sacerdotal illusion, the final paradoxical way of preserving the sacrality of art by denying it.8 The new avant-garde is beyond these final illusions, its further conscious realisation is more lucid and radical that that ‘wretchedness of poetry’ that the old avant-garde had been unable to fully penetrate. An extreme disenchantment that borders on cynicism distinguishes the avant-garde that today can fully demystify all its own potential illusions and pretentions. Today the avant-garde knows that commodification is total, that it cannot escape the circle of universal reification. The ‘heroic’ moment of the avant-garde is irrevocably finished. As Marcuse has underscored, the Great Refusal is today refused by the system that is able to neutralise it by encompassing it. There appears to be no space left for art as the presence of the absent to give back life to the Great Refusal.9. Only by making one’s own the refusal of that Great Refusal – which continues to pose itself as a powerful need – can art in some sense make its voice of dissent heard in a world in which transcendence itself is inexorably absorbed by what it aims to refute and overcome. Only the conscious refusal of the Great Refusal can hope to escape the fate of being absorbed, neutralised, and hence refused by that which it refutes. Utopia can only problematically perpetuate itself by inflicting injury upon itself. In the most paradoxical of ways, it is precisely only by voluntarily taking on such a fate that the commodification of the work of art can be contrasted.10

[8Author’s note: on this, see the interesting but disputable essay by A. Asor Rosa, ‘L’uomo, il poeta’in Angelus Novus, n. 5-6, dec. 1965.

9Author’s note: in this regard, see the pages dedicated to art in Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man.

10Author’s note: this aspect of Marcuse’s late aesthetic thought has been thoroughly discussed by Scalia’s essay in this same book we are discussing.]

         The avant-garde is an intimately contradictory sphere today, conscious of its contradictoriness, not only driven to negate the negativity of the positive and hence the negation implicit within it, but also [to negate] that negation of the negation that finds its expression in the Great Refusal of a language that suffers at the hands of the power of the facts.11

[11Author’s note: in relation to the avant-garde that negates itself, see (in addition to the aforementioned essay by Scalia and to the numerous theoretico-critical writings dedicated to the topic by Sanguinetti, to which we promise to return): R. Di Marco, ‘Ipotesi per una letteratura di contestazione’ in Marcatré, n. 8-10 and n. 14-15. There has been an important contribution to a dialectical understanding of the phenomenon of the avant-garde by F. Rossi-Landi in a theoretical text focused on theatre: ‘Schema per una dialettica del teatro d’avanguardia’ in Nuova Corrente, n. 39-40, 1966, pp. 285-292.]

         Not the ‘historical’ avant-garde, but the new avant-garde is driven at its very core by a self-destructive impulse. The danger that avant-garde art runs today is of becoming too complacent in its lucid awareness of its own ‘wretchedness’, to the point of identifying with the aggressor, of taking the sides of that system that reduces it to painful larva of itself, of enjoying its own end, of suppressing definitively that Utopia to which it cannot but cause injury, but that continues nevertheless to vibrate subcutaneously, if nothing else at least as ‘the memory of what was human’. It is a danger that the avant-garde cannot but run, and it is that which today render artistic labour very similar to a wager.

         A last question remains: ‘And why not silence rather than ambiguous, contradictory discourses, often indecipherable, on the edge of silence?’ The answer could be the following: ‘The death of art must not be accepted, because to accept it would be to consecrate the rationality of the existing state of things and would be to support reality’s presumption to posit itself at realised totality, as the realization of Utopia. The falsity of a reality that pretends to position itself as fully realised totality would end up remaining completely concealed from view. The self-destructive impulse of art thus should not become a suicidal act that would powerfully contribute to the definitive legitimation of the omnipotence of what exists’.

Nuova Corrente, n. 49-50, 1967.

(Translated MM)

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