The Zombie of the Avant-Garde: Can Art Change Society?

Although the world has been changing and a lot of positive transformations have happened that the avant-garde artists would have eagerly approved of, the basic coordinates of our socio-political reality remain the same as they were 100 years ago. They are still determined by a combination of the capitalist economy and parliamentary representation with liberal ideology on top, or at the bottom, depending on how you want to look at it.

The stubborn persistence of the Avant-Garde is one of the most uncanny and fascinating features of the contemporary art world. What is sometimes called the Great Avant-Garde or the First Avant-Garde1 articulated a radical program of overcoming the division between art and the rest of the social world in the mid-war period of the early twentieth century. Art was supposed to leave the confines of galleries and penetrate everyday life-changing it into a new kind of aesthetic-political praxis. According to this vision, works of art should not be objects of passive contemplation, but rather constitutive elements of real-life social situations, not merely aesthetic appendixes or pretty scenography, but something that directly shapes our social functioning. It made art essentially political, where ‘politics’ does not refer to the administrative apparatus of state power or to an electoral competition of political parties, but rather to what it was in the understanding of Greek philosophers: the practice of purposefully and rationally shaping our being-together as a human community (polis).

Thus throughout the twentieth-century avant-garde artists consistently engaged in political action: from Russian constructivists taking an active part in the October Revolution, to situationists being implicated in the 1968 revolt, to Joseph Beuys co-founding the German Green Party. The aim of this commitment was twofold: to create a new kind of art in a new kind of society. Both parts were equally important in the avant-garde vision: it was about poetry being in the service of revolution as much as revolution in the service of poetry to use the figure put forward by Guy Debord, one of the key avant-garde figures of twentieth-century art, philosophy and politics. We need to look at it as a dialectical process happening along the lines sketched by Hegel: throughout history, everyday life confronted art as its negative: art was sublime, the everyday was mundane; art was beautiful, the everyday – ugly; art was rich, the everyday – poor; art was glamourous, the everyday – repulsive. In the process of dialectical sublation (Aufhebung) of this division, both elements were supposed to undergo a fundamental transformation as it is always the case in dialectics: as art was asked to become more ‘worldly’ – in the sense of not being a sphere alienated and opposed to everyday life – the world was supposed to become more ‘artistic’ in a sense of incorporating some key features of artwork: creativeness, openness, free-play, breaking of constraints, aesthetic enjoyment, disalienation, etc.

It needs to be noted on the margin that it was not an idea that came out of the blue. It was rather preceded by a philosophical and artistic discourse that went back decades if not centuries. Jacques Rancière is quite right in pointing out that this particular approach to the relationship between the aesthetic and the political was fostered by German idealism2 with such key interventions as Schiller’s Letters Upon The Aesthetic Education of Man and The Oldest Systematic Programme of German Idealism, a short pamphlet of unsure authorship attributed to Schelling, Hegel, and Hölderlin (with a possible contribution of at least one more author) who were roommates at Tübinger Stift, the seminary of the University of Tübingen in the years 1796-97, and who are sometimes collectively referred to as the “Tübingen Three”. That short text offers what may be the earliest and the briefest formulation of the idea that lays at the very core of the Avant-Garde project of the social and political significance of art, so it may be worth quoting here:

(T)he highest act of reason, which, in that it comprises all ideas, is an aesthetic act, and (…) truth and goodness are united like sisters only in beauty. (…) The philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy. One cannot be clever in anything, one cannot even reason cleverly in history – without aesthetic sense. (…) Poetry thereby obtains a higher dignity; it becomes again in the end what it was in the beginning – teacher of (…) the human race because there is no longer any philosophy, any history; poetic art alone will outlive all the rest of the sciences and arts.3

A Bizarre Phenomenon

The sad truth about this project that the Great Avant-Garde attempted to put into action is that it failed. Of course, every social and political movement that the avant-garde artists engaged in had its consequences and they all demand a detailed elaboration to assess their impact – for the good and for the bad – on societies. The New World of disalienation and freedom, however, that the Avant-Garde envisaged has never been realized. In addition, after a century of trying, nobody has any idea as to how it could actually come true.

Every social and political movement that the avant-garde artists engaged in had its consequences. The New World of disalienation and freedom, however, that the Avant-Garde envisaged has never been realized.

It should thus logically follow that the Avant-Garde is dead and remains something of only historical interest, a kind of once important aesthetic idea that is now a curiosity of the past. That is not, however, the case. The Avant-Garde idea of social and political relevance of art enjoys a much more paradoxical status: it seems impossible, but at the same time art cannot get rid of it. It has been proven again and again that the kind of transformation that the Avant-Garde envisaged has not been possible, yet the same ideas come back again and again consistently attempting to shape the practices of contemporary art and politics alike forcing artists to seek the social and political relevance of their creations. It seems that the Avant-Garde is neither dead nor alive, but rather un-dead: it is a zombie, a specter haunting us and disturbing our aesthetic-political practice. It is a bizarre phenomenon that we need to somehow explain before we can answer the question if art can – and in what ways – change society.

It seems that the Avant-Garde is neither dead nor alive, but rather un-dead: it is a zombie, a specter haunting us and disturbing our aesthetic-political practice.

The dialectical sublation that art entered into with the step into the Avant-Garde is a complex procedure that aims at changing both elements of the relation: art as much as what was outside of it, the realm of everyday social and political practice – the new society needs a new art as much as the new art needs a new society. Along these lines, the Avant-Garde artists from Tatlin to Beuys concentrated their efforts on both reshaping the language of artistic expression and enacting socio-political change. The key problem is that changes within art went much further than anything that happened within the realm of politics.

The Avant-Garde fundamentally redefined art, making its very code infinitely flexible; after that revolution there is nothing that potentially cannot be a work of art. Any object, any act – even the very thought alone – any process and any event can be art: a pissoir (Duchamp), a causeway on a lake (Smithson), “Two minutes of spray paint directly upon the floor from a standard aerosol spray can” (Weiner), intentionally not appearing at a prearranged meeting (Bodzianowski), cooking a dinner (Tiravanija), sending letters (mail art), drifting aimlessly through a city (situationists) – all that has been art. Of course, this does not mean that everything is art, but only that the language of art does not have any limits and can potentially engulf the world as such with all its objects and processes.

The Avant-Garde fundamentally redefined art, making its very code infinitely flexible; after that revolution there is nothing that potentially cannot be a work of art.

It makes a lot of sense when regarded from the perspective of the Avant-Garde Aufhebung of the division between art and life and is also a logical prerequisite for art directly shaping our everyday surroundings – if that is to happen, we cannot assume that creating art is only painting pictures or doing sculptures. Art has therefore gone through a fundamental and revolutionary transformation of its language that cannot be undone: some things cannot be unwound just as you cannot put the toothpaste back into the tube. The problem is that nothing similar happened to society as all revolutions failed. The world has been changing of course and a number of positive transformations have occurred that the Avant-Garde artists would eagerly approve of.

The basic coordinates of our socio-political reality remain, however, the same as they were 100 years ago and they are still determined by a combination of capitalist economy and parliamentary representation with liberal ideology on top – or at the bottom, depending how you want to look at it (actually, all of these were for a good reason the chief enemy of the Avant-Garde). Even worse, these are the coordinates laid down by the economic and political transformations of the eighteenth century: the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution and the French Revolution, all of them essentially bourgeois projects. Thus we have, to put it in the simplest possible terms, a twentieth century art in eighteenth century societies (at best, as many of them seem to be stuck in the Middle Ages with some ‘developed’ ones even regressing towards the New Middle Ages in the last decades). This tension is directly responsible for the uncanny condition of the Avant-Garde being neither dead nor alive.

The basic coordinates of our socio-political reality remain, however, the same as they were 100 years ago and they are still determined by a combination of capitalist economy and parliamentary representation with liberal ideology on top.

Where does it leave us when it comes to the question of socially and politically engaged art? Is there any room for maneuver? Or are we destined to mourn the Avant-Garde while trying to simply endure the disturbing presence of its zombie? The answer to these questions is more positive than it may seem from what I’ve written so far. There are two important lessons to be drawn from both the successes and failures of the original Avant-Garde, so let me finish by sketching them in as detailed a way as the limited space of this essay permits.

First, an artistic enterprise with ambitions to progressively change the social world needs to follow the advice given by Walter Benjamin in his classical text The Author as Producer: “Socially and politically impactful art should always refer to the very apparatus of its own production”;4 only putting new content, however radical, into the existing apparatus is not enough and can even sometimes be harmful.

An artistic enterprise with ambitions to progressively change the social world needs to follow the advice given by Walter Benjamin socially and politically impactful art should always refer to the very apparatus of its own production.

If we were to look for implementations of such an approach in the field of contemporary art, then the Dutch artist Renzo Martens offers a great example. Martens made his career on the project Enjoy Poverty that consisted of workshops for photographers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a film documenting this event. Martens exposed the pathological logic of photography production in Africa: the most lucrative pictures depicting wars, famines and other instances of suffering in Africa are taken by Western professionals who sell them to international news agencies for considerable amounts of money.

Local African photographers do pictures of weddings or similar family gatherings for a fraction of that money. So Martens organized a workshop for African photographers, encouraging them to take pictures of the atrocities and thus make more money from their work (hence the title Enjoy Poverty). The film depicting these workshops, released in 2008, made a huge international career. As Martens himself realized, however, the photographers taking part in his project gained nothing from it, because as they themselves told the artist during the workshops, even if they followed his advice, they have had no access to the market to sell the photos (that is precisely the problem of the apparatus).

The De-Fetishization of the Artwork

Critically reflecting on his own practice (an attitude that is painfully lacking in the milieu of ‘critical’ artists as epitomized by figures such as Artur Żmijewski, Santiago Sierra or Sebastião Salgado), Martens went back to Congo in 2012 and started a new project called Institute for Human Activities5 that functions in a completely different manner. Aspiring artists in Congo – who mostly work on cocoa plantations owned by Unilever making at most 30 dollars a month – create sculptures made of chocolate that are later sold by Martens who uses his connections and position in the international art world. All profits go back to the community and part of them is used to expand the material base of the endeavor by buying land and creating more infrastructure for art. So far the community in Boteka has managed to construct their own gallery and buy more than 60 acres of land that is being converted into a permaculture plantation able to sustain the community and generate some surplus as well.6

It is worth noting that some of the sculptures produced may be treated as “socially engaged art” as they represent, for example, rape experienced by female members of the community. However others have different themes. What is crucial is that it does not matter at all what the art “is about”. The critical element is inscribed not in the content, but in the way the project reshapes the material relations of art production, bending the apparatus to the needs of the community itself.

Instead of focusing on meaning we should rather think about the use and thus go beyond the model of artwork as aesthetic fetish.

The second important lesson from the Avant-Garde zombie is de-fetishization of the artwork itself. One of the key problems with traditional art diagnosed by the Avant-Garde is that artwork had been just an object of passive gaze. No matter if the content and meaning of such an art is far from being transformative it rather represents an example of trans-passivity to use the concept coined by the Austrian philosopher Robert Pfaller.7 Instead of focusing on meaning we should rather think about the use and thus go beyond the model of artwork as aesthetic fetish. It is a very interesting attempt, as it constitutes one of the rare moments when East meets West: the key figure for this approach is the Polish art critic and theorist Jerzy Ludwiński who wrote a great deal about “art in the post-artistic age” (the title of a book containing his most important writings on this subject),8 while it is now being elaborated and put into practice by artists and theorists from various Western countries.9

Hostile Forces with Enormous Amount of Resources

Instead of fetishizing the object, the post-artistic approach encourages the use of artistic skills and tools to deal with real-life problems and situations. A great example is offered here by the London based group Forensic Architecture. They employ methods traditionally used by artists – spatial analysis, 3D modelling, reenactments, visual analysis, animation, documentary film, etc. – to investigate violent crimes and other abuses of both human beings and nature. Their latest project offered an investigation into the extrajudicial execution of Ahmad Erekat by Israeli soldiers in 2020, but they have also worked with a number of other issues, notably refugees pushbacks on the river Evros (the frontier between Greece and Turkey) and instances of ecocides (destruction of nature) in South America and in the Middle East.

Art cannot offer any magical solutions, but despite all its downsides it has been a valuable ally in many progressive struggles.

There is, of course, the question of efficacy: what is the real change provoked by such projects. There are some inspiring examples, but of course, no success is guaranteed. However, one needs to take into consideration that a lot of traditional tools of political action – be it radical or main-stream – turn out to be fundamentally ineffective; art is not an exception in that matter. Just think of the lackluster (in)action on climate change, failed attempts to curb the power of new media corporations or inability to hold political leaders responsible for their dreadful actions all around the world. We are facing hostile forces with enormous amounts of resources and determination to bend the social reality to their own interests. As long as they persevere in their shabby endeavors, we need to endure in our attempts to make the world a better place, no matter how weak the tools at our disposal are. Art cannot offer any magical solutions, but despite all its downsides it has been a valuable ally in many progressive struggles. And, thankfully, it looks like, even though the Avant-Garde has become a zombie, it shall not stand down.


  1. I shall refer to this historic formation as ‘the Avant-Garde’ written with capital letters. I shall use ‘avant-garde’ written in small letters as an adjective describing a certain set of ideas referring to the social and political commitment of art.
  2. See J. Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics. The Distribution of the Sensible, London: Continuum 2005.
  3. Anonymous Author, The Oldest Systematic Programme of German Idealism, in: F. C. Beiser (ed.), The Early Political Writings of the German Romantics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996, p. 4.
  4.  W. Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”, New Left Review 1/62, July-August 1970.
  5. See its webpage: https://www.humanactivities.org/
  6. See Renzo Martens’ latest documentary White Cube (2020) that depicts the entire process.
  7. See R. Pfaller, Interpassivity: The Aesthetics of Delegated Enjoyment, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2017.
  8. See J. Ludwiński, Sztuka w epoce postartystycznej i inne teksty, Poznań: Wydawnictwo Akademii Sztuki Pięknych w Poznaniu, Wrocław: BWA 2011.
  9. See Stephen Wright, Toward a Lexicon of Usership, Eindhoven: Van Abbenmuseum 2014, available online: https://museumarteutil.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Toward-a-lexicon-of-usership.pdf. See also Wright’s lecture delivered at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw in 2014 in the framework of the exhibition Making Use curated by Sebastian Cichocki and Kuba Szreder: https://artmuseum.pl/en/doc/video-robic-uzytek.

Jan Sowa

is a dialectical materialist social theorist and researcher. He holds a PhD in sociology and a habilitation in cultural studies. He is a member of the Committee on Cultural Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and he works as the curator for discursive programs and research at Biennale Warszawa. He edited and authored several books and published numerous articles in Poland and abroad.

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