The historical avant-garde (Surrealism, Dada, Futurism, Expressionism) put no special value on accessibility. On the contrary, if by accessibility one means creating art objects that utilize formal principles made broadly familiar by tradition, it was one of the primary targets of their agitations. From the avant-garde artist’s point of view the rule was simple: if the bourgeoisie understood it or, god forbid, liked it, you had failed.
While there is now a substantial body of critical theory on the historical avant-garde, the closest it usually gets to the question of accessibility is as a subset of discussions about art’s “autonomy.” Art, the argument goes, became increasingly autonomous during the bourgeois era as it separated itself off from the “productive forces of society,” in Theodore Adorno’s words. For some critical theorists, even if a work of art is withering toward dominant conventions (either in its form or content) its institutional autonomy from other kinds of social and political activity ultimately renders it a type of consolation for wrongs in those other realms. Peter Burger, in his classic Theory of the Avant-garde, argues that the mark of the historical avant-garde was precisely its awareness of this consolatory structure, followed by attempts to dissolved or at least subvert art’s institutional separation from the rest of life. By contrast, Adorno finds autonomy to be potentially crucial to art’s powers of resistance, if only negatively: “By being different from the ungodly reality, art negatively embodies an order of things in which empirical being would have its rightful place” (Aesthetic Theory, p. 322).
Richard Murphy, in his book Theorizing the Avant-garde, splits the difference between these two positions. While accepting Burger’s broader point about the dangerous consolations of art’s autonomy, he also feels Burger does not sufficiently value the resistive possibilities of autonomy. Meanwhile, against Adorno, Murphy holds that a positive, active role is still available to the avant-garde in the present, if not so much by undermining art’s autonomy at least by “de-aestheticizing” art.
This is where accessibility enters in. Murphy is somewhat rare in this line of thinkers (all heavily influenced by Marx) for speculating directly about the audience’s affective and practical experience of art rather than sticking strictly to the artist, the art work, and the social economy of reception. Here is Murphy’s description of how audiences encounter a “de-aestheticizing” avant-garde work:
“The audience no longer finds consolation either in a sense of formal harmony and tonality, or in the illusion that the work contains a complete and self-sufficient meaning. Instead, the initial sense of shock and alienation at the disappointment of its conventionalized expectations pushes the audience towards a more active stance in which it must take responsibility itself for piecing together the disparate components of the work, and most significantly, for producing its meaning” (Theorizing the Avant-Garde, p.79).
While the debates I am discussion are decades old by now, this idea that the inaccessibility of works is part of a procedure leading toward greater action/activity/self-empowerment in the spectator remains a common presumption (and underlying justification) among both critics and artists conversant with experimental writing. As I see it, much of my own work has been an attempt to wrestle with this notion and its claims, which I find suggestive in some ways but also oddly lacking in specificity and support.
To be clear, I think that the process Murphy describes, in which a reader responds to a text or other art work with shock and alienation and then is motivated by precisely that shock and alienation into taking responsibility for the construction of that work’s meaning, probably does occur in practice, at least occasionally. I very much hope there are instances of such radical conversion experiences. Nor do I doubt that many members of the historical avant-garde were, in fact, motivated by the hope or belief that their works might operate on conservative audiences that way. As historical criticism, Murphy’s construct is useful; for example, when Murphy talks about specific Expressionist works of the early 20th century, describing their attempts to undermine the “realist and naturalist tradition,” his model of the spectator’s experience can make a lot of sense.
Still, the unanswered questions in Murphy’s schema are telling. Why should alienation push an audience member toward responsibility rather than toward something else? Does the conversion happen at a single point in time, when the audience member is faced with a single art work, or does it happen along a spectrum of increasingly inaccessible works? Isn’t it the case that people encounter a lack of consolation, a jarring discordance, every time they read the news or pass a homeless person? How is this jarring discordance different from the jarring of an alienating art work? Why is the bourgeois mind, in those other alienating circumstances, able to respond not with the active production of meaning but with denial? Even restricting ourselves to the aesthetic realm, why are audience members ever attracted to art works which repel them? More urgently, why are they attracted only certain times but not other times? Do they feel themselves having their aesthetic pleasures redirected into de-aestheticized political consciousness, or is it all unconscious? And who are these audience members anyway? Do differences—even subtle differences—in their class, gender, race, physical abilities, or other background factors simply not matter to the process?
To me, the specific answers to these questions are not the point so much as the contradiction they reveal in Murphy’s passage. As I read it, tucked into a theory built on categorical, sociological literary analysis there remains a lurking, unexamined model of an experiencing subject. This is doubly true for Burger’s even less empirical construct. Adorno, in my view, does the most to admit and think the nature of the hidden model of the self, but even there his “empirical” is more often postponed than embodied.
For me, the problem is not that the abstractions of critical theory lead to a regrettable reduction in the vividness of the subject’s lived phenomena. Rather it is that theoretical formalizations fall so easily, themselves, into models of a presumed autonomy, cut off from the specific nuances and applications of people in practice. I think this split generally happens when theory ceases to understand itself as existing within the same conditions and limits art exists in (which are also the conditions and limits of the worker, the spectator, etc.). In my view, criticism is simply art in a slightly different mode, or should try to understand itself as such. By forgetting that, i.e. by thinking it has a clear and distinct task where its data and stance will not immediately enter back into the common experiment, it can become as conservative as any kitschy or court-sanctioned work of art.
Instead of the de-aesthetic, it seems to me that what Murphy’s fantasy of audience experience actually calls for is something like a theory of entertainment, or maybe even an anthropology or sociology of entertainment. To think about the nature of entertainment—which is a practical, affective, complicated, daily experience highly valued by the general culture across class, race, gender and abilities—is anathema to many radical artists and theorists. Which is exactly the point: the absence of entertainment as an aesthetic concept illustrates how far theory and practice have gotten from how people actually use art in everyday situations. Of course, I am not suggesting “entertainment” as some kind of unexamined new goal for works of experimental art. But if we want to keep art grounded in specific, historical, material experience, we might start with the phenomenal spectrum that runs from entertainment to boredom and try to think its mechanics in some detail. In a sense, entertainment is already the thread that knits together critics, artists, works, spectators, institutions of art, and our broader socio-political institutions (the last of which are not only increasingly under duress at the moment but also increasingly boring). It is sometimes surprising to me that more critics and artists aren’t pulling harder on it.
Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhardt. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.
Burger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Murphy, Richard. Theorizing the Avant-Garde: Modernism, Expressionism, and the Problem of Postmodernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.