Thursday, January 13, 2005


The Decline and Fall of Twentieth Century Avant Gardes by Eric Hobsbawm
1999 Thames and Hudson Press (UK)
48 pages Illustrated
30th Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture, given at the National Gallery (UK) 1998

Founded by Walter Neurath fifty years ago, Thames and Hudson are the preeminent publishers of art books in the UK. For the past thirty years the annual Neurath Memorial Lecture on Art was given by one of the worlds leading art historians, curators, or artists.

The Neurath memorial lecture, marking the half century of this fine art publishing house, was given by Eric Hobsbawm, England’s leading Marxist social historian. His lecture, The Decline and Fall of Twentieth Century Avant Gardes, published by Thames and Hudson this spring, is controversial and challenging.

Hobsbawm challenges the orthodoxy of art ideologues and art historians, by declaring the avant-garde as a failed project. Modernism says Hobsbawm did not succeed, in fact it was a double failure. If Modernism is a failure as Hobsbawm asserts then ipso facto post-modernism must be viewed as still born, if not an abortion, a hysterical pregnancy in the mind of a select few academics.

Hobsbawms short essay focuses on the failure of modernism as an avant garde movement in visual arts; painting and sculpture.

“More than any other form of creative art, the visual arts have suffered from technological obsolescence. They, and in particular painting, have been unable to come to term with what Walter Benjamin called ‘the age of technical reproducibility’.”

Modernism is the technological innovation in the arts that defines the twentieth century.

Unfortunately in the visual arts, and painting in particular, modernism has meant short lived avant gardes that announced the supersession of their art as it was superseded, leaving painting less of an influence than other forms of mass reproducible art.

In many ways Hobsbawm reiterates and expands on Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay: The Work of Art In The Mechanical Age of Reproduction. Benjamin applies a Marxist analysis to art, and in particular visual art, painting, sculpting, architecture, film and photography, in looking at how the visual art has been transformed by new technologies and techniques of mechanical reproduction.

“Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses towards that art,” says Benjamin. “The reactionary attitudes towards a Picasso painting changes into a progressive reaction towards a Chaplin film.”

And Hobsbawm agrees, “The crisis of the visual arts is therefore different from the twentieth century crisis so far undergone by the other arts….The good news for avant-garde painting was therefore that it was the only live game in town. The bad news was, that the public didn’t like it.”

The avant-garde movements in painting were a reaction to the technological innovations of the twentieth century that embraced the modern while wanting to hold onto the outdated ‘special role’ that the artist had in salon society of the 19th Century.

This contradiction gave the avant-garde painters and their movements and manifestos “a paticular desperation” says Hobsbawm. “They were constantly torn between the conviction that there could be no future to the art of the past - even yesterday’s past, or even to any kind of art in the old definition - and the conviction that what they were doing in the old social role of ‘artists’ and ‘geniuses’ was important, and rooted in the great tradition of the past.”

Hobsbawms conclusion is clear, post-modernism in art predates its academic vogue by fify years in the revolutionary struggles of the avante-garde art movement. Their 'desperation' to move through and past modernism,whether dadaist, surrealist or futurist, was to be the percusor to revolution. Revolution was the avante gardes post-moderism, not the academic one which has recuperated it's name but none of its essence.*

This review was orginally published July/August 1999 issue of Fifty3 , the Latitude 53 Newsletter, Vol 1. Issue 2, Latitude 53 Society of Artists, Edmonton Alberta.

*Updated Jan. o2, 2005

For Tommie Gallie, who appreciated it the first time

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