It's official: Marx is back. At least that seems to be an increasingly acceptable veiwpoint within mainstream, English-speaking intellectual circles that would've not so long ago viewed the great 19th Century economic and political thinker as no more than a passe obsession of the Cold War era, a fetish of sheltered English departments in the ivoriest of ivory towers (about as relevant to contemporary economics as Freud is to cognitive psychology), or a dubious authority to be appropriated in piecemeal fashion by scholars who would never associate themselves with the totality of Marx's critical vision.
In a recent article for the London Review of Books, "How Much Is Too Much," on the subject of "Marx's Return," Benjamin Kunkel reviewed several books by David Harvey. He's the geographer and political theorist whose recent book, "The Enigma of Capital," placed Marxist economic interpretations at the center of analyzing global Capital's contemporary crises.
Harvey, long a favorite of leftist social scientists, has spent the last several decades documenting globalization, postmodernism, and class warfare with the methodology of Das Kapital always in mind. He has an unusual ability to present Marx's work in non-jargony terms that seem relevant to our current, neoliberal zeitgeist. If there is anyone whose work might be able to bridge the po-mo chasm to a new, broadly populist Marxist mood, I might put my money on Harvey.
How is all this relevant to the Avant-Garde? The relation between Marxism and the historical 20th Century Avant-Gardes was always complex. Or, at the very least, it certainly wasn't as straightforward as it appeared in some of its most influential theorizations, especially Peter Burger's Theory of the Avant-Garde and Clement Greenberg's "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." For one thing, Italian Futurism, which clearly stands as one of the core, seminal Avant-Garde movements, is often left out of these left-wing accounts due to its ultimate alliance with Fascism, rather than Marxism. Thus, art-historical analyses are often oversimplified.
But it is true that the possiblities of anti-bourgeois politics in the first part of the 20th century are inextricable from the appeal and power of those early Avant-Gardes, from Constructivist attempts to build a genuinely modern, proletarian art form, to Futurist attacks on traditional cultural elites, to the anti-commodity Dada provocations of Tristan Tzara, an avowed Communist. The Surrealist and Marxist movements had distinct affinities which nonetheless failed to coalesce into an outright allegiance (as was so often the case with the left), as the Fascists moved to consolidate power in Europe.
Today, of course, any theoretical connection between a revivial of Marxism and artistic avant-Gardism is yet more tenuous and problematic: this is especially due to the cultural backdrop widely known as postmodernism in which (as David Harvey well articulates in one or two places) artistic and sexual experimentation and provocation has been largely permitted and embraced by Capital as a pillar of the neo-liberal superstructure, especially in financial and cultural centers like New York City.
Any way forward for the Avant-Garde that might be specifically coupled to the possibilities of left-wing politics is therefore that much more difficult to envision, to say nothing of practice. Although, at core, the concept of a natural connection between Marxism and Avant-Gardism still seems sound. Always, and perhaps now more than ever, global Capital relies on a "phantasmic supplement..." a collective "illusory" or "religious" faith in the essential worth of its institutions and values (such as the faith in the value of money) to function. The fact that Capital has been able to thus far co-opt the challenging and undermining of these institutions by the Avant-Gardes and others is no absolute guarantee that it will be able to continue to do so in the future. Even less is it a guarantee that no gestures of creative, calculated contempt for the bourgeois life-world remain that would appear, in themselves, as Art.