The Historical Avant-Garde
This course examines the historical avant-garde, focusing on three major media: the manifesto, performance (including theatre and cabaret), and film. Case studies include the Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire, Meyerhold’s biomechanics, Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera, and Fernand Léger and Dudly Murphy’s Ballet Méchanique among others. We will start by examining the major early scholarship about the avant-garde: by José Ortega y Gaset (1925), Renato Pogiolli (1962), Peter Buerger (1974), and Matei Calinescu (1977). These theorists are largely responsible for the most enduring narrative about the historical avant-garde: a culturally marginal movement unified by artists’ radical critique of the past and uncompromising commitment to social change the values of a utopian future. We will also read the alternative narratives of more recent historians who searched the archives in order to establish the actual reception of avant-garde film and performance.
From its beginning, the avant-garde was an international movement and its major figures were often in direct contact with one another, working and exchanging ideas. This international aspect was reinforced by the rise of Stalinism in Russia and Nazism in Germany, which forced many avant-garde artists into exile. A large part of the course is dedicated to understanding how avant-garde ideas, performance, and film circulated among the three major cultural centers of Moscow, Berlin, and Paris. We will also be looking at how the political movements of anarchism, fascism, an communism informed not only avant-garde aesthetics, but also its production and reception.