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Avant-gardes and Postmodernism: The Reception of Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde in American Art Criticism

Avant-gardes et postmodernisme. La réception de la Théorie de l’avant-garde de Peter Bürger dans la critique d’art américaine
Vanguardias y postmodernismo. La recepción de la Teoría de la vanguardia de Peter Bürger en la crítica de arte norteamericana
Nicolas Heimendinger
Traduction de Clare Ferguson
Cet article est une traduction de :
Avant-gardes et postmodernisme. La réception de la Théorie de l’avant-garde de Peter Bürger dans la critique d’art américaine [fr]


Peu discutée en France, la Théorie de l’avant-garde de Peter Bürger a en revanche exercé une grande influence aux États-Unis à partir de sa traduction en 1984, relayée surtout par des critiques d’art liés à la revue October (Benjamin Buchloh, Douglas Crimp, Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Craig Owens). Pour ceux-ci, la discussion des thèses de Bürger a été le moyen tout à la fois de redéfinir leur propre engagement postmoderniste, à un moment où leur position se trouvait fragilisée par l’émergence d’un postmodernisme jugé réactionnaire, et de réviser leur conception de l’histoire de l’art moderne, en opposant au modernisme esthète et dépolitisé de Clement Greenberg une réévaluation de la dimension critique ou utopique des avant-gardes historiques. À sa parution en RFA en 1974, l’ouvrage s’inscrivait pourtant dans un tout autre contexte, marqué par une crise des études littéraires et un renouveau de l’esthétique marxiste. Le présent article s’attache à retracer les conditions de ce transfert intellectuel, entre oblitération du contexte d’origine du livre de Bürger et repositionnement dans le débat postmoderniste américain. Il offre du même coup une clef d’entrée pour reconstituer les enjeux théoriques et stratégiques auxquels s’est confrontée la critique d’art postmoderniste des années 1970 aux années 1990. Il montre enfin comment ces débats ont contribué à redéfinir de manière durable les grandes catégories de l’historiographie de l’art du xxe siècle.

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Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Louise Lawler (1947-). (Stevie Wonder) Living Room Corner. Arranged by Mr. & Mrs. Burton Tremaine Sr., New York City, 1984-1985. Silver dye bleach print with printed text on mat.18 1/4 x 23 3/4 inches ; 46.4 x 60.3 cm. Mat text : same as title.

© Philadelphia Museum of Art : Gift of Henry S. McNeil, Jr., 1988, 1988-79-1. Courtesty of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York ; Sprüth Magers.

  • 1 Apart from a few, generally cursory mentions (Asholt 2003; Berten 1991: 87; Compagnon 1994: 86; Jur (...)
  • 2 Here, I am citing Cunningham (2006: 278; cited in Bäckstrom 2007: 31): “The reception of Bürger’s t (...)
  • 3 I borrow this “space of positioning” notion from Brun (2014: 15-16), which he defined as “the space (...)
  • 4 This was Bürger’s own retrospective observation: “From the beginning, the book’s reception took pla (...)

1While Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (originally published as Theorie der Avantgarde in West Germany in 1974) has long had a very limited readership in France, where it was only relatively recently translated (2013)1, it has had considerable influence in the United States since its English translation appeared in 1984. The American reception of Bürger’s work offers a particularly interesting case of intellectual transfer insofar as it underwent several types of displacement, which have affected its interpretation and uses. First, it is marked by a double shift in disciplinary and institutional framework. The book was originally published as an academic publication written by a young professor of Romance-language literature at Bremen University (Magerski 2011: 47). In the United States, however, it has been discussed mainly in the field of art criticism. Second, the English translation has had semantic repercussions (Espagne 1994: 113-114), because the central notion of the book and of the debates it has generated, namely the avant-garde, does not have quite the same meaning or connotations in the United States as it does in Germany. Its history and therefore its theoretical and artistic references differ significantly in the two countries. The main reason why this was not immediately apparent is that the word is almost identical in both countries, having been imported from French (Fletcher 1986; Weisstein 1986). Consequently, through its transition and adaptation (which included a number of misunderstandings along the way) from one national and linguistic space to another, Theory of the Avant-Garde has been at the root of a major redefinition of the notion of the avant-garde in the United States. Prior to the appearance of this work in its English translation, the American understanding of the notion was based on the banalized theses of Clement Greenberg, an art critic with a distinguished reputation in the United States but who was relatively unknown in West Germany in the 1970s2. The third displacement, as this last remark indicates, resulted from the fact that Bürger’s theses saw their original meaning altered not just by the transposition from one space of intellectual positioning to another3 but by the temporal gap between the two publications. The original German Theorie der Avantgarde was written in a context of intense discussions in West Germany on ways to renew literary studies and, consequently, Marxist aesthetics. A decade on, in the United States, Theory of the Avant-Garde was interpreted and discussed in the light of a postmodernist debate, whose issues and structure differed significantly4.

  • 5 In order to reconstruct the work’s dissemination, I compiled a corpus of primary sources that compr (...)
  • 6 Here, I speak of “postmodernist” art criticism (according to the usage favoured by its main represe (...)

2In addition to presenting a case study of intellectual transfer, this study of the reception of Theory of the Avant-Garde5 therefore offers a valuable key to reconstituting, at least partially, the indissociable theoretical and strategic issues that confronted postmodernist art criticism6 in the United States from the late 1970s to the 1990s. To this end, it focused on the circle of authors that gravitated around the journal October. This highly influential group was the main agent behind the introduction of the work into the American postmodernist debate, at least in the field of art criticism. These authors’ uses of Bürger’s theses are particularly worthy of attention because they had a lasting effect on the way in which twentieth-century art history has been written, periodized, and conceptualized. An analysis of the rationales behind the definitions and redefinitions of the main categories in this historiography (modernism and postmodernism, avant-garde and neo-avant-garde) represents the third research focus of this article.

1. Crisis of the First “Octoberian” Postmodernism

1.1. October: Spearheading Postmodernist Art Criticism

3October was founded in 1976 by Rosalind Krauss, a former disciple of Greenberg, and Annette Michelson, a specialist in avant-garde cinema. These two women had just left Artforum, the most influential monthly magazine in the field of contemporary art in the United States at the time, following a disagreement (Crow 1996: 85-93; Foster 2002: 105-22; Newman 2000). Inspired by the Tel Quel model (Cusset 2005: 74; Aubart 2018b: 127), their new journal had a more austere format than Artforum and was characterized by highly theoretical art criticism. This placed it in a pivotal position between the artistic and academic worlds and established it as one of the main references in the field of postmodernism, first in the United States (Schneller 2008; Bowman 2015) and then internationally. In France, for example, the journal’s most emblematic articles made up a large part of the “anthology of critical texts” published in the catalogue of a landmark exhibition entitled “L’époque, la mode, la morale et la passion”, which was held at the Centre Pompidou in 1987 and dedicated to international artistic creation during the previous decade (Blistène et al. 1987: 395-637).

  • 7 There is no need here to go back over the long and entangled genealogy of postmodernism, a task tha (...)

4The postmodernism debate was not new at this time, however, even in the visual arts, where the notion had emerged more tentatively than in literature and architecture7. The first attempt to conceptualize postmodernism in painting was made by the art critic Leo Steinberg in a lecture given in 1968 at MoMA and subsequently published in Artforum (1972). In it, he characterized postmodern works by their abandonment of self-referentiality and the flatness of the painting. According to Greenberg, this was the essential character of the pictorial medium that modern painting would be reduced to over the course of its history as it progressively discarded all three-dimensional illusionism. While the artists that Steinberg cited (Dubuffet and Rauschenberg) no longer corresponded to the preferred corpus ten years on, this basic anti-Greenbergian orientation was nevertheless to remain durably attached to the idea of postmodernism in art, including in the October contributions. It is therefore not entirely accurate to assert, as Craig Owens did, that the only people “who were talking about this [postmodernism] in the visual arts in the early to mid 70s […] were people associated with October” (Stephanson 1990: 56)—although the journal does appear to have been the first to turn postmodernism into a distinctive brand and long-term theoretical project.

5Five of the journal’s authors in particular were to contribute over a decade and a half to framing and theoretically consolidating the notion of postmodernism in the field of art criticism, not just in the pages of October but also in exhibition catalogues and various related journals, such as Artforum, New German Critique, Social Text, and Parachute. Rosalind Krauss (1941-) and Douglas Crimp (1944-2019) were the first to introduce the term in October (Crimp 1979; Krauss 1979). Crimp was an art critic for ARTnews, adjunct professor at the School of Visual Arts, and former assistant curator at the Guggenheim. He met Krauss when he enrolled in her doctoral seminar at City University of New York (CUNY). The journal was on its fourth issue when she invited him to join her on the team as managing editor, a position he held until his departure in 1990. Craig Owens (1950-1990) also first met Krauss and Crimp at this seminar and, in turn, joined October’s editorial team (1976-1980) before going on to become a professor at the School of Visual Arts and editor at Art in America (Burton 2009). Hal Foster (1955-) was a little younger than these other authors, but he moved in the same circles. A regular contributor to Artforum from 1977 onwards, he joined Art in America in 1981 and published a well-received anthology of “essays on postmodern culture” in 1983, which included, alongside contributions from some of the great intellectuals of the time (Baudrillard, Habermas, Jameson, Saïd), emblematic papers from Crimp, Krauss, and Owens. He published his first article in October two years later (Foster 1985) and became one of the journal’s editors in 1990. His doctoral study at CUNY was supervised by Krauss (Costello & Vickery 2007: 67-70). Finally, Benjamin Buchloh’s (1941-) trajectory was a little different from the others. A West German art critic, he was involved with the influential avant-garde journal Interfunktionen in Cologne before moving to Canada in 1976 to take up a post as a visiting professor at the highly dynamic Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, where he succeeded the German curator Kasper König (Kennedy 2012: 12). At the end of the 1970s, he moved to the United States, where he began publishing in Artforum (Buchloh 1980) and October (Buchloh, Krauss & Michelson 1980) and then became a member of October’s editorial team in 1986. Foster and Buchloh thus joined October at a later stage than Crimp, Krauss, and Owens, who had already laid the foundations of its postmodernist orientation.

6When Theory of the Avant-Garde was published in the United States, this early “Octoberian” postmodernism was undergoing a crisis that profoundly influenced these art critics’ interpretation of the work. Bürger’s theses, with some major qualifications, provided them with a timely theoretical basis for responding to the crisis and revising the positions they had established at the end of the previous decade. Three of the main pillars of October’s postmodernism, such as it had been constructed between 1977 and 1982, had been seriously undermined. I will therefore begin by briefly presenting their distinctive theses – bearing in mind, of course, that this postmodernist orientation did not constitute a rigorously determined doctrine. The orientation had, in fact, emerged from the fragmented contributions of various authors whose respective positions had changed over time and which could not, moreover, be entirely conflated with one another. This was especially true because the notion of postmodernism was a category primarily determined by its polemical, normative, or classificatory uses. Its meaning could therefore vary widely depending on the strategic intentions and contexts in which it was mobilized (Bertens 2003 [1995]: 3-5). In this sense, the modernism/postmodernism opposition appears to be one of those “loose, general” distinctions that “are never entirely interchangeable with those of another user, nor entirely different” but whose “practical grasp” offers “a working sense of ethical and political orientation” (Bourdieu 1991: 30) (and aesthetic, one might add), hence the need to replace the hypostatized definitions of these concepts with a historical analysis of their uses (Boschetti 2014: 335).

1.2. The Formation of an Internal Front in Postmodernism

7As already mentioned, the touchstone of this first postmodernism, beyond all its variants and internal tensions, lay in its opposition to modernism in the sense that Greenberg’s formalist theses had given to the term in the United States. In the same way that postmodernism in architecture was defined in opposition to functionalism and in literature in relation to the New Criticism theses, postmodernism in art was originally defined negatively in opposition to a consecrated doctrine that was constructed as a foil. The postmodernist debate space was thus initially structured in a binary way along a diachronic fault line. On the one side of the line were the modernists, who were now paradoxically associated with artistic, theoretical, and political conservatism. On the other were the postmodernists, who generally regarded themselves as being innovative and progressive and who almost systematically overturned all the attributes of Greenbergian modernism – not least its central thesis, which held that the historical development of all art in the modern era would follow a continuous process of reduction down to the specificity of its medium (Greenberg 1939; Greenberg 1940; Greenberg 1960). It was this fundamental principle of medium specificity, which is what the imperative of an anti-illusionist and “flat” painting imperative had stemmed from, that the October authors were primarily criticizing in the late 1970s (Crimp 1979; Krauss 1979; Owens 1980), like Steinberg before them.

8However, not only did the series of anti-Greenbergian criticisms peter out in the early 1980s, but, more importantly, the battle front shifted to within the postmodernist camp itself. There was now an opposition between several rival and antagonistic postmodernist trends (Foster 1984) and an urgent need to draw a line not so much between modernism and postmodernism any more as between a “postmodernism of resistance” and a “postmodernism of reaction” as Foster explained in a programmatic work (Foster 1983: XI).

1.3. Doubts about Appropriationism

  • 8 Postmodernism, anti-modernism, neo-modernism: these multiple derivative neologisms indicate a certa (...)

9From this perspective, some of the rival trends seemed obvious. One was the return to painting in all its various forms, particularly European neo-expressionist painting. In late 1979, an editorial in October outlined a defence of postmodernism that distinguished it “from that nostalgic attachment to a set of exhausted conventions which characterizes today’s neomodernism” (October 1979: 4). In 1981, both Crimp and Buchloh published hard-hitting articles in the journal denouncing this “resurrection of painting” as being “exclusively reaction” (Crimp 1981: 74), authoritarian, and regressive (Buchloh 1981). Other rival trends were more problematic, however, insofar as they appeared less ostensibly “reactionary”, such as postmodern architecture. Owens claimed that “much of architectural postmodernism was fundamentally anti-modern”8 (Stephanson 1990: 56), while Foster criticized postmodern architecture in 1984 as an eclectic and dehistoricizing pastiche, equivalent in the cultural order to the neoconservative political wave that was sweeping through the United States at the time. Foster acknowledged, however, that the demarcation line he was trying to draw between a postmodernism that was “aligned with a neoconservative politics” and a postmodernism “derived from poststructuralist theory” was tenuous, so much so that “these two concepts of postmodernism disclose an historical identity” (Foster 1984: 67).

  • 9 The notion of postmodernism was absent from the catalogue text and was only added when a revised ve (...)

10Indeed, this aesthetic that consisted of quotations and often ironic stylistic reuses tended to be confused with appropriationism, the main artistic orientation defended in October as the exemplary incarnation of a critical postmodernism at the end of the 1970s—although appropriationism was not the only orientation the journal defended. Krauss and Owens had in fact begun by analysing this break with modernism through the work of Land art and post-minimalist artists, in particular Robert Smithson (Krauss 1979; Owens 1979). This association between appropriationism and postmodernism was mainly spearheaded by Crimp, beginning with the groundbreaking exhibition “Pictures” that he co-organized with Helene Winer in 1977 at Artists Space, which was at the origin of what has also been called the “Pictures Generation” (Muir 2004; Aubart 2018a). This label was given to a group of young artists (Jack Goldstein, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, etc.) whose work was characterized by the appropriation, modification, or reconstitution of images drawn from art history and mass culture. Crimp published an eponymous text in the catalogue describing the work of the exhibited artists as a critique of the “conventions of modernist art9”, in this case those defended by Michael Fried (1967) rather than Greenberg. Through their focus on “pictures”, “the self-reflexiveness and formalism of recent art appears to have been abandoned, as are interests in the specific characteristics of a medium” (Crimp 1977: 29). A similar association between postmodernism, the appropriationist artists, and the critiques of Fried’s and Greenberg’s formalism can also be found in articles written by Owens (1980a, 1980b) and Krauss (1981) during this period.

11Five years later, however, it was Crimp himself who acknowledged the abandonment of this early artistic trend that had been collectively defended by October in the name of postmodernism: “Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that the strategy of appropriation no longer attests to a particular stance toward the condition of contemporary culture. […] For appropriation, pastiche, quotation—these methods can now be seen to extend to virtually every aspect of our culture […], from the most clearly retrograde works […] to the most seemingly progressive practices” (Crimp 1993 [1982]: 126). In other words, the artistic approach defended at the end of the 1970s no longer distinguished the critical postmodernism that the October authors aspired to from competing postmodernist orientations, which they denounced as conservative and/or relativistic.

1.4. Doubts about Poststructuralism

  • 10 This was translated into English in 1981 in the journal New German Critique and republished in 1983 (...)

12The third and final pillar of October’s postmodernism destabilized at the turn of the 1980s concerned its theoretical foundations, or more precisely the association that the journal had helped to disseminate and banalize between the “postmodernist line” and the “poststructuralist line” (Foster 1982 [1980]: 12). The critical and avant-gardist dimensions of the group of thinkers gathered together under the “poststructuralist” label was called into question, not so much because of internal discussions in art criticism but more due to parallel developments in the postmodern debate in philosophy and the human sciences. This offensive against the hegemony of “French Theory” in the United States was triggered in particular by a speech given by Habermas in West Germany in 1980 entitled “Modernity: An Incomplete Project10”, which equated postmodernism as a whole with a form of neoconservatism. He described the French poststructuralists as “young conservatives”, a category understood as a sub-trend of postmodernism, whose protagonists ranged “from [Georges] Bataille via [Michel] Foucault to [Jacques] Derrida” (Habermas 1981: 13). Habermas’s speech marked a period when the scope of this debate broadened. This development was also fuelled by the 1984 English translation of Lyotard’s 1979 work, entitled The Postmodern Condition, and by the publication of Jameson’s article on “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (Jameson 1984b), which formed the basis of his homonymous book (Jameson 1991). Jameson was a self-proclaimed Marxist who had already contributed through several publications to introducing the Frankfurt School into the United States (Jameson 2016 [1971]; Adorno et al. 2007 [1977]) and who was also very familiar with French philosophy having studied Sartre (Jameson 1984a [1961]) and structuralism (Jameson 2020 [1972]). His philosophical approach, which lay at the intersection of these different heritages, influenced some of the October authors (Foster 1983; Krauss 1990). While these authors did not abandon their poststructuralist references, they were nevertheless mindful that the critique against poststructuralism could not be reduced to a conservative reaction and were therefore looking to mobilize complementary theoretical support during this period. In this sense, the reception of Theory of the Avant-Garde must also be understood—at the risk of caricaturing the distribution of positions somewhat in the international intellectual field at the time—against the backdrop of this intellectual counter-offensive on American soil by German Critical Theory against French poststructuralism (Zwarg 2017: 316).

13In the late 1970s, October had thus allied itself with the theoretical innovators represented by the poststructuralists, on the one hand, and with the artistic innovators embodied by the appropriationists, on the other, to give consistency to their own rationale of a shift away in the specific field of art criticism from the Greenbergian modernist paradigm, which had predominated in the United States from the postwar period until the 1960s. By the early 1980s, however, as a result of internal limitations and external rivalries, these three pillars of the postmodernist position established by the October authors were no longer either demonstrable or cutting edge, and a reorientation towards a renewed critical ambition that was both more assertive and better supported was required.

2. The Introduction of Bürger into the United States

14The publication of Theory of the Avant-Garde in the United States was therefore to offer welcome support with regard to October’s reorientation, but this came at the cost of an almost complete obliteration of the debates and issues that the original German publication had centred on in 1974. In this sense, the export of Bürger’s theses to the other side of the Atlantic appears to be an exemplary case of the general rule that “texts circulate without their context” (Bourdieu 2002: 4). While importation can be a source of “formidable misunderstandings” (ibid.), it can also, as we shall see, be an opportunity for creative adaptations that can contribute to nurturing and renewing, in the importation context, the terms of the debates in progress.

2.1 The Avant-Garde according to Peter Bürger

  • 11 In contrast to the definition proposed by Renato Poggioli in his major homonymous study, The Theory (...)

15I should begin with a reminder of the book’s main theses, at least those that were retained by its American readers. Bürger’s work was set within a Marxist framework that had been influenced by the Frankfurt School. The avant-garde was therefore defined not as a style or an attitude11 but as a socially and historically determined formation that had crystallized at the end of the autonomization of the institution of art. This autonomization, which had taken place over many centuries, reached its final stage in the late nineteenth century. This is what Bürger referred to as the stage of aestheticism, a notion that included, in particular, symbolist and fin-de-siècle literature (Mallarmé, Valéry, Hofmannsthal) (Bürger 1984: 27). It was at this point that “the tension between the institutional frame and the contents of individual works tends to disappear” (Bürger 1984: 27). Not only was art now liberated from the usefulness requirements that had been imposed on it by other social spheres, whether political or religious, but “the apartness from the praxis of life that had always constituted the institutional status of art in bourgeois society now becomes the content of works” (Bürger 1984: 27). The art for art’s sake doctrine exemplified this reduction of works to self-referentiality. However, “at the moment it has shed all that is alien to it, art necessarily becomes problematic for itself” (Bürger 1984: 27). Indeed, this separation from practical life, which was the price art paid for its complete autonomization, condemned it to powerlessness and isolation from the rest of society.

16The so-called historical avant-gardes reacted to this situation in the early twentieth century with an attempt to sublate the institution of art, which had become fully autonomous, with a revolutionary ambition to “reintegrate art into the praxis of life” (Bürger 1984: 22). I should stress this was not a reactionary movement to return to a time when art was in a state of heteronomy but rather an “attempt to direct toward the practical the aesthetic experience […] that Aestheticism developed” (Bürger 1984: 34). In this sense, the avant-gardes’ radical critique of the institution of art cannot be reduced to a stylistic shift or even just a challenge to the institutional frameworks of art. Rather, it was an indirect critique of bourgeois society as a whole, because, by relegating everything that did not fit within the realm of instrumental reason to the separate sphere of culture, it had led to both an impoverishment, a “shrinkage” even, of everyday experience (Bürger 1984: 33) and a diversion of revolutionary aspirations. Art “projects the image of a better order and to that extent protests against the bad order that prevails. But by realizing the image of a better order in fiction, which is semblance […], it relieves the existing society of the pressure of those forces that make for change. They are assigned to confinement in an ideal sphere” (Bürger 1984: 50). We can sense here how much this argument owed to Adorno, Benjamin, and especially Marcuse, whose article on the affirmative nature of culture (Marcuse 2007 [1937]), which first appeared in the German journal Zeitschrift fûr Sozialforschung and which applied the Marxist critique of religion to culture, was a key reference work for Bürger (Bürger 1984: 11-14), as it was for many intellectuals associated with the Neue Linke.

  • 12 This opinion, which takes up only a handful of pages in his book, was not much discussed in West Ge (...)

17Nevertheless, as Bürger was forced to acknowledge, this great avant-garde plan to sublate the institution of art proved to be a failure, because we continue to live in an age where art is autonomous, however contested that may be. This was what led him to severely condemn what he called the “neo-avant-gardes”, in other words the various artistic movements that, since 1945, had adopted certain strategies and practices characteristic of the historical avant-gardes—this condemnation was to prove the main bone of contention for his American commentators12: “To the extent that the means by which the avant-gardistes hoped to bring about the sublation of art have attained the status of works of art, the claim that the praxis of life is to be renewed can no longer be legitimately connected with their employment. To formulate more pointedly: the neo-avant-garde institutionalizes the avant-garde as art and thus negates genuinely avant-gardiste intentions.” (Bürger 1984: 58).

2.2. Theory of the Avant-Garde in Context

  • 13 Bürger was probably referring here to the collective work published in 1976 that was entirely dedic (...)

18This brief summary of Theory of the Avant-Garde corresponds to what is usually retained by its temporally, geographically, and socially “distanced” readers. The problem with this summary is that it isolates the work’s proposals, its most explicit theses, from the space of positioning that motivated their formulation and from which some of their most decisive implications were deduced. These implications were, conversely, obvious to the work’s original readers, who were situated in the space in question. This implies that the context of a publication should not be conceived in the ordinary, weak, and vague sense of an assorted collection of peripheral anecdotes but rather as a relatively circumscribed and structured field that constitutes one of the main keys to interpreting the theses developed in that work, because these theses are conceived from the outset not just as propositions but as position statements (Bourdieu 2002). In the present case, at the time of its publication, Bürger’s book was as much (if not more) a project for the methodological re-foundation of literary studies as a book on the avant-garde—a fact that the author himself confirmed in retrospect: “If we now cast a glance at the discussions the book stirred up after its publication, it becomes obvious that they were not primarily concerned with defining the avant-garde but rather with questions of methodology13. Even its author understood Theory of the Avant-Garde as, primarily, an attempt at laying the foundations for a materialist cultural science.” (Bürger 2010: 699).

  • 14 In the sense that it did not correspond to a position that was positively determined and claimed as (...)
  • 15 This allusion would have been transparent to any informed reader of the time. As Jurt pointed out, (...)

19This attempt to found a “critical literary science” (Bürger 1984: 3) was not driven by the isolated ambition of a young academic but by a methodological crisis in literary studies that had existed in West Germany since the mid-1960s. This theoretical crisis was also being fuelled by the social transformations that the West German university system was undergoing at that time (as in most other Western countries) from the massification of access to higher education to the generational renewal of lecturers (Jurt 1989: 96; Hermand 1994: 157). In brief, this Methodenstreit developed on two fronts, that is there were two areas of renewal in literary studies during this period. One was internal to the discipline and concerned a determination to break away from the academic traditions that had prevailed since the postwar period, which their critics in the 1960s grouped together under the disparaging term “Werkimmanente Interpretation” (which translates literally as “work-immanent interpretation”) (Danneberg 1996; Spree 2003). Mobilizing this straw man14, the aim was to denounce an approach that focused too exclusively on the internal interpretation of literary works to the detriment of the social and historical determinants that also contributed to their meaning. This drive for methodological renewal was embodied above all (both chronologically and in terms of influence) in the theses on “reception aesthetics” developed by Hans Robert Jauss from 1967 onwards (Jauss 1967) and by other academics gravitating around Universität Konstanz (Kalinowski 1997; Schnyder 2005). The purpose of the long introduction to Theory of the Avant-Garde, in which Bürger discussed the respective contributions to literary theory of Gadamer and the Russian formalists, thus remains somewhat obscure for contemporary readers, who do not understand that he was positioning himself with regard to reception aesthetics through the commentary on its two main theoretical sources15.

20Bürger was opposed to reception aesthetics because he considered it to be still too marked by an internalist approach to literature. His intention was to counter this trend with a materialist perspective derived from the heterodox Marxism of the Frankfurt School. His work was thus situated within the second area of renewal in literary studies, which was less exclusively determined by internal developments in the discipline. The revival of Marxist approaches to literature in West Germany was positioned at the intersection of the debates not just in literary studies but in the philosophy of art and the sociology of culture as well. Although it predated them (Müller 2007: 148-150), the revival was also stimulated by the student movements, which were particularly active within the young Universität Bremen (founded in 1971), where Bürger was in post when Theory of the Avant-Garde was published. In this context, there was a strong politicization of Literaturwissenschaft, which led to an increased number of publications claiming to provide, with subtle Marxological variations, a “historical-materialist”, “dialectical”, and even “Marxist-Leninist” theory of literature (Pinkerneil 1975: 6).

21In actual fact, this Marxist pole was far from homogeneous. There were significant internal tensions. In this respect, the phraseology of Theory of the Avant-Garde, which may seem today to be weighed down with a certain period jargon, tends to mask Bürger’s ambivalent stance with regard to this Marxist constellation. He positioned himself under the aegis of the Frankfurt School as opposed to the more orthodox Marxism of Lukács and his followers—such as Thomas Metscher, Bürger’s colleague and critic at Bremen (Metscher 1975: 232)—, who were criticized for their reductive social determinism and their aesthetic conservatism, which placed them in opposition to any form of avant-garde as a matter of principle. The Expressionismusdebatte of the 1930s, which had already pitted Lukács against heterodox German Marxists on the question of the avant-garde (Adorno et al. 2007 [1977]), was being replayed in the background, so to speak, around this time, particularly because the texts central to this debate were being republished and rediscovered by a new generation of engaged intellectuals during this period (Bürger 1978b; Schmitt 1973). Like many of these intellectuals (Jurt 1989), Bürger was trying to move beyond this paradigmatic opposition by drawing on Benjamin’s proposals for a “politicization of aesthetics”, which allowed him to position himself within the space of Critical Theory, away from any “vulgar Marxism” (Bürger 2010: 699), and to distance himself from Adorno. Indeed, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (Adorno 1998 [1970]), which was published posthumously, was criticized on the left for its fixation on a formalist avant-gardism that seemed to be blind both to a whole section of the historical avant-gardes and to the most contemporary experimentations. Bürger even went so far as to speak of “Adorno’s Anti-Avant-Gardism” (Bürger 1990a). Aesthetic Theory was also, more importantly, poorly received because of its outright condemnation of any form of direct political engagement either in the artistic or the theoretical sphere, which ran counter to the aspirations of the Neue Linke intellectuals (Hohendahl 1981: 133).

22Theory of the Avant-Garde’s central notion, the “institution of art”, which was immediately perceived as Bürger’s original contribution and the foundation of his methodological proposal (Lüdke 1976: 17), had a double function in this context. Supporting a theory of literature that was radically materialist in opposition to any concession to the Werkimmanente Methode or reception aesthetics (Gumbrecht 1975: 225), it was also a means of asserting the relative autonomy of the conditions of production and reception of art with regard to external social determinations. Indeed, some commentators who could hardly have been suspected of Marxist reductionism reproached it for having “gone a little too far in detaching art history from the developments of other social systems” (Gumbrecht 1975: 229). At the same time, the notion was the key to conceiving an art that was authentically political but that nevertheless did not surrender its specific autonomy to serve a predetermined doctrine as propaganda art did. Insofar as the institution of art was defined as a nerve centre for the ideology of the bourgeois social order, its exposure and criticism were loaded with a value that was fundamentally revolutionary (in opposition to Adorno’s pessimistic, profoundly disengaged modernism) but whose subversive force was entirely dependent on the liberation in social life of the emancipatory potential of the autonomous artistic experience—as opposed to the purely political instrumentalization of art promoted by socialist realism and certain fringes of the student movement. It was this sort of third way, enabling an active but “internally” driven politicization of art and art theory, that Bürger chose to call the avant-garde, to the exclusion of any other possible interpretation of the term. These tight restrictions imposed on the meaning and extension of this notion, which were hardly justifiable from the point of view of its descriptive relevance, can only be understood in the light of this essentially normative project, whether at the methodological, artistic, or political level.

2.3. Introduction and Transfer into the American Debate

  • 16 Another bias, which is not explored here, was the lack of interest in the lengthy section on the sp (...)

23These underlying intentions in Bürger’s definition of the avant-garde were, however, brushed aside when the book was introduced into the United States the following decade16. The intellectual brokers who prepared and supported its translation were nevertheless far from strangers to the debates just mentioned. The American reception of Theory of the Avant-Garde was in fact mediated by a network of intellectuals who were marked in particular by a Frankfurt School orientation. These were mostly German-born literature or aesthetics academics living in the United States who bridged the gap between the Neue Linke and the New Left. They mainly gravitated towards the journal New German Critique, which was founded in 1973 (Zwarg 2017: 112), but also published in other more traditional American Germanist journals such as The German Quarterly.

24Although there were a few cursory and fragmented mentions of the work prior to the appearance of its English translation, the first detailed presentations of Bürger’s theses for the American readership came principally from two authors, Peter Hohendahl and Andreas Huyssen. These presentations took very different directions, however. While Hohendahl remained relatively faithful to the author’s initial intentions, situating him in relation to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (Hohendahl 1981), reception aesthetics (Hohendahl 1983), and even Lukács (Hohendahl 1987), Huyssen projected him much more directly into the American postmodernist debate, notably in an article published in a 1981 special issue of New German Critique (co-founded by Huyssen), which focused on the debate that had been launched by Habermas’s aforementioned speech, “Modernity: An Incomplete Project”—Huyssen announced the forthcoming translation of Theory of the Avant-Garde in this issue (Huyssen 1981: 27). However, the transfer from Bürger’s original space of positioning to another that was doubly foreign to it was secured above all by Jochen Schulte-Sasse in his lengthy foreword (it takes up almost a third of the volume) to Theory of the Avant-Garde (Schulte-Sasse 1984). Schulte-Sasse, who had already co-edited a book in 1980 with Christa and Peter Bürger (Bürger et al. 1980), was a typical example of these intellectual brokers (Hall 2013) in that he had participated both in the 1968 student mobilizations in West Germany and in the attempts to reform the objects and methods of Literaturwissenschaft (Schulte-Sasse 1971) before moving to the United States. He had taken up a post as a professor at the University of Minnesota in 1978 and, in 1981, had founded an influential series entitled “Theory and History of Literature”, which published many key authors in the contemporary debates on the renewal of literary theory and aesthetics, including two translated works by Jauss and several publications on the Yale Critics (especially Paul de Man) and Russian literary theorists (Propp, Bakhtin). Theory of the Avant-Garde was the series’ fourth volume. In 1985, he also founded a journal called Cultural Critique, publishing a number of other texts by Bürger (Bürger 1985). Schulte-Sasse was therefore already an expert when Theory of the Avant-Garde appeared, not just in the field of West German literary studies but more importantly in the debates taking place in the American intellectual world, which he was contributing to through his work as an editor.

25Schulte-Sasse’s foreword introduced two major adaptations to Bürger’s theses for the American audience, which subsequent readings of the work were to confirm. First, the definition of the avant-garde proposed by Bürger was projected onto the modernism/postmodernism opposition, which functioned simultaneously as a matrix, a reference point, and a central issue for most of the positions adopted in the debates during this period. This readjustment involved the assimilation of the “aestheticism” stage, which Bürger characterized as the stage prior to the avant-garde stage and against which the avant-garde had reacted, with the notion of modernism (in the sense that this term had taken on in the United States) in such a way that the avant-garde appeared as its antagonist. Schulte-Sasse’s foreword, significantly entitled “Theory of Modernism versus Theory of the Avant-Garde”, thus reconstructed Bürger’s historiography of the avant-garde by contrasting it with that of Poggioli and Greenberg. It aligned the theses presented by Greenberg in “Avant-garde and kitsch” with Bürger’s theses on “aestheticist art” (Schulte-Sasse 1984: XIV). Following this same logic, Foster would much later argue that, according to Bürger, the “modernist autonomy of art was achieved in the late nineteenth century (earlier than in the Greenbergbien narrative)” (Bois et al. 2004: 380). In so doing, these intellectual intermediaries killed two birds with one stone. On the one hand, they positioned Bürger within the ongoing debate, if not as a postmodernist then at least as a critic of modernism, who could therefore serve as a source of support to the postmodernist camp. On the other, they introduced, albeit still tentatively, a new distinction in the American context between the notions of avant-garde and modernism that would resolve a difficulty posed by the fact that Theory of the Avant-Garde was radically incompatible with the “purist” and formalist conceptions of the avant-garde that prevailed in the country of Eliot and Greenberg—I will come back to this point.

26The second adaptation involved a sorting and recoding of the theoretical references used by Bürger according to the authors mobilized in the postmodernist debate and the value attributed to them. Much of the discussion of Marxist aesthetics that runs through Theory of the Avant-Garde, especially the divergence between Lukács and the Frankfurt School, was therefore relegated to the background, because this theoretical tradition was only ever tenuously established in American academia and art criticism, even after their politicization in the 1960s. In contrast, the texts on art written by Adorno and Benjamin began to be read and commented on during this period but always through the prism of the ongoing debates in the American intellectual field (Hohendahl 1991: 198-228; Zwarg 2017: 303-317). In this context, Adorno’s aesthetics, because it defended a kind of formal reflexivity and a purely negative relationship between artworks and their social context, was often understood—however questionable this assimilation may have been—as an avatar of American-style modernism (Osborne 1989). As a consequence, Benjamin’s philosophy of art was read in the United States as a “postmodern critic avant la lettre” (Huyssen 1984: 21) on account of its well-known divergences from Adorno’s philosophy (Adorno & Benjamin 2006: 139), such that Bürger’s book could be interpreted as a critique of Adorno-style modernism from the point of view of a Benjamin-style postmodernism.

27Furthermore, and this element is all the more remarkable given it was completely absent from the original text, Bürger’s theses were linked to those of French poststructuralism. Both Huyssen’s and Schulte-Sasse’s texts devoted a great deal of space to a critique of Derrida in particular (Huyssen 1984: 36-47; Schulte-Sasse 1984: XIX-XXVI). The justification for this can be confusing until the reader makes the connection between that critique and the latent controversy at the time between Critical Theory and Poststructuralism. In his foreword, Schulte-Sasse contrasted Bürger with Derrida, who was presented as the paragon of modernism, in what was a provocative reversal given that the philosopher of deconstruction was the reference par excellence of any good postmodernist during this period. For example, Owens was defining himself as a “Derridean” around the time his principal articles appeared in October (Stephanson 1990: 56). In this sense, Schulte-Sasse’s foreword was rather different to the laudatory prefaces that Boltanski analysed to highlight the effects of international philosophical exchange (Boltanski 1975). In situating Theory of the Avant-Garde within the ongoing intellectual debate in the United States, Schulte-Sasse’s aim was not so much to valorize the author he was trying to introduce (Bürger was not considered to be a master thinker in Germany and was certainly not presented as such by Schulte-Sasse) or even to increase the work’s readability and appeal for the American readership in some kind of popularization attempt as to adjust it in a more instrumental way, even if this meant forcing its meaning, so that it would fit with a strategy to reconfigure the postmodernist debate in which Schulte-Sasse was now evolving and seeking to establish himself. He thus set Theory of the Avant-Garde up as an offensive to promote, away from Habermas’s anti-postmodernism and poststructuralist postmodernism, a form of critical and (neo-) avant-garde postmodernism that was inspired by the Frankfurt School and above all by Benjamin (Schulte-Sasse 1984: XLVI).

3. The American Reception and Postmodernist Uses of Theory of the Avant-Garde

28The Theory of the Avant-Garde that October’s art critics seized upon had therefore already been adapted to the American intellectual field and predisposed, through this paratext, to serve the discussion and resolution of some of the most pressing issues in the postmodernist debate. The new resources it offered did not, however, come without certain drawbacks. To summarize the work’s reception, it presented, from the October authors’ point of view, two major merits but also one problem that was difficult to mitigate.

3.1. Refounding a Critical Art

29Its first merit was that it allowed a rethink of the foundations of an authentically critical art at a time when the first postmodernism established by October was suspected of confusion or even complicity with other postmodernist trends deemed reactionary or, at the very least, acritical. By adapting the vision that Bürger attributed to the historical avant-gardes (which was to forge a radical critique of art as an institution) to fit with the field of contemporary art, authors such as Crimp, Foster, and Buchloh redefined the journal’s initial postmodernist orientation. It no longer sought to break with specific modernist principles, which were still situated solely at the aesthetics level, such as the originality of the artwork (Krauss 1981) and the specificity of the artistic medium (Crimp 1977; Owens 1980a, 1980b), but rather to more systematically denounce the ideological dissimulation of the material, institutional, and social conditions of the production and reception of works of art—a dissimulation that was to be reinforced by the idealism of a formalist art criticism, such as that of Greenberg. In other words, the October authors’ break with modernism broadened from an opposition to a particular theory of art (Greenbergian formalism) to a more politicized and generalized critique of the ideological functions of art, thus drawing a clear line between their own postmodernism and all the other postmodernist trends that they considered at the same time to be retrograde. From the 1980s onwards, Crimp thus reoriented his work towards a “critique of art’s institutionalization”, understood as a “deepening of the rupture with modernism” (Crimp 1984: 76), through a series of articles that were later collected in a work entitled On the Museum’s Ruins. In its preface, Crimp presents Bürger as one of two main sources, along with Foucault, of this reorientation (Crimp 1993: 19-23). During this same period, Foster and Buchloh began to develop a reinterpretation of minimal and conceptual art as a “critique of the institution of art” (Foster 1996 [1986]) or a “critique […] of the aesthetic ‘institution’” (Buchloh 1990: 136), according to formulas whose obvious connection with Bürger’s theses was not explicitly acknowledged until a few years later (Foster 1994; Buchloh 2003: XXIII-XXV).

  • 17 For example, Robert Longo said: “I remember reading Doug’s [Douglas Crimp] essay a bunch of times a (...)

30These reinterpretations contributed directly to the creation of a new generation of artists. Bürger’s theses, as conveyed in these authors’ publications and in their seminars at the School of Visual Arts in New York and at Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program (Pym 2021), were one of the main references for the emergence in the mid-1980s of a movement known as “Institutional Critique” (Heimendinger 2016). Unlike the Pictures Generation artists, who benefited from the support of this theoretical art criticism but did not take a sustained interest in it17, young artists such as Andrea Fraser, Mark Dion, Renée Green, and Fred Wilson participated in the October authors’ seminars during this period. Indeed, as Fraser explained (Fraser 2005: 101), this “Institutional Critique” label had derived from their reading of texts written by Buchloh, Owens, and Bürger. Their interpretation of the “critique of the art institution” nevertheless marked a significant departure from Bürger’s original intentions. These artists no longer aimed so much at sublating art as an autonomized social sphere as at a more modest and targeted deconstruction of specific institutions in the art world that was being directed from within against the museums and galleries and was thus far removed from any utopic vision of a fusion of art and life. Their deconstruction project was grounded in Buchloh’s interpretation of the work of a number of “neo-avant-gardists” of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Asher, Broodthaers, Buren, and Haacke, who were established as the tutelary figures of the Institutional Critique movement. In contrast to “Peter Bürger’s model of the ‘historical avant-garde’,” Buchloh argued that “Broodthaers insists that it is not the function of artistic practice to dissolve the institution of art” but rather to consistently question “how meaning is produced within given institutional structures, whether museum galleries or the pages of catalogues” (Bois et al. 2004: 629). Bürger’s work was thus reappropriated as a sociologically oriented internal critique of art institutions, completely detached from the quasi-messianic revolutionary horizon that had shaped its original definition of the historical avant-gardes (Cunningham 2006: 278; Quintyn 2015: 81).

3.2. Revising the Critique of Modernism

31At the same time, the reading of Theory of the Avant-Garde prompted a revision of the historiography of modern art in American art criticism. Indeed, as Crimp noted, “By the mid-1980s, postmodernism had come to be seen less as a critique of modernism than as a repudiation of modernism’s own critical project, a perception that legitimized an ‘anything goes’ pluralism” (Crimp 1993: 18). The drive to firm up the critical dimension of postmodernism therefore presupposed a revision of the history of modern art to re-evaluate and preserve its protest or utopian heritage, which conversely tended to liquidate certain opposing postmodernist trends.

  • 18 As Owens retrospectively summarized, postmodernism was “a reaction to the hegemony of formalist the (...)

32This implied a major departure from the postmodernism of the 1970s. While 1970s postmodernism had tended to proclaim a clean break with modern art, which was often unequivocally identified with the formalist conceptions imposed by Greenberg18, there was now a need to dissociate the history of modern art from the Greenbergian modernist narrative in order to rediscover the subversive side of the historical avant-gardes. From this perspective, Bürger’s theses had two merits. On the one hand, they defined the historical avant-gardes as a critical reaction to the reduction of works to self-referential content, thus turning the aim that Greenberg had attributed to the evolution of the avant-gardes since Courbet and Manet on its head. On the other, as Buchloh explained, while Greenberg identified Impressionism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism as the main landmarks in the history of the avant-garde, Bürger identified “Dada culture in all of its forms, Surrealism, Russian Constructivism and Soviet Productivism” as exemplary cases and thus “realert[ed] us to those legacies that American formalists like Greenberg and Fried […] had disallowed or disavowed” (Bois et al. 2004: 380). In other words, Bürger’s book supported an alternative definition and history of the avant-garde to that imposed by the modernist canon.

  • 19 Interestingly, Bürger was later to adopt it as a result of the discussions his work had initiated i (...)

33This led, through a process of terminological clarification, to the introduction of a new distinction in the English language between the “avant-garde” and “modernism” notions (at least in the uses made of them in American art criticism), which had been used rather indiscriminately until then (Huyssen 1981: 26). Over time, the term “avant-garde” was expunged from its formalist uses and reserved for the Bürgerian conception of the phenomenon, while “modernism” was used only to refer to the “purist” Greenbergian conceptions of modern art. The decisive criterion was therefore the relationship to the autonomy of art. Modernism was seen as extending and radicalizing the modern orientation towards the social autonomization of art, whereas the avant-garde was seen as seeking to go beyond it or at least to denounce its ideological dimension. It should be noted that this opposition was not present in Bürger’s text. He did not mobilize the notion of modernism, which was not very common in West Germany when he wrote the book. It was thus the transfer of his work into the American postmodernist debate context that led to the elaboration of this distinction that had first been mooted in the introductory texts of Huyssen and Schulte-Sasse19. This new distinction proved particularly opportune during this time of crisis and complexification for the first postmodernism (as discussed at the beginning of this article). It maintained and even deepened the critique of modernism, which was at the foundation of postmodernism, while safeguarding the protest, utopian, and revolutionary sections of the historical avant-garde as a heritage that postmodernism must make fruitful and not liquidate. In other words, Bürger’s theses offered “oppositional postmodernism” (Foster 1983: XI) a kind of theoretical sieve for sorting the wheat from the chaff in the history of modern art—indicating what it should disconnect from and reconnect with.

3.3. Safeguarding the Neo-Avant-Gardes

34However, there was still one crucial problem. Theory of the Avant-Garde formulated an outright condemnation of the neo-avant-gardes and of all post-1945 art more generally. The October authors, who had gained their position and recognition largely through their commitment to the minimal and conceptual avant-gardes, obviously could not accept this position. This is one of the main reasons why the book’s theses were only ever cited at the cost of considerable criticism (Buchloh 1984; Foster 1994: 13-15; Buchloh 2003: XXIV; Bois et al. 2004: 382). Nevertheless, it was rather difficult for the October authors to dismiss this condemnation of the neo-avant-gardes out of hand and retain the advantages of the Bürgerian definition of the avant-garde at the same time. Their dilemma was as follows. Either they accepted the idea that the historical avant-gardes represented a fundamental critique of the institution of art and risked viewing the neo-avant-gardes as just an insipid, inoffensive repetition of this first critical period, in the manner of Bürger. Or they argued that the neo-avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s did indeed represent an authentic critique of the institution of art, but this implied devaluing, in one way or another, the original and supposedly unsurpassable critical dimension of the historical avant-gardes. In either case, it seemed essential to clarify the relationship between the historical avant-gardes and the neo-avant-gardes.

  • 20 An application of the Freudian notions of repetition and aftermath to postmodernism had already bee (...)
  • 21 As Delfiner (2011: 564) rightly noted, this model did not therefore rehabilitate all neo-avant-gard (...)
  • 22 It should be noted that not all the October authors subscribed to Foster’s reinterpretation. For ex (...)

35The most comprehensive effort in this regard came in a rather late article written by Foster (1994), which was entirely devoted to a discussion of Bürger’s theses and which clearly leaned towards the second option. Foster argued that “the institution of art is grasped as such not with the historical avant-garde but with the neo-avant-garde” (Foster 1994: 20) and supported this inversion of Bürger’s thesis using an analogy with the psychoanalytic model of trauma and “aftermath” borrowed from Freud and, in particular, Lacan20. In this analogy, the history of art in the twentieth century is comparable to the psychic life of an individual. The historical avant-gardes represent the original moment of “trauma” (Foster 1994: 30), in other words a rupture so radical that it would be unrepresentable and immediately repressed, which is then repeated and returns in a crude form first in the neo-avant-gardes of the immediate postwar period21 and then in a more “creative”, “specific”, and “deconstructive” way in the 1960s and 1970s (Foster 1994: 20). In other words, during this period, the neo-avant-gardes would have fully assessed the original rupture of the historical avant-gardes, which had not yet been brought under control, and ultimately developed it into a mature critique of artistic institutions22.

36Basically, this thesis appears to be as questionable as Bürger’s thesis, if only because of the problematic analogy between historical and psychic temporality (Delfiner 2011: 552). The most important thing to grasp here is the strategic aims that motivated Foster’s argument. His text is a good illustration of the interdependence that marked the October authors’ theoretical efforts in the 1980s and 1990s between a movement to revise the historiography of modern art and an ambition to redefine a critical aesthetic for contemporary art. In short, the authors needed to overcome the shortcomings of the first postmodernist model and of Bürger’s model while retaining their respective strengths, namely the critique of formalist modernism for the first and the valorisation of a critical avant-garde heritage for the second. Consequently, a second antagonism, this time synchronic, longitudinal, and ultimately more important than the first was superimposed onto the binary, strictly diachronic, and, if you like, latitudinal historical break that characterized the first postmodernism, making the initial narrative more complex and changing the appraisal of each of these historical blocks (as summarized in the following diagram).

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Impact of postmodernist debates on the redefinition of the major categories of twentieth-century art historiography

© Nicolas Heimendinger

37In other words, the entire history of art in the twentieth century was no longer driven so much by an opposition between a bad modernism and a good postmodernism as by a distinction between two parallel and rival currents, one regressive (moving from modernist formalism to “reactionary” postmodernism) and one progressive (moving from the historical avant-gardes to “oppositional” postmodernism).

4. Historicizing the Categories of Art History

  • 23 As Foster noted with a certain melancholy in 2009 in the introduction to a questionnaire on contemp (...)
  • 24 This did not stop them from coming in for some strong criticism, which was commensurate with the au (...)
  • 25 See, for example, the first collective work published by the European Network for Avant-Garde and M (...)

38Even though the theoretical, artistic, and political concerns that had initially motivated its adoption were partly exhausted23, this distinction between avant-garde and modernism that had been inspired by the postmodernist reading of Bürger’s work was mobilized quite extensively but diffusely in academic uses of these two notions. Its dissemination was due, first, to the lasting influence of the October authors, whose symbolic capital in the field of art criticism increased when they took up prestigious academic positions. In the 2000s, Buchloh, Foster, and Krauss taught at Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia Universities, respectively, and published collective works and textbooks on modern and contemporary art that are still authoritative today (Bois et al. 2004)24. Its dissemination was also due to the fact that similar discussions, also based on the reading of Bürger’s work, were taking place in the field of literary studies in the United States (Pinkney 1988; Murphy 1999). Finally, the idea that there were “two avant-gardes” (Noudelmann 2000: 70-72) in conflict with one another in the twentieth century spread internationally25, even to France, which for a long time had remained outside these debates—including in a reversed, rather conservative form that defended a form of aesthetic modernity against avant-garde revolutionism (Compagnon 1994 [1990]).

39While space prevents me here from examining the validity and relevance of such a historical schema in detail, it can nevertheless be argued that this opposition between avant-garde and modernism seems questionable in at least two respects—despite the fact it allowed a revalorization in the United States of the negative and agonistic dimension of the avant-gardes as opposed to the continuist and depoliticized vision of it that had been imposed until then by formalist art critics like Greenberg. First, it seems more judicious to see the distinction between an aspiration to a fusion of art and life with a view to revolutionizing society, on the one hand, and a desire to produce a reflexive art that was stripped of all reference to the outside world, on the other, as corresponding less to an opposition between two well-defined trends (which would have evolved in a parallel and competing manner) than to a tension that in fact ran through numerous twentieth-century avant-garde works and movements. Depending on the period, avant-garde artists have provided much more varied and complex responses than this overly binary distinction would suggest. An approach that recognizes only those works that correspond to Bürger’s definition as authentically avant-gardist therefore appears to be as one-sided as Greenberg’s vision, which it merely reversed.

  • 26 In France, a number of researchers have recently published important studies in this regard, includ (...)

40Second, this conceptual opposition was based less on empirically supported analyses than on normative aims and strategic calculations specific to periods that are now over (post-1968 West Germany, the American postmodernist years). Moreover, this desire shared by Bürger and the October authors to combine three kinds of avant-gardism (artistic, political, theoretical) in order to assert and defend their own positions as innovators within an intellectual sub-field in a state of crisis (literary studies, art criticism) can explain why, despite the distance, misunderstandings, and disagreements, affinities formed between the Bürger project and the October project. However, these underlying motivations blurred the descriptive relevance of the distinction between avant-garde and modernism, if only because they unwittingly made the historiography of modern art dependent on later and largely anachronistic issues. For this very reason, retracing the history of notions such as the avant-garde, modernism, and postmodernism26 and the debates that conditioned their emergence and successive redefinitions seems to be the best way of freeing the scientific categories mobilized in the history of art from the biases and confusions linked to the critical and polemical issues that often forged them in the first place while at the same time integrating their specific history with that of the objects they allow us, despite these limitations, to identify and describe.

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1 Apart from a few, generally cursory mentions (Asholt 2003; Berten 1991: 87; Compagnon 1994: 86; Jurt 1989; Noudelmann 2000), the work is seldom cited in French-language publications before 2013. Its translation into French has elicited a few (rare) more extensive reviews and commentaries, mostly from key individuals involved in its publication or from German scholars already familiar with the work (Asholt 2015; Cometti 2016; Quintyn 2015). This relative indifference in France is particularly remarkable given that Bürger was first and foremost a specialist in French surrealism and that he published (thanks to certain individuals who relayed the theses coming out of the Frankfurt School in France, like Marc Jimenez and Rainer Rochlitz) a number of texts drawing on the framework that he established in Theory of the Avant-Garde (Bürger 1978a; Bürger 1981b; Bürger 1990a; Bürger 1990b; Bürger 1995; Bürger 1996; Bürger 1999; Conesa 1998).

2 Here, I am citing Cunningham (2006: 278; cited in Bäckstrom 2007: 31): “The reception of Bürger’s text in America is an issue that deserves further study in itself, most particularly in terms of what is lost in this translation. Two aspects specifically come to mind. First, the fact that Bürger writes, first and foremost, as a literary specialist, yet has been almost entirely rewritten into the terms of the visual arts, in a way which tends to limit the problem of institutionality to the specific concrete spaces of the gallery or museum. Second, that what is in Theory of the Avant-Garde largely an argument with Adorno has been rewritten as an argument with Greenberg, who is of course never mentioned.”

3 I borrow this “space of positioning” notion from Brun (2014: 15-16), which he defined as “the space of the opponents that we take on, that is the space of the constructed positions that matter to us and that we take into account.” Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from French and German sources have been translated into English.

4 This was Bürger’s own retrospective observation: “From the beginning, the book’s reception took place under the sign of postmodernism” (2010: 701).

5 In order to reconstruct the work’s dissemination, I compiled a corpus of primary sources that comprised, alongside the publications of Peter Bürger and the October authors, the results of an extensive search for mentions of Theory of the Avant-Garde in the specialist publications of the time (German and American periodicals in particular).

6 Here, I speak of “postmodernist” art criticism (according to the usage favoured by its main representatives) in the sense that it was first defined in opposition to Greenberg’s “modernism” (as I discuss below). The term “postmodern” was more readily used when the notion went beyond the restricted framework of art criticism to refer to a broader historical change, as was the case especially from the 1980s onwards when the debate around the notion extended into philosophy and the social sciences (Foster 1983). This is what we find in the English titles of the reference texts by Habermas (1981) and Lyotard (1984). However, these usages were far from systematic (Jameson 1991).

7 There is no need here to go back over the long and entangled genealogy of postmodernism, a task that has already been undertaken by a number of authors (Anderson 1998; Bertens 2003 [1995]).

8 Postmodernism, anti-modernism, neo-modernism: these multiple derivative neologisms indicate a certain theoretical instability. Their meanings were partly determined by the struggle for a monopolization of the postmodernism label, which was identified at the time with the prized position of innovator – a dynamic that was ironically also very characteristic of the avant-garde rivalries.

9 The notion of postmodernism was absent from the catalogue text and was only added when a revised version of “Pictures” was republished in October two years later (Crimp 1979).

10 This was translated into English in 1981 in the journal New German Critique and republished in 1983 at the start of Foster’s anthology (Foster 1983).

11 In contrast to the definition proposed by Renato Poggioli in his major homonymous study, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (1962), which Bürger’s work has been compared to (Schulte-Sasse 1984: VII-X).

12 This opinion, which takes up only a handful of pages in his book, was not much discussed in West Germany—perhaps because it did not seem particularly original there. In 1962, Hans Magnus Enzensberger had already written in a prominent article: “All the avant-garde today are a mere repetition, a deception of others or of themselves. … The historical avant-garde has perished as a victim of its own aporias.” (Enzensberger 2012 [1962]: 289-290).

13 Bürger was probably referring here to the collective work published in 1976 that was entirely dedicated to a discussion of Theorie der Avantgarde and whose various contributions were less concerned with the avant-garde than with the methodology of literary analysis (Lüdke 1976: 31).

14 In the sense that it did not correspond to a position that was positively determined and claimed as such but rather to an argument used by a new generation of academics to reject en bloc the various methodological “schools” that had been predominant since 1945, such as Emil Staiger and Wolfgang Kayser (Hermand 1994: 123-132; Danneberg 1996).

15 This allusion would have been transparent to any informed reader of the time. As Jurt pointed out, “in Germany in the early 1970s, one could only define oneself in relation to reception aesthetics.” (Jurt 1989: 100). Bürger’s criticisms of the Konstanz School, understood as a “rewriting of the theory of the evolution of the Russian formalists from a hermeneutical point of view” (cited by Schnyder 2005: 393), are more explicitly set out in some of his other publications (Bürger 1978a).

16 Another bias, which is not explored here, was the lack of interest in the lengthy section on the specificities of the avant-garde work of art, inspired by Benjamin’s notions of allegory and montage (Bürger 1984: 55-82). This had, however, been an element discussed when the book was published a decade earlier in West Germany (Lüdke 1976: 105-142).

17 For example, Robert Longo said: “I remember reading Doug’s [Douglas Crimp] essay a bunch of times and wanting to understand it. It was a really interesting experience and incredibly helpful to have that kind of clarity at an early stage in one’s career. … But, all the theoretical stuff that came out of the late 70s and early 80s didn’t really have an effect on me” (Gould & Smith 1998: 82).

18 As Owens retrospectively summarized, postmodernism was “a reaction to the hegemony of formalist theory, which had claimed or appropriated the term modernism. ‘Modernism’ meant what Clement Greenberg had said it meant” (Owens 1990: 56).

19 Interestingly, Bürger was later to adopt it as a result of the discussions his work had initiated in the United States (Bürger 1999).

20 An application of the Freudian notions of repetition and aftermath to postmodernism had already been proposed by Huyssen (1984: 39) and Buchloh (1986: 43) but with a rather negative objective, which was to criticize French poststructuralism and Yves Klein’s neo-avant-gardism, respectively.

21 As Delfiner (2011: 564) rightly noted, this model did not therefore rehabilitate all neo-avant-gardes indiscriminately but tended to maintain Bürger’s disparaging judgement for the “first neo-avant-garde” (Foster 1994: 22), explicitly targeting Neo-Dada, Fluxus, and Nouveau Réalisme (Foster 1994: 13). While Steinberg made Rauschenberg the paragon of postmodernism in the visual arts in the late 1960s, the October authors were committed to a more reflexive, minimal-conceptual, “high culture” style of neo-avant-garde, which gave rise to an often defiant attitude towards Pop Art and the subsequent neo-Pop trends (Buchloh 2015: XXVIII-XXIX). They were therefore reproached for a persistent and hidden attachment to modernism, including even by former October authors, who later distanced themselves from it, such as Crimp (1999).

22 It should be noted that not all the October authors subscribed to Foster’s reinterpretation. For example, Buchloh, although particularly critical of Bürger, shared his approach, which was marked by Adorno’s aesthetic theory. He partly endorsed Bürger’s theses on the neo-avant-garde as being an “artificial reconstitution of the aura” of the artwork that had previously been demystified by the historical avant-gardes (Buchloh 1986: 51). For example, he criticized Klein’s use of monochrome as being simply a repetition and betrayal of Rodchenko’s monochrome triptych (Buchloh 1986). This can be seen as a sign of Buchloh’s ambiguous and distanced relationship to contemporary art and the notion of postmodernism (Buchloh 1981: 41), which distinguished him from the other October contributors. Conversely, as he explained in his collection of articles on the “the avant-garde at the end of the century” (Foster 2005 [1996]), the fact that Foster produced the most extensive discussion of Theory of the Avant-Garde of all the October authors was due to his desire, in the 1990s at least, to reactivate the concept of the avant-garde at a time when it seemed exhausted in order to defend contemporary art and its critical potentialities.

23 As Foster noted with a certain melancholy in 2009 in the introduction to a questionnaire on contemporary art that October sent out to seventy curators and art critics, “such paradigms as the ‘neo-avant-garde’ and ‘postmodernism’, which once oriented some art and theory, have run into the sand, and, arguably, no models of much explanatory reach or intellectual force have risen in their stead” (Foster 2009: 3).

24 This did not stop them from coming in for some strong criticism, which was commensurate with the authority they had (Leeman 2007).

25 See, for example, the first collective work published by the European Network for Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies (Bru & Nicholls 2009; in particular, Eysteinsson 2009).

26 In France, a number of researchers have recently published important studies in this regard, including those focused on reconstructing the history of various “-isms” in artistic and intellectual life (Boschetti 2014) and on examining the international circulations of avant-garde forms and discourses in the second half of the twentieth century (Arnoux 2017; Dossin 2015; Joyeux-Prunel 2021).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1
Légende Louise Lawler (1947-). (Stevie Wonder) Living Room Corner. Arranged by Mr. & Mrs. Burton Tremaine Sr., New York City, 1984-1985. Silver dye bleach print with printed text on mat.18 1/4 x 23 3/4 inches ; 46.4 x 60.3 cm. Mat text : same as title.
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Titre Fig. 2
Légende Impact of postmodernist debates on the redefinition of the major categories of twentieth-century art historiography
Crédits © Nicolas Heimendinger
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Nicolas Heimendinger, « Avant-gardes and Postmodernism: The Reception of Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde in American Art Criticism »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 11 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 décembre 2022, consulté le 29 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nicolas Heimendinger

Doctor in Esthétique, université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis, Sciences et Technologie des Arts, Art des images et art contemporain (AI-AC)

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