The Avant-Garde and the Privacy of Mind

Stephen C. Foster, 1975

[Note: This is one of the first published essays by my mentor Stephen C. Foster, Dada and Abstract Expressionist scholar on the occasion of what would have been his 79th birthday.]

The Avant-Garde and the Privacy of Mind

Stephen C. Foster

Art International, Vol. 19, no. 9, (Nov. 20, 1975) pp. 71-78.


Discussions of the avant-garde, both in terms of its sociological nature and the works of art it sponsors, are commonplace in the historical, philosophical, and critical literature. The parameters of its goals, psychology, and social reality are well indicated by Hauser, Poggioli, Shattuck, Loevgren, and others. Its American expression is outlined by Dore Ashton in The New York School, appropriately subtitled, A Cultural Reckoning. That the avant-garde has generated its own myth is also the subject of certain writers and in any event, is clear from its application on an international scale.

What seems to me to require further examination is the present state of that myth. I should here like to propose that the avant-garde has receded from its social expression and function and is now best seen in art criticism. Supporting this proposition will entail a short discussion of (1) what I believe are the most characteristic and persistent features of the avant-garde, (2) why the avant-garde no longer finds its concrete social expression, (3) what circumstances suggested its incorporation into criticism, and (4) what particular attributes of the avant-garde permitted its successful assimilation into criticism. While much of what I say in this respect may be familiar, I believe its present context represents a useful and underdeveloped approach. Finally, I should like to look at my general proposition as a predictable and reasonable expression of the recent revaluation of the concept of meaning. All this suggests that this assimilation is the logical fruit of ideas implicit in the avant-garde throughout its nineteenth and twentieth century history. The development from concrete social bases to its expression in criticism has its clearest roots in Dada and later finds significant extensions in Surrealism, the New York School (particularly in the writing of Harold Rosenberg), and certain aspects of the art of the sixties.


Perhaps the overriding fact of the avant-garde is its behavioral basis—that is, that to be understood it must literally be transversed or negotiated. Sociologically, it is articulated in the phenomena of studios, cafes, editorial offices, galleries, exhibitions and so on. But none of these, in itself, provides a sufficient equivalent of what we mean when we say avant-garde; nor do they in a simple collective sense. The relations between them assume a more nearly geographical character than equivalent character. This fact, and it is a fact that the Paris avant-garde of the late nineteenth century can be mapped more usefully than explained, illuminates its behavioral nature and suggests its almost concrete spatial dimension. Society, in the large sense, is often seen in this fashion, and the conceptual vision of our society permits its conceptual equivalent in a society in the small sense—that is, in a smaller society within a society. That the large society is not compassable on an experiential or existential basis is what induces the need of such a conceptual vision of itself in the first place and, incidentally, is what permits our contemporary notion of planning.

The purpose of the avant-garde, or more specifically its Bohemian aspects, was to supply a surrogate society, which, in time, became the institutional expression of the psychological disposition of the socially and politically alienated, disenfranchised, or rejected. It became a matrix through which such a person moved in full possession of a concept of what he was moving through, unlike his experience in the larger society. But to act successfully as a surrogate for society in the large sense, its nature had to be recognizably "social"—and therefore, conceptual. In moving through a particular society, one finds that in view of the particular character of that society, any things present in such behavior acquire a "meaning" peculiar to that behavior and its matrix. The behavior itself is prescribed by the particular terms of the society, and therefore, the terms of the society also indirectly set the parameters of the "meanings" they accrue. Although this may appear truistic, it is crucial to an understanding of the artistic avant-garde.

It is clear that works of art acquire meaning of some sort, no matter what behavioral patterns they find themselves within. To claim, as many have,that a piece of experimental art means nothing to society at large is to misunderstand the nature of meaning, how it is acquired, and probably how it is expressed. The important question is whether or not meaning acquired by works of art and/or stated equivalents of their meanings by society in the large sense and society in the small sense are congenial to one another. The answer to the last question is clearly that they are not. The difference in the perceived meaning resides in the difference between this and that negotiation of the society. To put it differently, the alienated bohemian negotiates the larger society differently , and more partially than an individual from the proverbial middle class. The proverbial status of the latter depends on his conventionalized, and to a degree predictable, negotiation of his society, as does the bohemian's within his own community. That no equivalent meaning can be reached with regard to the objects present depends directly on the different behavioral nature of these classes of people within their society or across their respective societies.

What the artist requires is a closed and manageable society and one, therefore, through which meaning will remain fairly constant; one through which equivalent meanings can be achieved by like-minded people. I have avoided saying agreement on meaning because this implies that the meaning of the work is intrinsic to itself rather than the behavioral context it is present within, and through which it acquires its meaning. Because of its experiential or behavioral basis, meaning cannot be recovered in this fashion—i.e., to be examined or agreed upon. At best, equivalent statements of meaning (only statable in terms of equivalencies) can coincide from one person to the next, but never can such meaning itself be verified and agreed upon. It is incidentally, through the coincidence of friendly critics' equivalent statements of meaning that that the health or success of the avant-garde is best judged, either by the contemporary or historical audience.


From almost the time it was conceived, intelligent critics and promoters of the arts recognized in the avant-garde (or at least aspects of it) ways of calling attention to special directions art was taking, or that they wanted it to take. What had begun as an attempt to compensate for various social and psychological disabilities became an applied means of ensuring success for a new movement, even within the society at large.

That such a thing could happen required an alteration of society's attitude toward the deviance, rebellion, etc. which is so characteristic of avant-garde poses. Merger and others made this possible my mythologizing the avant-garde, with the result that the middle-class public could confirm their social hostilities in an acceptable, and even honorific way. It was, as many actors have pointed out, a way that the larger society could absorb the avant-garde into its system.

Depending on the particular background of the artist, this could be either desirable or undesirable, depending mostly on his reasons for identifying with the avant-garde and his level consciousness of its original motives and social origins. Then greater his consciousness, the greater were the dangers he perceived in being affiliated with the avant-garde; that is, that inevitable process of incorporation into the greater society.

Besides this, there was another concern—the public world to which his work was submitted. That an artist might thereby achieve a kind of public success (even from his position outside the larger society, but within its myth) meant however that the meaning that a piece acquired in its original avant-garde circumstances was altered as well. Thus the same problem that provoked the avant-garde in the first place is, at least as regards the destiny of the work, reintroduced. The value of the avant-garde structure as a medium for the acquisition of meaning becomes inoperative at this point, and the artist rightly fears that the work, upon its introduction to the public, literally ceases to mean the same thing.

The inability, for whatever reasons, of the middle class and avant-garde to cross social and behavioral lines assure the alienation of the artist from his own work, which, even from his new point of view has to be perceived within a drastically altered context. As the meaning the work acquired in the avant-garde circumstances is unrecoverable, the problem reaches crisis proportions. The recent critic, fascinated and concerned with all of this, and in what was perhaps the best position from which to appraise the problem, made the problem itself the subject of a myth. In the process he, unlike the earlier avant-garde strategist who tried to concretize his vision, maintained it purely on the level concept or metaphor. Although there have been numerous such attempts to approach the problem, I shall here be concerned only with the solution attempted by the critic/poet Harold Rosenberg in the early years of the New York School.


In 1935, during a peak period of communist activity in America, Harold Rosenberg wrote the following—excerpted from a poem appearing in Partisan Review:

who thrust his fist into cities

arriving by many ways

watching the pavements, the factory yards,

the cops on beat

walked out on the platform

raised his right arm, showing the fist clenched

"comrades, I bring news." [1]

How and how much Rosenberg's criticism of the forties was affected by his political commitments is a complex question. Rosenberg acknowledged his communist affiliations in the thirties, but he also expressed his disillusion with them by 1940. In a passage such as the one above, the reference is certainly political; but in the quote below, Rosenberg has lifted the message to the plane of a philosophical reflection on political man:

The mirror of our age is loneliness

And non-being: the flocks walk down in it.

And disappear. Here the ego, that illusion,

Has no grapple with the earth,

But finds glory absolute

In passing neatly from one phase

To another of power while the flesh,

Hairy impediment puts by its avarice

For the pure costume of the public role. [2]

It is the dilemma of this political man, here cast in nearly existential terms, that became useful for Rosenberg's art criticism of the forties. As in the poem just cited, criticism became a dramatization of what had, in the thirties, been more purely political. Rosenberg saw this political dilemma, described by him in heavily behavioral terms, as the paradigm of a new modernism.

In a 1940 article called "The Fall of Paris", Rosenberg described what he considered the failure of European "modernism" in any collective or social sense. It was because of this failure that the critical revolution which evolved later in the forties had to proceed along individual lines. The character of Paris, while it reigned as the capital of modernism, is described by Rosenberg in the following way:


Thus the Paris modern, resting on the deeply felt assumption that history could be entirely controlled by the mind, produced a No-Time, and the Paris "International" a No-Place. And this is as far as mankind has gone towards freeing itself from its past. [3]

With the advent of a Second World War, however, modernism was relinquished for a "higher need"


The higher need was anti-fascism . . . The Paris left adopted the style of the conventional, the sententious, the uncaring, the morally lax—in the name of social duty and the "Defense of Culture . . ." Anti-fascist unity became everything; programs, insight, spirit, truth, nothing . [4]

Modernism did survive, Rosenberg maintains, but in military and propaganda techniques—not in the studios. "In that country [Germany] politics became a 'pure (i.e., inhuman' art, independent of everything except the laws of its medium." [5] And it is among the defeated that " . . .sickly new worlds are born—Stalinist, nationalist Utopias, Catholic Cities of God, Social Credit Luna Parks. . .".[6] What Rosenberg was describing, of course, was America—its failure in the realm of modernism and its success in the realm of capitalism.

In view of the fall of Paris and his own experience with government-sponsored art in the thirties, it is no surprise that Rosenberg was apprehensive over the current social and political implications of art which so interested his contemporary, Greenberg. It is also understandable, however, that a political vocabulary should play such a role in his criticism of later years, because of politics' close historical identification with the "modern". Since the artistic "community" was no longer the vanguard, everything artistic now rested in the hands of the individual. The surrender of collective artistic goals logically entailed the surrender of collective artistic values.

However, when Rosenberg tried to develop an idea of what an artist should be in such a situation, certain positive and negative guidelines from his political experience provided the answer. "The pure costume of the public role", which appeared in his poem of 1940, was taken up as the explanation of the conventional behavior of revolutionary men in "The Resurrected Romans" of 1948.


Social reality gave way to dramatic mimesis because history did not allow human beings to pursue their own ends. They were thrown into roles prepared for them in advance. Beginning in a situation which they had not created, they were transformed by a "plot" that operated according to certain rules . . . It was the pressure of the past that took revolutions out of the "naturalistic" pose of the everyday and gave them the form of a special kind of dramatic poetry. [7]

Seeking to take his new artist-hero out of this historical circle, Rosenberg turned to Malraux and Sartre for examples, as Greenberg was later to turn to Marx.


M. Malraux also rejects the old actors and speaks on behalf of the possibilities to be drawn from the situation through action . . . But the image of Malraux is more revealing historically than the magic of Sartre. Sartre, and this is vastly to his credit, is genuinely out in the open; he speaks for the living individual who has not yet won a place in the historical drama. While his position implies the hero, as a human being he will resist him. [8]

In 1947-48 Harold Rosenberg issued what was undoubtedly the most radical proposition on the new American art to that date and one which depended heavily on the political aspects of his thinking discussed above. In face of great odds the new artist was revolting agains the materialist tradition which threatened to collapse the old order, a crisis that precluded reformation along collectively endorsed lines. New art, then, aspired of necessity ". . . not to a conscious philosophical or social ideal, but to what is basically an individual, sensual, psychic and intellectual effort to live actively in the present." [9]

This prefigured Rosenberg's approach in his 1952 article in his 1952 article on "The American Action Painters", in which he threw out traditional aesthetic criteria as possible measures of the new art and disclaimed the material object as the major consideration of painting in favor of the _act_ of painting. [10] With this position, it mattered little what the medium was that the action was performed through; it was rather the nature of the act being performed that was important. Not only "art", but also the painting assumed little importance here. This was clearly anticipated in _Possibilities_ when Rosenberg said that: "Such practice implies the belief that through conversion of energy something valid may come out, whatever situation one is forced to begin with." [11] Rosenberg's lack commitment to the painting tradition, and his concern that political matters will be construed as "more serious than the act that sets free in contemporary experience forms which that experience has made possible", [12] suggests that it was not only traditional artistic values, but artistic values in any form which he distrusted. At this point in his career Rosenberg resists refining aesthetic categories to include the one he now introduces: "The question of what will emerge is left open." [13] Rosenberg's move might be described as one from pure artistic value to pure value. For there is never any question of the value of what emerges, but only the question of the nature and location of the value. Rosenberg's interest in such a politically dramatized man persisted into his recent criticism and in 1962 prompted the following reflection: "Can one doubt that it was the challenge to action on the streets that was to lead in the next decade to the response in practice that the actions of the artist took place on the canvas? To the pragmatic ideologies of the Depression the pragmatic response of art was to be Action Painting." [14]


Politics, of course, was not solely responsible for Rosenberg's critics. Rosenberg himself has pointed out that his political commitment was never complete because his generation was "chronologically, as well as temperamentally on the edge between two generations and actually a stranger to both".[15] The two generations were the political one of the thirties and the preceding and modernistic one with Parisian inclinations.

In 1949, in an introduction to Wittenborn's edition of Raymond's _From Baudelaire to Surrealism_ (1935), Rosenberg suggests the relationship he holds to modern French poetry. According to René Welleck, the book "is the fountainhead of a conception of criticism which aims less at an analysis of a work of art than at the discovery of the particular 'consciousness' and the existential feelings of the poets".[16] Speaking from a surrealist position, already betrayed in 1935—"they run squirting fire from toys"—Rosenberg is anxious to interpret all modern French poetry from this point of view. Mallarmé and Valéry, although "they seem direct opponents of the radical dadaists or surrealists, whose method is to pick up in the streets a word that has never been in a poem before", share many of the newer poets' motives.[17]


Isn't their motive the same as that of the dadaist who invokes into poetry "sardine can" which is nothing else than experience? All the French alchemists are after the same thing, the actuality which is always new . . . their poetry is an adventure, through and through. It cannot be written without placing their lives in jeopardy. [18]

Rosenberg's debt to Dada, recently reported in an interview with Motherwell, hardly comes as a surprise then.


Actually, the notion of "action" is gratuitous. A critic's finger in the stew. It was taken by Harold Rosenberg from a piece by Hulsenbeck . . . At that time I was editing "Dada" proofs of Hulsenbeck's which ultimately appeared in the Dada anthology as "En Avant Dada". It was a brilliant piece . . . Harold came across the passage in proofs in which Hulsenbeck violently attacks literary esthetes, and says that literature should be action, should be made with a gun in hand, etc. Harold fell in love with this section, which we then printed in the single issue that appeared of "Possibilities". Harold's notion of "action" derives directly from that piece.[19]

Following is a passage of the Hulsenbeck which Motherwell referred to, and which was included in the only issue of _Possibilities_:


The Dadaist should be a man who has fully understood that one is entitled to have ideas only if one can transform them into life—the completely active type, who lives only through action, because it holds the possibility of his achieving knowledge.[20]


. . . I obtain an impulse which starts me toward direct action, becoming, the big X. I become directly aware that I am alive, I feel the form giving force behind the bustling of the clerks in the Dresden Bank and the simple-minded erectness of the policeman.[21]

The following, from Valéry, shows why Rosenberg felt a close identification between the symbolist and dadaist:


O who will tell me how through existence my person has been preserved in entirety and what thing has carried me, inert, full of life, and charged, with spirit, from one boundary of nothingness to the other.[22]

The similarities between Dada and Rosenberg's position do not end with their employment of overlapping vocabularies. Rosenberg's criticism also functioned in much the same manner as certain Dadaists. Alfred Barr, in his 1936 discussion of Dada and Surrealism, has the following to say about Duchamp's and Picabia's initial appeal for those endorsing a destructive philosophy.


In truth, their poetic temperaments inclined them toward the marvelous, toward the fathomless depths of the subconscious recently proved by Freud, rather than to a total disorder. They needed, however, some way of making a clean slate and of getting rid of what was in their way. Dada, a phenomenon of the postwar crisis, they welcomed as a way of salvation . . . And although the word Surrealism was already currently used between Breton and Soupault . . ., the group of Literature, deeming no other action possible for the moment, surrendered to Dada . . [23]

Like the earlier "Surrealists", Rosenberg, for lack of a better solution, surrendered to Dada. Like the Dadaists, he possessed strong polemical instincts which he never hesitated to use.

At the same time Rosenberg realized the extent of his French debts, he also realized the unique position of the American poet. "About 15 years ago René Taupin pointed out that poets in America were lucky in having a lingo that hadn't yet settled into a literary language. The revival of American poetry around World War I and the twenties depended on an awareness of this luck, in which the French consciousness played a leading part."[24] Rosenberg felt that American poets lost this advantage in the thirties and forties, initially because of their interest in politics, and then, later, because of their interest in tradition. As always, tradition for the American meant England.

It was in the interest of reviving what America had relinquished that Rosenberg turned, as had other poets, to the lost American frontier. A comparison of his article "Parable of American Painting" with William Carlos Williams' "The American Background" reveals great similarities, and in both cases reflect their debt to American frontier historiography. Both authors are concerned with the condition of the man transplanted to a new environment, and how he successfully copes with it. The following two quotes are from Williams and Rosenberg respectively:


The significance of Boone and of the others of his time and trade, was that they abandoned touch with those along the coast, and their established references, and made contact with the intrinsic elements of an as yet unrealized material of which the country was made. It is the actuality of their lives, and its tragic effect upon them, which is illuminating.[26]


To be a new man is not a condition but an effort—an effort that follows a revelation in behalf of which existing forms are discarded as irrelevant or are radically revised. The genuine accomplishments of American art spring from the tension of such singular experiences. [27]

In the same spirit, Rosenberg goes on to say that ". . . Coonskinism is the search for the principle that applies, even if it applies only once. For it, each situation has its own exclusive key." [28] Rosenberg's geographical referent has changed, but the basic factor man's negotiation of his environment has not.


A the same time, however, the very extremity of their isolation forces upon them a kind of optimism, an impulse to believe inter ability, to dissociate some personal essence of their experience and reserve it as the beginning of a new world. For each is fatally aware that only what he construct himself will ever be real to him. [29]

The operational analogy to Bohemia and the avant-garde could hardly be clearer.


Through all the artistic activity in the early fifties, Rosenberg, along with Greenberg, retained his leadership as spokesman for the new movement. What became clear in the fifties is that these critical positions were conceived by their authors as mutually exclusive. The ensuing dialogue then assumed more of the character of a dispute; indeed, the temperature of the dispute often suggests another, more appropriate word such as war. Given this situation, it is not surprising that each of these critics firmed up their systems into something more akin to a philosophy than a mere strategy.

The most important single factor to provoke the polarization between Greenberg and Rosenberg was the appearance of the latter's 1952 article, "The American Action Painters", perhaps the most controversial piece of criticism ever to address the postwar American painting scene [30] Rosenberg's separation of the new art from the rest of modernism derived from his conviction that the new painters recognize a new function for art. But, in spite of this separation, he did not want to defend the notion that the new painting constituted a school. "A School is the result of the linkage of practice with terminology—different paintings are affected by the same words. In the American vanguard the words, as we shall see, belong to to the art but to the individual artists." What these painters have in common then must be located in what they think, and not in what they do, which is governed along purely individual lines.[31] Rosenberg here recognized the problem, already encountered in previous literature, of grouping the new paintings. Ignored by almost every one of his detractors and, perhaps more surprisingly, his defenders, the importance of this premise to his own writing cannot be overstressed. Rosenberg apparently felt that the time was not right for traditional critical procedure. Unlike earlier American modernism, which he viewed as "training based on a new conception of what art is, rather than original work demonstrating what art is about to become", [32] the new work remained ahead of any "conception" of what art should be. What Rosenberg sought to describe then was not the art, but the consciousness of a new function for painting. Thus the famous passage: "At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act . . What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event . . . The image would be the result of this encounter."[33] What Rosenberg meant by this is clarified later in the essay.


With traditional esthetic references discarded as irrelevant, what gives the canvas its meaning is not psychological data, but "role", the way the artist organizes his emotional and intellectual energy as if he were in a living situation.[34]

Meaning, for him, resided not in the thing, but in the behavioral context the thing was embedded in. Language for Rosenberg was not only after the fact, but was still unsuited to talking of anything but "things", and therefore incapable of talking about an act.[35] It is understandable that Rosenberg was reluctant to see this activity as "artistic" or the product as a "pure art of perfect relations of pace and color".[36] The importance of Rosenberg's criticism, then, seemed to involve a new notion of the intrinsic character of meaning. As Quine has put it, ". . .It is the very facts about meaning, not the entities meant, that must be construed in terms of behavior."[37] Rosenberg is consistent with his aims as I have perceived them, when he continues with the following: "The act of painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist's existence. The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life. It follows that anything is relevant to it . . . Anything but art criticism."[38]


1. Harold Rosenberg, "The Front", Partisan Review, vol. 2, No. 6 (January-February 1935), p. 75.

2. Harold Rosenberg, "The Unlearning", Partisan Review, vol. 2, No. 5 (1940), pp. 354-55.

3. Harold Rosenberg, "The Fall of Paris", The Tradition of the New (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960), p. 213.

4. Ibid, p. 216.

5. Ibid, p. 218.

6. Ibid, p. 219.

7. Harold Rosenberg, "The Resurrected Romans", The Kenyon Review, vol. 4, No. 4 (August 1948), p. 602.

8. Ibid., pp. 617-618.

9. Harold Rosenberg, "Introduction to Six American Artists", Possibilities I (Winter, 1947-48), p. 75.

10. Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters", Art News, vol. 51, No. 8 (December 1952).

11. R. Motherwell and H. Rosenberg, "Statement", Possibilities I (Winter 1947-48), p. 75.

12. Motherwell and Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 1.

13. Ibid.

14. Harold Rosenberg, Arshile Gorky (New York: Horizon Press, 1962), pp. 92-94.

15. Harold Rosenberg, "Death in the Wilderness", The Tradition of the New (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960), p. 251.

16. Renée Welleck, Concepts of Criticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), pp. 361-362.

17. Harold Rosenberg, Introduction to Marcel Raymond's From Baudelaire to Surrealism (New York: Wittenborn, 1949), p. xi.

18.Ibid. A quick examination of Alfred Barr's introduction to Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936) likewise revelas many of these key concepts which find their analogue in Rosenberg. Such phrases as the "atmosphere of breakdown", "there is only awareness", and "Dada was the sickness of the world" could be incorporated into Rosenberg's criticism with no modification whatsoever.

19. Max Kozloff, "An Interview with Robert Motherwell", Artforum, vol. 4, No. 1 (September 1965), p. 37.

20. Richard Hulsenbeck, "En Avant Dada", Possibilities I (Winter, 1947-48), p. 42.

21. Ibid., p. 43.

22. Marcel Raymond, From Baudelaire to Surrealism (New York: Wittenborn, 1949), p. 154.

23. Alfred Barr, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1936), pp. 29-30.

24. Harold Rosenberg, Introduction to Marcel Raymond's From Baudelaire to Surrealism (New York: Wittenborn, 1949), p. xii.

25. Ibid., p. xiv.

26. William Carlos Williams, "The American Background", America and Alfred Stieglitz (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Col, 1934), pp. 14-15.

27. Harold Rosenberg, "Parable of American Painting", Tradition of the New (New ork: McGraw-Hill, 1965), p. 18.

28. Ibid., p. 19.

29. Harold Rosenberg, "Introduction to Six American Artists", op. cit., p. 75.

30. Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters", Art News, vol. 51, No. 8 (December 1942).

31. Ibid, p. 22.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid., p. 23.

35. Ibid., p. 48.

36. Ibid, p. 23.

37. Willard Quine, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), pp. 26027.

38. Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 23.