Impasses of modern art


By Ricardo Fabbrini*

Notes on the debate about the relationship between the autonomy of the aesthetic and praxis, based on the work of Peter Bürger.

Peter Burger's book vanguard theory (Ubu), published in 1974, but only translated in Brazil in 2008, has established itself over the decades as a reference text for understanding the aesthetic reflection and artistic production of the 1th century [XNUMX].

Historicizing the categories of idealist aesthetics, his intention was to build a dialectical critique of modern art that would allow the interpretation of both the historical avant-garde movements of the beginning of the last century and their impasses evidenced in the 1970s. Bürger became one of the protagonists of the debate on “postmodernity”, triggered by the publication, in 1979, of The postmodern condition, by Jean-François Lyotard [2], with, among others, Jürgen Habermas, Andréas Huyssen and Fredric Jameson as interlocutors.

For Bürger, the historical vanguards did not simply criticize the artistic trends of the past, but challenged the specialization of art in a sphere separated from the social whole. They would have been a reaction to the radical demand for the autonomy of art that was consolidated in the aestheticism of the second half of the XNUMXth century. The objective of artistic movements such as Dadaism and Surrealism would not be, therefore, just to refute the artistic styles of tradition, but to react to the detachment of art from vital praxis. These vanguards would have aimed to integrate art and life, not by adapting art to the existing order – to the world ordered by rationality according to technical purposes in the so-called bourgeois society –, but, on the contrary, by building, from art, a new social order .

Peter Bürger diagnosed, however, that this intention to overcome the distance between art and life “failed”. He found that the strategies through which the avant-garde hoped to overcome art in life – such as collage or the ready made – obtained, over time, the status of a work of art. No longer intervening in praxis with the intention of transforming it, but on the contrary, entirely absorbed by it, due to the artistic milieu and the cultural industry, among other factors. These movements thus ended up, according to the author, by renouncing their power of negativity.

In short, what was a “gesture” like Duchamp's, which had a shock effect (critique of traditional supports and the artistic circuit), became an artistic operation (in the endorsement of these supports and circuit). Neutralization that culminated, according to Burger, in the “inauthentic” protest gestures of the “neovanguards”, such as pop art and the happenings in the 1960's and 1970's.

Although the political intentions of the vanguards did not survive, Bürger concludes that their effect on the artistic level cannot be ignored, as these movements, far from assuming a stylistic principle, made a plurality of artistic procedures available to artists. The avant-garde crisis would also have resulted in the end of the idea of ​​progress, that is, the pretension of a style or artistic form to present itself as the superior and ideal form of an era.

A finding that would constitute, in the 1980s, a significant theoretical reference in the interpretation of post-avant-garde art, not because of the extension of the vanguard spirit of criticism of artistic institutions, but because of the deconstruction of modern styles that produces differences in them or combines them with each other. , in each single work. Peter Bürger, however, conceives this juxtaposition of styles and forms (which, incidentally, the author warns, was already observed by Hegel regarding the art of his time) as a source of the current impasses of aesthetic theory.

As the avant-garde radically altered the mode of political engagement in art, Bürger argues that it is necessary to rethink theory. From Kant to Adorno, with the exception of Hegel, aesthetic theory would have been constituted as a theory of the autonomy of art, or, in the author's terms, as an "ideological category of bourgeois society", and it is now necessary to base the theory on the theme of the institution of art, that is, to think of it from the point of view of artistic production, circulation and reception.

It would therefore not be possible, for example, to understand avant-garde art based on the debate between Georg Lukács and Theodor Adorno, since both the former's notion of organic (or realistic) art and the latter's concept of authentic art disregarded the reconduction of art to the vital praxis intended by the vanguards. The most significant contributions would thus come from Bertold Brecht and Walter Benjamin, who emphasized the aesthetic reception of a radically transformed art. In this direction, the challenge of dialectical criticism would be to examine, from then on, the “art institution” as an ideological form of production and circulation of works in advanced capitalism.

However, some drawbacks to Peter Bürguer's considerations should be highlighted, such as the identification between aestheticism, formalism and the autonomy of art, as well as the reduction of the avant-garde movements to the Dada-surreal lineage, despite the groping footer that seeks to extend them. The central problem, however, lies in the assertion of antagonism, always in an ideological key, between the autonomy of the artistic form and the attempt to bring art closer to vital praxis, as these concepts often coexist in harmony in the avant-garde program. It can be said, as Lindner already pointed out in response to Bürger, that the very constitution of the autonomy of the aesthetic is, in origin, linked to the idea of ​​overcoming autonomy, as indicated by the Letters on the aesthetic education of man, by Schiller (Editora Iluminuras). It is enough to remember that, in some cases, the artistic form was able to assert itself as its own reality, endowed with an internal law, and, impregnating the praxis, displacing, even partially, the imaginary and the practical links with life (via design and architecture).

*Ricardo Fabbrini Professor of Philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Art after the vanguards (Unicamp).

Revised version of article published in Journal of Reviews no 2.


[1] Peter Burger Vanguard theory. São Paulo, Cosac Naify, 2008. This same translation, by José Pedro Antunes, was republished in 2017 by Ubu (

[2] Jean-Francois Lyotard. The postmodern condition. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 2015 (

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