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Hanno Ehrlicher (Augsburg)


This dossier is the product of the second conference of the European Network for Modernist and Avant-Garde Studies (EAM), which convened in Poznań, Poland, in 2010. I organized one of the sections of that conference, and the presentations and discussions that took place were so innovative and fruitful that the participants agreed on the need to compile a dossier in order to present their findings to the public. Philologie im Netz (PhiN) agreed to include this dossier as a special issue in its supplemental series. Publishing this collection in an internet periodical is especially appropriate given the fact that a number of the essays compiled here –those by Mechthild Albert, Thorben Jelsbak und Nanette Rißler-Pipka– focus on the intermedial dimensions of the newspaper as a medium; these findings can be presented more easily and more clearly utilizing the text-picture linking functions enabled by hypertext technology than would be the case in more conservative print media. In general, I am convinced that the field of avant-garde research would do well to embrace technology in the presentation of our research, given that the objects of our study are typically marked as having made very creative use of contemporary technology. I would also like to take this opportunity, on behalf of all of us who contributed to this dossier, to extend our heartfelt thanks to the editors of PhiN for providing us a home to bring this avant-garde research to light and to Vanessa Schlüter for her help and great efforts in setting up the texts.

Before proceeding to study the individual pieces, the reader should note that we will not even attempt to reduce the different case studies to a simple common denominator. Collectively, rather than coming to a simple result that can be announced in advance, the articles included here open up a problematic field that has been mostly ignored in avant-garde research to date, that being the complex relationship between popular culture or folklore on the one hand and the avant-garde on the other. We know now that a "popular avant-garde" is only an apparent impossibility (see Silverman 2010), but there is as yet no satisfactory explanation of the varying functions of popular culture within the avant-garde for the historical avant-gardists. This dossier explores this complex relationship via a combination of an extensive cultural comparative approach alongside an intensive media-specific approach. These essays secure a basic comparability among objects by concentrating on a specific medium–the cultural magazine–which played such an important role among avant-gardists that it is nearly impossible to overstate its importance as a forum for establishing groups and representing their goals. This comparability should permit research into the conflicts between high and low art across cultures based on shared medial bases. With this approach, this dossier self-consciously works in the direction of a suggestion that Andreas Huyssen made some time ago. Huyssen suggested using the dynamic of the "great divide" (Huyssen 1993), on which he focused in his own research and which he established as a central characteristic of aesthetic modernity, and treating it as an "expanded field" in an increasingly globalized area of cultural studies. With the exception of Nanette Rißler Pipka’s article, which takes a closer look at Arte Joven, a turn-of-the-century Spanish art magazine and discovers there the first signs and the beginnings of the problematic clash of high and low as the avant-gardists understood it, this dossier will focus on the 1920s and 1930s, the avant-garde’s high-water mark.

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Without claiming to summarize and synthesize all of the insights from the different articles, a short introduction to the historical and cultural conditions that formed the basis for the case studies presented here is in order. The first such condition could be called "cultural globalization," which was not only a determining basis for the avant-gardists but also something they actively helped bring about. Second, the role of the magazine in the formation of the avant-garde shall be discussed, as will, third, the relationship between the avant-garde and popular culture, the central problem of all of the articles compiled here.

1. Avant-garde Cultures in the Expanded Field of Globalization

The decidedly international flavor of these views on the phenomenon of popular culture in the historical avant-gardists’s magazines was apparent yet in Poznań. Céline Mansanti’s essay demonstrating the links between Europe and the "New World" set the stage right away. Geraldine Rogers’s article, which was specifically solicited for this dossier, deals with the dispute over the value of the popular between two magazines within the cultural milieu of Buenos Aires, thus extending the discussion to South America. The connection between Europe and the Americas that Mansanti explicitly deals with, and which implicitly plays a big role in the two case studies focusing on the Spanish-speaking metropoles Madrid and Buenos Aires, shows that the will to inter- and transnationality, practically present in all variations of the avant-garde between the two World Wars, reflected an increasingly linked, globalized culture. There is a great deal of evidence for this, such as the (never implemented) Dadaglobe project; a transnationally acting, constructivist Internationale that manifested and was expressed in an internationalism that was important in the naming of magazines like I10; and a surrealist movement whose global ambitions manifested themselves in the imagining of an alternative world map that was published in the Belgian magazine Variétés in 1929 (Figure 1).

Fig. 1: "Le Monde au temps des surréalistes" ("The World at the Time of the Surrealists") Variétés, June 1929, 26–27, Click on Image for Enlargement

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The tendency towards a border-crossing network of imagined communities beyond national territories often met its limits, however. It was thwarted not only by the flourishing individual rivalries that extended well beyond the artistic circle as well as by nationalist social moods and hegemonic power claims. The boisterous fight over the localization of a standard-defining intellectual "meridian" between Martín Fierro and the Gaceta Literaria (1927) is an excellent example of this phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking world. The post-colonial links that had been strengthened between the former periphery and the former motherland during the era of geopolitical change after 1898–when Spain lost both its war against the U.S. and its last remaining colonies, chief among them Cuba–were dissolved during this power struggle, riven by external pressures and by internal disputes. In the European debates on modernity, the Spanish-speaking world often was, and still is, neglected as an allegedly uninteresting periphery. We can see this with reference to the large-scale, English-language project, The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines (Brooker /Thacker 2009).These three volumes purport a "global" exploration of modernity, starting in Great Britain and Ireland, but they ignore the Spanish-speaking world entirely. Three articles in this dossier –by Nanette Rißler-Pipka, Mechthild Albert and Geraldine Rogers– discuss the Spanish-speaking avant-gardists. These pieces are linked by their innovative methodological contributions and show how new perspectives on avant-garde research can be profitably opened from the alleged "edges" of modernity. Generally, this dossier is concerned with overcoming the fixation on the presumed cultural centers of the avant-gardists in order to analyze the breaks and contradictions within "the" avant-garde paradigm, breaks and contradictions that stem from the intercultural heterogeneity of the avant-garde, which never pursued uniformity but was always a multiply broken and often contradictory project.

2. Modern Print Culture and the Reviews of the Avant-garde

Although the relationship between the cultural avant-garde and cultural modernism is a permanent issue of debate within the field of modernist studies, it is clear that both movements are based on modernity in a broader sense, that is to say, on the nineteenth century social and technological modernization of the West, with Europe and North America as leading forces. Alexis de Tocqueville outlined the important role that the printing press has played in the process of modern nation building in his De la Démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America [1836]). Print culture has continued to play a pivotal role in theories of modern nationalism ever since. John Stuart Mill, for example, argued quite in the line of Tocqueville when he said that:

The real Political Unions of England are the Newspapers. It is these which tell every person what all other persons are feeling, and in what manner they are ready to act: it is by these that the people learn, it may truly be said, their own wishes, and trough these that they declare them. The newspapers and the railroads are solving the problem of bringing the democracy of England to vote, like that of Athens, simultaneously in one agora; and the same agencies are rapidly effacing those local distinctions which rendered one part of our population stranger to another; and are making us more than ever (…) a homogeneous people (Mill 1979: 165)

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Benedict Anderson , in his seminal study Imagined Communities, treats modern print technologies in much the same way. Anderson asserts that these technologies, along with modern transport systems, are fundamental prerequisites of the rise of a community consciousness based on "the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time" (Anderson 1983 : 31).

According to these authors, modern print cultures created a new, democratic and homogenous mass-identity at the expense of old regional identities transmitted via folklore, by oral traditions based on the non-progressive circularity of myth. The printing press was not simply the agent of a destruction of folklore in favor of a rationalized modern nation, however; rather, the printing press helped create a new kind of folklore, the "Folklore of industrial Man, " which Marshall McLuhan discussed in his lesser-known first book The Mechanical Bride. In this book, which was published in 1951 but conceived long before, in the 1930s, McLuhan argues that discontinuity, not homogeneity, is the main effect of the new forms of industrialized print communication. Rather than focusing on the illustrated self-consciousness of the individual reader who perceives himself as a member of a greater nation, McLuhan instead classifies magazines as collectively constructed, artificial dream-works. As he commented on the front page of the New York Times(Figure 2). "Any paper today is a collective work of art, a daily 'book' of industrial man, an Arabian Night’s entertainment in which a thousand and one astonishing tales are being told by an anonymous narrator to an equally anonymous audience." (McLuhan 1951: 3)

Fig. 2: The Newspaper as an "Arabian night’s entertainment", seen by Marshall McLuhan, Click on Image for Enlargement

This new technology-based folklore became better known and was theorized a few years later as "pop-art," a term coined in 1957. We need to locate the reviews of the avant-gardes between modern bourgeois, non-folkloric, nation-building newspapers and the new postmodern, mass-folklore magazines. Exactly what role did the avant-gardes play in the transformation of democratic popularity into a new industrialized, artificial folk-culture? Did they "still" belong to modernity, even though they criticized its failures, or were they "already" post-modern, anticipating the culture of patchwork discontinuity after the decline of the great modern teleological progress narrative? While we cannot fully answer this fundamental question, I would like to summarize some of the major characteristics of avant-garde reviews and magazines during the inter-war period:

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§  Avant-garde reviews were surely much more than just mirrors of the nations where they were published. They were tools for building a new utopian society, an inter- or even transnational network of artists, a dissident avant-garde community, situated outside the mainstream of normal citizens, who hardly read those reviews. Even before he became the chief advertiser of Futurism, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti established a network for the future by hosting the modernist discussions on free verse (verso libre) in his review Poesia. The list of avant-garde reviews that followed and promoted such international exchanges is quite long, from the failed Dadaglobe project (Sanouillet 1966, Sheppard 1982) to the constructivist review I10, which laid claim to the building of the new Internationale of artists in its title (Helmond 1994). Those artistic communities were not meant as a social no-man's-land of outsiders. Despite their limited circulation, they had high ambitions to rule society and to form it according to their own image in a peculiar short circuit of ethics and aesthetics. Most avant-garde reviews not only exchanged their numbers with other reviews, they also campaigned for the other avant-gardes. Often they also shared contributions and exchanged writers or illustrators in person.

§  In order to become a real formative force of a new artistic community, the review had to fulfill a twofold purpose: it had to serve as a melting pot of the individuals and their different efforts to form a group-identity, and it had to make this group identity known. This is the reason for the ample affinities between the avant-garde review and the manifesto. Manifestos were not only frequently published in reviews, but some reviews even became manifestos themselves, as was the case of the Blast Review, the platform of the London Vortex.

§   The reviews had to find ways to publicize the new forms of art, but this publicity had to extend beyond commercial concerns. The reviews were more than just a medium to comment on, illustrate and promote works of art that had been independently constructed. Published by the artistes themselves and not by professional editors, the reviews were manifestations of art on their own and constituted a performative that transgressed the purely informative or commenting functions of communication. Although they used commercial advertising instruments, commercial means surely were not their main raison d’être. Dada magazines, for example, integrated commercials to transform them into non-commercial collages and to give them back to society in a kind of potlatch-economy that transgressed the norms of "rational" capitalist financial economy. The fact that many magazines only appeared once is thus not so much proof of their failure, but a sign of an excessive engagement.

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3. Enemies of the People and Lovers of the Popular: Avant-garde Meets Popular Culture

But what does this utopian social engagement of the avant-garde mean for popular culture? There is no general overall concept defining the popular either in avant-garde reviews or in the art theories of the 1920s; instead, we find there a thorough ambivalence about the subject. Avant-gardists reacted to the popular along a spectrum running from extremely critical, even hostile attitude toward the modern democratic bourgeois popular as described by Tocqueville and others, to a much more positive view of the popular. Avant-gardists at the former end of the spectrum did not enter the discursive agora that had emerged alongside the industrial print media in order to affirm democratic equality, but rather to dismiss it as mediocrity and a downward-levelling massification. This is very much the case with Futurism, which inherited both the aristocratic Nietzschean ideal of the Übermensch as well as the anarchist Stirnerean ideal of the new ego freed from its commitments to moral laws. The title of the first Catalan Futurist review, published by Joan Salvat-Papaseit in 1917, is symptomatic in this sense: Un enemic del Poble. Fulla de subversió espiritual –The Enemy of the People: Pamphlet of Spiritual Subversion (Figure 3).

Fig. 3: The "enemy of the people": front page of the first number of Salvat-Papasseits "paper of spiritual subversion", march 1917, Click on Image for Enlargement

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Later, when Ortega y Gasset tried in 1925 to define the main tendency of the "new art" of his time as dehumanization, he starts his reflections with the sociological claim that the new art must necessarily be unpopular:

Todo el arte joven es impopular, y no por caso y accidente, sino en virtud de un destino esencial […] el arte Nuevo tiene a la masa en contra suya, y la tendrá siempre. Es impopular por esencia, más aún, es antipopular. [...] El arte joven, con solo presentarse, obliga al buen burgués a sentirse tal y como es: buen burgués, ente incapaz de sacramentos artísticos, ciego y sordo a toda belleza pura (Ortega y Gasset 1958: 2-5)1

This invective against democratic popularity placed Ortega fully in line with the anti-bourgeois aesthetics dominant at the end of the nineteenth century. It also continued the fight against the "bad popularity" spurred by the printing press that Richard Wagner had inveighed against in 1878 in his Public and Popularity, a study originally published in three parts in the Bayreuther Blätter.

What the Spanish philosopher failed to understand, however, was the difference between the criticized "bad" bourgeois popularity and another, alternative, non-bourgeois popularity which was indeed one of the main allies of the avant-garde. This is why for Ortega, Surrealism and its postulate that poetry can be made by everyone was nothing but the rhetoric of the "gutter" and part of the rebellion of the masses that he criticized so fiercely.2 He would not have needed to look abroad to see that the new art did not necessarily need to be antipopular to be anti-bourgeois. One example of this is Lorcas’s 1928 Romancero gitano and the reemergence of appreciation for the flamenco folk tradition generally among the Spanish avant-gardes. Ortega’s inability to appreciate theoretically the new popular forms that the avant-garde intended to create is representative of attitudes among 1920s intellectuals more broadly. Notable contributors at the other end of the spectrum were Antonio Gramsci, who attempted to define a "national-popular" cultural concept as an alternative to regnant capitalist and fascist models,3 and Walter Benjamin, who greatly appreciated the "profane illuminations" that the surrealist avant-garde extracted from a low, popular culture neglected by the bourgeoisie (Benjamin 1999).

What Ortega saw as the essential anti-popularity of the avant-garde might be described better as the search for new people outside the established public agora. In their attempts to configure this new popularity, the avant-gardes found different ways of becoming popular:

§  One way the avant-garde sought to define this new popularity was via the revaluation of existing folklore-traditions, whether autochthonous – as was the case with Spanish flamenco – or not. Avant-garde "primitivism" can be described in part as the appropriation of non-European folklore – it sought out and appropriated new images, forms and folklore elements from outside of its native traditions, from African masks, as celebrated in Einstein’s Negerplastik (1915), to indigenous Mexican peyote cults, as in Artauds D’un voyage au pays des Tarahumaras (1945).

§  The avant-garde also appropriated elements of the contemporary industrialized mass-culture and "low brow" phenomena that did not lack a large popular tradition, such as football,4 the variety circus, popular cabaret or slapstick cinema. In doing so, the avant-garde moved from criticizing technological modernization as an agent of democratic down-leveling and instead praised it as an agent of reform, even of revolution.

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§  While avant-garde use of popular culture does not offer an index of a homogenous avant-garde identity, it nevertheless constitutes a field of interests in conflict. Popular cultures served not only as instruments to fight capitalistic bourgeois culture, but also to distinguish one avant-garde from the other. One major difference that is beyond the scope of the present dossier is that between the European and the non-European avant-gardes, the latter of which sometimes had to reappropriate folklores that other avant-gardes had already disappropriated. This was the case in the Brazilian anthropophagic movement, which affirmed ethnic identity based on Tupinamba folklore less against a hegemonic bourgeois culture than against European claims of universalism. Thus, the famous question from Shakespeare’s Hamlet –"To be or not to be, that is the question"– is rearticulated in the Manifesto Antropófago as "Tupy or not tupy, that is the question" (Andrade 1928: 3).

While the following contributions do not exhaustively explore such a conflicted and complex field of cultural dynamics, they do explain the central lines of conflict and show that the avant-garde, despite their lack of popularity, was very well aware of the high value of low popular culture as a strategic instrument in the construction of a culture of the future.


Anderson, Benedict (1983): Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso.

Andrade, Oswald de (1928): "Manifesto antropófago", in: Revista de Antropofagia 1, pp. 3; 7.

Benjamin, Walter (19992): "Der Sürrealismus. Die letzte Momentaufnahme der europäischen Intelligenz", in: Gesammelte Schriften. Ed by Rolf Tiedemann/ Hermann Schwepenhäuser, Frankfurt/ M.: Suhrkamp, Bd. II.1, 295–310.

Brooker, Peter/ Thacker, Andrew (ed.) (2009–2013): The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Oxford: Oxford U.P.

     Vol. I: Britain and Ireland 1880–1955.

     Vol. II: North America 1894–1960.

Vol. III: Europe 1880–1940.

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Clausen, Jorgen Stender (1973): "Antonio Gramsci e il concetti di nazionale-populare", in: Revue Romane 8 (1973), 45–56.

Hecken, Thomas (2007): Theorien der Populärkultur. Bielefeld: transcript.

Helmond, Token van (red.) (1994): I 10. Sporen van de avant-garde. Heerlen.

Huyssen, Andreas (1993): After the Great Divide. Modernism, mass Culture and Postmodernism. Basingstoke u.a.: Macmillan.

– (2002): "High/Low in an Expanded Field, in: Modernism/modernity 9:3 363–374.

McLuhan, Marshall (1951): The Mechanical Bride. Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: Vanguard Press.

Mill, John Stuart (1977): "De Tocqueville on Democracy in America II". In: Essays on Politics and Society Part I [1832]. Ed. J. M. Robson. Toronto u. Buffalo: Univ. of Toronto Press, 153–204 (= The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Vol. XVIII)

Ortega y Gasset, José (19585): La deshumanización del arte. Madrid: Revista de Occidente.

  (198625): La rebelión de las masas. Madrid: Espasa Calpe.

Silverman, Renée M. (ed.) (2010): The Popular Avant-Garde. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Sanouillet, Michel (1966): "Le Dossier de 'Dadaglobe'", in: Cahiers Dada/Surréalisme 1 (1966), 111–119.

Sheppard, Richard (ed) (1982): Zürich – Dadaco – Dadaglobe: The Correspondence between Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara and Kurt Wolff (1916–1924). Tayport : Hutton Press.

Wagner, Richard (1883): "Publikum und Popularität", in: Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, Bd. 10: Leipzig: G.W. Fritzsch, 85–122.

Picture Credtis

Fig 1: Variétés: revue mensuelle illustrée de l'esprit contemporain. Bruxelles, 2.1929/30, pp. 26f.

Fig. 2: Un enemic del Poble. Fulla de subversió spiritual, Nr. 1, march 1917. Facsimile Reprint, Barcelona: Leteradura 1976.

Fig. 3: Marshall McLuhan: The Mechanical Bride. Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: Vanguard Press 1951, p. 2.

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1 "All young art is unpopular, and not by case or accident, but for an essential destination [...] New art has the masses against it, and always will have. It is unpopular in essence, indeed, it is antipopular. [...] The young art, just for the fact to present itself, forces the good bourgeois to feel what he is: a good citizen, a being incapable of artistic sacraments, blind and deaf to all pure beauty."

2 Ortega was deeply suspicious of Surrealism's populist tendencies, which were exemplified by Lautréamont's programmatic dictum, "La poésie doit être faite par tous, non par un", a dictum frequently cited by Breton since 1919. These suspicions motivated the following invective in La rebelión de las masas: "El superrealista cree haber superado toda la historia literaria cuando ha escrito (aquí una palabra que no es necesario escribir) donde otros escribieron 'jasmines, cisnes y faunesas.' Pero claro es que con ello no ha hecho sino extraer otra retórica que hasta ahora yacía en las letrinas" (Ortega y Gasset 1986: 137ff.)

3 For Gramsci's concept of the "national-popular," see Clausen 1973; for his influence in the field of cultural studies, see Hecken 2007: 127–135.

4 See, for example, the Dada review Jedermann sein eigener Fußball. The only number of this little magazine in tabloid-format was published in February 1919.