Exchange: Geeta Kapur, Saloni Mathur, and Rachel Weiss

This exchange from Art Journal 77, no. 1 (Spring 2018) contains a text by Geeta Kapur, with responses by Saloni Mathur and Rachel Weiss.

Proposition Avant-Garde: A View from the South
Geeta Kapur

The Contemporary and the Avant-Garde

1. The contemporary is now often theorized beyond the frame of history; seen as both irrepressibly transitive and uniquely itself, the concept runs the risk of losing its diachronic edge. The contemporary as fetishized space privileges, paradoxically, a transcendent temporality.

2. Even when qualifying the practice of art and acting as concept and event rather than a sequence in history, the contemporary is always of course imbricated in the historical process. I am interested in bringing to bear upon this process exigency of the punctual moment but also its opposite: the “art” of deploying anachronisms—in slow time and recursive regard. This paradoxical pairing will induce hermeneutic understanding of the contemporary.

3. It still seems useful to continue with the term avant-garde—not with the historicist pressure exercised by the early vanguards but with dense and diverse (cultural) annotation that gives valence and purpose to the key avant-garde dialectic of “art and life”—tested now on the widest political scale across the world.

The South-South Axis

4. To start with an “originary” moment: the Soviet Union in its revolutionary phase defined the role of the political vanguard and opened a space for utopian art thinking. Despite ideological vicissitudes, Soviet art of the 1920s remains the historical avant-garde of the twentieth century. The argument here takes off from another plane: the unraveling of the modern world with successive waves of decolonization peaking around the mid-twentieth century. Artists/activists engaged in anticolonial struggles claimed the privilege of radical consciousness and took on advanced roles as citizens of new national states. Hereon, the avant-garde principle, as defined by twentieth-century Western art, was substantially, tendentially, altered: recall Frantz Fanon’s ontological rendering of black consciousness; the poetics of Négritude; the cumulative effect of the left-aligned IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) movement; revolutionary resistance to dictatorships by Third Cinema from Latin America; and much more. Questions follow: Do cumulative movements of cultural and political dissent still produce precipitous forms of alterity? Is the global South still a valid category to counterbalance the hegemony of the North? Is this the reason for a recently renewed interest in the Bandung movement (1950s); do the Tri-Continental Conference (1960s) and the formation of a powerful Third World aesthetic ask for historical reinscription? Do “memories of underdevelopment” acquire anachronistic significance in judging the model of the developmental State? Does postcolonial theory in its vastly influential role continue to exercise its “deconstructive” leverage?

5. Drawing on this deeply mined terrain, my argument (with reference to Rasheed Araeen, Gerardo Mosquera, Okwui Enwezor, and my Indian colleague Ashish Rajadhyaksha) reinforces the postcolonial with an avant-garde discourse. Even as the hegemony of a modernist aesthetic is dismantled; the teleology of the vanguard questioned; and the formalism of the neo-avant-garde (in its North American variant) upturned, a fresh dynamic and new interventionist strategies—all the way from Brazil to China—come into play.

6. During anticolonial struggles, the relationship between colonizing regimes and subjugated populations was marked by a frank antagonism. In more “settled” postcolonial conditions, creative acts are premised not so much on confrontational as on transactional skills whereby citizens navigate what have been called agonistic relationships between members of a democratic polity. Contradictions within civil society and contending political regimes are to be worked through by constitutional means and hard diplomacy—but this is no more than a claim. Violence within nation-states is evidence enough, as are brutal wars across the globe.

7. Here is a mere index of ground realities in India: To account for battles on the gender front—inadequately framed within civil society norms and subverted by atrocities still practiced on the female population in traditional and modern India. To reckon with Dalit consciousness as it confronts similar and worse crimes by the upper castes, challenges the very premise of Indian modernity, and pushes democracy to the limits of its constitutional promise. To acknowledge how India’s “tribal” populations, whose land rights (along with basic ecological norms) are systematically violated by the State and the corporates, develop “Maoist” strategies of resistance. And to understand the ideology of India’s sub-nationalities fighting the coercive mandate of the Indian State through (often underground) insurgencies.

8. The situation is further fraught when art comes to be positioned within the expanding domain of global capital; it commands collusion and expects independent countries to homogenize: to adopt neoliberal, free market ideologies by declaring policies for economic (/structural) “reforms.” Indeed, the very status of democracy is offered and attested to by the Corporate Gulag. To confront such hostile conditions in a grossly unequal world through the model of agonism—transactions as between “friendly enemies”—seems difficult. The terms of reference have to be vastly complicated.

9. As the global is constituted by capital, it is disrupted by grass-roots struggles, massive migrations, civil society conflicts, and political upheavals. These reveal disparate time-lines, lost trails of discourse and “minor” (now crucial) community histories that can be seen to disaggregate a seemingly homogenized world. Such ruptures on the ground of one country, then another and another, make the political geography of the globe not homogeneous as much as a seismic terrain.

10. While the history of the avant-garde gives us a template for radical disruptions, it is important to keep alive questions of material practice: It follows that situational politics—the very site for avant-garde initiatives—should be rescued from subsumption in the global imaginary. There is need to focus on location (as an archeologist would) and simultaneously shift paradigms (as a philosopher would): a concept like heterotopia speaks of “other spaces”—spaces with several places of difference, real and metaphoric otherness, and rerouted allusions to “utopias.”

Aesthetic Hypotheses

11. There is, finally, the task, on a micro level, of calibrating the semiotic substructure of aesthetics itself; one which offers new ways of reconfiguring sign-systems within generic forms of communication and global modes of sociality. Wider distribution connotes a democratizing impulse; it also implies that hitherto occluded signifiers be brought into focus—not just to highlight cultural difference but to continually disturb established parameters of aesthetics itself.

12. The discursive claims made above produce many possibilities within art practice: (i) a foregrounding of processes with corresponding possibilities of live production and indeterminate itineraries such as multifocal installation; (ii) a reassertion of linguistic and formal concerns that subsist at the core of avant-garde strategies (including futurist projections); (iii) an incremental gain in site imaginaries, and an insistence on situational (and participative) sociality that enacts public forms of praxis; (iv) a rescripting of politicality in the growing ambit of artworks: performative and documentary forms; moving-image narratives; electronic signals, messaging systems, and social media networks; (v) a reworking of the avant-garde dictum—of imbricating art and life—to include dematerialized and “virtually realized” connectivities; (vi) a reckoning of this distributive model of communication, collaboration, and collectivities—on the ground and across cyberspace—so as to be able to shape a precipitate role for an avant-garde.

13. As new norms of subjectivity and masquerade (and other such affective strategies for the self) are sought and, contrarily, as alienated citizens in the expanding grid of global cities become talking heads in some everlasting documentary footage, a poetics as much as a politics needs to be invoked. A developed subjectivity has radical if anarchic potency; we know this from the upheavals produced by the Surrealist movement through the twentieth century (and until today). As with
the Surrealists, a desiring subject may go so far as to (allegorically) invert the historical into the oneiric; deploy mock mimesis to conflate cosmological entropy with ontological ennui, hoping to arrive, through the paradox, at productive contradictions. A contemporary poetics will track such invisible paths where signs of dissent stray and regather into metonymic relays—and thereby perhaps to elide what is now seen as vanguardist hubris. My argument is that the very frisson between poetics and politics will convert combustive energies, internal and external, into an avant-garde position. Far from hubris, this is a case to sustain the singularity of the human voice within an amply articulated plurality; it is also a case to foreground a conjunctural politics—where the contemporary is defetishized and becomes a critical category, making it logical to ask: with what conceptual strategy and in what dissident form shall the avant-garde perform today?

A Response to Kapur’s “Proposition Avant-Garde”
Saloni Mathur

“Proposition Avant-Garde” by Geeta Kapur, the preeminent theorist, critic, and curator of contemporary art in the Indian subcontinent, takes the form of thirteen core claims related to the conditions and urgent challenges of the aesthetic field in India. The proposition is pitched from a specific axis, the geopolitical South, and through a decisive set of historical energies—from Bandung to Fanon to Négritude—that reshape the dominant story of radicalism in twentieth-century art. Here, Kapur has enumerated all manner of temporal, social, and geopolitical contingencies that constitute the “seismic terrain” of our world today, and put forth the perennial problem of art’s possibilities for existence within it. At the heart of the proposition is Kapur’s call to “continue with the term avant-garde,” to imbue it with “dense and diverse (cultural) annotation,” and to give “valence and purpose to the key avant-garde dialectic,” namely, the imbrication between art and life across the widest possible political scale.

Kapur’s investment in the idea of the avant-garde should by now come as little surprise. The concept is a recurrent one in her theoretical writing about art practice in the Indian subcontinent since the 1990s, appearing in several of the essays collected in her influential book When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India (2000). In the book’s final chapter, for example, titled “Dismantled Norms: Apropos an Indian/Asian Avant-garde,” first published in 1996, Kapur argued that the notion of the avant-garde needed to be “unstrung from the logic of a Euro-American master discourse,” and connected to the “hitherto unlogged initiatives” that belonged to specific national or regional histories like those of India and/or Asia.1 Kapur’s response in that essay to the American theorist Hal Foster has been described as “one of the first serious attempts to converse directly” with the long history of intense discussions about the avant-garde in Euro-American theory.2 In enacting what she called a “deliberate deflection” of Foster’s argument, Kapur drew attention to the narrow geopolitical frames and continued indifference to the non-Western world that shaped existing debates on the avant-garde. She thus made visible what Paul Mann has referred to as avant-garde theory’s “discursive economy,” namely, its own vested interests in institutions of thought.3 In later essays, she appeared to harness the concept more firmly to the locus of the city, in particular, to the disruptive possibilities contained in the volatile cityscapes of Mumbai in the 1990s, and the fraught urban expansion of New Delhi in the first decade of the twenty-first century.4

The current proposition by Kapur to “continue with the term” by reinforcing “the postcolonial with an avant-garde discourse” therefore recalls and reactivates these earlier efforts, and raises several questions at the outset. Why, it seems reasonable to ask, does Kapur remain attached to the concept of the avant-garde in relation to contemporary art practice in India, when this concept has been increasingly disparaged as outdated, exhausted, or overexposed? How should we understand the centrality and organizing role of the avant-garde in Kapur’s art criticism and theoretical imagination over time? What is to be gained from continuing with this concept, or at least taking her proposal to do so seriously? And how might such questions themselves alert us to the changing role and identity of theory itself within the unfolding trajectories of art in the subcontinent?

The idea of the avant-garde is a truly ubiquitous one today, often synonymous with any experimental art or a rejection of the status quo in general. Kapur’s usage, by contrast, is highly particular, and might be seen as an act of vigilance against the problem of the concept’s increasingly nonspecific character. To begin to understand her intervention is to grasp its intellectual origins in a tradition of Marxist aesthetic theory that evolved from debates surrounding the German literary critic Peter Bürger’s influential text Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), and the Italian theorist Renato Poggioli’s 1971 text of the same name. Ever since Bürger’s diagnosis that the avant-garde had failed—it failed to resist the forces it opposed, like the market and the institutions of art—the question of the “death” of the avant-garde has been at the center of these debates. In what Mann has called this “seemingly inexhaustible discourse of exhaustion,” there is a dizzying lack of consensus around the questions of where, when, how, and under what conditions an avant-garde project becomes absorbed or obsolete, or inevitably co-opted by the systems it opposes. The death of the avant-garde thus represents not its termination, according to Mann, but its “most productive, voluble, self-conscious and lucrative stage.”5 While some might view the avant-garde as a historical project that has been superseded (with what, however, is not at all clear), Kapur is among those critical theorists who recognize it as a productive discourse of aesthetics driven by its own self-conscious contradictions and the tension of its unrealizability. From this position, the avant-garde is an anti-teleological category that “far from being dead, remains vitally alive” through its internal contradictions and ongoing rearticulation in new and different social and political circumstances.6 It provides, as Kapur states, a “template for radical disruption,” an open-ended placeholder with “deconstructive leverage,” rather than a concrete course of action or a doctrine with a fixed design. In other words, it is precisely the lack of an endgame that imbues the avant-garde with its greatest possibilities. This is what John Roberts has called the “suspensive function” of the avant-garde, namely, the indefinite open-endedness of the discourse itself, its constructive paradoxes and contradictions, and the supple way in which this theoretical framework returns us to the most penetrating aesthetic questions in the end, namely, What is an artist? What is an artwork? What constitutes value in art? What are the progressive possibilities and limitations of art’s relationship to the world?, and so on.7

The curious prose format of Kapur’s present argument, distinctly unlike her conventional expository writing, is also significant in this regard. Remarkably, this text is itself a manifesto, or rather a playful performance of a manifesto, a kind of ironic retake of a high modernist genre. As several scholars have argued, the manifesto, famously formulated as an instrument of revolution by Marx and Engels in 1848, became the exemplary discursive form of avant-garde movements throughout the twentieth century, from Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism, to feminism, anticolonialism, and civil rights in the late 1960s.8 For such groups, the manifesto was both a no-nonsense format of plain speech, “a genre that shoots from the hip,” and a self-conscious rhetorical form in which the complexities of political subjectivity, and the questions of voice and representation, were theatrically negotiated.9 “To proclaim a manifesto,” Tristan Tzara wrote famously in the Dada manifesto of 1918, “you have to want: A.B.C., thunder against 1, 2, 3, lose your patience and sharpen your wings to conquer and spread a, b, c’s little and big.”10 Here, Kapur appears to be mimicking the manifesto’s formal features—its spirited sense of urgency, its forceful enumeration of grievances, its polemical flourishes, and epigrammatic style—with the wry ironic take of Tzara’s Dadaist text.11 If the manifesto represents a narrative structure born from the need to challenge the universalizing narratives of progress and individualism throughout the previous century, then we might ask: what are the narratives that Kapur’s manifesto seeks to challenge today in the late 2010s? These are, to my mind, the unfolding universalisms—transnationalism, neoliberalism, and globalization—that produce, in her words, the fraught “transcendent temporality of the contemporary.” Significantly, her challenge does not emerge from a (non-) place of elevated abstractions, but, in the venerable tradition of the manifesto itself, from the rigorously grounded reality of its writer. Kapur’s experimentation with this historically symbolic form thus stands as a playful and highly inventive component of her larger argument to renew the vocabulary of the avant-garde.

It would be a mistake, I suggest, to view Kapur’s “Proposition Avant-Garde” as a symptom of what Rosalyn Deutsche has called “left melancholy,” the attachment on the part of Marxist theorists to past political ideals like unified social movements or a politics defined exclusively by class.12 For this would imply an adherence to traditionalism, a sense of orthodoxy and inflexibility, and a foundationalist worldview that cannot be accurately attributed to Kapur. On the contrary, her account of a “disaggregated” society, defined in and through the struggles of India’s marginal constituencies along gender, caste, and tribal inequalities, presents a disparate political geography that does not presume such a social totality. Nor does Kapur call for an old-style oppositional avant-garde; she speaks rather of a “conjunctural politics,” and modes of resistance that are tethered to situational and locational criteria. For her, the term must be qualified with “dense and diverse (cultural) annotation,” in order to give it new purpose and life. Else-where in the text, Kapur insists on self-revision: her earlier model of “agonistic reckonings,” she states, “seems difficult” within a neoliberal era, and the terms of reference “have to be vastly complicated,” yet again. In other words, Kapur’s proposition is a revitalizing endeavor; a project of continuous creative renewal; an ongoing, flexible, and dynamic procedure, rather than a static or nostalgic return to the past. It is a proposition that favors instability and indeterminacy, while drawing attention, through its stylistic play, to the forms available for political speech in the present. “Far from hubris,” Kapur reminds us, “this is a case to sustain the singularity of the human voice within an amply articulated plurality.”

In her recent mapping of the historical field of art criticism in post-Independence India, the young Delhi-based writer and curator Vidya Shivadas identifies Kapur as an independent and “interventionist” critical voice who, more than any other art world figure, has brought theoretical understanding to the discourses of contemporary art in the subcontinent. “Steering clear of the nomenclature of art historian even as she has used the tools of the discipline,” Shivadas writes, Kapur’s critical practice “is one that intervened theoretically, ideologically, and in actual interaction with practice.”13 Shivadas further reflects on the implications of an underdeveloped discourse about art for her generation working in India within the new “high speed demands” of the post-1990s, “where critics are pushed into the role of professionals operating within the art market.” “Our feeling of being in a post-historical moment, of navigating through a void, is tied,” she contends, to the compressed time and pressure generated by the “dazzling ascendency” of India’s art market conditions.14 Her own study of five seminal figures in English-language art discourse since Independence, supported by the Hong Kong–based Asia Art Archive, was an attempt to gain critical distance and reflection, and to “move away from these discourses of lack, even as we acknowledge them.”15

It is interesting to contrast Shivadas’s concerns about the sense of directionless-ness of art discourse in India today with the very different conditions of crises around discourse that drove Bürger to formulate his Theory of the Avant-Garde almost half a century ago. Bürger’s theory was written in the aftermath of May 1968, and the failure of the student movements in cities across Europe and North America, which helps to explain the impassioned tone and enduring rhetorical force of his text. “In this situation,” Bürger later reflected, “I transferred, without being conscious of it, utopian aspirations from a society in which they could clearly not be realized to theory. Theory now seemed to be the key that could keep open the door to the future that I imagined, along with Breton, as a finally livable world (“un monde enfin habitable”).”16 Regrettably, the vision of theory in Bürger’s account—its high-stakes relationship to epochal upheaval, and the seriousness of its role in transforming the world—seems increasingly distant to us today in an art world relentlessly oriented to professionalization and market concerns. What appears to have been lost in the rejection of the audacity of this heroic vision was a certain historical and intellectual rigor, a theoretical sophistication, drawn from the essential conviction that discourse or ideas can “keep open the door to the future.” Kapur, for her part, has also recently pointed to the dialectics of hope and failure that drove the intellectual imaginary of the 1960s and imbued it with philosophical and discursive force, describing her formation as “vagabonding,” embracing the bohemian spirit of studios, exhibitions, travel, and protests in places like Delhi, London, and New York.17 This “is precisely the ground,” she has stated, “on which I resurrect, with help of third-worldist Havana, the term and concept of the avant-garde in its other, more diverse and polyphonic registers.”18

Kapur’s “Proposition Avant-Garde” is therefore an act of resurrection, one that is neither nostalgic nor melancholic, but directed toward diversification and regeneration. It is a revivalist effort on multiple fronts because, increasingly, pronouncements about the death of the avant-garde seem to be accompanied by fatal declarations about theory itself. Kapur’s manifesto speaks, at least implicitly, to the widespread consensus that art theory or criticism in the register of Bürger’s historical text has become obsolete, displaced by a proliferation of instrumentalist writing within the dramatic expressions of globalization that characterize contemporary art. Indeed, scholarly rigor or theoretical understanding appears to be of little consequence to the new networks of dealers, gallerists, and auction-house writers in the expanded Indian art world that Shivadas has described. This perennial condition of aftermath, what Foster has described as our current “paradigm-of-no-paradigm,” is even more confusing because it is distinguished, on one side, by the vague claim to “criticality” by almost everyone at once, and on the other, by the renunciation of difficulty or indifference to intellectual discussion altogether.19 No wonder, then, that Kapur, the consummate essayist, would seize the form of the manifesto at this specific moment, in a manner reminiscent of her vocal intervention over thirty-five years ago in the introductory text of the Place for People exhibition (1981).20 That project proved to have long-term consequences for Indian art, in part—as Kapur has noted—because it asserted the primacy of discourse (by seeking to retheorize traditions of narrative painting), and forged a dialogical relationship between the critic and six artists included in the show.21 It stands, in other words, as an exemplary instance of how the manifesto, the “poetic shout” of the twentieth century, has already been seized and re-scripted for India by Kapur, and the malleability of her successive engagements with the form.22

In the end, Kapur’s proposition is a philosophical one that rejects the morbid discourses of death that foreclose a historicized concept of the avant-garde and, indeed, on the role and practice of theory itself. It is an invitation to rethink one of the key theoretical terms in the realm of aesthetics in the past half century, to review and recalibrate its usage and scope, and to dislodge it from its previous scripts. It is a call to rework our existing vocabulary in ever more democratic directions, and to understand art’s discursive economy in a historically informed way. It argues for an avant-garde consciousness, as well as a consciousness of the avant-garde debate. My colleague, the critic and art historian George Baker, drawing on Edward Said’s (and Theodor Adorno’s) account of “late style,” has recently identified what he calls “late criticism.” For Baker, late criticism represents a form of possibility, a “splinter of redemption” in the new era of irrelevance for art criticism. Late criticism is, according to Baker, a criticism of “willfully anachronistic criteria” —not a nostalgic relationship to the past, but a means of exacerbation and intervention.23 The point, Baker argues, “is not to consider criticism as dead, but instead as confronting its death, and making of this confrontation a project.”24 Here, then, is a final way to understand Kapur’s bid to resurrect the (exhausted) concept of the avant-garde in the (outdated) polemical form of the manifesto. This is no weary program of Marxist didactics, but an assiduously self-conscious undertaking that involves creative reckoning and renewal. It is dedicated to the project of passionate criticism, and to activating the “frisson between poetics and politics.” It bears the same antisynchronic spirit and elusive temporality that defined the radical historiography of When Was Modernism. It is therefore a signature text by Kapur, and a proposition I believe we should step up to receive.

Some Thoughts after Kapur and Mather
Rachel Weiss

As it happens, it was in Havana that the term “avant-garde” entered Geeta Kapur’s active vocabulary. She’d been invited to speak at a conference organized as part of the Third Havana Bienal, in 1989, and the experience turned out to be pivotal for her—especially in the context we’re considering here. Twenty years later, I interviewed her as part of the research for a book about that exhibition, and a substantial part of our conversation concerned her encounter with the term and idea of an avant-garde, as deployed in the Latin American context. When Art Journal approached me about this project, I was reminded of that dialogue with Geeta, and so I went back and listened to it again.

Geeta Kapur [reflecting on the aversion in India to the use of the term “avant-garde,” due to its tight association with dominating Western discourses]: Going to Havana meant the possibility of using the term “avant-garde” outside of the hegemony of the West . . . that there was a Latin American discourse which could be internationalist, indigenist, and at the same time speak about avant-garde practice which engaged with, and was critical in relation to, and which was in many ways challenging of the Western canon. So, it was in that context that I think my entire vocabulary almost turned around and changed, and I felt able to relate to internationalism in a certain way, and particularly the avant-garde in a certain way . . . the live encounter with intellectuals, with artists, with the ambience, with this self-confidence, and the affirmative and celebratory nature of that whole society and of the Latin American intelligentsia [was crucially important].

Rachel Weiss [noting that the Bienal had specifically accepted Western contemporary art as a lingua franca among Third World artists—a position which had been criticized by some as self-colonizing, because they accepted contemporary art as a universal language]: So, it’s a tricky line. I think what I’m hearing you say is that the negotiation with that kind of problematic internationalism happens very specifically from different locations . . .

Kapur [critiquing the Bienal curators’ selection of objects with ritual or tribal or folkloric nature]: Claiming an avant-garde status for them, in the face of or in challenge to the Western canon [was problematic]. That was how I saw it, but you’re seeing it from the Latin American side, where that was actually seen as being democratic. [She notes that the Indian perspective would have been critical of merging that kind of object into the category of contemporary or modern art, a boundary broken in India only around 1991 or 1992, with installation, performance, and so on.] I was, in 1989, still very aligned with socially engaged figurative or narrative painting, and very clearly socially engaged . . . with emphatic reference to the local, not for folkloric reasons, but for political reasons.

Weiss It’s an interesting contradiction that you’re describing, I think, in terms of which tradition the work was coming out of. The theme that year was called “Tradition and Contemporaneity,” and part of the way that was being read, it seemed to me, was that tradition was understood as local, while contemporaneity was cast as a sort of subsequent modernism, namely a false universality. But it sounds to me like what you’re saying is that the struggle over tradition had to do with the tradition of modernity, of universalist modernity, and how to pick that up in a kind of resistant way.

Kapur Yes, I think that Indian artists, unlike probably the African artists or even some of the other Asian artists, would have seen themselves as very legitimate heirs of modernity, that they would lay claims on modernity . . . at the intellectual, cultural, and political level. . . . We have engaged with modernity in its universal form, its imperial colonial form through the British, and in the way it has been internalized and rearticulated for our own cultural and political purposes throughout the twentieth century. So the claim to modernity is already well celebrated and mediated within the Indian imagination. So there would be no embarrassment with making alliances with modernism, and making choices within it . . . conscious alliances. So modernity was not seen as something which ipso facto was an imperialist or universalist compulsion, but one that allowed us to make choices.
. . .
Kapur [about the impact on her, in the years since, of having been in Havana in 1989]: I could use, subsequently, in my discourse, the term “avant-garde” . . . and I am virtually, in India, the only one who uses it. At that time, the reasons were that we shouldn’t have to follow that kind of march . . . that we shouldn’t have to use the word in the manner of the West. And now, the argument is, like in much of the rest of the world, that this military term is already passé . . . that there is other terminology to express similar forward movements, and that in any case that whole metanarrative of modernism’s progressivism is over and done with, and it gets more or less identified with [Clement] Greenberg, so there’s every good reason in postmodernism to reject that term. And younger critics . . . reject it for another set of reasons, as against the ones we used in the ’70s and ’80s in India, by people like myself, actually, to critique notions of a globalized avant-garde. So, in one sense, I have used it as a deliberate provocation in discourse, because its absence is a problem in all the discourse on modernism; its conspic­uous absence tells a great deal about the passive aspects of our modernism. The second reason I have continued to use it is that it’s been picked up, as it were, from Latin America. I mean, if Latin America was using it with this kind of originality and panache, then the Chinese started using it for the ’80s, with another kind of provocation. And they’ve adopted the term, almost as against modernism; they say we have not had a modernism of any substantial nature; but we have an avant-garde—we have a contemporaneity and we have an avant-garde. And India seems to be able to take it neither historically nor in terms of contemporaneity; so I insist on it, and I think it is the gift, if it is a gift, that I got from Cuba. People find it, maybe, as an anachronism or as a provocation, one of the two. But I find it necessary for my discursive frame.25

. . .
Titled “Tradition and Contemporaneity,” the conference at the 1989 Havana Bienal was formed around the problematic of how to relocate the Bienal in a complicated and conflictive internationality. Perhaps the first point to make is that both “tradition” and “contemporaneity” were fraught terms, though for different reasons. Tradition, as it pertained outside the Western world, had all too often been viewed from the Western centers as either exotic or primitive. Such ideas linked the traditional to an authenticity that was stuck somewhere in the past. James Clifford had elsewhere highlighted the logic, in order to challenge it: “The various non-Western ‘ethnographic presents’ are actually pasts. . . . What’s different about peoples seen to be moving out of ‘tradition’ into ‘the modern world’ remains tied to inherited structures that either resist or yield to the new but cannot produce it.”26 At the same time, “tradition” had been a fundamental tool of authoritarian and antimodern aspects of some nation-building projects, as in Zaire, while also an element of more leftist nation-building exercises, as in Mexico and India.

An internationally prevalent idea of “contemporaneity,” meanwhile, assumed it to be the obverse of the Third World’s supposed backwardness and underdevelopment, its nonparticipation in both economic and cultural advancement. Moreover, the meaning of both terms had migrated frequently in the postwar period. As the Argentinean art historian Andrea Giunta has noted of her country’s history,

whereas in 1956 internationalization meant, above all, breaking out of isolation, in 1958 it implied joining an international artistic front; in 1960 it meant elevating Argentine art to a level of quality that would enable it to challenge international art spaces; in 1962 attracting European and North American artists to Argentine competitions; in 1964 it brought the “new Argentine art” to international centers; in 1965 it brandished the “worldwide” success of Argentine artists before the local public; and, finally, in 1966, internationalism became increasingly synonymous with “imperialism” and “dependence,” upsetting the previous positivity.27

The instability of all these terms—internationalism, modernity, tradition, contemporaneity—both across time and from one context to another, meant that the conference was dealing with a moving target.

Even beyond the problems inherent in each of these terms, the ideological frameworks that seemed to hold them together as a coherent binary were also troubled. As the Peruvian critic Mirko Lauer pointed out, “Our thinking about the relation between tradition and modernity has followed the evolution of our thinking about what the ‘Third World’ signifies as a social space. . . . It is not surprising that today, when Third Worldism has problems as an instrument of analysis and tool for action, both within and beyond art, the antinomy of tradition/modernity is also in crisis.”28 Since “tradition” had played a specific ideological role in the decolonizing process, it had therefore been the subject of some of the most influential theorizing about culture in the self-defined Third World. Tradition had been argued for in opposition to modernity, and put forward as a key weapon in the ever-present struggle against neocolonial and imperialist incursions into local cultural development. Summarizing those earlier arguments, Lauer spoke of a “modernized” art that was associated with “dominant,” “developmentalist” sectors, in conflict with the “oppressed sectors” that played only a marginal role in capitalism with their artisanry and “primitive” forms. The modern was irreversibly alienated from the local/traditional by virtue of what the Mexican writer Marta Traba had called the “terrorism of the vanguards”: the “altar of modernity” represents the destructive dominion of central markets over the traditional.29 As antidote, Traba and others had proposed an “art of resistance” in the vein of nationalist Mexican muralism—in effect, proposing a regime of liberatory reason as a Third World move against the “instrumental” reason presumed to lie at the heart of Western modernity.

It is important to note that arguments such as these were congruent with a broader turn away from a developmental strategy of “modernization” (i.e., international integration) and toward one that was national or regional in direction.30 These rehabilitations of tradition as a legitimate and contemporary cultural force were, then, a political project. They opposed the stigmatization of tradition within the avant-garde credo of vigorous departure from the past and, more recently, the precarious status of traditions as taken up in postmodern appropriationism. They rejected the complex of ideas in which adherence to tradition was tantamount to stagnation, and in which “traditional” societies were seen as inherently nonmodern and marginal because they operated outside the abiding dialectic between tradition and innovation held to move “historical” societies forward.

By 1989, however, such thinking was proving outdated, especially for its prioritization of identity construction as the principal cultural dynamic. This point was made repeatedly at the conference in Havana. And while anticolonialism was acknowledged as having played an important role in asserting local identities against the force of Eurocentrism, questions were raised concerning what it could offer for negotiating the present.31 The opposition between tradition and contemporaneity that these arguments demanded fit poorly in a reality in which popular expressions of tradition were suffused with, and responsive to, the present day. Furthermore, an essentialist identity politics could not easily be mapped onto the dispersed and diasporic nature of contemporaneous societies, with their ever-accelerating movement of capital, culture, and people. The idea of identities and of communities of interest defined by nationality was incapable of answering to a situation fundamentally defined by the inseparability of cultures—which is, after all, the basic condition in the wake of colonialism. In his remarks at the Bienal conference, the Sudanese artist Rashid Diab took a step in the direction of a more inclusively theorized cultural landscape, retaining the valorization of tradition as legitimately local expression (in this case, in what he identified as the African context), but arguing that the “contemporary” offered a set of tools or materials that could be usefully taken up in the production of meaning, which was normally the work of traditional culture.32

In her paper presented at the 1989 conference, Kapur had insisted on the authoritarian potential of tradition, which in many cases had been propping up the nationalist project of a populist right wing. A doctrinal idea of tradition, she warned, perpetuates the idea of a nativist, ahistorical, and essential subject; in this sense, traditional production is inherently susceptible to conversion into an institutional bulwark, a process through which it loses the adaptability to a living context that was its initial source of value. Even apart from that historical critique, she warned of the burdens that patrimony can impose on cultures struggling to renew themselves.

Her comments seem, in retrospect, to have been at broad variance with the ideas of the Latin Americans, who generally drew much looser boundaries around those two central thematics: this was reflective of the debates about syncretism, hybridity, creolization, and the like, which were pervasive in the region at the time. There was no bright line bifurcating cultural production, in either the tradition-modernity or the local-international binary. The emphasis that emerged in the conference debates was on both the continuities and discontinuities among First and Third Worlds (to use the language of the day), and the broadly diachronic approach to contemporaneity obviated the need to choose sides on that score. In the Bienal itself, and in the formulations that surfaced during those debates, traditional and contemporary cultures, and vernacular and “cultured” art were presented as, in many ways, continuous with one another, rather than staked out across an ideological divide. Meanwhile, analyses of cultural appropriation and resignification in the Latin American context generally pointed to a dynamic framework that was globalist rather than parochial in its principles. It’s also noteworthy, I think, that Kapur made so much of the “self-assuredness and panache” with which her interlocutors in Havana deployed “those tricky concepts of modernity, internationalism, and avant-garde . . . in the service of a critical project”—a point that calls to mind her attribution of a certain “passivity” to Indian modernism in her recent text. What her comments suggest, it seems to me, is that Kapur heard in those debates the germ of precisely the audacious and mobilized avant-garde that she now calls for so urgently.

Speculating a bit, I also wonder whether she didn’t perhaps also hear, in the arguments for a temporality at once traditional and contemporary, a potential way to conceive of the past as something other than simply past—a contention that she puts at the center of her call for an avant-garde of today. In place of an either/or formulation, those discussions had tried to be accountable to the realities of a situation in which both tradition and contemporaneity existed simultaneously, in a productively complex and fraught relation. Tradition was conceived in broadly transcultural and contemporary terms, and linked to an idea of popular creativity. Traditions, in this sense, were residual rather than archaic, and in fact often closely related to emergent artistic or cultural forms. Traditions, in other words, were a living force that could be articulated in a contemporary (international) idiom, and they were important because they made manifest the complicated history of cultural encounters within the colonial and postcolonial processes. This approach facilitated and legitimated a Third World claim to contemporaneity while recognizing its capacity to originate its own contemporary forms. All these arguments sync well with Kapur’s current insistence that it is the ambition of the avant-garde—that anachronistic presence— rather than the historical form of it, that remains available to us now as a potent node of possibility.

In her musings on the “South-South axis,” the most elaborated of the text’s three sections, Kapur recalls earlier manifestations of the “avant-garde principle” across the global South and asks a lot of questions—questions that probably didn’t feel so daunting in 1989, questions about the basic building blocks of change: Do movements (still) have a cumulative character? In what sense, and in what geographic formation (if any) is solidarity still a meaningful concept? Why do we still care about those older radical formations? She insists that we reckon honestly with the pretenses at “universal” truth that underlie the appeals, for instance, to the ameliorative forms of agonism and other softening claims about the realities of power—broad claims meant to have universal applicability, but which she cuts down to the much smaller realm in which those principles can be taken seriously as political discourse. Kapur is writing from a place that puts extreme pressure on the idea of political hope: Narendra Modi was elected prime minister of India in May 2014, right around the time of Kapur’s manifesto. (For that matter, I too write from such a place; Saloni Mathur and Art Journal approached me about this project at another seismic moment, the Trump one.) Kapur is working to frame an avant-garde zone of possibility that doesn’t renege on the political promise of being a meaningful force—an audacious move, given the present circumstances. Hence her eloquent call, now, for a usurpation of the very terminology, the right to name a practice, an avant-garde enmeshed in equal commitments to politics and to aesthetics, considering them inextricable in its overall project.

Kapur is placing a tremendous amount of weight on a single word, one that she knows will rankle. She was very clear, in 2009, about the intended provocation. All these terms—power, culture, politics, avant-garde—are highly contested. Kapur provokes us to reconsider these concepts in order to reenergize them. But she still—and this might be the anachronistic aspect of her polemic —assumes that, even in their reimagining, those terms will retain some stable basis of meaning. This is probably the aspect of her polemic that is most likely to raise objections. But if we take it as a strategic use of language, rather than as a definitional exercise, we can find the constructive potential that Saloni Mathur insists on in her response. Kapur’s call is radical in scope: she demands that we “continually disturb established parameters of aesthetics itself;” that we “rescript politicality”—what she’s after is a “precipitate role” for the avant-garde. “Precipitate” is an interesting word choice—the avant-garde she speaks of is not form, but formative.

The anachronism is deliberate, but not in the nostalgic sense that we might assume. Kapur insists, in the muscular elegance of her manifesto, that we (once again) aspire on a scale now considered immodest and irrelevant. In emphasizing the always incomplete results of decolonization and of the process of democratic emancipation, in emphasizing the baselines of violence, inequality, mass migration, and the pervasive tendencies to wish them away into the past, her call for a renewed engagement with the avant-garde is a call also for a more purposeful engagement with the failures of social movements to arrive at their goals, and a reframing of those as loam rather than grave.

The catalytic effect of Kapur’s Havana encounter is proof enough that concepts take on new life as they are moved into new circumstances, which ought to cancel out any complaints that Kapur is beating a dead horse. In 2009 she spoke of the “gift” that she received in Havana—which still drives her commitments decades later. If that encounter was with a discourse that was intent on moving beyond the creation of a usable past to a critical analysis of culture in the contemporary sphere; if it was, in broad terms, a move away from the literalism, or realism, of identity politics and nationalist/regionalist legitimation, to a postrealist, postnativist, transnational solidarity and debate; if it became a kind of critical reflection reprising, or interrupting, the institution of the avant-garde and reworking it toward a different end, a project of transforming the terms of the inquiry—then all of that remains an animating force, echoing forcefully in her current call.

The situation in India that Kapur describes has broad similarities to that of Havana. In India, too, the global commoditization of art could potentially lead to a relative alientation of theory and critical discourse. It will likely not be that different in many other places as well. To call now for an avant-garde is an act of intransigence, and of commitment to an art that supersedes our mostly low expectations in a time in which the vaunted dream of art-into-life has been largely reduced to a funding category. It seems that the best we can do with regard to any vaguely utopian desire is to shelve it delicately into the category of Not Yet. Kapur has no compunctions about violating that gentlemen’s agreement. Mathur refers to our “perennial condition of aftermath,” and that seems a painfully apt diagnosis. Kapur challenges us to do something about that. She deliberately adopts the posture of contrarian, in order to push us to sharpen our thinking. She calls for an ambitious art—art as an activity that, however provisional its achievements, could still stand as a space of thinking otherwise, of proposing otherwise, of doing otherwise. If we take up the idea of an avant-garde on Kapur’s terms, as an arena of thought and action that can push the question and call the question, then we could find in her provocation her recirculation of that gift back to us.

Geeta Kapur is a Delhi-based critic and curator. Her essays are extensively anthologized; her books include Contemporary Indian Artists (1978), When Was Modernism (2000), and Critic’s Compass: Navigating Practice (forthcoming). She is a founder-editor of Journal of Arts and Ideas, a former advisory member of Third Text, and a trustee and advisory editor of Marg. Among her curatorial projects have been Dispossession, Johannesburg Biennale (cocurator, 1995); Bombay/Mumbai, for Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis, Tate Modern, London (cocurator, 2001); subTerrain, House of World Cultures, Berlin (2003); and Aesthetic Bind (five exhibitions), Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai (2013–14).

Saloni Mathur is a professor of art history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her most recent book, A Fragile Inheritance: Radical Stakes in Contemporary Indian Art, is forthcoming with Duke University Press.

Rachel Weiss is a writer, educator, and lapsed curator, currently professor of arts administration and policy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Major publications include Making Art Global: The Third Havana Biennial (Afterall Books), To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art (University of Minnesota Press), Por América: la obra de Juan Francisco Elso (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas: coauthor and editor) and On Art, Artists, Latin America and Other Utopias by Luis Camnitzer (University of Texas Press: editor). Major curatorial projects include Global Conceptualism 1950s–1980s: Points of Origin (Queens Museum of Art, NYC: codirector with Luis Camnitzer and Jane Farver) and Ante América (Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, Bogotá, and traveled in South, North, and Central America: cocurator, with Gerardo Mosquera and Carolina Ponce de León). Her current book project is titled Now What?: The Quandaries of the Radical Past.

  1. Geeta Kapur, When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India (New Delhi: Tulika, 2000): 374–76.
  2. Elizabeth Harney, “Postcolonial Agitations: Avant-Gardism in Dakar and London,” in “What Is an Avant-Garde?” special issue, New Literary History 41, no. 4 (Autumn 2010): 740.
  3. Paul Mann, The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 6–7.
  4. Geeta Kapur and Ashish Rajadhyaksha, “Bombay/Mumbai 1992–2001” in Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis, ed. Iwona Blazwick, exh. cat. (London: Tate Publishing, 2001), 16–41; and Geeta Kapur, “Delhi,” in Art Cities of the Future: 21st Century Avant-Gardes. exh. cat. (London: Phaidon, 2013), 89–112.
  5. Mann, 3.
  6. John Roberts, “Revolutionary Pathos, Negation, and the Suspensive Avant-Garde,” in “What Is an Avant-Garde?” special issue, New Literary History 41. no. 4 (Autumn 2010): 717.
  7. Ibid., 720.
  8. See Janet Lyon, Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999); Martin Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); and Laura Winkiel, Modernism, Race, and Manifestos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
  9. Lyon, 2.
  10. Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto” (1918), in Manifesto: A Century of Isms, ed. Mary Ann Caws (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 297.
  11. See Lyon, 3.
  12. See Rosalyn Deutsche, Hiroshima after Iraq: Three Studies in Art and War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 2.
  13. Vidya Shivadas, “Mapping the Field of Indian Art Criticism: Post-Independence” (report to Asia Art Archive, 2009), 41, at, as of February 2, 2018.
  14. Ibid., 2–6.
  15. Ibid., 5.
  16. Peter Bürger, “Avant-Garde and Neo-Avant-Garde: An Attempt to Answer Certain Critics of Theory of the Avant-Garde,” in “What Is an Avant-Garde?” special issue, New Literary History 41, no. 4 (Autumn 2010): 698.
  17. See Sabih Ahmed, “Landing Imaginaries: An Interview with Geeta Kapur,” Sarai Reader 09: Projections (Delhi: Sarai Programme, CSDS, 2013), 248–56.
  18. Geeta Kapur, “Vagabondage: Art and Life in the Sixties” (paper presented at “Revisiting the Global 1960’s: An Interdisciplinary International Conference,” School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, March 4–5, 2011), 13.
  19. Hal Foster, Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes) (London: Verso, 2012), 128–29.
  20. Geeta Kapur, “Partisan Views about the Human Figure,” rep. in Horn Please: Narratives in Contemporary Indian Art, ed. Bernhard Fibicher and Suman Gopinath, exh. cat. (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2007), 33–40.
  21. See Natasha Ginwala, “Geeta Kapur: On the Curatorial in India, Part 2” (interview), Afterall Online, 2011, at, as of February 2, 2018.
  22. Mary Ann Caws, “The Poetics of the Manifesto: Nowness and Newness,” in Manifesto: A Century of Isms, xxi.
  23. George Baker, “Late Criticism,” in Canvases and Careers Today: Criticism and Its Markets, ed. Daniel Birnbaum and Isabelle Graw (New York and Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008), 31.
  24. Ibid., 35.
  25. Phone conversation with Geeta Kapur, December 9, 2009. On the use of the term “avant-garde” in Chinese discourse, see, for example, Minglu Gao, Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth Century Chinese Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).
  26. James Clifford, “The Others: Beyond the ‘Salvage’ Paradigm,” in “Magiciens de la Terre,” special issue, Third Text 3, no. 6 (1989): 73–74, emphasis in orig.
  27. Andrea Giunta, Avant-Garde, Internationalism, and Politics: Argentine Art in the Sixties, trans. Peter Kahn (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 9.
  28. Mirko Lauer, “Notas sobre plástica, identidad y pobreza en el Tercer Mundo,” conf. paper, distributed in transcript after “Tradition and Contemporaneity” (Havana, 1989), 20.
  29. Marta Traba quoted in Lauer, 21, my translation.
  30. The debate in culture had important connections to broader theories about development. Modernization theory, mostly expounded in Europe and the United States, considered underdevelopment the result of internal conditions, and held that development in poor countries should follow the pattern that had been established by already developed countries, and with their help and leadership. Dependency theory, on the other hand, was developed largely by Latin American and/or Marxist writers and became increasingly influential in the 1960s and 1970s as an alternative way to understand the chronic syndromes of underdevelopment in the Third World. It argued that development and underdevelopment were relational and structural, with the core of wealthy nations dominating a periphery of poor ones that were exploited as the source of cheap labor and raw materials. Dependency theory, then, suggested that in order for underdeveloped nations to develop, they would have to break the cycle of their dependency on developed nations and pursue internal growth. This led to, among other policy tendencies, the idea of industrialization based on import substitution. See, for example, Jean Franco, The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America in the Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
  31. José Rabasa has provided a helpful definition of this term: Eurocentrism is not only “a tradition that places Europe as a universal cultural ideal embodied in what is called the West,” but also “a pervasive condition of thought.” Rabasa quoted in Santiago Colás, “Of Creole Symptoms, Cuban Fantasies, and Other Latin American Postcolonial Ideologies,” PMLA 110, no. 3 (May 1995): 392.
  32. Rashid Diab, “Hacia una contribución peculiar del arte africano contemporáneo a la historia universal del arte y a una comprensión nuestra de la estética,” conf. paper, in Debate Abierto Tradición y Contemporaneidad en la Plástica del Tercer Mundo (Havana: Centro Wilfredo Lam, 1989), 14–18.