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Anticipating a revolution in Russia was important to the invention of the avant-garde, but art itself in the modern sense is a product of the French Revolution. Groys explains that before 1789 we only had design, works made to direct or instruct. The revolution invented art for contemplation. Once the past was declared politically irrelevant, aesthetic disinterest replaced the search for ethical or moral relevance or usefulness when looking at it. Groys quotes Immanuel Kant at the beginning of The Critique of Judgment (1790), explaining how all that might have to do with why a building was where it was needed to be put aside if one were to judge (one’s experience of) it aesthetically.
Groys does not say so, but the French Directory literally burned Raphael’s and others’ tapestries to get the gold and silver thread out. This could be seen as a precedent for Kazimir Malevich’s call to burn the art of the past, and it is in terms of such irreversible violence that he describes Malevich’s Black Square as revolutionary in a deeper sense than art that directly “criticized the political status quo or advertised a coming revolution.” Groys talks about a show in the 1930s in Russia in which Malevich was presented as predecessor to the revolution. One gets the sense that by the thirties, with Trotsky safely in exile, the attitudes attacked by Vladimir Lenin in his “Left-wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder” were okay when understood as belonging to the past. Comparably, Groys mentions that Joseph Stalin kept Lenin’s corpse on permanent display to demonstrate not permanence but that Lenin really was dead.
Clement Greenberg’s definition of the avant-garde is counterintuitive; in his version the avant-garde doesn’t burn high culture but instead affirms it, while as in its previous incarnation marking an irreversible change and doing both in the face of that which does indeed threaten to incinerate, or dissolve, it: kitsch. Permanent revolution, declared prerevolutionary in Russia by the thirties (with Trotsky off in exile), becomes in Greenberg the condition, or more specifically the form of an avant-garde that permanently preserves high culture, by making art that contemplates the latter and its implications through abstraction, its syntax rather than its semantic content as it were.
Groys’ reading of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which is at the center of his book and argument, is a brilliant demonstration and explanation of how Greenberg’s attitude to art links him both to T. S. Eliot’s elitist belief in high art and to “the famous Stalinist definition of writers and artists as ‘engineers of the human soul.’”