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Apolitical, My Ars!:Dissent, Resistance, & Revolution in Avant-Garde Arts S...

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Class of 78 Pavilion, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center

University of Pennsylvania

3420 Walnut Street, PA 19104

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Although avant-garde work is sometimes labeled “apolitical” because of a presumed fixation on pure formal experimentation and an “art for art’s sake” aloofness, avant-garde movements and individual artists often developed in response to specific political events or more pervasive sociopolitical conditions. Harold Rosenberg posited that “the politics of an avant-garde art movement might consist of nothing more rebellious than overthrowing the conviction of the middle class that color in a painting ought to correspond to that of appearances,” but avant-garde political engagement has often gone far beyond the flouting of bourgeois aesthetics.

Whether in literature, painting, sculpture, theater, film, music, or architecture, avant-garde art has often functioned as a public political performance, bringing people together to receive ideas and images intended to radically reconfigure their societies. Jarry’s Ubu plays were, among other things, biting satirical critiques of the imperialistic, dictatorial rulers of his time. Likewise, the Dadaists and Surrealists, in reaction to the horrors of World War I, called for political revolution as well as a revolution of consciousness, often making direct statements of support for socialism or communism. Works by Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and James Joyce often had political content that was more indirect but nonetheless powerful, challenging conventional thought about religion, gender, and national identity. During the Cold War years, artists such as Allen Ginsberg, Carolee Schneeman, Alan Kaprow, and Thomas Pynchon presented transgressive, counterculture work that attacked capitalism, sexism, and the military-industrial complex. Similarly, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman, Kathy Acker, Eva Hesse, Marina Abramovic, Kathy Acker, William Pope.L, Werner Herzog, and Cai Guo-Qiang, to name just a few, have all subverted various norms of class, nationality, gender, or race and have often faced a great deal of public abuse and praise for their politics.

In this symposium, we will be asking and answering the following: What were respective avant-garde cultures trying to change and to what extent did they succeed? Over time, how has avant-garde curatorial or editorial practice promoted political messages in the public sphere? What are current trends in politically oriented avant-garde art, and how do they compare with past avant-gardes? How are avant-garde artists today reacting to the political atmosphere created by the Trump administration, which has threatened to eliminate the NEA and NEH?

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Class of 78 Pavilion, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center

University of Pennsylvania

3420 Walnut Street, PA 19104

View Map

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