Clodagh Emoe

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Publication Details

In/Print, issue 1, February 2012.


This essay seeks to challenge, albeit in a modest capacity, the ostensible understanding of the avant-garde as a failed project. While acknowledging the criticisms arguing the failure of the avant-garde to motivate a new social order by leading cultural commentators, such as Raymond Williams and Peter Bürger, this essay follows critic Hal Foster’s retroactive model of art and theory to reconsider the avantgarde under conditions of enquiry that focus on the enactment of alternate modalities — this being ritual theory. A key concern of Fosters “new articulation” of the avant-garde is an understanding of the critical capacity of art by its potential in forming contestatory moments and spaces. (1) Foster, The Return of the Real, The MIT Press, 1996, p. xviii. Rather than considering the avant-garde as a failed project it seems more productive to encounter this from a trans-historical perspective, beyond a chronologically rooted position. This reconsideration is carried out by revisiting the night of the première of Ubu Roi, at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre on 10th of December 1896, a pivotal moment in the early avant-garde through the “synchronic” rubric of ritual theory. (2) Foster uses the terms diachronic and synchronic to imply a historical and social axes (respectively) in art and theory. The ritual as an anthropological interpretation of a symbolic and cultural apparatus provides a theoretical vantage point to tease out the complexity and potential of artistic forms, exemplified in this essay by the première of Ubu Roi, and initiate a reconsideration of the project of the avant-garde as mobilizing the condition and space of potential.