Extensions of the avant-garde: David Gatten’s Secret History of the Dividing Line

by Patrick Faubert

Contemporary avant-garde art presents a paradox. For decades now, scholars have declared the end of the avant-garde, arguing the movement has been lost to an irreversible crisis that has stripped away the force of its aesthetic and ideological program, and silenced any resonance on which contemporary artists might draw. Yet, many artists, as well as critics, continue to engage the avant-garde as a meaningful artistic practice, finding in its push for the continued progression of art a means of negotiating their own practices. If the movement remains vibrant among artists then, then, how are we to understand well theorized arguments proclaiming the avant-garde’s death? Indeed, if our postmodern moment has rendered the anti-traditional aesthetics of the avant-garde, which form its critical ethos, as merely another artistic style, is it possible for the avant-garde to hold any weight as a continuing cultural movement? And if artists embed their work within the ethos of the avant-garde, can they hope to solicit the forms of aesthetic and political intervention held paramount by that movement? Such questions are, of course, limited. The term avant-garde is now widely used without recourse to its historical meaning, and many artists and critics identify work as avant-garde as a straightforward means of citing innovation and progression rather than a political ideal. But these questions remain valid both because the term avant-garde continues to carry aesthetic and political designations, and because the value of the avant-garde, its history, and continued influence, are still being worked out.  

To assess the extensions of the avant-garde into contemporary art is an undertaking too broad for this essay, and one already undertaken by other scholars. My modest focus here is the possible relationship between the historical avant-garde, its death, and North American avant-garde cinema, a significant movement in filmmaking that has been developing in scope and size for nearly a century.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Of course, to speak of this cinema as “avant-garde” already risks a loose employment of the term. Avant-garde cinema is broad and encompasses numerous types of filmmaking. Its filmmakers also often identify with genres and artistic programs (e.g. structural film) that more precisely describe their work than does the broad heading “avant-garde.” But the breadth of this cinema notwithstanding, it remains possible, and reasonable, to locate within a large number of its works a set of frequently emerging ambitions. These include an interest in pushing beyond traditional forms of filmmaking, developing new and relevant forms of cinematic communication, and liberating cinema from deterministic forms of mainstream entertainment. Such ambitions share much in common with the historical avant-garde, especially an impulse to reject notions of artistic tradition and to seek aesthetic programs capable of initiating artistic and social change. But in light of the fate of the avant-garde, any intersection between this cinema and the historical movement is undermined by questions over the continued efficacy of avant-garde art. That is, if the avant-garde is dead, what value might there be in filmmakers and critics seeking to recuperate its critical practice?

This question is brought to the fore in an ongoing series of films, titled Secret History of the Dividing Line, A True Account in Nine Parts, by the U.S. filmmaker David Gatten. This series focuses on events in the life of William Byrd II of Westover, Virginia, a lesser known figure in U.S. colonial history but one who played an important role in both the settlement of Virginia and in the formation of the Library of Congress. In different ways, the films in this series investigate the intersections between Byrd’s life and larger histories of the United States, as well larger processes of writing and disseminating historical knowledge. Scott MacDonald, who has written extensively on avant-garde and experimental cinema, refers to these films as complex reflections on the production of historical knowledge and on the cultures who produce it.[2] These films are doubly interesting, as MacDonald also notes, for how they reflect on the aesthetics of avant-garde cinema and use their formal construction to allude to the capacities of avant-garde film to engage with issues of history.[3]

To my knowledge, Gatten has not expressed an explicit intention to connect his film to the historical avant-garde. It is also not my intention to propose this as an explicit critical strategy in his filmmaking practice. Yet, through their formal investigations of historical inquiry, I would argue the Secret History films can be read as a pointed response to the continued potential of a critical practice explored by the avant-garde over the past two centuries. In particular, the manner in which these films visibly intertwine aesthetics and processes of historical understanding connects them to the interest of the avant-garde in critiquing history as a means of further critiquing social organization. Fiercely anti-historical, the avant-garde also has envisioned itself as anti-traditional, invested in an aesthetic program it hoped would destroy the influence of the past and usher in a new, ideal society. But this striving for destruction and rejuvenation is an area in which the avant-garde was effectively silenced by changing understandings of artistic tradition and history by the latter decades of the twentieth century. In the wake of this silencing, the Secret History films take up the impulse of that movement to resist history. Importantly, however, these films open that impulse to new and contemporary contexts, seeking not resuscitate history but pointing to a path on which it might find the means to continue to develop and flourish.

My focus here is on this process’ manifestation in one film, Secret History of the Dividing Line (2002), which focuses on William Byrd II’s involvement in an eighteenth-century, government-sanctioned survey-expedition to establish the border between Virginia and North Carolina. More specifically, this film deals with Byrd’s two accounts of that expedition: his official account, The Official History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina,and his satiric personal account, Secret History of the Line.[4] Through the use of several unconventional formal devices—tearing of the film, optical printing, and making visible processes of editing—the film invests these accounts in a larger narrative of the settlement of the United States. In doing so, it manipulates them to reveal their inconsistencies and to elicit a reading of them that undermines that larger narrative. In this way, the film also shifts its focus from history, broadly conceived, to historiography, the writing of history, and within that shift Gatten reveals a potential reconfiguration of the anti-historical program of the avant-garde. Indeed, in using formal devices and historical accounts to critique history, he evokes the program of the avant-garde, both illustrating its distance from that movement, while implicitly evoking its continued relevance to contemporary artistic production.

What follows here is my reading of Secret History of the Dividing Line as a negotiation of the continued influence of the avant-garde on contemporary artistic production. My analysis is limited to one central concern of the avant-garde, and is not meant to limit how we should read that movement or Gatten’s film. I therefore proceed in two parts. First, I examine an ideological underpinning of the avant-garde, its manifestation as an aesthetic strategy, and the reasons it has been deemed lost to history. Second, I offer a close reading of Secret History of the Dividing Line, suggesting how the film can be read as engaging this underpinning and its aesthetic manifestation, as well as an exercise in working through its crisis.

The historical avant-garde

It is difficult to offer a precise history or definition of the avant-garde. The term itself has origins in political thought, and has been applied within the arts since the early nineteenth century, intended to identify art that was, as Richard Schechner states, both “new and opposed to prevailing values.”[5] The term “avant-garde” since then, particularly following its crystallization as an ideological force in the late nineteenth century, has been used to speak a range of artistic schools and styles (Futurism, dada, surrealism, etc.). As a result, to identify for the avant-garde a strict set of subjects and techniques, a framework through which all of its applications can be accounted for, is to risk an ahistorical definition, to risk ignoring the historical relativism of the those various schools and styles, and to miss the rich contradictions and nuances that they each add to how we understand the avant-garde in general. In the more precise context of North American filmmaking, to speak of the avant-garde raises additional difficulties—for the application of the term ranges from designating forms of cinematic modernism and political subversion, to a functioning as a loosely employed synonym for the broad category “experimental” cinema.

Here I do not wish to outline the history of the avant-garde but rather to explore its continued presence in artistic production. I am less concerned with slippage in the application of the term than with its critical ethos. Speaking to problems inherent in defining the term, Paul Mann reminds us that definition is often a means of generating allies, an observance that extends to the classification of various artistic practices as avant-garde.[6] Indeed, though the application of the term does not reveal a singular program to which artists adhere, it does designate a set of concerns informing, and to an extent integrating, the output of various literary and artistic schools. Therefore, while a singular history of the avant-garde remains problematic, the continued application of the term exposes the possibility of reading a mutual critical and aesthetic approach underlying many formations of the avant-garde as a broad movement in the arts.

What is of interest here is a particular aspect of that approach: the notion that a rejection of tradition, and subsequently of history, leads to social progress.[7] That the avant-garde would be opposed to history and tradition is unsurprising given its close affinity to and inversion of modernism. Whereas modernism connected aesthetic innovation with a sense of progress and historical awareness, the avant-garde strove for an aesthetic program that was fiercely anti-historical and anti-traditional. This strategy most likely owes to the emergence of the avant-garde in political thought. Andreas Huyssen, reflecting on the development of the avant-garde, notes that by the early nineteenth century, following the theorizing of the avant-garde by French philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon, the artistic avant-garde had been inextricably bound with the notion of social progress.[8] As it developed through the nineteenth century, the artistic avant-garde was subsequently influenced by contemporaneous cultural movements of Anarchism and Marxism, and crystallized as a political, anti-traditional, and anti-elitist movement, positioned in sharp opposition to the established state.[9] Though different artists would give such opposition different forms and targets, a broad focus would emerge across the avant-garde in the form of an assault on tradition. In his key definition of the avant-garde in 1939, Clement Greenberg insists that the movement was made possible only by the perception that our social order is historically structured.[10] The avant-garde further takes aim at that structure and order by seeking to destroy its legitimacy and influence; the destruction of the past is meant to pave the way for the future.

The artistic manifestation of this revolt against history is the aesthetic extremism for which the avant-garde is widely known, an extremism, taken up in many forms, that was intended explicitly to stand in marked contrast to established traditions.[11] In his 1974 Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger provides a framework to read this aesthetic strategy as a form of activism. In his largely Marxist analysis of the avant-garde, Bürger reads the art as a social system embedded within the ideological superstructures of bourgeois culture. Artistic tradition is therefore the manifestation of specific ideological values. As a result, attacking artistic tradition by undermining or overthrowing its aesthetic strategies offers to undermine those same superstructures.[12] In this political reading, the avant-garde’s resistance of traditional aesthetics, and its free synthesizing of the aesthetic means of diverse, historical artistic practices, reveals that the aesthetic means of art are developed as rational choices aimed at producing specific effects, and not by a necessary adherence of art to historical traditions of mimetic representation.[13] For Bürger, this revelation initiates a criticism of bourgeois society, undermining the legitimacy of history in art as a precursor to undermining the legitimacy of history as a structuring agent of present social organization overall. Bürger’s analysis, much richer than I here allude to, might not account for all instances of avant-garde art, but its connection of art and aesthetics to political subversion establishes a link between aesthetics, an anti-historical sensibility, and the political potential of art works. Indeed, Bürger offers an explanation of the frequently cited anti-traditional thrust of the movement, and one that connects avant-garde both to desire for revolution that is both artistic and social.

This desire, which finds itself at the center of the critical and aesthetic project of the avant-garde, also finds itself at the center of the crisis faced by that movement in the latter half of the twentieth century. It was, paradoxically, the wide-spread recognition and celebration of the avant-garde in the twentieth century came to undermine its authority—a fate shared by many schools of subversive art. In 1964, literary critic Leslie Fiedler publically declared the death of avant-garde literature because he felt the avant-garde’s oppositional stance had been coopted by the traditions and society it sought to overturn, and was thus stripped of its potency.[14] The avant-garde’s anti-traditional stance is predicated on the movement’s position at the margins of the society it opposes, its incorporation into that society and traditions undermines its project.[15] Greenberg had foreseen the end of the avant-garde in 1939, suggesting that even by the time of his definition its success, both critical and financial, was dependent on the institution of art to which it was opposed, a contradiction that would inevitably cause it to lose traction, legitimating and strengthening the historical tradition whose authority it purports to undermine.[16] Indeed, the acceptance of the avant-garde, in the twentieth century, into the broad cannon of Western art ultimately negates the historical project identified by scholars such as Bürger, stripping it of its anti-traditional ethos, and degrading the political thrust of its aesthetic strategies.[17]

If this cooption of the avant-garde by its opposition has thrown its political project into crisis, that crisis has been deepened by the simultaneous emergence of postmodernism in the second half of the twentieth century. Debates over what constitutes postmodernism notwithstanding, a particular theorizing of the this broad cultural movement reveals in greater light the crisis of the avant-garde. In The Postmodern Condition (1979), French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard proposes that postmodernism marks the end of “grand narratives” (grands récits) of history, narratives of historical understanding through which societies identify and legitimize themselves, their growth and their progress.[18] The notion of the end of such broad forms of cultural understanding connects with claims that postmodernism offers a new cultural experience that is fragmented, temporary, and frequently difficult to pin down.

Lyotard’s claim is nearly forty years old, but it raises the provocative notion that a byproduct of this disappearance of such grand narratives as forms of social understanding is the lack of an overarching concept of history as agent of social formation. In such an environment, the avant-garde’s opposition to history cannot be brought into sharp relief for its audiences. The conception of history as broad and discernible force, central to critical practice of the avant-garde, is precisely what is absent in Lyotard’s theorizing of postmodernism. Further, the notion of an anti-traditional aesthetic program holds little value if the weight of tradition and history are themselves absent, already in question, or without acknowledgment. Literary scholar Matei Calinescu suggests the “silencing” of the avant-garde by postmodernism to stem from the incongruity of its “furiously anti-traditional” posture within a cultural movement more than willing to “revisit the past.”[19] Such willingness to revisit the past is both evidence of changing conceptions of history in postmodernism, as well as its dismantling of the distinctions between cultural spheres, e.g., high-culture, mass culture, a dismantling that itself blurs the trajectory and historical thrust of artistic traditions. Indeed, if postmodernism both expands the legitimacy and strips away the historical understanding and aesthetic forms, then it leaves the avant-garde without a target for its polemic, and without a framework through which to assert it.