Sunday, January 02, 2011

On Not Tearing Down MoMa: Or, What's Bernstein's Game, Anyway?

If you'd wandered into the garden lobby of the Museum of Modern Art early last February, you might have met the sight (and considerable sound) of Charles Bernstein declaiming from Marinetti's 1909 "Fururist Manifesto." It might have been a bit unnerving, since in addition to calling for new types of beauty the manifesto cries out for the glorification of war, and nationalism, the denigration of feminism and of women in general, and the destruction of libraries and museums. As this last call echoed forth, you'd have been forgiven for looking nervously around you to see if the black-clad New Yorkers were responsive to this line of rhetoric, ready to rise from their poses of studied torpor and tear MoMa, brick by brick, to the ground.

There was no need to worry, though. The crowd remained docile. Neither they nor Bernstein seemed to want to actually act on Marinetti's words (for which I'm grateful — I like museums, and women, and I'm not keen on war). In fact, Bernstein followed up by reading from a feminist manifesto by Mina Loy, presumably as a kind of penance for having belted out Marinetti's misogynist remarks. Bernstein then read a manifesto of his own, though one with a curious origin for the manifesto genre. It was commissioned by Poetry magazine, and composed by Bernstein alone, not on behalf of some rag-tag group of outsider malcontents sulking in a garret in some low-rent arrondissement. Even more curious than the origin of Bernstein's manifesto, given the properties of the genre, was the curious lack of agenda, the absence of emphasis on any kind of collective program (Bernstein's manifesto defined language poetry as "a loose affliation of unlike individuals"), and the lack of the genre's usual stress on some kind of aesthetic/political newness. The manifesto opens by drawing attention to this last lack: "I love originality so much," says Bernstein, "I keep copying it."  Later he adds "I’m the derivative product of an originality that spawns me as it spurns me. "

So what's Bernstein's game? Marinetti's Futurist manifesto was many things (including bellicose and misogynistic), but first and foremost it was an avant-garde statement, with everything that implies: it was for aesthetic newness, but also for smashing the institutions (like museums) that separated art from the rest of life.  "A roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace," said Marinetti, and part of the meaning of his claim was that the truest beauty exists outside the halls dedicated to hallowing aesthetic appreciation and reverence for tradition.  And whatever else we may say about Bernstein's reading of the "Futurist Manifesto" at MoMa, it wasn't an avant-garde event.  The crowd didn't rise up to topple the sculpture behind Bernstein, nor was he disappointed that they didn't.  After all, he still had Loy to read from, and the piece he'd written at the behest of the Poetry Foundation.  And it's not just that Bernstein seemed comfortable in the kind of institution Marinetti loathed.  In reading Marinetti and Loy, Bernstein was doing something else Marinetti despised: honoring the literary past.  Not only did Bernstein do his level-best to read from Marinetti with the requisite passion: he later spoke in defense of the genre of the manifesto itself, praising its chief anthologist (Mary Ann Caws) and attacking those who think poetry can do without the genre (a set of straw men, I think, since they went unnamed and the arguments attributed to them seemed incredibly simple).

If the game wasn't avant-gardism, what was it?  I don't think there was anything so simple as a smug irony, though there was certainly opportunity enough to make one had that been Bernstein's intent.  After all, he was reading from a document calling for the destruction of museums in a museum.  It would have been easy to turn the reading into an event that said "ha ha, you lost, we museum-lovers are still here, and we can read your words without fear," like a bunch of GOP plutocrats chuckling over a copy of the Communist Manifesto that somehow turned up at the country club.  But the reading of Marinetti served as prelude to a defense of the idea of manifestos, so ironic smugness wasn't Bernstein's game, either.

The name of Bernsteins' game is, I think, arrière-gardisme.  The term arrière-garde has been used in a number of different senses, but the one that pertains here is the one articulated by William Marx and the contributors to the collection of essays he edited in 2004, Les arrière-garde au XXe siècle (the idea has also been used with reference to American writing in Marjorie Perloff's recent Unoriginal Genius).  Marx's idea is that much experimental writing from the middle of the twentieth century onward bears strong affinities to the historical avant-garde, but has an difference as well: unlike the original avant-gardearrière-gardistes  show a reverence for the history of avant-garde writings and actions, and wish to preserve or extend them.  While a poet like Marinetti dreamed of the destruction of traditions and museums, a poet like Charles Bernstein reveres the avant-garde past, seeking to revive the literary and cultural energies that were lost during the First World War. 

If Bernstein is seen as an avant-gardist, it’s hard to explain why he read from Marinetti’s manifesto in the Museum of Modern Art: from an avant-garde perspective, reading Marinetti in such a context seems at best like an irony, at worst like a betrayal.  But when we see Bernstein as a member of the arrière-garde, the picture changes.  An arrière-gardist, after all, has something an avant-gardist did not have: an avant-garde tradition behind him.  And a museum is a perfectly appropriate place to revere tradition.

[Update January 5, 2011: Joyelle McSweeney takes issue with this post in interesting ways]