2017 Symposium

Apolitical, My Ars!

Dissent, Resistance, and Revolution in the Avant-Garde Arts

PASC plays with Marcel Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q." (1919).

PASC plays with Marcel Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q." (1919).

Artists will serve as the avant-garde: for … the power of the Arts is the swiftest and most expeditious. When we wish to spread new ideas amongst men, we use in turn the lyre, ode or song, story or novel; we inscribe those ideas on marble or canvas … We aim for the heart and imagination, and hence our effect is the most vivid and the most decisive.
— Henri de Saint-Simon in 'Literary, Philosophical, and Industrial Opinions' (1825)

The Philadelphia Avant-Garde Studies Consortium (PASC) is seeking proposals for papers, lightning presentations, performances, and exhibitions for its 2017 Symposium, “Apolitical, My Ars!: Dissent, Resistance, and Revolution in the Avant-Garde Arts,” which will be held Friday, December 1, 2017, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., in the Class of 1978 Orrery Pavilion of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts in the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library.

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 presenting your avant-garde figure, group, or movement (roughly 1875 to the present; local, national, or global), you might explore questions such as: What were they trying to change, how did they try to change it, 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?

We are seeking presentations from individuals, groups, and collaborating artists and/or scholars in four major categories: scholarly papers (max 20 minutes); lightning presentations on artistic and scholarly projects (max 7 minutes), small-scale exhibitions, and brief performances (max 10 minutes). While a focus on artists or groups with a connection to Philadelphia is a plus, it is by no means a requirement. If you would like to participate in the symposium, please send a proposal (150–300 words) by October 21, 2017, to with the subject line, “2017 Symposium Proposal.”

The avant-garde is flexibility of mind. And it follows like day, the night from not falling prey to government and education. Without the avant-garde nothing would get invented.
— John Cage