Avant-Garde and Politics: The Case of the New Student Society in Copenhagen (1922-24)

Torben Jelsbak

Abstract


A crucial problem in recent scholarship on the so called "historical" avant-gardes from the first decades of the 20th century (Futurism, Dadaism, Constructivism etc.) is how to account for the political radicalism and utopianism inherent to the avant-garde project. In his Theorie der Avantgarde (1974), Peter Bürger made an influential contribution to this discussion by defining the critical project of the historical avant-gardes as a will to "reintegrate art into the practice of life". In recent research, however, the activist pathos of Bürger's formula has been subject to criticism, and most contemporary scholars seem to look for new models for approaching the history of the early avant-gardes - either by simply addressing the avant-garde rupture in purely aesthetic terms (as artistic innovations or configurations of styles etc.) or by emphasizing the pivotal role of philosophical ideas (vitalism or occultist thought) for the emergence of avant-gardes. In my paper, I would like to reopen this old discussion of the role of politics in the avant-garde project by tracing the short and dramatic history of the Copenhagen activist and artist group known as The New Student Society (DNSS). The paper will account for the political radicalization of the group's activities in this critical phase of the history of the early Danish avant-gardes, in which the aesthetics of international Expressionism, Dadaism and Constructivism were transformed into social practice and Communist action.

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