Dada's Manifestos and Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avant-garde

Essay, 2010

13 Pages, Grade: 8,5



1. Introduction

2. Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-garde

3. A short introduction to art manifestos

4. Dadaist artworks and Peter Bürger

5. Sources:

1. Introduction

The avant-garde intends the abolition of autonomous art by which it means that art is to be integrated into the praxis of life. At least this is what Peter Bürger states in his groundbreaking book Theory of the Avant-garde.[1] In the book Bürger gives some examples that shall acknowledge and prove his theory, e.g. René Magritte or Marcel Duchamp.

It is clear that such examples need to stay eclectic in order to fit the developed theory. In the following Bürger’s text will be put to the acid test by analysing some avant-garde works through the eyes of Peter Bürger, and it shall be examined if specific, programmatic avant-gardist works go well with his theory.

The manifestos by the (first) Dadaists in Zürich seem to be extremely useful for this attempt. Their “productions” haven’t been canonised yet and have served as an example for further Dadaistic productions in Germany, the USA, the Netherlands, Romania, Georgia, Poland etc.

They (excessively) produced manifestos and declared their ideals and plans. However, these declarations always remain a bit opaque as they avoid clear statements and explicitly write absurd. In their works the Dadas often make statements and shortly afterwards reject them again. Tristan Tzara’s manifestos[2] are great examples of this kind of text, therefore this paper focuses on his writings but will consider manifestos by Walter Serner, thoughts by Marcel Janco or Hugo Ball as well.

Can Theory of the Avant-garde be a key to excerpt meaning from the Dadaistic text production, or do the manifestos go beyond Bürger’s theory, or even prove him wrong?

2. Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-garde

Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-garde (published in 1974) has been a milestone within art theory, and especially within the art theory on the art of the (early) 20th century. His text serves as a key quote in numerous books on Surrealism, Dadaism, Futurism or the Neo-Avant-garde.[3]

In his book Bürger describes a historical development of the art. Summarized, one can roughly single out five historical developments in his text. First in account is sacral art, which had its place in churches and still had a clear function. The painters mostly stayed anonymous and the reception was collective. The second step was, according to Bürger, courtly art, which – exactly like sacral art – had a clear function (namely to represent the court and praise the prince) and, again the reception was collective. The only shift that can be registered lies in the way of production. Painters are not anonymous anymore but the production became more individual.

The third historical episode in Theory of the Avant-garde is bourgeois art. With the emancipation of the bourgeoisie, under capitalism, art became relatively autonomous and created its own sphere. There has been a clear shift within the constitution of art; from a functional media which should address a (sacral or sociable) collective towards an (autonomous) art that has become a mere individual matter.

“Autonomie der Kunst ist eine Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Sie erlaubt, die geschichtlich entstandene Herauslösung der Kunst aus lebenspraktischen Bezügen zu beschreiben, die Tatsache also, dass sich eine nicht zweckrational gebundene Sinnlichkeit bei den Angehörigen der Klasse hat herausbilden können (...)“[4]

According to Peter Bürger this new autonomy of art has started during the time of, what he calls, aestheticism, with which he means the time after Kant’s theories. Bürger analyses Immanuel Kant’s and Friedrich Schiller’s views on taste and aesthetics. Kant says that there are two forms of knowledge, namely the logical and the sensual. Aesthetics are in between those two forms of knowledge, whilst taste is free and without interest as it is supposed to have an universal claim.

“Everyone has to admit that if a judgment about beauty is mingled with the least interest then it is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste”[5]

The bottom line of this is that art is autonomous as it cannot be judged with interest, which means that neither the church nor the court can produce/have art that serves for their interest without losing its claim to universality. The theories that Kant generated reached their full-blown form in the last decades of the nineteenth century in Symbolism and the thought of l'art pour l'art (e.g. Mallarmé).

Art has become self-reflective and at the same time, says Bürger, functionless. At this point, when artists recognized this detachment from the active life praxis, the fourth period in art history started, namely the avant-garde. This must not be confused with Modernism, which describes a change or better: evolution of style (like Cubism) whilst the avant-garde project involved radical change of the way of life.

Through self-criticism, artists became aware of the inability of art to have an effect on every-day-life. The artists developed new ways of overcoming this functionlessness (e.g. the new, the chance and the montage).

With this attempt Bürger’s description of the motivation of the avant-garde movement stands against Adorno’s definition of the modernist art, which he sees as twofolded.

“Every artwork is autonomous insofar as it asserts itself as an end-in-itself and pursues the logic of its own development without regard to the dominant logic of society; but every work is also a ‘social fact’ in that it is a cipher that manifests and confirms the reality of society, understood as the total nexus of social relations and processes.”[6]

For Adorno art is negative on different levels, whereas Bürger describes the efforts of the avant-garde to re-integrate art into life practices in more positive terms.

However, Bürger asserts that this project (re-integreation into every-day-life-praxis) failed. The avant-garde has become historical and got integrated into the museum. That means it has become institutionalised and at the same time detached from everyday life or the aim to have an effect on it. This becomes quite obvious with the appearance of the Neo-avant-garde (which can be counted as the fifth historical step in art history).

“Here the revolt is no longer aimed at art as institution, but now takes place inside the safe haven of these now fully developed institutions—the barriers between art and life are torn down inside art itself.”[7]

The Neo-avant-garde operates within a paradox situation. They criticise institutional facts but at the same time can only do so within an institutional framework. An example for this is Daniel Buren. He attacks the museum in his texts.[8] At the same time he produces works in/for the museum and therefore becomes part of the system. In the 60s for example he produced invisible art works in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where he painted his famous strips on the backs of other painting so they would become invisible for the audience but still would have their place in the museum. The same situation can be recorded in regard to artists like Andrea Fraser, Hans Haacke or Michael Asher. The whole concept of institutional critique has been incorporated into the discursive and with that, one could argue, lost a bit of their critical potential.[9]


[1] Peter Bürger: Theorie der Avantgarde, Suhrkamp-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1974, English version published 1984 at Manchester University Press, translated by Michael Snow

[2] In 1924 Tzara published his Sept Manifestes Dada, a collection of his so-called manifestos. Most of them arose from speeches he held between the years 1916 and 1922. In the text I am referring to the French publication Tristan Tzara: Sept Manifestes Dada – quelques dessins de francis picabia, éditions du diorama jean budry & c° 3, rue du cherche-midi, Paris 2005

In the German version (Tzara, Tristan: 7 DADA-Manifeste, aus dem Französischen von Pierre Gallissaires, Edition Nautilus, Hamburg 1978) a further text appears: Vortrag auf dem Dada-Kongress in Weimar and Jena in 1922. This text is extremely enriching and will be considered as well.

[3] The texts on Post-Modernism or Neo-Avant-garde, in which Bürger is quoted, do so mostly to prove him wrong. Bürger rejects the Neo-Avant-garde as merely parodic, as it takes place within the rigid frame of an institutionalised art and therefore cannot have an effect on daily life whatsoever. Especially Hal Foster, in his book Return of the Real (1996) dismisses Bürgers attempts. Following Lacan who wrote that repetition is not reproduction, Foster develops his major claim. He thinks that the Neo-avant-gard-movements are not to be seen as a mere reenactment, but rather as a traumatic form of critical enactment.

[4] Peter Bürger: Theorie der Avantgarde, Suhrkamp-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1974, p63

[5] Quoted in: Henry E. Allison: Kant’s Theory of Taste – A Reading of the Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2001, p85

[6] s. Gene Ray: Towards a Critiqual Art Theory, in Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray (Edit.): Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, Mayflower Books, London 2009, p.81

[7] Sven-Olov Wallenstein in : Tranformative Technologies, Cabinet Magazine, New York Spring 2001

[8] e.g. in: Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (ed.): Institutional Critique. An Anthology of Artists' Writings, Cambridge/MA: MIT Press 2009, pp.102-106

[9] most prominent in this discourse is Benjamin Buchloh and his text: Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions, in: October 55, 1999, pp.105–143

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Dada's Manifestos and Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avant-garde
University of Amsterdam  (Cultural Analysis)
Art as an Institute and its Critique
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ISBN (Book)
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Note entsprich etwa einer 1,5 in Deutschland. Cultural Analysis: Exchange student from University of Arts and Design, Karlsruhe
Dada, Manifestos, Peter, Bürger, Theory, Avant-garde
Quote paper
Marco Hompes (Author), 2010, Dada's Manifestos and Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avant-garde, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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