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From the autonomy of art to the application to everyday life*

Manuel Fontán del Junco

This exhibition aims to present a wide-ranging, yet focused and intensive examination of a dimension of the historical avant-gardes that is typically relegated to a position of secondary importance. It constitutes the least "artistic" manifestation of the avant-gardes (in the modern sense of "art," at any rate) and, at the same time, represents their most novel contribution. Their legacy in this regard is the historical outcome of the "application" of the ideals of the avant-gardes to various spheres of human activity and in certain media-those very ideals that filled artists' manifestoes with ambitious proclamations and radical slogans and that directed their activities in the field of art narrowly conceived; that is, "pure art" as that notion developed within the tradition of modernity.

The spheres to which the exponents of the historical avant-gardes "applied" those ideals were, in short, every single one that structures organized social life: its domestic realm, its urban planning, the architecture of its private homes and public spaces, its political order, its educational institutions, its religion, its economy, the dissemination of its ideas and ideologies, its entertainment and leisure activities, its sports [...]. In sum, all the various spheres of existence that, intertwined, give form to everyday human life. In the "application" of their ideals with the aim of transforming society, and in order to communicate and disseminate those transformative notions, the promoters of the avant-gardes turned to representational media traditionally viewed as secondary and inherently inferior to the privileged medium of representation, namely, the classic genres of high art: painting and sculpture. The new media to which the avant-gardes were fruitfully applied included the poster and the pamphlet, the newspaper and the magazine, the book, and the photographic image, fragmented and manipulated in photomontages and set in motion in the cinema. That fruitful "application" generated a prodigious number of works in a veritable apotheosis of the play of forms and signs, in contexts that previously had been alien to the practice of the arts-most especially and by no means fortuitously, in the context of written language: the text.

Thus, in addition to their activities within the framework of art "proper," in applying their avant-garde ideals to all those other diverse contexts and by means of those new media, these artists made perhaps their most novel and determinant contribution to the profound conceptual changes in the understanding of art and the meaning of artistic activity that had been the legacy of modernity.

I would like to call attention to the fact that what defines the supposedly ancillary nature of the "applied" avant-garde (as we are calling it here) is also a characteristic of that supposedly primordial, "pure" art: the undeniable fact, in other words, that, until the advent of the historical avant-gardes, what we consider pure art has always been at its core a kind of design, stripped of its original function.

Modern aesthetics in the end devised a formalist notion of the work of art as a purely autonomous reality and applied to it an askesis of pure contemplation. Modern aesthetic awareness turned art and its product, beauty, into a representation of the human or natural world whose sole purpose was to be contemplated.

Later, certain movements that appeared at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth accentuated in part that modern notion of the autonomy of art, as was the case with the Viennese Secession or the Arts and Crafts Movement and, above all, the historical avant-gardes, from Futurism to Bauhaus and including De Stijl and Constructivism. Thus, the historical avant-gardes burst forth into the modern conscience and subjected the prevailing aesthetics that had shaped it to a cold shower. The champions of the avant-garde arrived proclaiming their manifestoes, which, though manifold and diverse, all shared in common the possibility of being redirected toward an attempt to reintegrate art and beauty into the space and time of human existence, in every sphere and through every available medium, including the direct incorporation of fragments of that existence into the work of art itself, as in the pieces of newspaper or other objects in collages glued to the traditional support of canvas-or even the placement of entire objects from that existence within the spaces devoted to the work of art, as in Duchamp's urinal sitting on a pedestal in a museum.

*Extracted from the essay The Avant-Garde Applied, 1890-1950 (A User's Manual), by Manuel Fontán del Junco, in the catalogue.