Just as Loy’s career does not conform to linear narratives, so her life and work do not fit neatly into theories and histories of the avant-garde. She participated in nearly every avant-garde movement of the early 20th century—including Futurism, Dada, & Surrealism—yet was contained by none. “She was the avant-garde poster girl,” notes Cristanne Miller, “seen in her work, her appearance, and her life to represent the arts, the movement, and the times” (18). Yet whereas scholarship on Loy almost invariably mentions her participation in international avant-garde circles, studies and anthologies of Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism rarely include Loy.
Take, for example, this archival photograph, published in the New York Times Style Magazine in 2016, nearly a century after the moment it records:
© Succession Brancusi – All rights reserved (ARS) 2018
The photograph depicts an avant-garde gathering in Constantin Brancusi’s Paris studio in 1921 (from left to right: Brancusi, the poet Tristan Tzara, the photographer Berenice Abbott, poet and artist Mina Loy, publisher Jane Heap, and editor Margaret Anderson). As reproduced in Style Magazine, this iconic photograph typifies Mina Loy’s position in the avant-garde. She is a central, animating, illuminating presence, yet she is also a ghostly spectre, mentioned only in a caption and never in the article.
In this way, Loy is representative of women in the historical avant-garde, a term that encompasses early twentieth-century, European, predominantly white, male-dominated art movements such as Futurism, Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism. These experimental movements typically opposed bourgeois values and tastes, seeking to challenge and shock their audiences. They chronicled their exhibitions, publications, and performances, generating their own heroic histories and archives. Although women played major parts in the historical avant-garde, they have been relegated to supporting roles in its lore—posed in a photograph, mentioned in a caption, or deposited in a slim folder in the archive of a celebrated male associate.
While Marcel Duchamp’s role as an avant-garde provocateur who was central to several movements but who resisted strict affiliation with any particular movement has been amply chronicled and celebrated, Loy’s similar role and trajectory (fueled by her feminist perspective) has contributed instead to her marginality. Loy’s interest in avant-garde experiment was shaped by feminism, gender, and sexuality, and led her to self-consciously assume a position on the margins of these movements. Her ambivalent stance of interested but critical, feminist detachment typifies the relationship of many women to the modernist avant-garde, and her work in diverse media and response to the gendering of visual culture were widespread among avant-garde women artists.
Loy is not alone in her exclusion from avant-garde theories, histories, and anthologies. As Griselda Pollack observes, “women are generally missing from conventional stories of the avant-garde”—despite their active, formative participation as artists, writers, editors, patrons, and publishers.
Pollack argues that the “initial institutionalization of modernism not only failed to acknowledge the centrality of gender to both modernity and its modernisms; it actively fabricated a monogendered, selective narrative of modern art, even in the living presence of the women who defined their moment of modernity through their massive participation in all areas of culture” (795). What results is a “heroic and exclusively masculine legend of the avant-garde.”
This masculine legend has roots in three foundational theories of the historical avant-garde:
- Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939)
- Renato Poggioli’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1968)
- Peter Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1980)
These theories are intelligent, insightful, influential—and almost exclusively based on white, male artists. They show that to theorize the avant-garde is to construct a history and a canon. A brief overview will suffice to show how and why these theories that do not adequately account for Loy’s avant-garde practices.
Greenberg’s Formal Approach
In his seminal 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg takes a formal approach, arguing that the avant-garde “detaches” itself from society, turning its attention to its own medium. The resulting avant-garde art is characterized by reduction, abstraction, and purification of form. “Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cezanne, derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in,” Greenberg argues, noting that “poets like Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Valéry, Eluard, Pound, Hart Crane, Stevens, even Rilke and Yeats” similarly focus on the act of poetic creation.
Greenberg might have included Loy in his list of poets, as poems like “Brancusi’s Golden Bird” and “Joyce’s Ulysses” explicitly focus on acts of artistic and literary creation, and nearly all her writing in some way turns attention to the structures of language itself. But for Loy, language is not a pure, abstract medium; it is deeply embedded in social and sexual conventions. Her poem “The Effectual Marriage of Gina and Miovanni,” a satire of a conventional marriage, is the antithesis of “reduction, abstraction, and purification of form.” Long, sprawling, and unstable, the poem is unable or unwilling to detach itself from its social context, as its concluding note attests: “(This narrative halted when I discovered that the house which inspired it was the home of a madwoman. —Forte dei Marmi).”
Poggioli’s Psychological Approach
Renato Poggioli’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1968)—the first book-length study of the subject—takes a psycho-social approach that is better able to accommodate Loy’s complex psycho-social investigations. Whereas Greenberg defines the avant-garde as a structural position in which the artist distances himself from mass culture, Poggioli views it as a psychological condition—a social mentality characterized by alienation and opposition to mass culture.
Poggioli offers a taxonomy of avant-garde “moments” that are really closer to psychological dispositions:
- activistic: “the sheer joy of dynamism”
- antagonistic: “spirit of hostility and opposition”
- nihilistic: pleasure in destruction
- agonistic: welcoming self-destruction as a sacrifice to future generations
This range of dispositions can better account for the various attitudes and postures Loy assumed in her varied career, but the detachment and alienation from mass culture both Greenberg and Poggioli see at the heart of avant-garde practice does not hold true for Loy. She went to New York seeking an audience for her work, her Dada experiments court the public, and her entrepreneurial efforts reflect an ambition to succeed in the mass cultural marketplace.
Burger’s Sociopolitical Approach
In reorienting the avant-garde toward mass culture, Peter Burger’s influential Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974, 1980, trans.1984) seems to align better with these aspects of Loy’s avant-garde practice. Burger takes a sociopolitical approach, arguing that the avant-garde was not opposed to mass culture. Instead, the avant-garde rejects the bourgeois institution of art and its idealization of artistic autonomy because they effect a separation between art and everyday life. For Burger, the avant-garde attacks bourgeois institutions and values in an effort to reconnect art with everyday life and make it available and accessible to the masses. Marcel Duchamp exemplifies this stance. His “ready-mades” insert quotidian objects (a overturned urinal, a shovel, a bicycle wheel) into the hallowed realm of art, thereby subverting its institutional pretensions to grandeur.
Some of Loy’s work resembles Duchamp’s, especially her 1917 contributions to the Dada little magazine The Blindmanand the constructions made from cast-off objects she collected while living in the Bowery in the 1940s. But other work, such as her celebrated 1923 poem “Apology of Genius,” revile the uncomprehending masses and elevate the artistic genius to a position of isolation and alienation. Loy’s stance toward mass culture is thus inconsistent, changing throughout her career.
As we argue above, the seminal histories and theories of the avant-garde have tended to focus on male-dominated movements, erasing or marginalizing contributions of women and people of color. In recent years, scholars have sought to clarify women’s contributions, while articulating the importance of gender, sexuality, and race to the avant-garde, in studies such as: Futurist Women: Florence, Feminism, and the New Sciences (Paola Sica, 2016), The Women Artists of Italian Futurism: Almost Lost to History (Mirella Bentivoglio and Franca Zoccoli, 1998), Mamas of Dada: Women of the European Avant-Garde (Paula Kamenish, 2016), Women in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender, and Identity (Naomi Sawelson-Gorse, 1998), Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (Penelope Rosemont, 1998), Surrealism and Women (Mary Ann Caws, Rudolf E. Kuenzli, and Gwen Raaberg, 1991) and Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (Whitney Chadwick, 1991).
While these studies have transformed our understanding of the avant-garde, scholars have yet to offer a comprehensive theory of the avant-garde that accounts for the distinct experiences of women and people of color, who were often ambivalent about claiming affiliation with white, male-dominated movements. Griselda Pollack and Cythia Park Hong do, however, lay the foundations for revisionary feminist theorizing.
Pollack calls us to resist monolithic, linear models of avant-garde history in favor of “diverse and discontinuous avant-garde moments at which the defining collision of social and aesthetic radicalisms occurred.” Her paradigm emphasizes plurality and diversity, thus making room for women and writers of color.
Hong, on the other hand, rejects the term “avant-garde” altogether as representative of a fundamentally and continuously “racist tradition”:
From its early 20th century inception to some of its current strains, American avant-garde poetry has been an overwhelmingly white enterprise, ignoring major swaths of innovators—namely poets from past African American literary movements—whose prodigious writings have vitalized the margins, challenged institutions, and introduced radical languages and forms that avant-gardists have usurped without proper acknowledgment.
The avant-garde’s celebrated subversion of authorial identity, its disavowal of subjectivity and history, are extravagant forms of white privilege unavailable to writers of color: “Fuck the avant-garde,” Hong concludes, “We must hew our own path.”
The term “avant-garde,” derived from the “advance guard” of an army, emphasizes the militant, oppositional stance of the early twentieth-century movements to which it was first applied. Rather than attempting to rehabilitate this term to include a broader range of artists and strategies, we take up Hong’s charge to “hew our own path.”
Taking a cue from classical ballet rather than warfare, we propose the term en dehors garde to describe the strategies of writers and artists whose mode of experimentation does not conform to the oppositional stance associated with the modernist avant-garde. En dehors means “coming from the outside” or “turning outward.” Rather than assuming a militant position at the forefront of culture, women and people of color often came from the outside and operated on the margins, working strategically to transform gendered, racialized literary traditions and visual cultures.
Loy’s artistic career invites us to rethink the “avant-garde” as an en dehors garde—a broad array of strategic poses or moves, rather than a fixed structural position (Greenberg), shared psychological condition (Poggioli), or monolithic sociopolitical stance (Burger). Reimagining the avant-garde as a strategic pose allows for multiple, revolving, discontinuous, overlapping, intersecting, and consecutive moments of experimental or innovative artistic practice, with variable motives, attitudes, targets, and publics.
En dehors garde strategy may be understood as a pose of self-conscious differentiation: a difference, defiance, or critique of social norms or artistic conventions. As an array of strategic poses, the en dehors garde is both spatial and temporal, but it is not locked into any structural position, psychological disposition, or sociopolitical stance.
Differentiation from norms and conventions does not necessarily entail strident opposition or violent rupture, either. It might, for example, accommodate strategies of renovation or rehabilitation. At the “moment” of her artistic awakening by the Italian Futurists, for example, Loy exalted the power of avant-garde art to disrupt habits of perception and thought, and in the process to transform consciousness. She asserted in “Aphorisms on Futurism” that:
CONSCIOUSNESS cannot spontaneously accept or reject new forms, as offered by creative genius; it is the new form, for however great a period of time it may remain a mere irritant—that moulds consciousness to the necessary amplitude for holding it.
Loy’s “Aphorisms” call a rehabilitation of consciousness—a gradual expansion of the mind as it is stretched and reformed by new and unfamiliar art forms.
We aim to develop new forms of digital scholarship and theory commensurate to the en dehors garde. As Elisabeth Frost argues, to look back at history with the inclusion of female experimental writers and artists “challenges the way in which avant-gardism itself has been conceptualized” (xv). Digital platforms offer new technologies for documenting and analyzing women’s negotiations with the historical avant-garde, allowing us to chart an alternative en dehors garde that proves to be neither a mere supplement to nor plea for inclusion within the current critical models of avant-garde formation. Open-source tools enable us to transform our scholarly methods and products in the same spirit of avant-garde innovation and collaboration that animated Loy’s feminist designs a century ago.
 The term “en dehors garde” was suggested by Nancy G. Selleck, Associate Professor of English at University of Massachusetts Lowell, a scholar of early modern literature and culture, as well as a dramaturg and theatre director and at Harvard, Boston Directors’ Lab, and UMass Lowell, and a former professional ballet dancer in New York. It seems especially appropriate that the idea was generated in conversation between friends across different fields and disciplines.