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 the international avant-garde, theories of the avant-garde and histories of Futurism, Dada, and Surealism rarely mention Loy.
Loy is not alone in her exclusion from avant-garde theories and histories. 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. A brief overview will suffice to show how and why they 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 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 not opposed not 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 Blindman and 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.
A Feminist Theory of the Avant-Garde
Loy’s artistic career invites us to rethink the “avant-garde” as a strategic position, rather than a fixed structural position (Greenberg), shared psychological condition (Poggioli), or monolithic sociopolitical stance (Burger). Reimagining the avant-garde as a strategic position allows for multiple, revolving, discontinuous, overlapping, intersecting, and consecutive moments of avant-garde practice, with variable motives, attitudes, targets, and publics. It thus makes room for women artists like Mina Loy.
Avant-garde strategy may be understood as a position of self-conscious differentiation: a difference, defiance, or critique of social norms or artistic conventions. As a strategic position, the avant-garde is both spatial and temporal, but it is not locked into any particular position or time. Rather it may encompass a plurality of poses, incorporating “diverse and discontinuous avant-garde moments at which the defining collision of social and aesthetic radicalisms occurred” (Pollack).
Differentiation from norms and conventions does not necessarily entail strident opposition or violent rupture. 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 rhetoric describes a rehabilitation of consciousness—a gradual expansion of the mind as it is stretched and reformed by new and unfamiliar art forms.