Modern Intellectual History

Articles

ART AND LIFE IN AVANT-GARDE PRAGUE, 1920–1924*

THOMAS ORTa1

a1 Department of History, North Carolina State University E-mail: thomas_ort@ncsu.edu

Abstract

This essay outlines the unique interpretation of the avant-garde formulated in the early 1920s by the Czech novelist, playwright, and cultural critic Karel Čapek (1890–1938). Whereas in Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974) Peter Bürger argued that the central problem of the avant-garde was its failure to effect a genuine reconciliation of art and life, Čapek, in contrast, worried about the prospect of success. Closely observing the practices of the Czech avant-garde group Devětsil, Čapek interpreted its attempt to fuse art and life in terms derived largely from the French vitalist philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941) as an effort to free life from all constraints and bonds. Drawing on the work of Georg Simmel (1858–1918), he argued that the goal of living life “in itself,” without any constraints, was impossible. All life, he said, must necessarily be embodied in form and so less than completely free. Life conceived as a state of pure freedom, unbounded by any material or physical limits, amounted to the devaluation of individual life. The problem with the project of the avant-garde was that it was unethical.

Footnotes

* For their very helpful suggestions and comments on earlier drafts, thanks to Josh Humphreys, Mani Limbert, Jerry Seigel, the participants of the Triangle Area Intellectual History Seminar, and the anonymous reviewers of the journal.