“Avant-garde” is one of the most abused terms in 20th century art history. With that in mind, this essay about the avant-garde should start with a discussion about the concept. Manfredo Tafuri, a historian from Venice who has been highly influential in the way we understand modern architecture, explains that the role of the avant-garde is to help us accept the shock of bourgeois capitalist society as an inevitable condition of existence. For Tafuri, who follows Georg Simmel’s theory of the metropolis and works in the Marxist tradition, art (and architecture) is part of society rather than an independent entity.1 On the other hand, Clement Greenberg understands the avant-garde in the context of the autonomy of modern art—independent from society through non-representation and from other art forms through medium specificity—that should be differentiated from kitsch.2 Peter Bürger is more specific, calling the 1920s movements such as Surrealism and Dada that opposed artistic institutions the historical avant-garde.3 According to Bürger, the historical avant-garde should be distinguished not only from modernism, which pursues the autonomy of art, but also from the 1960s neo-avant-garde that institutionalized the historical avant-garde by repeating it.4 Hal Foster, who wanted to restore the importance of the neo-avant-garde, claims that the project of the historical avant-garde can finally be understood through the neo-avant-garde.5 The list of historic interpretations of the avant-garde can get endlessly long. Although these discussions seem to be incompatible, they have a common hypothesis. First of all, the dialectic of the avant-garde can work only when institutions and organizations that define art react to the isolation and shock caused by industrialization and the existence of the metropolis. As Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “fixed determinacy” should exist prior to a “negatively rational side.”6 Also, the 20th century European avant-garde was possible because of artistic communities and networks that crossed borders. Maybe it was a matter of course that the European avant-garde disappeared when borders became boundaries of exclusion and discrimination in the 1930s.
Paradoxically, the avant-garde projects of Korea Engineering Consultants Corporation (KECC) were created in the absence of the apparent preconditions needed for the dialectic of the avant-garde. It could be seen, at a glance, as a similar form of visionary architecture and planning that flourished in Europe, the United States and Japan in the 1960s. But the historic background of KECC was quite different. The role of the state was critically different than anywhere else. The “state” is often described as an anti-agent that oppresses modern art or is defined as “the Other” that needs to be overcome. However, the state was the most important agent in the production of arts and architecture over the last century in Korea. The country needed a take-off ramp in the mid and late 1960s. In the south of the Korean peninsula there were urgent missions to combat North Korean ideology as well as to literally build a nation-state. As a new independent nation after being a monarchy, a colony, and then taken over by the United States’ military government, Korea needed to overcome the absence of a nation during that time. Not only was there an institutional, legal, and administrative absence, but also there were no social imaginaries about how the society needed to be led.7 The military regime, which took power through a coup in 1961, tried to solve many problems of the nascent nation-state—typically post-colonialism and the justification of their own political power—through economic development. It is the most urgent agenda for a father, which was identified with the state in the Confucian tradition, who returns home after a while to alleviate poverty. To achieve this what was needed as soon as possible was to secure dollars by cutting back on expenditure. Securing foreign exchange was the most crucial goal for the state in the mid-1960s, when the economic model was being transformed from an aid-dependent system centered on the US since the end of the Korean War, to a debt-based economy. The normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea and the negotiations over reparations in the spring of 1964 along with the dispatch of South Korean troops to Vietnam that November were strategies to secure dollars from the outside, whereas the establishment of state-built corporations in 1965 was a domestic strategy. Of course, these external and internal policies were intertwined closely. KECC and Korea Overseas Development Corporation are examples of state-led corporations. Korea Overseas Development Corporation was in charge of sending construction workers, nurses and miners overseas including Vietnam and Germany. As well as earning foreign currency, sending Korean workers abroad was an opportunity to solve the issue of unemployment in Korea in response to rapid population growth and urbanization. KECC was a company that was formed as a substitute for imports. It was founded so as not to pay out dollars to foreign technology companies. This was when Korea was changing from an agricultural society to an industrialized country, so there was increasing demand for urban infrastructure such as ports, expressways, water supply, and sewage, as well as petrochemical complexes and steel mills. But construction of those structures had been dependent on foreign companies. Because of this, architecture started cooperating with the state’s economic development plan.
excerpted from ‘State, Avant-Garde, and Spectres in Korean Modern Architecture’, Spectres of the State Avant-garde (Seoul: Propaganda, 2018)
1 Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976), p. 86.
2 Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in The Collected Essays and Criticism, volume 1: Perceptions and Judgements, 1934-1944 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 7-8.
3 Peter Bürger, The Theory of the Avant-garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1984), p. 22.
4 Ibid., p. 111.
5 Hal Foster, Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), p. 29.
6 G. W. F. Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic: Part I of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, trans. T. F. Geraets, W. A. Suchting, and H. S. Harris (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), p. 125.
7 Refer to Charles Taylor, Chapter 2 in Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).