Cover image for Surveying the Avant-Garde: Questions on Modernism, Art, and the Americas in Transatlantic Magazines By Lori Cole

Surveying the Avant-Garde

Questions on Modernism, Art, and the Americas in Transatlantic Magazines

Lori Cole


$101.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08091-8

$37.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08092-5

Available as an e-book

256 pages
7" × 9.5"
20 b&w illustrations

Refiguring Modernism

Surveying the Avant-Garde

Questions on Modernism, Art, and the Americas in Transatlantic Magazines

Lori Cole

“Turning the manifesto—the touchstone genre for avant-gardists in the twentieth century—on its head, Lori Cole’s provocative, innovative, and deeply researched book reveals the questionnaire to have been a constitutive genre of declaration-by-interrogation across the arts of the Americas. With this counterintuitive and superbly convincing study, Cole opens new pathways for scholars in multiple languages to pursue the politics and populaces that made modern aesthetics.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Surveying the Avant-Garde examines the art and literature of the Americas in the early twentieth century through the lens of the questionnaire, a genre as central as the manifesto to the history of the avant-garde.

Questions such as “How do you imagine Latin America?” and “What should American art be?” issued by avant-garde magazines like Imán, a Latin American periodical based in Paris, and Cuba’s Revista de Avance demonstrate how editors, writers, and readers all grappled with the concept of “America,” particularly in relationship to Europe, and how the questionnaire became a structuring device for reflecting on their national and aesthetic identities in print. Through an analysis of these questionnaires and their responses, Lori Cole reveals how ideas like “American art,” as well as “modernism” and “avant-garde,” were debated at the very moment of their development and consolidation.

Unlike a manifesto, whose signatories align with a single polemical text, the questionnaire produces a patchwork of responses, providing a composite and sometimes fractured portrait of a community. Such responses yield a self-reflexive history of the era as told by its protagonists, which include figures such as Gertrude Stein, Alfred Stieglitz, Jean Toomer, F. T. Marinetti, Diego Rivera, and Jorge Luis Borges.

The book traces a genealogy of the genre from the Renaissance paragone, or “comparison of the arts,” through the rise of enquêtes in the late nineteenth century, up to the contemporary questionnaire, which proliferates in art magazines today. By analyzing a selection of surveys issued across the Atlantic, Cole indicates how they helped shape artists’ and writers’ understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

Based on extensive archival research, this book reorients our understanding of modernism as both hemispheric and transatlantic by narrating how the artists and writers of the period engaged in aesthetic debates that informed and propelled print communities in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Scholars of modernism and the avant-garde will welcome Cole’s original and compellingly crafted work.

“Turning the manifesto—the touchstone genre for avant-gardists in the twentieth century—on its head, Lori Cole’s provocative, innovative, and deeply researched book reveals the questionnaire to have been a constitutive genre of declaration-by-interrogation across the arts of the Americas. With this counterintuitive and superbly convincing study, Cole opens new pathways for scholars in multiple languages to pursue the politics and populaces that made modern aesthetics.”
“Lori Cole presents a new interpretation of modernism by examining the networks and circulation of ideas and images elaborated in transatlantic magazines. Using the questionnaire as a framework, her study destabilizes dominant narratives and reveals the numerous and often conflicting voices that contributed to and shaped notions of the avant-garde.”
“By approaching modernism through the very questions its protagonists were asking themselves, Cole destabilizes the terms of this history, in turn opening up vital new questions—and offering insightful, original answers—about the global character of the avant-garde. This fascinating and meticulously researched book reveals the questionnaire as a quintessential site for experimental art and literature with vast implications for how we understand the self-reflexive processes through which cultural meaning is produced and received.”
Surveying the Avant-Garde is an important contribution to the literature on little magazinesand the modernists and avant-garde that produced them, particularly for its focus both on the questionnaire—an integral aspect of their discourses scarcely studied—and the international, networked nature of their development. Coles book is essential to any bibliography about the avant-garde in general.”
“You’ve filled out a million of them, but have you ever really considered the questionnaire? Lori Cole has—and in Surveying the Avant-Garde she seats it beside the manifesto as a core genre of modernist self-portraiture and self-promotion. The result is a fascinating new take on a range of modernist print communities. What Cole has rejoined—the manifesto and the questionnaire, the bullhorn of avant-gardes and their fissured mirror—let no one put asunder.”
“One of Surveying the Avant-Garde’s strengths is to be found in a deft compass for cosmopolitan literary history, which has no geographic home but which navigates ‘a web of European and Latin American alliances’ in Paris, Havana, Madrid, and Buenos Aires.”
“Overall, this book offers a wide-ranging and engaging discussion of the ways in which literature, art and the Americas were discussed in some of the most important transatlantic magazines of the Modernist period. Cole moves seamlessly between the wider socio-cultural context and specific examples in order to provide an impressive analysis of responses to questions drawn from different magazines. The study covers a lot of ground but also broadly retains its focus on the questionnaire in a coherent and engaging way.”
“Surveying the Avant-Garde is an important contribution to the literature on little magazinesand the modernists and avant-gardes that produced them, particularly for its focus both on an integral aspect of their discourses scarcely studied the questionnaire and the international, networked nature of their development. Coles book is essential to any bibliography about the avant-garde in general.”
“From this mass of material, [Lori Cole] crafts an enormously compelling narrative, by describing how writers and artists inhabited a universe of alliances and rivalries that crossed oceans, linguistic differences, and national borders. Across five chapters, she examines a seemingly endless succession of questions asked and answered by her protagonists.”
“The book opens paths for study of the questionnaire’s performative possibilities, which were ably plied by the Estridentista poet Manuel Maples Arce, for example. It also leads to in-depth examinations of local uses of the genre; in the case of Revista de Avance, contributors also explored the idea of “America” in racial terms. Cole leaves no doubt that the questionnaire proved an important genre for those who had a stake in the spread of modernism.”

Lori Cole is Clinical Associate Professor and Associate Director of the interdisciplinary master’s program XE: Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement at New York University.


List of Illustrations


Introduction: Questioning the Avant Garde

1. Defining the Questionnaire

2. Picturing Latin America

3. Translating the Americas

4. Forming National Canons

5. Extending into the Contemporary

Conclusion: Interrogating Print Culture


A Century of Questionnaires: A Chronological Index




From the Introduction

Questioning the Avant-Garde

In 1928, in the Mexican journal Contemporáneos, one of its editors, Jaime Torres Bodet, wearily remarked on the abundance of questionnaires being issued in magazines internationally. He blamed this outpouring on a North American propensity for metrics, asking, “Who doesn’t know that one of the most lucrative sports in North America is good statistics?” Such accusations against the United States were familiar to Torres Bodet’s Mexican readers. The questionnaire he skewered was “A Complete Handbook of Opinion,” published by Vanity Fair a few months earlier, which posed the question “Are you an ancient or a modern?” to Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, and Sherwood Anderson, among others, and asked them to rate a list of cultural figures on a scale of zero to twenty-five. Their answers, of course, exceeded the rigid form; Pound’s response includes the remark “To ask me if I am an ancient or modern appears to me almost as satisfactory as asking whether New York is west of Rapallo, or Rapallo east of New York. If I must classify myself I am perfectly willing to classify myself along with the conflict: immortal.” Both Torres Bodet and Pound perpetuate the questionnaire as a forum for debate while critiquing it as inadequate, demonstrating the genre’s ubiquity and its resilience.

Although Torres Bodet condemns the questionnaire as emblematic of North America’s compulsion to quantify culture, he nevertheless gives great weight to the survey he derides, translating it into Spanish and almost lovingly recounting its results to his Mexican readers. Even more significantly, he inserts the Vanity Fair questionnaire into a genealogy of the genre, identifying as its precursor an earlier poll titled “French literature as judged by current British authors.” In that poll, issued by the French publication Le Gaulois du Dimanche in 1899, the British authors in question denounce Voltaire as being “too cosmopolitan.” Torres Bodet translates and transports these international debates to his Mexican audience while detailing the physical experience of reading Vanity Fair, thereby demonstrating how one might be interpellated by the question and its answers. He observes,

“Upon closing the magazine—in whose pages a world of forms and dates remains intact—we compare the picture of our old preferences with the current frameless landscape in which we recognize ourselves. Seen like that, in that double mirror in which our culture looks at itself in the simultaneous reflection of yesterday and today, how we gain in volume, in a profound third dimension, that which we lose in feigned, superficial unity! One feels almost a desire to add another questionnaire to the interminable list: that of the ten famous writers that we read in 1915, whom we deemed irreplaceable, and whom, nevertheless, we ended up replacing.”

In reflecting on the questionnaire, Torres Bodet “recognizes himself,” and uses it as an opportunity to compare his former and current preferences. Moreover, Torres Bodet writes that the experience evokes in him a “desire to add another questionnaire to the interminable list,” narrating a response that other readers might have, which perhaps accounts for the era’s excess of surveys. Thus, what began as a critique of a supposedly North American genre concludes as a capitulation to the form, demonstrating the questionnaire’s tractability and its international reach in the 1920s, as well as its drive toward self-replication.

This example—a critic recounting a North American questionnaire in a Mexican magazine—is one of many that points to the fluidity with which such questions traveled across borders through the magazines that published them, reaching and inspiring new audiences and aiding modernism’s global expansion. It also suggests how each questionnaire was situated within a vast genealogy of other questions for its writers and readers, indicating that audiences at the time were well acquainted with the form. In the same year, 1928, the editors of the Madrid-based La Gaceta Literaria note its pervasiveness: “The genre of the questionnaire spreads like a bad cold. Everyone feels entitled to the expectation of wit, to the cough of opinions. An essentially democratic form (a universal suffrage of newspapers and magazines), it is sometimes even amusing.” One French writer referred to the phenomenon as “enquêteomanie,” or “questionnaire-mania.” An analysis of this mode of inquiry, which circulated and culled contributors internationally through its widespread reproduction in print culture, allows us to reexamine the map of modernism as it unfolded.

Questionnaires like the one considered by Torres Bodet were issued with great frequency throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In this book I analyze the genre and the ways in which it was used to define the relationship between art and national identity within the triangulation of the United States, Latin America, and Europe in the early twentieth century. Popularized in late nineteenth-century France, questionnaires were adapted by editors across the globe to suit the specific needs of their movements and magazines, signaling the genre’s integration within a set of avant-garde practices. The questions issued were broad and open-ended, at once new and sometimes variations on those that preceded them. I examine a selection of such questions, including “What should American art be?,” “How do you imagine Latin America?,” and “Why do Americans live in Europe?” Structurally porous exercises, these surveys yielded a compendium of written responses from artists and writers, which function as privileged points of entry into debates over aesthetic and national identities at a time when ideas like “modernism” and the “avant-garde” were still in formation. Despite the genre’s origins, the range of questions issued in the 1920s and 1930s point to the proliferation of literary and artistic communities beyond France, spurring anxiety that in turn fueled questionnaires such as that of L’Intransigeant in 1928 asking if Paris was really the “world center for art.”

If we look at how “modernism,” “the avant-garde,” and later “the contemporary” were each debated at the moment of their respective development and consolidation, particularly in relation to national concerns, we can better understand the complexity of these fields of study today. For example, in 1930 La Gaceta Literaria issued a questionnaire asking, “What is the avant-garde? Does the avant-garde exist? Has it ever existed? How have you understood it?” (fig. 1). The reflexivity of this line of questioning suggests that the avant-garde—in this context, specifically the Spanish avant-garde—was anxious to define itself and to ensure its legacy. One respondent identifies a previous poll as the model for this questionnaire, a survey issued by El Nuevo Mercurio in 1907 that asked, “What is modernism? Do you think a new literary movement or new intellectual or artistic tendency exists?” This citation of an earlier survey, inserted into a questionnaire response, indicated to me that these artists and critics were self-consciously participating in a genre whose history they knew, which they were deliberately reinhabiting and perpetuating. Following the lead of this respondent, I began chronicling all of the questionnaires that I encountered, many of which I compiled into an index that appears at the end of this volume. However, my findings quickly surpassed my ability to catalogue them, demonstrating the frequency and consistency with which questionnaires were issued over the course of the twentieth century, and continue to be issued today. The purpose of this book is to establish an account of the largely overlooked but persistently significant genre of the questionnaire, and to demonstrate how these questions of art and national identity informed artists’ and writers’ understanding of their work and their place in the world.

It is precisely the slipperiness of designations like “modernism” and “the avant-garde”—along with their accompanying cultural nuances—that necessitated the innumerable questions and answers published by magazine editors, who sought to tease out and solidify the meaning of these terms according to the inclination of an editorial platform, a national tradition, or an artistic movement. As early as 1913 the Spanish writer Manuel Machado wrote, “What is modernism? You may ask me. And indeed you yourself are a little at fault that I cannot satisfactorily explain it. A word of purely common origin, formed by the astonishment of the majority before the latest novelties, the word modern- ism means something different to each person who utters it.” Inquiries on modernism and the avant-garde were issued regularly across Europe and the Americas in the 1920s and 1930s, and many featured locally specific inflections of these terms. For instance, an inquiry in Lampadario issued in Quito in 1931 included a question on the “importance of nativism in the international avant-garde.” This insertion of nativism into a discussion of the avant-garde shifts attention away from a European version of the “international” to highlight regional differences, demonstrating how such magazines’ assessments of these concepts can enrich our understanding of the period today.

A productive tension between what is considered modernist versus avant-garde is embodied by the material itself. The reach of the questionnaire— its capacity to solidify the concerns of communities across borders as well as its manifestations in different geographies and languages—suggests that notions of modernism and the avant-garde have always been unstable and under construction. This book addresses the desire of each individual writer, artist, editor, and magazine to participate in the debates of their era, offering a model for understanding the period that is both transnational and local. The numerous questions posed about time, obsolescence, and periodization suggest that the questionnaire can be a tool for exploring the ways in which “modernism,” “the avant-garde,” and “the contemporary,” have been framed and deployed throughout history.

Other questions, such as “What should American art be?,” emphasize the contributions of writers and artists from the Americas to a broader modernist network. The geographic axes of interaction that I foreground—between Latin America, North America, Spain, and France—reorient the dominant map of modernism to include Latin America and Spain, which are often studied independently from the other regions. North Americans and Latin Americans were participating in similar canon-building enterprises; they frequently jockeyed for cultural position in relation to each other and to Europeans. For Latin Americans, the assertion of cultural autonomy was part of a broader anticolonial struggle. I do not purport to cover questionnaires issued across the globe, but rather focus on a selection of transatlantic avant-garde questionnaires in order to demonstrate how these print communities were at once independent and deeply interdependent. This push and pull between the local and the global was exemplified by the questionnaire.

The Questionnaire and the Manifesto

The questionnaire is a genre essential to the international avant-garde, enabling local artistic and literary communities to conceptualize themselves relationally. While manifestos have long been considered foundational to the development of the avant-garde, I argue that the questionnaire was as central as the manifesto to forming, announcing, and recounting the history of the avant-garde. The manifesto and the questionnaire both worked to articulate collective identifications in print. However, unlike the manifesto, which carries a singular message boldly oriented toward the future, the questionnaire is often retroactive and contains a plurality of responses, destabilizing the unified voice of the manifesto and producing a polyvalent portrait of a community. A manifesto is also predicated on a contradiction; that is, it proclaims a platform that its author has yet to enact, while a questionnaire allows respondents to operate in a reflective mode to address the anxieties underlying their group formation.

This give and take between the bold claims of the manifesto and the more open-ended, ambivalent form of the questionnaire characterized print culture in the 1920s and 1930s. Consideration of the questionnaire can thus radically alter our approach to analyzing the manifesto. The two forms have a dynamic, interdependent relationship. I argue that the questionnaire, more inclusive and multivocal than the manifesto, offers a critical record of the avant-garde and serves as a key tool for its analysis. By reconsidering the historical avant-garde through the lens of the questionnaire, I hope to defamiliarize the manifesto and to offer the questionnaire as generating an alternative, self-reflexive historiography of the period. Moreover, because of its protracted use, the questionnaire allows us to rethink the period through a genre that provides continuity, rather than rupture, with our own aesthetic debates.

(Excerpt ends here)