Whatever happened to the avant-garde?; Art, Class and Cleavage by Ben Watson Quartet Books, pounds 14
There is a long tradition of avant-garde art - ironically, since tradition is what the avant-garde is out to destroy. Few things in art are older than the call to make it new. Each dissident generation of artists has denounced its predecessors as effete and escapist, as running dogs of Renaissance princes or of capitalist production. They, by contrast, have finally captured in the coils of art that slippery thing called Reality, which has eluded everyone else.

Back in the 18th century, the realist novel was the first to make this immodest claim, dismissing epic and pastoral as the unreal productions of an out-of-touch aristocracy. A century or so later, realism itself was denounced for its unreality by naturalists such as Ibsen and Zola, who sought to rip the veils from what the respectable middle class called reality and expose the seething sink of corruption they concealed.

But the naturalists simply came up, instead, with a kind of super-realism, and thus laid themselves wide open to the modernists. For the modernists, what was real was the inner rather than outer world,the flow of perception and the proddings of the unconscious rather than factories or foreign policy.

The aloof high priests of modernism, however, were easily dismissable as elitist and out of touch, so that the artistic wheel had now come full circle. Reality was now about to make its positively last appearance in the form of the revolutionary avant-garde, for whom what was unreal about art was art itself. The only solution to the illusions of art was to merge it boldly into life, overthrowing the whole idea of the distinctive artefact and replacing it with happenings, shocks and spectaculars.

Soviet painters smashed their easels and flocked into the factories to produce useful objects for the workers. Poets declaimed their poetry through megaphones in factory yards, or scribbled their verses on people's shirt- fronts in the street. Art had found its final destiny in self-destruction, achieving truth in the act of immolating itself.

But the Futurists and Surrealists were still utopian dreamers, which threw into doubt their claims to have finally rounded up the Real. So the path was open for a later, more cynical kind of avant-garde, which rejected art more in the name of the market-place than of any millennial yearnings. And this trend, known as post-modernism, brings the story up to date.

Ben Watson would seem to belong to the surrealist wing of the Socialist Workers Party, a group which could no doubt meet comfortably in a telephone box. Art, Class and Cleavage is a bizarre rag-bag of Lenin and Frank Zappa, Heidegger and Jimi Hendrix, which has index entries for underwear, vagina and Coleridge's urine.

Watson doesn't do anything as politically oppressive as laying out his argument coherently, since this is an avant-garde text which, so it tells us, intends to "cleave the `public' in twain". The public, one suspects, will remain stubbornly uncleavable, since the only honest avant-garde tactic would be not to write anything as drearily suburban as a book in the first place.

Even so, Watson thinks he has finally overcome the cleavage between art and life. His publishers, no doubt desperate to sell a book which is sometimes only just intelligible, have succumbed to the sexist ploy of decorating its cover with a less abstract kind of cleavage. Watson's secret weapon in the struggle for reality in art is what he calls "Materialist Esthetix", the "x" being a revolutionary subversion of boring bourgeois orthography.

Much of this comes down to a fairly pious rehash of classical Marxist ideas of art, which Watson defends in the face of theorists, elitists, academics, feminists, deconstructionists, post-modernists and cultural gurus. The list of his antagonists is as long as his footnotes. He is for Lenin and Trotsky and against Stalin, which these days is a bit like the man who said that he was against sin.

The book makes great play of the importance of dialectical thought. On the one hand, there are those buttoned-down, tight-assed, life-denying thinkers who see the world as static and pop everything into its separate little pigeon-hole. On the other hand, there are those dynamic, Dionysian theorists for whom thought must be active, concrete, open-ended and historically rooted. Guess which Watson is.

The problem with this distinction is that hardly anyone, least of all most of Watson's political enemies, is going to be feeble-minded enough to sign on for the first option. Few Oxford philosophers would be disturbed by a demand that their thought should be concrete and open-ended. Watson's revolution is bought on the cheap.

The irony is that this noisily anti-academic book is itself a prize product of the academic mind. Rarely has a brash appeal to break with the self- brooding intellect been cast in such self-brooding tones. You don't escape the dead hand of bourgeois Reason just by nipping from Dante to Philip K Dick, or by using phrases like "only the sexual dialectic can dyno-rod the blockage of Platonic abstraction".

The ferociously anti-elitist Watson has produced a book couched in a language as private as Ezra Pound's Cantos. What's intended as a racily iconoclastic style - "radical thought needs to prod the chromosomes of the dialectic with its spectral forceps" - is actually just pretentious gobbledygook. Anyone out to persuade us that he has something sensitive to say about art is ill-advised to perpetrate sentences like "The motorised squaredance of this eight-layer pancake will finally round on its users as they shoot poison arrows through the cook's voulptuous donuts". Watson clearly thinks that this kind of stuff is visionary surrealism; all it actually betrays is how detached his dialectical head is from what he would call the real world.

The book rubbishes theory, but is much taken with "rubbish theory", an esoteric brand of anti-aesthetics which flowered briefly and palely in the United States. It urges the concrete in an entirely abstract way, more at home with 12-tone music than trade unions. Despite criticising the squalid cult of the schizophrenic as politically subversive, Watson speaks of the "deplorable glory" of schizophrenic illness, a phrase which only someone loftily remote from the psychiatric ward would allow himself.

If the author's intellect lies with classical Marxism, his instincts are those of a romantic anarchist. Alles ist gut, he tells us on his first page, a proposition which he should have taken more seriously, since then there would have been no need for this book.

Watson is a victim of the naive libertarian belief that human energies are always positive, and that the problem is just that some frustrated old eunuchs out there are holding them back. This Nietzschean swagger goes well with the book's general macho strain, as Watson asserts his materialist manhood against all those airy-fairy intellectuals who don't reek manfully of the Real. The business of out-realing your rivals is one of the games that boys play.

For all its drawbacks, there is something enheartening about a book which can still be as relentlessly angry as this one. Watson's polemic has the callow arrogance of a lot of avant-gardism, yet his targets often deserve all they get. He is a shamessly unreconstructed Marxist in a world of trendy political renegades, and this isolation probably accounts for much of his book's quirkiness.

"Materialist Esthetix" is sometimes abbreviated to ME, which calls to mind a disease rather than a dialectic. That, in turn, recalls a scathing phrase of Watson's beloved Lenin, used to describe a certain kind of self-righteous avant-gardism: "an infantile disorder".