I grew up committed to the avant-garde. Even beyond partisanship, the concept lay at the basis of my structuring of the world. One pole of every opposition was for me animated with life and energy while the other bore the dead weight of reaction: not only art and politics and religion split into camps of the hip and square, old and young, academic and revolutionary – the principle seemed at the time universal. Remember Norman Mailer’s Village Voice lists from the ‘fifties? Bohr’s model of the atom is square, Heisenberg’s hip, etc. (Though, of course, the wave of the future could involve such radical exhumation of the past as pre-Raphaelitism or Pound’s rereading of the troubadours.)
This whole bipolar opposition is primarily a Romantic myth. In spite of boasts from millennia of artists and writers that they are “making it new,” and in spite of the line of off-beat artists extending back to archaic schizoid shamans, and the ancient world’s wine-drinker poets (in contrast to the soberly craftsmanlike water-drinkers), the idea of bohemia is, like the term, less than two hundred years old. But its course seems already to be run, though practitioners continue to go through the motions that used to épater the bourgeoisie though now these are the very gestures by which they court the embrace of the same establishment.
Now it is clear from oral and popular genres that art that defends the status quo may be great. Apart from exotic examples like African sculpture and oral epic, the USA’s greatest contributions to world culture may well be in genuinely popular genres: movies and jazz. But if gestures are to carry meaning at all, the cocked snoot must be distinguished from the glad hand.
In my opinion the last great era of the avant-garde was launched by the dadaists in the early part of the past century and ripened in the great surrealist ventures of the next few decades. Admittedly, even here it was possible for a perversely conservative entrepreneur like Dali to evolve, but surely Franco and the Pope always knew he was a character to keep at arm’s length even if the buyers of his millions of limited editions did not.
The performances at the Café Voltaire genuinely amazed the public and went near the limit in cracking art’s possibilities. No second appearance of Picabia in a tutu could replicate the first. Beyond sound poetry, what? Not only did these artists do things never dared before in the realm of taste and semiotic manipulation; they were altogether serious in their fierce opposition to those who held economic power. Whether communist like Breton and Huelsenbeck or anarchist like Bunuel, they struggled with the ruling class for control of art.
Now the Rockefeller Foundation is pleased to fund work that resembles nothing so much as the performance of the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn; the largest museums speculate on novelty; we find that the CIA promoted abstract expressionism as part of the cold war, and the once-radical designs of the Bauhaus embody the glittery apparition of American wealth in lower Manhattan. Andy Warhol, who seriously took up the task of representing the icons of our culture, not just soup cans and celebrities, but crack-ups as well, began in corporate advertising and spawned the Interview sensibility which fawns on the rich and finds those who are vicious as well (such as the Marcoses and the Shah of Iran) particularly piquant Mapplethorpe, too, for all the fuss once attendant on his shows, displays flawlessly elegant academic/advertising skills and is attacked only by know-nothings, with everyone in the art world from old line to young lions defending him.
Even real art brut styles have been easily digested from Rouault to Red Grooms, and what passed a few generations ago for derangement of the senses now sells jeans and cologne on MTV. Conceptual art may have been the last theoretical gasp of the avant-garde, for once everything is assimilated to art, what boundary remains to be challenged? What is the next move?
I offer no prescriptions for the resuscitation of the avant-garde. Some alternatives are clear: among the more common already current are antiquarianism, deeper probing of sore psychic regions, the sleazier sorts of pop culture, and borrowing from the tribal. I lament the passing of the avant-garde, and suggest we be conscious of its implications. What changes in society, in art, and in their relation have rendered obsolete the idea of an avant-garde, so seminal these past few centuries? Surely among the assassins of the avant-garde are the continuing marginalization of art, the greedy commodification of art processes, and the collapse of radical challenge in non-artistic realms. Under these conditions an active avant-garde would be a zombie-like walking corpse.