Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde

A few days ago, I presented a talk titled “What’s New: the Meaning of Avant-Garde in the Arts” at the Seligmann Center in Sugar Loaf. Though some of the material I presented was derived from my essays “Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde,” “The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art,” and “Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde,” I mean here to simply note several ideas that were new. The following aims merely to record what was not in the earlier essays and does not aim therefore at polish or even coherence, only at contributing toward an understanding of this important concept.

The Essential Combativeness of the Avant-Garde

Literature always develops and changes. New styles succeed old and writers such as Catullus and Dante were once justifiably called “new.” The avant-garde is a particular subcategory of new culture in which an adversarial relationship with the majority culture is assumed. This arises necessarily from the term itself.
The term avant-garde was first used in English in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur with a purely military meaning. This usage gained in popularity by the late 18th century. It was first used in the cultural sphere in 1825 by the Saint Simonian Olinde Rodrigues in his essay, “L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel.” For him artists were likely “forward troops” who could educate the masses through the dissemination of radical ideas through their work. Thus actual revolution provided the crossover point from military to artistic content. The fact that the masses would be unlikely to be reading “avant-garde” literature did not trouble Rodrigues who envisioned a militant and influential cadre of artists in support of socialism.
Shortly thereafter in 1845 Henri Murger began publishing the stories which became in 1851 the collection Scènes de la Vie de Bohème which preceded Puccini’s opera by almost half a century. In 1848 Thackeray used Bohemian in its counter-cultural sense in Vanity Fair.

The Definition of Avant-Garde

Kostelanetz in his Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes proposes a value-laden definition of avant-garde: work that “transcends” current practice and will find its audience only later though it will eventually have considerable influence. This is, of course, absurd. Trivial or inconsequential avant-garde work is not only possible, but the rule. First-rate popular or conventional art is likewise common. Avant-garde artists are not those who magically anticipate coming trends. Indeed, the techniques associated with the word have remained remarkably consistent.

The specific descriptive value of the term avant-garde seems to me to consist in the following qualities: a conscious aim to “épater la bourgeoisie,” a claim that the work of the “advanced” school has value beyond and above that of other artists, and a particular set of techniques and attitudes.

Avant-garde art typically offends, shocks, disturbs because of its transgressiveness in aesthetic, political, religious, or moral realms. As I recall the first poetry readings I attended, Paul Carroll’s Big Table series in Chicago, the greatest audience reaction, a reliable and palpable rise, occurred during erotic, revolutionary, or blasphemous passages. People cheered every violation of “straight” norms. This is probably the most characteristic quality of the avant-garde. Thus Mapplethorpe not only used homoerotic imagery, but chose to document activities and poses that would be shocking even to those untroubled by straightforward love between men.

Though I differed with Kostelanetz’ attribution of higher value to avant-garde art, I would readily agree that such work claims a higher worth than the accepted. The Secessionists, Refusés, and similar groupings took pride in their outsider status. For punk musicians a lack of professional skills was the hallmark of authenticity. This is related to the popularity of a variety of contrarian aesthetic systems in the twentieth century. Such forms of appreciation as hip, the camp, kitsch are all elitist in that they assert privileged forms of reception of the work, ostensibly superior to that of the usual consumer. This attitude reinforces the first characteristic above as most critics and cultural consumers will be annoyed and offended by this claim of a higher mode of understanding, unless they choose to include themselves in the aura of the avant-garde’s greater sophistication.

Though the pretension of the avant-garde is to innovation, the movement has been generally characterized by a specific battery of techniques and attitudes that has changed little in the last hundred years. The use of abstraction, conceptual and performance art, aleatory work, and the use of ethnographic and pop culture materials remains the hallmark of the avant-garde.
Apart from the formal or stylistic elements, the avant-garde is highly likely to follow the Romantics of two centuries ago in a long list of judgments, among them celebrating the vatic role of the artist and privileging the unconscious over the conscious and thus the work of children, the poor and uneducated, mad people, and those in oral cultures.

The Problematics of the Avant-Garde

Each of the distinguishing characteristics detailed above generates problems, leading to serious questions, if not to a crisis, of the avant-garde. First, the philosophical position implied by what one might (ironically) call “classic” avant-gardism constructs a cul-de-sac. Secondly, the movement is hobbled by its reactive character, inverting received ideas as a matter of habit without thought. Finally, the gap between what might have once been conceived as the party of the future and that of the present no longer exists in either content or in form, removing the motive for rebellion.

The sweeping challenge presented by the theoreticians of the avant-garde is, in fact, so radical as to lead to a dead-end. Much like absolute philosophical skepticism or total monism, it leaves little room for meaningful elaboration or development. When all objects are equivalent, enlightenment may arise, but art is eclipsed. After conceptual art brought everything into the realm of the aesthetic, no further progress is possible. With the loss of conventions comes a concomitant loss of signifying potential.

The avant-garde is hobbled by its largely reactive character; like Satanism, it merely inverts the practices of its antagonist rather than, like paganism, ignoring them. In this way heroin can seem more attractive than health and fetishes more fascinating than commonplace sexuality. Such contrarianism is salutary as long as the establishment resists the avant-garde. An insistence on always playing the bad boy removes the chance of developing an independent base for the artist’s judgments.

Indeed the gap no longer exists. The advance guard is no longer out front. The art world has long accepted the entire spectrum of avant-garde technique, while politically radical art lacks an audience and, indeed, all non-commodified art is ever more marginalized. Even the most revolutionary techniques may become automatized from repeated use, and soi-disant innovators who in fact do nothing experimental create the odd spectacle of an institutionalized avant-garde. When situation comedies use “shit” the opening of Jarry’s Ubu Roietz, which originally provoked a riot after which the play was banned, has lost its point and requires a footnote.

For several generations the American government has sponsored programs of jazz music and abstract expressionism as instruments of foreign policy, and advertisers sell blue jeans and cologne with techniques devised for the derangement of the senses.

Under these conditions a new turn is essential is the concept of the avant-garde is to have any meaning for coming generations.

Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus]

Romance of the Forest (Radcliffe)

Radcliffe’s novel has plenty of romance, raised to a high pitch the first half by Adeline’s distress at unwilling confinement and the threat of sexual exploitation. This exquisite but frustrated affection continues in the second as the true love that arises in the midst of her perils is then transformed into anxiety over the fate of her champion, unfairly condemned to death. Throughout the narrative, she has ample motive to weep and to swoon. The language, especially between lovers, is stilted and highly artificial – though I do recall an article demonstrating that actual fainting was apparently common during the age of the “man of sensibility,” so perhaps the delicate circumlocutions are all drawn from life. There are plenty of rhapsodic descriptions of wild landscape as well as Gothic ruins with endless rooms upon room, secret passages and all the machinery of the late eighteenth century thriller. A good number of the poetic quotations that head each chapter are drawn from Collins. The word “romance” is used often in a self-conscious reflex.
Yet the warm glow of Enlightenment confidence plays over the Romantic landscapes, and La Luc, Radcliffe’s philosopher, reminds the reader of Rasselas or Candide with his wise moderation.
Coleridge developed his notions on the “willing suspension of disbelief” specifically to defend artificial “romance” settings and plots, and to advocate for the free use of the supernatural in literature. This narrative, while it only plays with the metaphysical, pays scant heed to realism or even plausibility. Radcliffe did not even attempt to make the scene convincingly French, but then, millions are about to relish the concluding episode of the television series Breaking Bad which, its gritty detail notwithstanding, is altogether fantastic.

The Red and the Black (Stendhal)

Stendhal managed to make of Sorel a complex and satisfying antihero. He seems at first an absurdly mistaken provincial Napoleon, seeking advancement through his wits while pretending piety and love without any authentic feelings whatsoever. Utterly cynical and self-interested, interested only in self-advancement, still he regards himself as a person of the highest honor and standards. He wonders in prison whether he has acted the egotist and concludes “I abandoned a simple and modest merit for what was brilliant.” Thinking “I have loved the Truth,” this most hypocritical of men laments that he could find only hypocrisy in the wider world, little suspecting that each of the others who strike him as so fraudulent, may seem, no less than our hero, subjectively a wronged lover of the truth.

Whereas Samuel Richardson would have seen no moral ambiguity in the case of this ruiner of two women, their will no match for their passions, Stendhal constructs a more radical vision in which no one stands outside corruption. The epigraphs from Don Juan encourage a comedic/satiric reading until the sudden attack on Madame de la Renal, so injurious to Sorel’s own interests, irresistible and foolish as anything that those he felt so far above had done. Human character is finally revealed, not as wickedly duplicitous and cunning, but as blundering, absurd, and blind.

Colloquies (Erasmus)

Ordinarily, the most literary quality of the compositions written for language learners is a certain oddity. Yet the Colloquies, written at first simply for teaching Latin, are perhaps the best introduction to Erasmus’ work. In the fifteenth century, the great Christian humanist demonstrated that orthodoxy may coexist with tolerance rather in the style of the current pope. This benign regard for the follies of humanity extends in fact to such church-sanctioned activities as pilgrimages, exorcisms, and elaborate funerals. Erasmus regularly discerns the truly spiritual, at least what works for those of an intellectual cast of mind, and the polish of his Latinity signifies the high standard of his character.

The Colloquies are incidentally valuable as vignettes of sixteenth century life. In his piece on “Inns,” he describes the world of the Renaissance hospitality industry with color and humor. His piece on pilgrimage includes a catalogue of marvelous and magical stones as well as detail on religious practice. His anti-war “Charon” at once reflects its historic origins and speaks eloquently to today.

But the appeal of the collection is its free-ranging variety from a highly original takes on courtly love (“The Wooer and the Maiden”) and the pastoral with his servant playing Cyclops (“Cyclops, or the Gospel Bearer”) to a house party at the most civilized country estate ornamented with both nature and art (“The Godly Feast”). It is difficult to escape the conviction that Erasmus sought salvation from his sense of beauty as well as from his sense of the divine.

Documents of the third Surreal Cabaret

The third Surreal Cabaret was presented at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 23 at the Seligmann Center for the Arts, 23 White Oak Drive in Sugar Loaf.

The program

1. Steve Roe performed Museum Piece, a monologue describing a bizarre museum treating the relationship of art to commerce, science, and violence.
Roe is founder of COPE, the Council of (Poetic) Experimentation, a performance group dedicated to performing classic and original multimedia experimental works. Roe was Associate Producer and acted in the prize-winning film Under Jakob's Ladder.

2. Jennifer Kraus did Mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror which through video, movement and voice searches for redeeming vulnerability behind the current "selfie" culture.
Kraus, a Warwick native, is a dance teacher and choreographer. She most recently worked at HERE Arts Center in NYC as an Assistant Director. She has formed a theatrical production company, HUGE CUP Productions, through which she develops original dance theater work.

3. Michael Sean Collins delivered Igor’s Revenge, or The Black Dog Takes Another Bite, a macabre surreal existential monologue representing a conversation between a man and his unconscious.
Collins is an actor, poet, magician, photographer and former 22-year resident of New York City. He has performed in television, film, theater, cafes, night clubs circuses and alternative performance venues across the United States and Canada.

4. Chloe Roe sang Aria, John Cage’s composition which requires a single performer to vocalize in five languages using ten vocal styles.
Roe is a professional actress and singer. She appears as the lead in the feature film Feral Child and as Francis in The Library. She is also a member of The Manhattan Girls Chorus. But most of all she likes to rock out with her band.

5. William Seaton enacted The Debate of Thaumastes and Panurge, a disputation conducted entirely in gestures.
Seaton conceived the Surreal Cabaret. He also produces the Poetry on the Loose Reading/Performance Series and teaches workshops at the Northeast Poetry Center’s College of Poetry.

6. ArtCrime with John Korchok provided opening and incidental music and performed a unique version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
ArtCrime is a cell of committed aesthetic hackers devoted to the overthrow of musical expectations. Using jazz, classical, and rock idioms, we make music that is reminiscent of the future. We sleep in the daytime, we work in the nighttime. We might not ever get home.

The poster by David Horton

[I haven't succeeded in reproducing the excellent poster by David Horton. Blogger doesn't seem to like the pdf format. Perhaps it will appear here soon.]

The benediction by the Lama Swine Toil

Good evening and welcome to the Surreal Cabaret at the Seligmann Studio, the staging area for advanced artistic research in Orange County. I am the Lama Swine Toil, Surrealist Chaplain, midwife to your imaginative endeavors for the next few hours. Allow me to bestow the special benediction of the unordained and to share a few words of scripture.
I am bedazzled to gaze upon you and to behold radiant perfect Buddhas enjoying the endless unemployment of Eternity. But in this quantum universe we find ourselves like Schrödinger’s cat in two states at once. I see as well as Buddhas small caged and pacing beasts like those in the Humane Society, motherless, anxious, and feeling alien indeed. Suspended between these realities, I invite you to make of yourself tonight a young child with no responsibilities beyond observing and playing.
And now a few words from our scriptures. Remember always the rule of the Abbey of Theleme which existed never and always: “Do as thou wouldst.” In different words the rural Midwestern prophet Ezekiel Cole expressed the same timeless thought “If thou hast eyes, go thy way.” Allow me to conclude with the glad exclamations of Lord Buckley’s Nazz, “Oh great swingin’ flowers of the fields! And the Nazz say “Dig Infinity!”