Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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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.

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