How to Start an Avant-Garde

By Ray, Robert B. | The Antioch Review, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

How to Start an Avant-Garde


Ray, Robert B., The Antioch Review


Although its demise is periodically announced - most recently at the hands of that all-purpose assassin-without-passport, "Theory" - the avant-garde survives as an attitude, a temptation, and even an aesthetic practice. Confronted with media culture's voracious powers of assimilation, which can, within a few years, popularize something like Punk Rock by transforming it first into "New Wave" and later (and more profitably) into "Alternative," the avant-garde seems left without its defining characteristic, its refuse status. Indeed, late-twentieth-century western culture, wired from birth to grave, requires that we reformulate two famous avant-garde maxims: Gertrude Stein's dismissal of Oakland ("There is no there there") and Jean-Luc Godard's definition of film ("Photography is truth, and the cinema is truth twenty-four times a second"). In the land of Fax machines, cellular phones, and cable TV, "There is no outside there," and we live under the regime of "Ideology 180,000 times a second."

The avant-garde, of course, has not remained unaffected by this new environment, characterized most of all by speed. But to assume that increasingly rapid co-option will destroy the avant-garde ignores how much the avant-garde itself has, throughout its history, promoted its own acceptance. From the start, its preferred analogy was to science, where the route from pure research to applied technology is not only a matter of course, but also a raison d'etre for the whole enterprise. From this perspective, the avant-gardist's typical complaint about assimilation seems misguided. When The Clash's Joe Strummer denounced fraternity parties' use of "Rock the Casbah" as mindless dance music, he seemed like a chemist protesting the use of his ideas for something as ordinary (and useful) as, let us say, laundry detergent.

The Impressionists, on the other hand, the first avant-garde, understood almost immediately that assimilation was a necessary goal. As a result, anyone wanting to start a new avant-garde should study their strategies, especially those designed to deal with the one great problem that, since Impressionism, has dictated the shape of the art world - the problem of the Gap. As a movement, Impressionism arrived at a moment when art (and, by implication, almost any innovative activity) encountered a new set of circumstances. In particular, for the first time in history, the art world began to assume that between the introduction of a new style and its acceptance by the public, a gap would inevitably exist. As Jerrold Seigel summarizes:

The Impressionists' self-conscious experimentalism, their exploration of the conditions and implications of artistic production in a modern market setting, and their sense that they bore the burden of an unavoidable opposition between innovation in art and society's hostile incomprehension - all made their experience paradigmatic. (Bohemian Paris, Viking, 1986)

There is another, more lyrical, way of putting the matter:

No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who are also creating their own time refuse to accept. And they refuse to accept it for a very simple reason and that is that they do not have to accept it for any reason.... In the case of the arts it is very definite. Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer....

For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts. (Gertrude Stein, "Composition as Explanation")

Although Gertrude Stein argued that an innovator's contemporaries dismiss his work simply because "they do not have to accept it for any reason," the standard art history account of the matter runs somewhat differently. …

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