[Update: Part 2 is here]
- The term’s early 19th-century Socialist origins have mostly been forgotten. And that’s fine—language changes—but, personally, I find it deliciously perverse that the original Avant-Gardists, the Impressionists, essentially stole the term from Socialists, for use as a marketing term.
- It seems to me that anyone who wants to use the term today—especially if they want to use it to refer to some progressive art that’s free from any capitalist influence—would have to account for that history.
- People mostly don’t, though. Instead, they just use it interchangeably with terms like “experimental” and “unusual” and “innovative.” I consider this conflation very wrong-headed, not to mention not all that useful.
- For one thing, it assumes an incorrect model of how art and innovation actually proceed. It begins by positing that there’s a single conservative high art world, which follows a long and noble yet conservative tradition, and that there’s a single low art world, which is popular and commercial (i.e., crass). And then it assumes that there’s a small band of daring creative pioneers, huddled in some corner of the culture somewhere, who pass all artistic innovation to both the highs and the lows. (It’s the art world version of Reaganomics.)
I don’t truck with any of that. I think it’s important to remember history (even as it changes); I think it’s important to be as clear as possible in one’s terminology; and I regret any and all myopic views of the culture. (Not to mention, the notion of the avant-garde is rather elitist and racist: it posits a view of history in which all innovation flows from middle- and upper-class white folks.)
One need only look at recent music history to put the lie to the term “avant-garde.” Today Facebook showed me the following ad:
Now, I’m a big fan of Laurie Anderson. Her 1982 album Big Science might even make my Top 100 Albums of All Time list, were I ever feeling deluded enough to try making such a thing. And I won’t deny that Laurie Anderson has been influential. I won’t deny that she’s been innovative. But I don’t think she’s been one of America’s “most daring creative pioneers” (sorry, Laurie—I still love you!).
The simple truth is, Laurie Anderson has been just as influenced as she’s influenced. Let’s look at some of her work in a broader context, which I hope will explain what I mean…
Count Machuki: “Our Thing” (date unknown–1960s?):
King Tubby: “Murderous Dub” (c. mid-1970s):
DJ Kool Herc: “Merry Go Round” (1972):
How come no one considers Laurie Anderson a later generation dub artist, or hip hop artist? In “O Superman, ” she’s essentially rapping over loops. She also loves electronically processing her vocals, mixing in samples… Well, I think the answer’s simple: no one considers her as belonging to this lineage! Because dub and deejaying and hip hop aren’t perceived as having had any influence on early 1980s, white, experimental fine art!
Wendy Carlos: A Clockwork Orange soundtrack (1971):
Alan Parsons Project: “The Raven” (1975):
(It’s due to projects like the above that we now regard The Alan Parsons Project as Essential Avant-Garde.)
Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs et al, Einstein on the Beach (1976):
Can: “Dizzy Dizzy” (1977):
(Can was just as influenced by “Jimi Hendrix and things like Sly Stone” and “Frank Zappa” as it was by the Velvet Underground and the Minimalists and Karlheinz Stockhausen.)
Kraftwerk: “The Robots” (1977):
Brian Eno: “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978):
Klaus Nomi: “Lightning Strikes” (1979–1983):
Nomi began performing this 1960s pop song in the late 70s:
He recorded the following album/video version in 1982:
Crash Course In Science: “Cardboard Lamb” (1981):
Talking Heads: “Once in a Lifetime” (1981):
The choreographer for this video was Toni Basil, best known for her 1982 hit song “Mickey”:
…a video that clearly influenced the later Talking Heads video. (The song was recorded and the video planned in 1980, before she worked with David Byrne.) (Basil also acted in Five Easy Pieces—she’s one of the two hitchhikers that Jack Nicholson picks up before his infamous chicken salad scene. Talk about crossing fine art with popular culture!)
…OK, so now we finally get to Laurie Anderson’s breakout single:
Laurie Anderson: “O Superman (For Massenet)” (1981):
Afrikaa Bambaataa: “Planet Rock” (1982):
…I don’t want to deny any of the above artists their respective innovations; all of these artists were innovative, in their own ways. They’re all different from one another, even while in some ways they’re similar. They’re all good. They’re all some of my favorite musicians.
But I think it’s clear even from this brief survey that Laurie Anderson was part of a world, an underground music scene, several underground music scenes. Living in downtown New York, she had access to:
- the beginnings of hip hop;
- experimental German rock;
- the burgeoning world music scene of Can and Brian Eno;
- the original New Wave scene at CBGBs;
- and the “second wave” more pop-oriented New Wave scene that followed right behind that;
…among many other things. She borrowed from all of these scenes and aesthetics, in addition to inventing some of her own things. She was and is a great musician and artist, who made important work in response to the culture at large.
But she wasn’t some polar explorer, a daring innovator remarkably different from everyone else at the time. Looking back now, she appears very much so of a certain time and place. She has always been surrounded by dozens and dozens of like-minded artists.
That is not, however, how we remember her today. A Google search on “‘Laurie Anderson’ avant-garde” retrieves about 555,000 results. Her Wikipedia entry lists her as an experimental musician, and contains five instances of the word “experimental,” and two instances of the word “avant-garde.” You sometimes find her albums placed in avant-garde sections in record shops.
Contrast that with DJ Kool Herc: a Google search for “‘DJ Kool Herc’ avant-garde” finds about 15,000 results. (Searching for just “‘Kool Herc’ avant-garde” bumps that number up to 28,100.) And his Wikipedia entry contains neither the word “experiment” nor “avant-garde”; he’s listed as a hip hop artist.
And yet I’d argue that DJ Kool Herc was much more avant-garde than Laurie Anderson: his mixing of the break sections from funk albums (as opposed to dub albums) essentially birthed hip hop; he introduced toasting to a broader US audience, and helped push it more toward rapping; and he invented terms like “b-boys.” How much more culturally advance guard can one get? And he was doing much of this in isolation; he was an immigrant who brought Jamaican musical styles to his new country. To establish his AG cred even further, he never had any commercial success (unlike Anderson), instead directly influencing other artists (Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, the Sugarhill Gang) who profited from his innovations, which they disseminated far and wide.
But this is an old story; “avant-garde” refers mostly to either an established genre, or is a marketing term. The Impressionists who called themselves (or let themselves be called) the Avant-Garde—Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley—were following in the tradition of Boudin, Courbet, Gleyre, Jongkind, Manet. If Monet was an avant-gardist, then so was Manet, and then so was Courbet, Goya, Hals, Velázquez… At some point, I think, you have to throw your hands up and acknowledge that you’re dealing with a very long tradition—with several very long traditions—and not some momentous “advance guard” of the coming cultural revolution.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably selling something (most likely, their art).