- Uncategorized

Why I Hate the Avant-Garde, part 2

Part 1

Re: Johannes’s comment on my recent post, I first saw people using “avant-garde” to refer to work made today in the late 1990s, on the Frameworks mailing list, which is:

an international forum on experimental film, avant-garde film, film as art, film as film, or film as visual poetry; film’s expressive qualities, aside from or in addition to its storytelling capacity. Any genre of experimental film, such as film diary, found footage, abstract, flicker, lyric, subversive, expanded, etc., can be discussed, as well as those films which fall into the cracks between the genres, or those not covered by other lists.

All aspects, from filmmaking to criticism, are acceptable in this context, including unipersonal production, techniques, history and esthetics of avant-garde film, critical discussions, new directions, courses and teaching, festivals, announcements of world-wide events in film, retrospectives, exchanges of information, etc. This list is not intended for the discussion of narrative film, nor documentary film, nor video, nor video art.

I love the Frameworks list (or loved it as long as I followed it, 1998–2003). But it’s obvious right away that this is a very specialized use of the terms “experimental film” and “avant-garde film”—the description goes on to list which techniques make film experimental and avant-garde! For example, scratching and painting on film is avant-garde, because folks like Len Lye and Stan Brakhage did it, and because mainstream Hollywood narrative films rarely do it. And so anyone who’s scratching on 8mm film today, and screening it at some underground NYC venue—congratulations, you’re avant-garde. But Wes Anderson, you’re not, because you make narrative films on 35mm. (Narrative can’t be AG!) Never mind the fact that this usage of “avant-garde” has nothing to do with:

  1. The literal meaning of the word avant-garde (“the advance group in any field, esp. in the visual, literary, or musical arts, whose works are characterized chiefly by unorthodox and experimental methods.”) (which is what it came to mean around the time of the Impressionists);
  2. The word’s early 19th-century Socialist meaning (art that hastens the Socialist revolution).

I wrote about this shift in meanings in my post “Experimental Fiction as Genre and as Principle”:

No experimental work is ever wholly experimental, but I think we can see that Cornell’s Rose Hobart was pretty innovative for its time (even though Salvador Dalí accused Cornell of stealing the film from his subconscious). But today, chopping up found footage to make a new work is pretty old hat. An experimental filmmaker can’t coast along on just that—although many try to; attend any experimental film festival to see for yourself. Such artists are Experimental Filmmakers, and not experimental filmmakers: they work according to the proper conventions of an established tradition—the Experimental Film genre.

As Johannes notes, words change over time; I have no problem with that. (I rather like it.) However, such change shouldn’t excuse sloppy terminology. The “subgenre use” of “avant-garde” strikes me as terribly sloppy, encouraging all kinds of shoddy thinking:


Some people are using it to refer to a subgenre, while others are using it in its more literal sense, and I don’t see much effort to clarify this. (I think the burden falls chiefly on those who want to use it as a subgenre label.) (I’m also suspicious of why people want to use “avant-garde” to name certain subgenres, in lieu of other, more genuinely descriptive terms.)


That conflation is self-aggrandizing: “No one appreciates my computer-generated nonsense poetry, but I can take some satisfaction in knowing I’m way ahead of the culture. They’ll love me someday, when they’re all using my techniques!”

…No, friend, you’re working in a particular literary tradition: aleatory and tool-assisted writing. It has a history and canonical works: Tristan Tzara, André Breton, John Cage, Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, Ann Quin, Hannah Weiner, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, Brian Eno and David Bowie, Jeff Noon, countless others. It has and traditions and conventions: the Exquisite Corpse, Surrealist Automatism, the Cut-Up Method, using the I Ching, using tarot cards, décollage, incorporating found texts, using Oblique Strategy cards, using algorithms, and much more. The results can be utterly commercial or über-underground. And your particular computer poems may never have any effect whatsoever on the larger culture! They may even be derrière-garde!

…And what would be wrong with that, really? Why do others have to adopt your working practices and dominant conventions to justify what you do here and now? As long as you like what you’re doing, and it satisfies you, maybe some others, can’t you be happy? Why do you need to be the next Culture Hero? Isn’t that, in fact, a rather mainstream, commercial desire? To be the Lady Gaga of computer poetry?

Why do I want to be famous? (And I do.) Part of it is ego—but what is the source of that? Why does my ego manifest itself in that way? What I really want, I think—or what might satisfy me in lieu of fame—is to be valued. I want to feel a part of a successful community, where what I do is understood and appreciated by the people around me.

Part of the fear and challenge of being a writer is confronting the very real risk that not many people will appreciate what we do—what we invest so much of our life and energy in. And so the dream of celebrity is one way of combating that: “When I become famous, my work will be validated. Everyone will appreciate—or at least respect—what I do. No one will question my doing it!”

An alternative to celebrity is to create communities where writers are valued. But this is also key: in those communities, everyone would be valued. Many small presses and journals list “community building” as one of their primary goals, and I don’t doubt that’s true. But time and again I see writers split off into factions, cliques, movements, ideologies. The Language poets don’t like the lyric poets. The experimental postmodernists don’t like the mimetic realists. And so on. Let alone things like this: the MFA students don’t like the Slam Poets. The underground doesn’t like the mainstream.


That conflation also contributes to the wrongheaded impression that all innovation occurs in underground or academic communities, flowing outward from there to the popular culture. This is laughably bad scholarship—not to mention frequently racist, classist, and sexist. It’s how you end up with idiotic claims like, “There are no women avant-garde writers” or, “There are no black avant-garde filmmakers.” (I’ve heard people directly make both of those claims…and I’ve seen them indirectly made in all-male lists of experimental writers, and lily-white lists of experimental filmmakers.)

This line of thinking is also how folks conclude that Laurie Anderson is “more avant-garde” than DJ Kool Herc. See, she’s part of the experimental music genre, whereas he’s a hip hop artist. It’s just a genre category, you know. But watch what subtle slight of hand comes next! “Laurie Anderson should be taught, and anthologized, and canonized.” (I agree.) “And Kool Herc—well, we can mention him if we ever have some pop culture class or anthology on hip hop.”

…I know that trick! (It’s the high art/low art divide, the divine separation of the pure, fine lambs from the goats of commerce and pop.) (Never mind the fact that Laurie Anderson is a commercial artist, formerly signed to Warner Bros., while Kool Herc didn’t record or sell his music…)

I love experimental art dearly. I love it so much that I’ve worked hard to define it independently of ideas like “avant-garde” and “innovation” (because I don’t think it’s synonymous with either of those things):

Experimental art is that which takes unfamiliarity as its dominant—even to the point of schism.The experimental artist wants her artwork to be different from all the other artworks around her. She desires that her results be unusual, unfamiliar to the point of looking peculiar, perplexing. She may be drawing on conventions, she may be working inside one or more traditions. But her conventions and traditions are not dominant ones; they are, perhaps, older ones, or unpopular ones. Or she may be importing ideas and conventions from one medium into another, where they are not well known.

Or it may be that she has noticed an idea—a possibility—that has not been fully developed in other artworks, and therefore seeks to develop it. She exaggerates or expands that minor concept or idea (something that isn’t dominant in other works) until it overwhelms the more familiar aspects of her artwork, distorting and enstranging the entire thing. Hence Manet and Degas exaggerated the de-emphasis of line and more energetic brushstrokes that they observed in works by Velázquez, J. M. W. Turner, and Eugène Delacroix, developing that idea until they arrived at Impressionism.

[See my original post for an explanation of the terms “dominant” (taken from Roman Jakobson) and “schism” (taken from Frank Kermode).]


Most problematically, the insistence on the avant-garde (wherever one finds it) perpetuates the myth of progress in the arts—the idea that the arts are headed somewhere, usually toward some better or purer state (victory over the enemy!). If there is any single idea I could change in the present culture, this might be it. Because there is no more progress in the arts than there is in evolution (which is to say, there is none).

There is change. As Viktor Shklovsky expressed it in Theory of Prose, “The story disintegrates and is rebuilt anew” (17). And: “All works of art, and not only parodies, are created either as a parallel or an antithesis to some model. The new form makes its appearance not in order to express a new content, but rather, to replace an old form that has already outlived its artistic usefulness” (20, italics in the original). But the arts are not “going anywhere.” They are not headed ever upward and onward, like some sociocultural Dow. And change does not always equal improvement.

John Cage presumably first learned about aleatory techniques from his exposure to Dadaist and Surrealist art; Tzara and Breton demonstrated that one could surrender complete control over the creation of an artwork. But he also learned this idea from his teacher Henry Cowell, who demonstrated with his tone clusters that one could play pitched instruments (pianos) in a non-harmonic fashion. Meanwhile, Cage knew quite well how some contemporary musicians, frustrated by the limits of classical tonal harmony, had moved away from traditional tunings and harmonic principles toward chromaticism, then atonalism. All of these ideas helped him conceive of a non-harmonic music that employed everyday objects and that used time as its organizing structure. Later, his Zen studies, as well as his exposure to the thought of Ananda Coomaraswamy, led him to formulate his view of music as the experience of all sounds, both intentional and unintentional. Cage’s great genius allowed him to synthesize these related but disparate ideas, and to demonstrate and articulate them in ways that have since been extremely influential. I’d be happy to call him “avant-garde”: he organized ideas into dominants that he and others then popularized.

But none of this means that music was “progressing.” Changing, yes, but progressing, no. Cage wasn’t an advance scout in the lumbering army of culture. (He was more what Eno jokingly called him: “a polar explorer.”)

Meanwhile, it was because of aleatory music’s growing dominance in the 1960s and 70s that musicians like Philip Glass and La Monte Young were able to propose Minimalist music as an alternative, something “new.” It wasn’t superior to chance music or to Serialist music or any other kind of music (although one may personally prefer it); it was different. Now it’s no longer alternative; it’s a dominant style, something for people today to rail against. But whatever comes next, whatever is currently coming next, it won’t be better, either—just different. (And it might not even be that. It might be something very old, returned, but perceived differently.)

(Not to mention, in the 1960s and 1970s, chance and Serialism and Minimalism weren’t the only games in town: you also had ambient, blues, blues rock, cabaret, country, disco, dub, electronic, folk, free jazz, glam, musicals, New Wave, proto-metal, pop, punk, R&B, reggae, soul, and much, much more. And some people were still composing like it was still 1850. And some folks, like Arvo Pärt, were composing like it was still the 15th century.)

And so it goes on and on like this, always changing, always “new,” but “going” nowhere. And thank god for that! This eternal change refreshes us, and our lives, and gives us choices:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

6 thoughts on “Why I Hate the Avant-Garde, part 2

  1. This is a fabulous series of posts you’ve been doing on the terms experimental/avant-garde/innovative. Thanks so much.

  2. I agree. This is a great conversation I’d hope more would pay attention to. I love the tone and scope of this. Thanks.

Leave a Reply