Why I Hate the Avant-Garde, part 1

[Update: Part 2 is here]

Re: Greg’s most recent post on the term “avant-garde”—I’ve already discussed this somewhat here, here and here, but to recap:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

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