What Were You Doing in 1979? (part 1)

Paul Simon was making One Trick Pony.

Art Garfunkel was starring in Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing.

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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:

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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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