Who Says Avant-Garde Is Dead?

Published November 19, 2019 in Warp & Woof

Who Says Avant-Garde Is Dead?

Postmodernism Hasn’t Killed It Yet

William Sundwick
When art critic Clement Greenberg wrote in 1939 that the opposite of avant-gardewas kitsch, he was referring to the struggle then between artists who had a burning desire to be creative and the exigencies of the commercial art world focused mostly on advertising and consumer products. Kitsch was defined as mass-produced commercial design (as well as academic art burdened by excessive rules).  Avant-Garde was the modernist response seeking to protect true aesthetic value from such crass commercialism. “True aesthetic value” itself was a modernist, absolutist, concept — coinciding nicely with radical social philosophy.  Like Marxism, this aesthetic was characterized by a scientific determinism.
But Greenberg was far from the first to use the term “avant-garde.” It’s origins in the art world date from 1825 in France. It was used in an essay by a follower of Saint-Simonianism(the philosophical underpinning of a new aesthetic for the industrial revolution). The arts were to be the “advance guard” (French military usage) for the people, leading the way toward massive structural reform of society. Notable followers of Saint-Simonianism in Europe included the composers Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt.
The next generation of the avant-garde reached its climax with artist Gustave Courbet, who extolled the destruction of the Vendome column during the Paris Commune of 1871. Courbet saw this as a revolutionary act, toppling a symbol of an imperial aesthetic (it was a monument to Napoleon at Austerlitz), to be replaced by a proletarian art with “true aesthetic value.” By this time, modernism was clearly established in art – rules and school credentials dominated who could exhibit their art and who couldn’t. However, the same scientific determinism which underlay the modernist aesthetic also led to impressionism, then cubism, still far too rules-based for the younger creative souls of the age.
It seemed there must be a “deeper truth” in art, much like the deep insights then emerging in psychoanalysis. Surrealism became the new avant-garde. But the tension with kitsch continued. Ordinary people were still barred from participation in “high art” – because of barriers to entry, academic, linguistic or cultural.
By the mid-20th century, a new art philosophy began to emerge. It became known as “postmodernism” – characterized by acceptance of cultural relativity in standards for art. Even kitsch could be appreciated, if only for its humor! Mass availability of electronically reproduced art (and kitsch) on recordings, radio and television changed the aesthetic experience for the bulk of the population in advanced societies — especially the United States. But artists still yearned for that creative satisfaction in their art. Many sought it not through their works, but through symbols. Bohemianismbecame fashionable. Even affluent young people in the 1960s and 1970s became what David Brooks would call “Bobos” (bourgeois Bohemians). Other conservative commentators on aesthetics have lamented the apparent “irrelevance” of the avant-garde in postmodern art. Avant-Garde has now become the “establishment” among the art cogniscenti.
This ferment in style and aesthetics has been playing out in popular music as well as high art. It’s now a question of separating avant-garde kitsch from real avant-garde – or, conversely, ordinary unredeemable kitsch from avant-kitsch. Punk Rockillustrates this postmodern dilemma of aesthetics.
As the popularity of rock-and-roll on radio and records increased through the 1950s and early 1960s, two countercultures in music seemed to emerge. Both were purists. One sought to return to “roots” (early Delta blues and country ballads), the other mainly sought to smash the stranglehold of pabulum-purveying record companies, expressing their creativity through an edgier, more experimental (yes, avant-garde) style. It is the latter group that started to call themselves “Punk.” They were urban, working class in sympathy, and shared a contempt for the commercially successful pop music of the time.
Some of these artists, like Lou Reed and his band Velvet Underground, managed by that modernist/postmodernist crossover icon, Andy Warhol, set out to create an idiom – the idiom of avant-kitsch. Reed expressed Warhol’s aura, but had an inner competitive drive to be successful in the music world himself.
Others, like David Thomas, a long-time Cleveland Punk personality with his two bands, Rocket from the Tombs, then Pere Ubu, seemed to be happy existing for four decades on the margins of the critical universe, never really entering the world of commercial pop music, except satirically.
Then, there was Iggy Pop from Ann Arbor, with his early proto-punk band The Stooges, and later as a solo performer, with backup musicians from previous Punk groups. He did reach “rock star” status himself – but has always explored the boundaries between art and kitsch in a serious way. He continues to ask questions about the Avant-Garde, even as he seems finally to have quit performing (usually shirtless).
But their music is their legacy. It survives. Art always survives. While popular tastes change, the impulse to transcend the rules, the drive for the Avant-Garde, continues generation after generation. Rules and credentials are meant to topple, like that Vendome column nearly 150 years ago. It is not the conventional we remember – it is the breakthrough art.
There will always be a vanguard. The Saint-Simonians were correct – artists will lead the people’s vanguard. Even in our now-maturing “postmodern” world, we ask ourselves: “What comes next?”

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