Contents of spoon-archives/avant-garde.archive/papers/simford.txt

On the Destruction of the Institution of Avant-Gardism by Simon Ford The concept of the avant-garde is as much an area of contention today as it has been since its initial cultural formulation by Saint-Simon in 1825 (1). Attempting to define it is also a traditional folly. That it is repeatedly attempted has much to do with its various meanings in the diverse contexts and subject positions available in the art world. The artist rarely uses it as a term of self-description; there exists a certain etiquette, involving modesty, that makes it a slightly embarrassing label. For the critic to describe something as avant-garde usually indicates a certain mystification in the face of the object, and as such the term legitimates incomprehension. For the gallery-owner, the avant-garde indicates a relatively under-colonised domain that is ripe for commercial exploitatation at the same time as improving the gallery's reputation for supporting daring and innovative work. For the curator, the avant-garde represents an opportunity to construct new trends and to codify what might otherwise appear as disordered and polymorphous. Definitions are thus strategic, a situating in relation to potential allies, enemies, patrons, and critics. The avant-garde is always a strategy of positioning in relationship to the contemporaneous field of cultural activity. The discursive field surrounding the concept of the avant-garde today is massive and manifold. But it can, at the cost of over-simplification, be divided between an "avant-gardism" that supports that which superficially contravenes conventional forms of art, and the "avant-garde" that works towards the total eradication of the institution of art (2) and by extension the whole prevailing social order. With the wide range of artistics practice that these two views encompass it soon becomes apparent that one person's avant-garde is almost certainly another person's cultural mainstream. Drawing on the evidence of recent interest in the avant-garde (3) we are currently in a period characterised by attempts to promote the first formulation (avant-gardism) at the expense of the second (the avant-garde), resulting in the promotion of "avant-gardism for avant-gardism's sake". Because there is no consensus on definition each commentator is required to search out their own true avant-garde and differentiate it from a "false" avant-garde. Ownership of the label is so valuable because of the enviable position of the avant-garde in culture. To be avant-garde is to be way ahead of the rest, at the front of a massive and profitable cultural mainstream. The avant-garde banks in the present on its future profitability. For Donald Kuspit the "true" avant-garde artist's aim was "to undertake a sincere, risky search, carried out in social obscurity, for the touchstone primordiality that could reoriginate the self." In distinction, today's "false" avant-garde accepts "cynically, guilelessly, a facile, impersonal formula for making art and being an artist, rather than to be a missionary converting the fallen to the faith of the true self by way of an original art" (4) The "neo-avant-garde", in the form of appropriation artists, is the epitome of the conservative and reactionary because of the damage they do to the original avant-garde project. The appropriation artists strips the avant-garde of its life and purpose through his/her morbid nostalgia, decadence and narcissism. By repackaging the art of the past, the appropriation artist reifies the whole avant-garde project by turning revolution into a spectacle, an image, just another art object. Plagiarists, through the appropriation of past revolutionary art, in fact only "plagiarize the reified idea of the revolution" and this only makes sure of the death or impossibility of revolutionary art in the present because "it stylises and systematizes the very idea of artistic revolution" (5) For Kuspit then, the avant-garde artist is not far removed from the conventional view of the Modernist/Romantic artist as a heroic figure struggling to communicate transcendental truths. It is, however, just this figure and his/her construction through representations that is the target of much appropriation work. As such, Kuspit's project to revise this figure puts him firmly in the avant-gardism camp, a characteristic of which is the inability to distinguish between modernism and the avant-garde. For Neil Nehring, in his book on postwar British subcultures (6), the avant-garde exists to assimilate exemplary acts of contestation which exist outside of an art work that will eventually replace it. The avant-garde exists to co-ordinate and stimulate the international revolutionary consciousness and the signs of refusal and creativity that abound in popular life. As an integrator of art and everyday life, and an intermediary between deviant subcultures and the bourgeois art world, the avant-garde attempts to break own the barriers between the elite practices of artists and the experiece of lived daily reality for the masses (the destruction of difference between artist and audience). Punk is perceived by Nehring as a model example of avant-garde discourse being integrated with popular culture. Popular culture, however, remains distinct through being incoherent, regressive and commercially compromised whereas avant-gardism remains elitist, politically pessimistic and isolated from mass ideological movements. The oft-repeated aim, to destroy the distinction between art and everyday life through the realisation and suppression of art, co-joins art, politics and everyday life with no one realm claiming sovereignty over the others. For the moment each realm operates in the belief in its own forthcoming self-destruction and is happy "to experience its own death as an aesthetic pleasure" (7) as Andrew Hewitt has expressed it, a characteristics shared with fascism. Despite this notion the paradox of the avant-garde remains its status as a specialist enterprise that wants to do away with separation and specialisation. (8) This paradox brings us to the most repeatedly suppressed aspect of avant-garde activity, namely its self-consciously "collective" identity. The historical avant-garde recognised the need to theorise and construct forms of organisation and the possibility of eventual strategic alignment with larger social forces. The political was incorporated into the artistic not just as a subject but also as a form of organisation, modelled usually on the vanguardist integration of theory, practice and agitation. Nehring points out how the avant-garde shares most common ground with anarchism in that it rejects traditional values, centralised authority, hierarchical systems, and dogmatic parliamentary politics. Its energy derives from the dialectic of the individual and group, and emancipation is conceived through the "free self-realisation of others, in a dialectic between individual and collective" (9). The avant-garde exists to light the fuse - control would then be given over to more extensive social forces. Another currently overlooked indicator of avant-garde activity is the number of artists' manifestos being produced. The health of the genre usually marks periods of intense interaction between the cultural and the political and at the same time announces a commitment to collective artistic practice. In the past a manifesto was obligatory - they were the public proclamation of a movement's programme, beliefs and demands. Manifestos were composed as strategic incursions into a realm of written and verbal discourse usually denied the artist. They communicated in the printed word what was not possible through the purely visual. Today, with avant-gardism, the manifesto has become a dying art form. Much of the energy that once went into it now gets used up in supplying the new genre of the press release, a form of arts marketing that at its most creative publicises subversion as it attempts to subvert publicity. The decline of the manifesto can also be put down to the rise of theory and the supplanting by the essay of its more simplistic, populist and often militaristic and phallocentric excesses. The manifesto, in its mixture of art discourse with political rhetoric, questioned the autonomy of both. For between the aestheticisation of politics and the politicisation of aesthetics - a position that inclines disconcertingly towards the shared ideological roots of fascism and avant-gardism. The manifesto thrived on its ability to be interpreted, on its ability to produce more "copy". The avant-garde keeps abreast of theoretical and critical developments because art is heavily dependent on the legitimisation and publicity provided by reviewers and art critics. In addition to this recognition, reaction is also sought after in the pages of the popular press, which stands in place of the reaction of society at large, as representative of the "public". To annoy the popular press is a sign that one's message is hitting home (the more outraged the reaction the better). Avant-garde art, like media scams and pranks, is looking to incorporate this reaction into the work itself. Here Kuspit makes a distinction between the avant-garde artist who is "found" by fame and the neo-avant-garde artist who "seeks" fame. The pseudo-avant-garde "assumes that avant-garde art is a means to the end of fame and fortune, not a thing with intrinsic value" (10) That the historical avant-garde were also deeply involved in the process of self-promotion is not acknowleged by Kuspit. The late 80s and early 90s have seen a series of exhibitions rejuvenating, re-inventing and promoting 60s and 70s avant-gardism, represented by such movements as the Situationist International, Fluxus and Viennese Actionism. What is new about these attempts at codification and containment through reprsentation is that they took place so soon after the movement's active period. The speed with which cultural dissidents become the darlings of the establishment art world is worthy of note - today this process is becoming almost simultaneous. The art world, regulated and administered by the few galleries, magazines and museums interested in contemporary art, controls the meaning and value of art through its institutional context; a framework that also orientates debate about the functions and types of works of art that are acceptable. The dominant culture maintains its dominance by institutionalising or recuperating the radical rather than totally eliminating it. The trouble, however, with the concept of "recuperation" is that it invokes some lost "paradise" of unrecuperated space and practice. It totalises the utter vulnerability of all actions to appropriation. The concept of recuperation does reveal how avant-gardism becomes merely one mediated role amongst others that can be adopted: where rebellion becomes image of rebellion. Seduced by this image, avant-gardism advocates only compliance through the production of more images and objects. However, the "true" avant-garde also cannot claim it is not exploitable in the present conditions. All it can attempt is to make this exploitation dangerous for the exploiters through such tactics as making the process visible The avant-garde thus stimulates just what it ostensibly hopes to destroy. It has become more obviously market oriented, with the market, institution, and commodification becoming the subject as well as the context. The three books mentioned here indicate the perpetual state of crisis that thediscouse of avant-gardism inhabits. Now, as ever, is a time of deep questioning of the need for a contemporary avant-garde. With postmodernist, the idea of progress in art, as a continuing process of formal and aesthetic innovation, has come to be exhausted: "the essece of modernity as we have traditionally thought it is its incompletion, the impossibility of ruling out yet more radical negation, yet more startling innovation. A modernism that is somehow 'completed' will be decidedly anti- or post- modern; it will be an avant-garde. (11) There is no longer any connection between artistic innovation and the logic ofthe precedent and the antecedent. Culture now operates in an environment of simultaneity, raiding the archive with impunity. In the absence of this metanarrative or progress, the traditional avant-garde's function - to be a advance guard that leads the following army into new territory for colonisation - becomes redundant. Radicalism in the art world is now inextricably linked to the careerism of the artist. In this sense it becomes necessary to question the over-determination vested in the "new" in the discourse of avant-gardism. The idea of the new for its own sake is totally integrated with the discourse of commercial and corporate sponsorship of the arts, such as this example from Philip Morris Europe: "Just as the artist endeavours to improve his interpretation and conceptions through innovation, the commercial entity strives to improve its end product or service through experimentation with new methods and materials. Our constant search for a new and better way in which to perform and produce is akin to the questioning of the artists" (12) To speak of the avant-garde only in terms of aesthetic innovation is therefore to normalise them as key players in a self-regenerating and dynamic art market. A market that can handle and indeed requires an infinite variety of new styles and new forms of art making. Does then the present situation enable us to work towards or recognise an avant-garde today that can be validly compared to that of the past? The present conditions can only lead us to the view that the avant-garde cannot exist in the way that it once did and that it is necessary to rethink just what can constitute avant-garde practice today. That this is necessary can be put down to three important actors. The first is its unprecedented institutionalisation, the fact that past avant-garde art now functions as official art within galleries, museums and education systems. The second factor has to do with the accommodation of pluralism: the avant-garde is accepted as just one more approach amongst others and there becomes no one identifiable culture to contest. Further erosion of the "difference" of the avant-garde comes about through the appropriation by both mass and high culture of many of the avant-garde's own tacttics and techniques. The third factor is the changing concept of the political in art, with the waning of the productivist model, the attention given to the politics of representation, and the lack of belief in the strength of the proletariat leaving the cadre elite with no mass to follow its example. Although it is necessarily subject to imprecise usage, avant-gardism remains identifiable, but the avant-garde continues to escape categorisation. The ideology of avant-gardism is the dominant model of artistic production today. The avant-garde, caught up in its own discourse, is suffering from a lack of original moves to make in an over-analysed end-game. This situation of stasis and equilibrium, with no one side having any winning positions, clearly suits one side more that the other. It is now up to production to lead theory out of its aporias, a production so different it may be necessary to call it something other than "avant-garde". But because of its cultural dominance it seems to me that the proper target for the avant-garde today entails a kind of infanticide, a destruction of the institution of avant-gardism. The aim, as always will be to attempt to construct a concept of the avant-garde pertinent to our contemporary situation. (1) See Donald D. Egbert "The Idea of Avant-Garde in Art and Politics", American Historical Review. Vol 73 no.2, Dec. 67, pp339-66 (2) See Peter Burger "Theory of the Avant-Garde", University of Minnesota Press, 1984 (3) See the series presented by the "avant" Guardian "Who's Afraid of the Avant-Garde?" which to date has featured articles by amongst others Terry Eagleton, James Hall and Deyan Sudjic, each Friday during September and October 1993. (4) Donald Kuspit "The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist" Cambridge University Press, 1993 (5) Ibid p111 (6) Neil Nehring "Flowers in the Dustbin: Culture Anarchy and Postwar England", University of Michigan Press, 1993 (7) Andrew Hewitt "Fascist Modernism: Aesthetics, Politics and the Avant-Garde", Stanford University Press, 1993, p173 (8) For a discussion of the many productive aporias of the avant-garde, see Paul Mann "The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde", Indiana Universty Press, 1991 (9) Nehring op cit p165 (10) Kuspit op cit p108 (11) Hewitt op cit p45 (12) John A Murphy, Sponsor's statement for "When Attitudes Become Form" (1969) in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds) "Art in Theory, 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas", Blackwell 192, p886 _____ Originally published in Variant no.16 (winter/spring 1994) Simon Ford can be contacted at National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, London,SW7 2RL.

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