File spoon-archives/avant-garde.archive/avant-garde_1997/avant-garde.9711, message 4

Date: Mon, 17 Nov 1997 11:13:55 -0800 (PST)
Subject: Re: Dada Meets HTML

> Civilization, September 1997
> Dada Meets HTML
>                                                  By Peter Plagens
>                The Avante-garde is dead. Does this sound familiar?
>                it's an idea that's been with us since, well, the dawn
>                of the avant-garde. Nevertheless, for the last century
>                and a half, most artists have diligently aspired to be
>                avant-garde. In the process, they've regularly managed
>                to startle an antagonistic (or at least incredulous)
>                public with seemingly drawingless impressionism,
>                unintelligible cubism, psychotic surrealism,
>                a-monkey-could-have-done-it abstract expressionism,
>                coloring-book pop art, the-garage-needs-cleaning-out
>                installation art and pornographic photography. Over the
>                past 30 years, the history of cutting-edge art has been
>                an upward curve of increasingly in-your-face sexual,
>                grotesque or horrific work--as if the avant-garde
>                challenge to be original automatically means going
>                farther over the line of conventional taste than any
>                artist has gone before. Today, if an ambitious artist
>                wants to play this newest version of the avant-garde
>                game, the obvious media choice would be a computer. No
>                other machine--let alone brush, pencil or chisel--can
>                go farther over the line faster.
>                Avant-garde is at its roots a French military
>                expression, referring to the units deepest inside enemy
>                territory. It first surfaced outside of the armed
>                forces in the wake of the French Revolution, applied to
>                political radicals by the socialist leader Henri de
>                Saint-Simon. But it wasn't until after the fall of the
>                Paris Commune, in 1871, that the term took on a mainly
>                artistic connotation, lending an aura of bravery in
>                combat to the Romantic notion of practicing art for
>                art's sake. The early avant-gardist's pursuit of his
>                own personal artistic vision quickly escalated to the
>                rallying cry of épater la bourgeoisie (shock the middle
>                class). The reasoning was that if a work of art
>                offended the stability-loving bourgeois, it had to be
>                good; and in order to be good, it had to offend them.
>                The deliberately nonsensical dadaists of the teens and
>                '20s did it best; some of their recitals of sound poems
>                and noise music started small riots. By the time the
>                mantle of the avant-garde fell to American pop artists
>                in the 1960s, the element of shock had pretty much
>                devolved into the creation of graphic design ideas that
>                effortlessly made their way into the advertising
>                industry about six months later. That's probably why,
>                in the 1970s, the Italian transavantgarde painters
>                proposed that the only way to be avant-garde was to
>                quit trying to be avant-garde. This led in turn to the
>                idea espoused by a few Central European artists in the
>                1980s that actually the only way to be avant-garde was
>                to be (ironically, of course) reactionary.
>                You'll notice that all of this history, from
>                impressionism to a "retro-avant-garde," describes the
>                lineage of a predominantly physical art--paintings that
>                hang on walls and sculpture that sits on floors. Even
>                hard-core conceptual art, like Lawrence Wiener's
>                formation of simple statements ("as long as it lasts"),
>                usually took some sort of inert physical form, like
>                being painted directly on an art gallery wall. And even
>                those alarming Robert Mapplethorpe photographs are
>                usually elegantly composed, beautifully printed and
>                nicely framed, under glass, to make them suitable for
>                home or office.
>                Physical art of almost any serious sort (especially
>                painting and sculpture) reminds me of the scene in an
>                old movie in which a man timidly enters a
>                psychiatrist's office for his first visit. As soon as
>                he's in, and the door clicks shut behind him, the
>                shrink announces, "Everything counts." Or, as a
>                painter-friend puts it, "In painting, every action
>                taken indelibly changes the painting being worked on,
>                changes the history of its development, and changes its
>                available future. ... While not life, this process is
>                very much more like life than is computer work." On the
>                computer no action indelibly changes what's on the
>                screen (or in the memory) and no action restricts any
>                artwork's available future. Although an artist working
>                on a computer could issue a command that would freeze
>                his project, he could just as easily revoke the
>                command.

The painter-of-paintings 'revokes the command' by beginning a new canvas,
reworking the still-wet pigments, overpainting, or scraping it all off...
Many painters will tell you that they've really been trying to make
one painting over the years, that eludes them. Stirring pixels is not too
far removed from mixing pigment, especially if the end-product is really
mechanical reproduction or other forms of mediation.

>                Any work of art that communicates in a major way via
>                its physical properties--its stroke-by-stroke or
>                weld-by-weld coming into existence--will inevitably
>                become a subject for the connoisseur. The connoisseur,
>                as we all know, is a person of finely tuned
>                sensibilities and microscopically discriminating taste
>                who operates according to stable and time-honored
>                standards of judgment. He is, in short, the
>                spokesperson of the bourgeoisie, and as such, he's the
>                last guy any self-respecting avant-garde artist would
>                want to inspect his goods and give them a grade. But
>                any--indeed every--artist who makes static pictures
>                that hang on a wall or sculptures that take up space on
>                a floor is making art that begs for the connoisseur's
>                appreciation.
>                Take, for example, the duo of Gilbert & George, whose
>                modus operandi is to combine (a) the personae of
>                upper-class English twits with (b) the iconography of a
>                slightly bowdlerized Mapplethorpe and (c) an ironic
>                gloss of a kindly-vicar religiosity, in giant, brightly
>                colored photographic grids. Their most recent show,
>                this past spring in SoHo, was called "The Fundamental
>                Pictures." It was a visual essay on bodily fluids and
>                excretions, and it was intended in part to produce
>                howls of protest from a shocked bourgeoisie. Hilton
>                Kramer, in The New York Observer, obliged. Hardly
>                anyone else did. That's because--I suspect--the dirty
>                matter, as rendered in Gilbert & George's photomurals,
>                is actually quite polite: The objectionable substances
>                are rendered in a slick, semiabstracted way (via
>                enlargement and stylization) and the whole panorama of
>                rectangles is as colorful as something you'd see in a
>                design museum. While savoring the aesthetic delights of
>                the Gilbert & George show, a tattooed, multipierced
>                East Village installation art fan and an aged British
>                scholar of Poussin drawings at the Courtauld Institute
>                could have found much common ground--as connoisseurs.
>                So if I'm an artist who still wants at least to prod
>                the bourgeoisie with the cutting edge of an avant-garde
>                sensibility, or if I'm a bourgeois art lover who still
>                wants at least to be prodded, where do I go for that
>                thrill? The answer brings us back to "computer work":
>                specifically, to the Internet.
>                Not, however, to "art" on the Internet. It's the pits,
>                along the lines of, "He synthesizes postmodern science,
>                cyberpunk debris, Orthodox Greek mysticism, tantric
>                Buddhist symbols, Celtic mazes and Landsat
>                photographs.... [He] modifies each work with little
>                sign of expression in the conventional sense. His
>                technique allows him to layer paint, laser-printed
>                copies and computer-generated images, to create work
>                that reflects the metaphoric 'meeting of cultures.'" Or
>                it's some conceptual artist's version of a Nintendo
>                maze, where endless forks in the road, dead ends and
>                switchbacks constitute supposed interactivity. But to
>                say, as I do, "There's no good art on the Internet" is
>                to measure the Internet's art by the standards of
>                physical art--that is, by some kind of connoisseurship.
>                By my standards of connoisseurship (that is, those of a
>                reluctant-to-admit-it bourgeois whose sensibilities
>                have been refined more by decades of hanging around art
>                than by the grace of any inborn ability to
>                discriminate), there's not much to look at. Everything
>                is confined to a 17-inch-diagonal screen and rendered
>                surfaceless under glass. Moreover, the Internet's
>                endless, jazzy ricocheting means that nothing really
>                counts. Everything can be morphed, anything can be
>                erased--completely. The Internet defies
>                connoisseurship.

I'd say that _no thing_ can be erased permanently on the Net. Images and
files multiply and are copied onto thousands of hard-drives worldwide --
an eternal archive.

>                Shock is another matter. On-line, you can find truly
>                disgusting pornography that will give you bad dreams at
>                night, and in the morning. You can also find truly
>                repellent photographs of murder victims (or what appear
>                to be such photographs) and truly awful paranoid
>                literature. Although not expressly art, these offerings
>                do fulfill the avant-garde program. And none of them
>                are "repressed" by the "privileging" of tamer orthodox
>                material, as they are in the world of physical art. On
>                the Internet, the entrance to a grubby little porn shop
>                is exactly the same size (one mouse click) as the
>                portals of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
>                What strikes me most, however, about art on the
>                Internet is that because it is exempt from the rule
>                that every creative action changes the available future
>                of the work of art in progress, it foils the
>                connoisseur (who'll never be able to inspect layers of
>                brushstrokes). And that exemption also plops it
>                squarely into the arms of the avant-garde, for whom
>                forward movement, even meaningless forward movement
>                against a jaded bourgeoisie that has just about come to
>                a point of unshockability, is still, as a kind of
>                ritual, paramount. But since it requires a lot more
>                money to buy a computer and hook it up to the Internet
>                than to walk into an art gallery, and since it still
>                takes a little training not to get lost in cyberspace,
>                computer artists won't be shocking the entire
>                bourgeoisie for a while yet. In fact, the new
>                avant-garde lurking artlessly on the Internet right now
>                may have to change its rallying cry, and mission:
>                =C9pater le Microsoft!

The story of 'shock-value' of avant-garde art was a psuedo- historically
blinkered reaction; today, art and artists have disappeared.

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