Capitalism reproduces itself by integrating its surplus, or excess; the name for this surplus is traditionally profit, but increasingly with globalization it has become all social and cultural life, including art. That it cannot allow life and culture as a separate sphere is not due to the will to dominate or the greedy ego but to the essential working of this phase of capitalism.
Art is one form of the cultural surplus; people create and respect something that is not the direct result of capitalist production and consumption. The very character of outside-ness, its extra-ordinariness, is what has risen to become the true marker of art, and that character is epitomized as the avantgarde. (Note: I use a non-hyphenated spelling to distinguish this as a sociological/ideological category rather than the varieties of historical Avant-garde movements.) The avantgarde is institutionalized as Art (high art) not merely to demonstrate a liberal, all-embracing toleration of eccentricity and criticism, but to appropriate it as the ultimate model of creativity, reflexivity (self-critique), and innovation, key tools in the reproduction of contemporary capitalism. If capitalism maintains itself through self-revolutionizing it must harness those who are most inclined to operate through imagination, criticism, and vision, normally called artists.
Art considered advanced once operated under the concept of autonomy, artists independent of social norms and controls. Now that figure is nominated by experts of the art world, to which artists are expected to apply. The expert that operates or serves the institution functions as an academic rather than a bureaucrat, thus carrying the mantle of judgment and truth. This version of truth is first of all objective, which masks the subjectivity involved in selection. Yet selection is guided by an originally academic concept that art, the lead of which is taken by visual art, is a symptom of the trends and meaning of the wider culture and society. To select this artwork and artist over that one is to determine social meaning under the guise of discovering it, to be able to say where things are going, to “send a message.” The very first message is that art is self-revolutionizing, the paradigm of a properly functioning capitalism, on the forefront of opening doors and changing consciousness.
Yet the very reason for this mediating operation is that art can escape its handlers. Art as the free pursuit of people making it is problematic in neoliberal society, a surplus whose integration through financed, institutional control is always at risk.
For one thing, all the talk of the beneficial merger or functional interrelationship of art and popular culture, “borrowing from each other,” is testimony to the continuing tension between the two. Popular culture operates on the level of market consumption: if you get pleasure from a particular source you have to pay for it, thus maintaining the livelihood of the producers and the cultural mediators–the music biz. Those providing the most pleasure are successful and acclaimed for their success, and the social need is satisfied. There are scouts out there, experts in discerning what performers have the best chance to capture the “vote” of consumers, just as experts are necessary to assess the chances of political candidates and guide them to stardom. The market is justified as the paradigm of democracy, defined as representative—those who satisfy the projected needs of the people rise to the top.
On the other hand, since the full development of industrial and consumer capitalism art has arisen that does not provide the pleasure of fitting nicely with one’s decor, or slipping smoothly down the gullet or into one’s iPod rotation. Art is even defined as intransigent, resistant to “easy” pleasure. Its disturbance can be genuine and not the pleasure of the horror film, which promises to “frighten you out of your skin.” When people say the art they prefer is “difficult” and provides an intellectual pleasure this is what they are euphemizing. Like anything, it can only be sold to people on the basis of providing a pleasure, yet it is not pleasurable to have one’s fundamental assumptions undermined, only those which one is already prepared to reject, and/or can be projected on others. As a commodity sold first to institutions and then by them to an audience, this is how an avantgarde is expected to function, to attract those who accept the critical, reflexive and “aware” perspective and to turn away those who do not. The avantgarde thus establishes an other, which it is one’s pleasure to demote and patronize as ordinary and unenlightened (what the NYTimes called recently “the low-information consumer”), compared to one’s presumed contemporary consciousness, that of a progressive minority. Of course there are many drawn to avantgarde art who lack these pretensions, but they are not the target audience being served.
Those artists are successful who can best fill this institutional need, and they are scouted and selected by publications, critics, galleries and museums in the same way as pop stars are by market analysts. This, the art world, targets and constructs an audience that, at least in one segment of their lives, rejects what they are told the populace consumes. All dissent from the institutionalized avantgarde gets projected onto this other (the mass, the mainstream, etc.) including the disavowed ordinary consumer this audience also is. Rejection is perceived as the natural resistance of ordinary humans to change and self-criticism (reflexivity). The self-critical avantgarde audience never has to reflect very deeply on itself; the “we” commonly employed in criticism, taken as responsible for the plight of the world, effectively refers to the other.
Of course much marketable art provides images of harmony and beauty, but the prominent avantgarde has undermined this as “easy” and assimilated to popular pleasure, derogating beauty as secondary to the critical function of art. Beauty without a reflexive framework is viewed as naïve, a thing of the backward past. For the avantgarde to be marketable it must show signs of the contradictions and dysfunctionality of the social order, a certain ugliness. That such art is provided by government and wealth-funded institutions advertises that power itself is reflexive and is doing something positive to correct its own evils. The established avantgarde art world, its selected artists and its audience are posed as the effective force of change–reflexivity is the hallmark of philanthropy. However this naturalization of contradictions in the social order, such as increasing impoverishment and the superfluousness of people except as consumers, is only necessary because otherwise these contradictions would appear to be insoluble within the framework of capitalism. Visual art framed as avantgarde is advertising, often cleverly disguised, mirroring advertising itself, which has been disguised as art for some time.
Outside art music, sometimes called avant-garde music, is supported institutionally to provide a similar pleasure to a self-satisfied progressive public, but very minimally. It is difficult to argue that it can impact people’s consciousness in the directions that visual art does. Unlike a visual image it cannot provide an unambiguous message, not even a message of ambiguity. Only lyrics can do this, and then the music merely supports the message of the lyrics. Outside art music tends instead to treat words as empty signifiers, as useful for sound quality as the sounds of frogs and insects. On a pragmatic level, music outside commercial taste is simply offensive to more people than comparable visual art; it is virtually unknown by comparison. There is nothing in music comparable to the exhibition opening, where people can socialize the entire time while paying scant attention to the artwork. To think of oneself as an appreciator of the visual avantgarde one is not obligated to spend an inescapable hour or more in semi-isolation with it.
Avantgarde art music can’t be dismissed for the reasons commercial music can be–that people don’t like it, or that it violates popular taste. Those are the very principles on which it is marketed. As for all music, marketing does aim at increasing attendance at events, however avantgarde music has a contradictory backup justification when that fails, that it is not supposed to acquire a large audience. Institutional support (the art music world) thus manages to succeed in its mission when it fails in the marketplace.
There is an active outside to the institutionally accepted music avantgarde, an underground that is not simply waiting in line for eventual acceptance. An institutional hierarchy of visual art makes it possible for artists and trends to move up the ladder and get exposed to wider public view, opening new taste markets and innovative to some degree in relation to what came before. By comparison the art music world is stuck with those artists it has sanctioned, and there’s only room for a limited number. The hierarchy is not a ladder of institutions but of the musicians, or rather their representation as brand names, and the function of brand names is to be irreplaceable. The reasons for this difference with the visual art world can be further explored, but the point to be raised here is that without institutions seeking musicians who can be tagged as the next stage or significant new development of the avantgarde there is stagnation, and the claim of innovation rings hollow.
Those whom the visual art world would be scouting for to provide a fresh approach, and would sanction as the innovative avantgarde reproducing itself, are, for the art music world, an excess of players that cannot be integrated. There is no good reason for these players to apply to the music world institutions that claim to present the best of avantgarde music, since it is structurally impossible for those institutions to accommodate them.
This excess of players works under various genre titles—free jazz, free improv, experimental, noise—but without the promotional benefit of legitimized names representing avantgarde music or the imprimatur of institutional backing. They are quite obviously the majority of outside-music players. Since they are also active players they cannot be confused with the other of the supported avantgarde, the philistine populace. They are instead a potentially subversive other to the art music world, which must dismiss rather than embrace them, and that dismissal sets them free. They are independent, free of the financial and prestige contract that binds legitimated musicians to the institutions and to each other exclusively. Whether these excessive players take advantage of their situation is up to them; they are at least free to choose.