A Chicago artist even older than me wrote me this as his take on yesterday’s essay, Globalization and the Avant-garde: “Everything I do (have done) that falls into a general category of experimental stuff–music, video, self-made instruments, one-of-a-kind books, performance and writing–only amounts to stuff isolated from the world of supply and demand. Being self-produced my output has no return on investment in a capitalistic way of thinking. And further, most everything I have done is nothing really new, in fact, most of what others call new avant-garde or post-avant-garde art is in my eyes some form of rehash. At least, that is how I experience the “new,” nevertheless there are works by current artists that move me at a deep level and from out of the old avant-garde comes alternate and genuine ways that satisfy my soul. Wows me, inspires me, etc.” (Incidentally, here’s one of his videos: https://vimeo.com/158769312)
My response: You elaborate what I say in my essay. It is how an “ordinary” artist today like you and myself and myriad others would fit the wider conception I offer.
“Avant-garde” is a word still thrown around as an adjective, largely applied promotionally. As a noun it once referred to a group of self-constituted artists who were extremely unpopular. What they did that was new was disturbing, their experimental work was considered useless and foolish, a failure in the eyes of those few who heard of them. They were a joke, as Jackson Pollack was presented in Life Magazine in 1949. In fact they had a strong suspicion of success, and hesitated to approve those who achieved it. For society to start approving of them would threaten their hard-won authenticity, for “new” to them meant “rejected.” What we call the history of 20th Century art could be traced according to that rule: include nothing that did not face ridicule.
In the period we’ve been living in, since the sixties perhaps, all that has changed. The old play-by-the-rules corporation is dead; capital embraces the new and invests in it. As for art, we can’t have people getting impressed by artists who aren’t on the team. So what will be valued as new, and who are the geniuses? With the door to art-making and innovation open, that problem comes up.
The most obvious solution is, those acceptable as innovators will be among those needing most to be accepted, will apply for the job, bring their credentials and tooth-pick bridges and look honestly eager. They will be emblems of The American Dream, faces beamed upwards. They are exactly those the older avant-garde scorned as phonies, and would never let into their club. It doesn’t mean they don’t make anything of interest, only that in the vast smorgasbord of art, the tons of cds out there, these folks so willing to serve–the kids who always did their homework, jumped up in class “Me! Call on Me!” and got decent grades–are the only ones rewarded with the media spotlight. In the attention-deficit society this is all that counts. What happens when you have a tenured, permanent avant-garde, as it’s been called, on the conveyor belt to manufactured iconic status, is the assumption that whatever they do is automatically and guaranteed to be of interest.
I have no interest to deny them their prize; “More power to you” is my blessing, not scorn. What you and I do is not in that category because we haven’t cared enough to be go for the gold, or maybe we lack that kind of personality, or maybe we just don’t want to exchange play time for attention-getting time. Unlike the old avant-garde we don’t have the camaraderie of the elite few, who cover each other’s back, who trust that the lack of attention to our work will transform into posthumous glory (revenge). We just do what we do and keep our nose in our work. Our inventions are not “new” on the market, in fact we don’t need to claim them as new. But the experience we have, through frustration and boredom, is one of newness, which means nothing special, as the Buddhists say–experiencing something that opens the door to something else. Anyone who wants to join us down here in the cellar, the door’s open. That is a life choice that has consequences. Some will say, so what? We say, this is the real deal.