With the 19th Century creation of the art avant-garde on the model of the military, art was fully enlisted in the Age of Discovery, building on the opening shots of the Renaissance–perspective painting and realistic anatomy . While the early terrestrial explorers were motivated by investment and debt, and only later idealized their achievements, the avant-garde was endowed from the outset with the mission to bring the unknown and threatening outside within the realm of the human.

The outside was not, as it was for the Greeks and subsequent medieval thinking, the stable perfection of heavenly spheres looking down on us imperfect earthlings, the model of form one retreated to through both reason and spirituality. The outside was rather the unknown space imagined as ultimately homogeneous and harmonious with us, but required our intervention in order to dispel fear that it wasn’t. Until proven otherwise it contained the irrational of monsters and the imperfection of the empirical and everyday, and it threatened existence with the fatality of exceeding the horizon. By the 19th Century, the only artists significant to the human adventure were viewed as this avant-garde, such as the “cursed poets,” who had their own telescopes and spaceships to go beyond and return, making the beyond safe and habitable even for the bourgeois. It did this with a trace of the old vision, for to bring order to chaos, to see form in the formless, was to round off the irregular, just as scientific investigation of the empirical discovered the (circular) rationality of the natural order.

To do this art could not stand alone, starkly facing the ordinary human subject.  Parallel to science, expert discourse was needed to interpret, promote, and persuade ordinary folk that this weirdness is indeed, if you look at it a certain way, really an expansion of the human and no threat to it. The musical avant-garde played and made things from outdoor materials, exotic (Stravinsky, Picasso) as well as internal (Schoenberg), then they and others brought them indoors, explained and repeated them, and conquered a small patch of the symbolic order known as Art, the well-kept secret. Edgar Varese’s “music is organized sound” was frightening and radical for a moment, then as “music” became an extension of technology decades later—the familiar and useful extension of the human body and mind—sound was only alien to those insufficiently socialized. Anathema in the 20s, this concept provokes no more than a yawn as it is taught in music schools today.

This shift, towards the socialization and familiarization of the former exterior, is the essence of globalization. That which began with Columbus’ voyage has now achieved its purpose: we’ve apparently arrived. The subduing of the earthly sphere is fully as complete, in its own way, as the heavenly perfection once was imagined. Lacunae are filled in with knowledge known as information, which moves ahead at its bureaucraticly predictable pace. We are living in the once-beyond. As Communism imploded so did all other resistance, utopias, and other dreams. It is the image of resistance that dominates the imagination, not a horizon that adventure was repeatedly able to prove to be real. Capital envisions no outside to itself.

With the world now unified under the logic of capitalism there is no dangerous alien existence for the avant-garde to espy and conquer for mankind, no exotic fruits to bring back in its ships. To argue that what looks like chaos is actually form is merely a mopping-up educational operation; the teachers already know, and know how to learn what they don’t yet know. The succession of technology holds no mystery, we know how that works. The world finally has caught up with the adventurers, such that the social order can claim to be itself the avant-garde, no longer needing inscrutable artists to peer ahead and advance our limited consciousness.

The visual sector (Contemporary Art, the endless biennials) is deprived of its former function, evident from how it is more honored officially than mainstream art, in fact endowed by capital with a permanent non-voting seat at the table (“kicked upstairs,” in older managerial lingo). Its job is ideological in a different way. While earlier it showed there was more out there to be tamed, the perceived threat of radical disruption to home-bound tradition, now it celebrates the global triumph. Those whose task is concrete imagery are assigned the responsibility to point out the remaining imperfections of the social order with which it is congruent, for if the image includes the imperfections they are presumed already in process of being healed. At least someone has spoken up. When visual art scorns the earlier avant-garde formalist aestheticism, it does so as the conscience of the social order, confirming its role as interior to capital and not an external threat.

Unfortunately for the avant-garde assigned to music, there are only two minor functions, closely related. One is to cast its lot with technological innovation, which is by definition already domesticated. It continues the experimental tradition begun by John Cage and others towards the merger of sound (nature) and music (the human), the colonization of sound by human agency (Yeah, team!). The discovery of form is now internal, expanding or at least defending the field that was earlier rounded-off. This avant-garde elaborates and repeats the adventures of the earlier avant-gardes as simulations of their motions, imagining it is working on outside material and bringing it to an unenlightened world when it is more realistically preaching to the choir, and its funding sources. The other avant-garde function seems even to reverse the original, to maintain the avant-garde as a tradition with no claim to be innovative. Any aberration that seems to depart the norm would go over the edge of the horizon and be lost. This one, jazz and avant-jazz, like mainstream jazz itself, at least has the honesty to deny any intention to actually innovate, despite the obligatory promotional claim of individuals to do so.

These two together form the true avant-garde. The hope to find a “really true” one outside, knocking on the door, is merely the attempt to resurrect a concept so comprehensible that it can no longer function. Avant-garde art “worked” socially because it was incomprehensible; with globalization that infinite game is over. It obviously does work promotionally to claim that one is bringing adventure to the world. Yet once enlightened, once all the strange fruits of musical adventure past and present are available at the touch of one’s finger of private censorship, once all the risk of displeasurable experience is gone, curiosity becomes a mere temporary state. “There is no there, there,” the poetic insight that was once exciting, has become, “There is no beyond to which the avant-garde is assigned.”

There is vast alien experience still, terra incognita that the serious, globalized avant-garde has abandoned, untheorized aberrations beyond the pale of media discourse. However, those who explore it feel no responsibility to put their shoulder to the wheel to advance Music and themselves in the world’s esteem. And those who pay attention to it do not endow it with the aura of saving the world from its troubles, in fact they must ignore its political, spiritual, and artistic insignificance in order to experience it. In our age of no alternatives, this is an adventure of social non-conformity worthy of its name.

The original impulse of this writing is the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital (2013), better know for his Critique of Cynical Reason (1983)

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