Performances called “edgy” and “risky,” and music categorized as “avantgarde”  suggest that hidden desires will be uncovered and fulfilled. Familiar desires call for compulsive repetition; those unknown can potentially yield an uncomfortable experience. Freud and the surrealists called it the uncanny, a disorientation requiring reflection or analysis to prevent permanent damage to the psyche. This potency is not ascribed to the sky gods known as icons, worshiped for their visible power, but to the underworld, to which one does not bow in awe but enters on a dangerous excursus off the beaten path of knowledge. While icons are asked for a repeat demonstration of their power at each ritual appearance, reassuring the spectators, the performers leading audience on a “risky” journey are more transparent, shamanic psychopomps (guides of the soul in afterlife), for it is the spectators’ experience that is center stage.

This is an analysis of advertising of course, language especially useful for musicians beginning their climb to visibility, and not their actual sense of what they’re doing. They can hope to be recognized for having been underground, as were the icons before them, but not if they remain there. Following a Christian mythology, their image is to have risen from their invisible wandering in the dark, having overcome the artist suffering of anonymity. However, they can only hint that spectators will experience discomfort and disorientation; what they must deliver is a sense of comfort, like all entertainment.  Just as parents once gave kids a Halloween experience that was a truly frightening hint of death, and has since been cleansed of darkness by the bright lights of Christian correctness, so has the allure of off-beat (off the well-trodden path) music been cleansed of potential discomfort and replaced by a simulacrum.

This shift puts the pressure on musicians to reassure rather than disorient and confuse the spectator, and it is internalized in the professional-performer role. In the society of the spectacle the audience is accustomed to see everything as an act, and the performers are expected to know what they’re doing, or at least fake it. In either case they are to please the audience (entertainment), show off their presumed genius (art), or better yet, do both. It would not be conducive or proper for the musician, in the midst of playing, to venture into new depths themselves. Any such exploration is supposed to happen away from the audience, as in “experimental music.” Something else can occasionally break through—the uncanny–when the performers are not “performing” but are themselves engrossed in their unique experience, off their own beaten path. This is what I’ve been calling free playing, when the freedom of the session is opened to listeners.

Those who prefer this, rather than fulfilling society’s art entertainment needs, are the seekers of their own hidden desire via new experience, which may or may not “communicate” to anyone at all. To be called edgy and avantgarde or even innovative would be an insult to them and a lie to the spectators, for those the media and self-promoters advertise as such will not shake any of their contemporary audience out of their comfort zone. Musicians who resist are powerless to take back “avantgarde,” which has been distorted from its original meaning and transmuted into supported art. Those who claim any such label for themselves would be easily accused of reaching for the same visibility that the institutionalized avantgarde has achieved. In a sense the aberrant individuals are not true performers, for they will not think in terms of the reward known as success, the plateau of self-celebration they are expected to achieve. If it is pleasure they seek it is that strange one of not-knowing, even distrusting what they do know as leading them astray.

Note: The traditional term was a noun spelled “avant-garde,” often capitalized. It referred to a group that perceived itself as a specific, principled movement with a membership, and often expelled people for various violations. Picasso was not an avant-gardist; the Surrealists were. They  ignored the needs of the consuming public, yet often purposely sought to scandalize it. Moreover, “…rarely have avant-gardes maintained good relations with their predecessors, which they have always struggled to relegate to the past.”(p. 110 of Vincent Kaufmann, Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry.) To be ahead of history, with or without followers, meant to disown even their own past. Committed to their advanced position, they were risking nothing.

For instance: Despite the affirmation by sixties Free Jazz musicians that they were still jazz musicians and adhered to much of that tradition, Free Jazz can be called a movement, one of the last avant-gardes on the model of what came before. They pushed ahead despite the conflict that ensued and were ascetic in their disregard of the consequences, true believers in their cause. Their failure was the inability to provide the comfort a sufficient number of the public desired.

After the sixties the term for movements became an adjective, often spelled without the hyphen, “avantgarde.” As a noun it would henceforth refer to those the music media and other institutions recognized as having a positive value, “the best music,” etc. The word is a mockery of what came before, a boost for the social order rather than a radical critique and scandal. It would no longer refer to self-motivated and self-controlled movements but to individuals and groupings who desired and expected approval, with channels for achievement. One writer aptly (and approvingly) referred to the avantgarde icons collectively as the “permanent avantgarde.” Whatever music they play is automatically advanced, once they have sufficient media and institutional support. The avantgarde consists of obedient citizens, mindful of their unwritten contract with their audience and society at large.

An avant-garde movement is as impossible to create today as it is to rebuild the society of fifty years ago. To those who might read this there obviously exist those who resist conformity with the success-oriented ego, the politically-correct “contribution to the good of society,” and the responsibility to communicate with consumers. Compared to past Avant-gardes they too have private control over what they do, but have no membership list, name, or even notoriety. Emphasizing their similarity would subvert the tendency to bow to “the greats that have gone before,” including those of free improvisation and Free Jazz, a self-demeaning habit promoted by the society of the spectacle. However they do not need to cloak themselves in any mantle of authority, nor–at least for the present–to construct any substantive identity in order to keep doing what they’re already doing so well. Yes, change is under way; faith in the system is eroding, though not yet in the anointed and wannabe avantgarde. Clinton will win, but the terrain has been shaken. Cracks have appeared, the center cannot hold. As the May ’68 French youth scrawled on the walls, “under the sidewalk, the beach.”

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