Reading about Arthur Rimbaud’s “Season in Hell”: “The Future is his domain; hence, like Nietzsche, he refuses ressentiment’s obsessive nursing of past grievance.” * (Ressentiment is very close to resentment, but as Nietzsche used it, is rage that is both personal—psychological–and social hostility to those considered the cause of one’s misfortune.)

This was in 1870 or so, when the concept of Progress towards a better future for all was widely believed. Rimbaud had a grievance against the world, and saw himself not as a poet, one of the acceptable roles, but a visionary. His mission lasted from age fifteen to nineteen, when he gave up in despair, but it was still enough time for him to be celebrated today as the greatest poet/visionary of modern times.

It is that Progress, Rimbaud’s youthful though ambivalent faith, which has disappeared, yielding a collective ressentiment that is the major motivation for the Trump presidency.

For those who detest history, I’m sorry, but history has brought us to this point. Of course, it is a narrative and is debatable, but without that debate, based on facts and interpretation, we will never get beyond anger, self-pity, and withdrawal into helplessness. War has been declared on us, and as I said in my last post, it is time for an avant-garde not dependent on the old guard, its defense of “art,” its institutions and media.

Neoliberalism, beginning in the late 70s and coming to power with Reagan, set out to eliminate the visionary future that was the successor of Rimbaud’s vision. It had sustained not only socialists but the working class and the American Dream, whose locus was the Democratic Party, the reason that is today called “the left.”  Neoliberalism reduced Progress for all human existence to the trickle-down from above theory—first let the rich get richer, then maybe something will be left over. This returns us to the medieval platitude that we will always have the poor with us, “us” being the powers that be. Progress would henceforth be the sole domain of the global advance of capitalism, with nothing allowed to stand in the way. That was the plan.

This divided the political sphere. Political liberals wanted compromise; they still believed it possible to base the social order on capitalist expansion and have social benefits for all. In the sixties this was called “guns” (the “hot” war against Vietnam, since any Communist country would block world capital/market expansion) and “butter” (the Great Society—Medicare, Poverty Program, Voting Rights, etc.). Conservatives said this was unrealistic; capital needed everything it could get its hands on to survive and to expand. They were right, capital is always in crisis if it can’t expand, and it is “too big to fail.” The Great Society would have to be sacrificed, along with any regulations for human benefit that hamper expansion. For instance, a future for human existence requires response to the damage capital has done to the environment. To deny climate change and refuse to make the massive corrections it requires is to say, there is no future for humanity except what capitalism permits.

Since all this takes place in a democratic form of government, enough people must be persuaded and organized to execute the design. This is why neoliberalism had to be joined to neoconservatism, which was the validation, fostering, and politicization of ressentiment. It was a package deal. One hand takes away the better future-for-all and the other offers a better future limited to some. It is more palatable to call it respect and dignity. These are believed to be a limited commodity; such that those who are not getting their share must take it away from others. The new vision would be a seeming contradiction: the future would return us to the fifties, the period before Civil Rights began the sixties expansion of the ranks of those the government recognized as full humans.

What popularly evoked generosity for the other, the election of Obama, would be fiercely blocked during his eight years and turn into ressentiment against the other, which neo-conservatism and its alt-right, gun rights, anti-abortion, Christian identity, and white supremacy groups had long been preparing for. Without a future for all there is no way to avoid ressentiment against those patronized by liberal governments, who seem to be eating up the future that could have been everyone’s.

The movement draws upon racism but is primarily an attack on the government, whose strength has been to act as buffer, protecting and advancing those “identities” that were added to the list of human beings in the sixties. The catchword for that protection was “p.c.” and its support can be called either guilt or concern for the welfare of others. Today when liberals are stripped of political power, no longer able to enforce political correctness, the guilt they relied on among those who were economically and socially secure is no longer effective. Not only that, the former protectors are  themselves joined to those they thought they could protect. This means a major distinction of class, in the shape of liberal protectors and recipient protected, has just been eliminated.

The white supremacist government backed by armed supporters just elected is attacked by liberals as ignorant. This is patently true and barely denied: Trump is a naif, openly amazed to find out what the job of president entailed, just as he had consistently disregarded factual truth. But the liberals are equally naïve and dumb if they do not see how this situation came about and continue as if nothing has changed. They act as if the return to the status quo—guns and butter, which has been the Democrats program all along–will change the situation.

People in shock see that the situation is deep with implications but it hasn’t yet occurred to many that the meaning of this revolution is that capitalism is maybe not too big to fail. Unwittingly, though the markets now think differently, Trump may be leading us straight to that failure, without the aid of any leftist visionaries. Revolutions are nothing if not surprises. We are caught unawares, woken up, rubbing our eyes: What do we see?

Nativist movements such as Trump are poised to sweep the world, and sweep away anything in the path of capital. We are in the opening of a revolutionary phase, but it is only the opening. To be as naïve as those who have declared war on us is like throwing in the towel before we’ve even gotten wet.

* Ross Posnock, Renunciation [2016], p. 88


Trump is the final triumph of neo-conservatism after almost fifty years of trying (Nixon’s “silent majority”). What looked to be on its last legs was able to grab the only thing worth having: power to implement its program. Neo-conservatism has been the populist sugar coating covering neo-liberalism’s class warfare, its cultural ally. From its origin neo-conservatism has been the counter to the sixties rebellion, which makes Trump America’s Nicolas Sarkozy, who in 2007 came to power in France with the promise to end “the spirit of 68” for good. Since it was neo-conservatism that galvanized the base, Trump, the neo-liberal minus the persuasive multi-culturalism, must fulfill it.

In 2008, when I heard Obama say at a local rally “and there will be poetry in the schools,” I openly wept–he hit my vulnerable spot right there. Now that even that dream is a laughing matter is of prime significance to artists and art-musicians today, for the grand celebration going on right now is at their expense. For those who want their music to be media-visible it should bring them to re-examine their relation to that sixties heritage and the place they might have in the new regime. Where Obama was a gentle neo-liberal, who promised a place for art, the new regime promises to be a brutal, authoritarian version, censoring anything that reminds us even vaguely of the free-wheeling artistic movements of the past. The compromise by which the sixties “artistic critique” was promoted in order to suppress its “political critique” is now abandoned. Say goodbye to “Everyone is an artist,” the populist mantra that has filled art and music schools since the 90s and was linked to social and even economic progress.

That puts artists who achieved careers under the old regime on the spot, since they owe their positions to a tacit agreement to represent the enshrined sixties heritage. They can either survive by taking a more submissive position (no balking at cutbacks),* or moving towards more politicized art (unambiguous propaganda), or hiding out (the honored position of modernist “internal exile” where invisibility is the price of doing art). A fourth option is to take the arts out of the safe, gentle-neoliberal mold all art and art music careers have depended on. That would create an avant-garde that is truly outcast and no longer playing the role of marginalized outcast, innovative experimenter, entertaining a self-confident liberal population. It would mean repudiating any position attained by fulfilling the needs of media and credentialing institutions. (Some of us are already there and have been for some time.) Unlike today’s, that avant-garde would have, as De Kooning put it in 1950, “no position in the world except that we just insist on being around.”

* I should add that the bastion-institutions on which professional artists rely will still have considerable largess to dispense. They will probably picture themselves in the anti-Trump camp (“culture vs. the state”) and  reinforce funding of their usual recipients. This will demonstrate that “freedom of expression is still alive.” For that the institutions will get the credit for their symbolic act, and the artists for playing their role. However, these institutions have already been hard at work in the job of curating–censoring–whatever is not to their advantage.

Those who say “I love art” will know it includes everything framed as art, and even unframed, like children’s scribblings, which they might elevate by saying “Now that’s a real work of art.” But the commonly expressed “I love all music” does not include everything so framed; the love of music is not expansive but protective against what is outside. Music is more meaningful than the other arts, not just to people’s lives but to their hearts. It is not a decoration or a signal to others that one is a liberal, magnanimous, trustworthy person. In fact there is distrust for those who love music that falls outside the bounds of “all music.”

This is not distaste, a private judgment of tasting a dish and preferring others, something a friend might easily like. Rather, what is music but not within “all music” is a poison not to be ingested by any human. It is dangerous and requires a warning label, something that should be banned: noise pollution. Those who do include it within “all music” are somewhat alien, incomprehensible as human beings, in the world but not of it. They and those who create such music tend to create a shell around themselves, so as to ignore what the world thinks of them and what they are willing to take into their bodies, which reaches their hearts. While the world seeks to protect itself from noise, these alien beings protect themselves from the world.

For those who pride themselves on being tolerant, however, nothing can be banned, at least nothing framed as music. Urban liberal meets neoliberal: be generous, give everything a chance, as I do. These are the hypocrites. They will say that anything framed as music is a matter of taste, even what evokes in some a gut reaction to avoid as harmful to their psyche. Liberals don’t acknowledge gut reactions, it’s “I just don’t have the taste for that.” This enables them to have their cake and still toss it in the garbage without tasting it.

This situation poses a problem for musicians of such truly “outside” music who want to grow an audience for it. To seduce people to swallow it the pill must be sugar-coated, made palatable. Hopefully they will act as if it is merely a matter of taste, a new dish served in a decent restaurant–hey, check this out. So the frame must be gilded, and there are many strategies for doing so. Imply that it is art, sanctioned by those who know authentic art, and prospective audience would be marked as philistines for rejecting it. Show institutional credentials, or indicate that it is popular among a significant number of audience. Say it is an extension of jazz, and it’s almost racist to deny that jazz is America’s music, only good can come from it. Another strategy is to say it is somehow radical, part of the counterculture, an alternative that is neither high art or commercial music. Unwittingly these promotional strategies influence the music itself, such that music called “edgy” has no edge at all, and slips easily down the gullet. A performance will be “delightful” and “compelling.”

A strategy proven to be ineffective is to say, just listen to this and clear your mind of judgment. Let down your guard, it’s only sound, how can it hurt you? This music has been created for you and not for the anxious mind.

The following is written hastily in a couple hours but what the fuck. Instead of “the artist” retreating at the sight of the hobgoblin of politics we plunge right into it, the magnificent obsession.

To allow the election of those who might possibly represent the will of ordinary people is the riskiest step power ever made. This was forced on it, beginning with the French and American Revolutions, and has been the source of the greatest anxiety power has ever endured. Threatened with collapse was the concept of the King’s Two Bodies, one that was the actual mortal person of the king and the other that of “true” power, eternal and descended from on high. Henceforth worshiped power was to be subject to a quantity of thumbs-downs of those who were not swayed by the iconic statue in which power had wrapped itself. No one could guess where the bold move would lead, but it threatened to dis-empower those in power in an eye’s twinkling. Every election was a potential revolution annulling the powers that be. Through experience and struggle they would have to learn the psychology of manipulation and control over events that was never before needed. Power would have to face anyone whose x-ray vision could see that it was mortal, and naked as the day it was born.

The spectacle was not born in the 1920s, when consumerism saved capitalism from overproduction (Fordism), but a century earlier, perhaps most visible in political cartoons that vilified political opponents and aroused fear among people who had little to fear. It was Jackson who mastered this, portraying the Indian as the aggressor who must be stopped, with of course himself as the one most capable of doing so. The embarrassment for power was that it was supposed to be enlightened.

The Enlightenment had challenged power rhetorically, for it consisted of intellectuals with the naïve notion that the rulers were reasonable people like themselves; a positive future could be achieved through criticism and persuasion. The populace, otherwise known as the mob, was more effective, combining force and self-belief (today’s “empowerment”). The enlightened mostly went along, though with reservations, and eventually became the articulate persuaders and rationalizers of the various sides. Democracy was not their idea but, for the sake of power or at least influence, what they accommodated to. Naïve to this day, or rather simply needing to be gratified by a taste of power themselves, they mostly serve the spectacle as the loyal opposition, aka the left.

In America of the early 19th century, the guiding star of this awkward marriage of Enlightened Democracy, the only way to reconcile it with the conquest of a populated continent was to present genocide as merely self-defense. (“A man’s home is his castle,” was the slogan of a segregationist I saw pamphleting a Baltimore bus in 1965). To maintain their self-esteem as both rational and Christian, the voting population would have to be persuaded that those who initially acted rationally and sought accommodation with the white man through mutually binding treaties had turned irrational and now wanted to conquer him and wipe him out. The image of the noble and respected savage would now appear a masquerade, a sly deception and betrayal on their part. America would not exist today were not an image of the Indian created that inverted the reality, such that politicians could appear as defending an innocent people, a rational aim, against an evil enemy bent on eradicating them. Once that enemy was thoroughly defeated militarily and humiliated, the former romantic image could be pulled out of storage.

Through imagery-manipulation, fear is thereby converted from irrational and transparent to rational and unquestionable, and with a short lapses has been the basis of American politics ever since. With this turn American politics as we understand it today was created through the agency of what would later be called the society of the spectacle.

The Civil War could not have taken place if the issue were slavery but rather the fear that the slave economy was an alien being threatening the “free” economy of nascent capitalism and was expanding westward. Slavery was vilified, which motivated the enlighteners in the North and silenced any doubts they might have had concerning the union of democracy and capitalism. But the more effective argument was the threat of rebellion, to which power must respond. No more than the Bourbon kings could step away from the throne could Lincoln yield to the rebels.When liberals say “good thing” to that they forget to add, “power is good in the right hands,” which makes it all more complicated.

The rebels did not perceive themselves fighting for slavery—few of the soldiers themselves were slaveholders—but rather saw themselves as underdogs fighting for their independence, exactly the kind of fight that allied them with the founders of the Republic. The confusion continues today, for the liberal North, which believes it holds a monopoly on enlightenment, cannot conceive that Southern conservatism has a streak of rebellious resistance to power. After all, the postmodern offshoot of liberalism is “transgression,” which should envy those who “stand up for themselves.” In the view of liberalism, power is positive when in the hands of the enlightened, who by definition are the ones not hoodwinked. It has yet to come to grips with the fact that the revolution that gave them a function in the world of power was first and foremost a rebellion against power.

The history of America and its politics is the series of threats to the presumed unity of enlightenment, democracy, and political economy, otherwise known as capitalism. When it was a matter of saving capitalism from the (democratic) mass of people, the spectacle saved the day with its image of anarchy. When capitalism was threatened by its own success, overproduction, the image of unending progress of human happiness based on consumption was promoted, and power recovered its enlightened, people-friendly image. Even the condescending progressives came around. The unwashed immigrants who had been the threat were now reimagined as consumers, with capitalism their savior. When the Depression gave the lie to that story, reversion to the earlier picture became a threat, but successful politics, now with no goods to buy off the populace, instead sold the image of the heroic masses struggling alongside power to rebuild not capitalism but democracy. This was positive and visionary: the only fear is fear itself, and freedom was from want, that is, consumption, so long as capitalism was the only means of satisfying need.

During the thirties American politics would be isolationist, aloof and protected against contagion from Europe. For the moment it could ignore the need of capitalism to conquer the world if it was to continue to expand beyond a saturated home market. Americans would not have been persuaded to join the fight of European powers in World War II if they had thought it was a fight for the expansion of capital; even the corporate elite didn’t argue that. No, people only agreed to fight for enlightened democracy, a continuation of the solidarity of the good against evil than enabled them to overlook what a clearer vision would see as evils in their very backyard.

To vote the lesser of two evils was once the cynic’s view and in the minority. Now that has become the only positive. It is the only politics possible, and both sides agree. (For reasons left obscure here, American politics, unlike European, has always depended on gravitation towards one of two sides). Eisenhower was the war hero president, our DeGaulle. As a soldier he was not impressed by fear and could make no use of it when faced with it politically with McCarthy, nor could he counter it. It was Kennedy who successfully utilized a politics of fear, when he raised the specter of a “missile gap,” the one weapon available to a non-incumbent that allowed him to squeak past Nixon (very possibly a stolen election). It was a lie and he knew it, but in the game of electoral politics it had become effective to speak to fear. Since McCarthy people had learned that television was the vehicle of politics; the spectacle was what mattered.

What glued people to the screen during the hearings (myself included) was fear, but a new version, for the medium was in fact the message. The spectacle then and what we know today turns fear into intimidation. We are mesmerized (hypnotized) by an image that pretends to be reality far more effectively than what is right in front of us or a political cartoon. To be critical of the screen requires another screen image, thus pulling everything into its vortex. The spectacle, born in fear, converted to the utopia of consumer goods and enlightened democracy, reverted back to its origins and now more powerful than ever. It was not ironic that the spectacle had been the weapon of the right, it was rather what all politics would have to master. However, what they thought they could master ended up mastering them, as McLuhan learned too late. Better appeal via fear of communism than leftist goals of expanding democracy to include blacks, the “American Dilemma” that both American and Russian Communists pointed to as the thorn in the side of rosy American idealism.

This segment of the society of the spectacle, which begins in McCarthyism, continues until it is the only show in town. It is the spectacle that has declared there is no history, no future other than disaster, with everyone powerless against it. Politics no longer presents society with specific positive options but rather unites people in opposition to “the other.” Liberalism speaks of support for the maligned other but the effective other is that of its political opponent, which is why today it is so gleeful. The positive is only the gathering of those who fear loss, like those voting for Jackson “against” the Indians (not “for” taking their land) and those voting “against” Trump (who is”for” Hillary?).

Obama had no program other than to reverse Bush, to win back lost ground, as if there were a positive future. His electorate was blindsided by his intelligence and his program of negating what had come before. His blackness silenced criticism (and he knew it), since for decades p.c. leftism had convinced people that any criticism of blacks was racist, the key test for enlightenment. Trump throws people a variety of options, even reverses himself on them, but, as the spectacle becomes the only memory, once a declaration has made its impact it cannot be taken back. What unites people behind him is to negate the enemy they feel threatens them, just as Obama had done more innocently in his pledge to roll back the Bush policies (innocent because he surely believed he could do good in office once he was successful).

Trump has done what no one else could, unite the left behind a candidate who has no program other than to achieve final victory over the right, in whose spoils the left hopes to share. This is what the left today, and its history of struggle and vision, is reduced to–a long conversion that I’m barely recounting here. Yet like Obama, if HRC does achieve that  it would be apparent that she has no interest other than that struggle, none of her early idealism. That hollowness would convert strength into weakness. In terms of silencing criticism her vested interest, as Trump’s, is to keep the enemy alive, rather than to persuade it of any value she might present. There is a phantom enemy, however, that momentarily frightened her–those of the left who might become an effective opposition to her, resurrecting an enlightenment that ignores pc intimidation and recalls the positive vision of what has been called the defunct Old Left–including her own deja vu. That appeared in the unexpected candidacy of Bernie, counter-populist to Trump. The socialist, who earlier shared several planks with Trump, has since showed himself loyal to the politics of negating the other. Fear, the chief construct of the spectacle, is not a tactic of this side against the other, it is the only side.

Guy Debord’s 1952 film Howls for Sade appeared three years before Ginsberg wrote his Howl. Its 24 minutes of silence and black screen scandalized audiences, and Debord said “I will make no concessions to the public in this film.” Today we can see what he couldn’t, that it’s a concession to posit viewers as a public, which demands that concessions be made before it will open its eyes. A declaration of war on the public was then still a quite acceptable, even French-traditional act for an artist. His later film Refutation depended on his previous film and a public interested in it. But if one does release work (perform, record, etc.) and it gets praised, there’s this denunciation, even if it would be senseless if the film was never liked or disliked: “Those who claim to like my film have liked too many other things to be capable of liking it…” and the same is true of those who dislike it.

Let’s take words to mean what they generally mean and not the meaning we want them to have. To say “for me, an artist is…” is the easy escape and changes nothing. Let’s imagine we can look reality in the face and take meaning as what words generally mean in practical terms, not drawn from the past but today. . (A shy friend, when asked how old he is, answered, “You mean today?”) Granted “artist” is often used to denote what goes unrecognized in the spectacle, but let’s stick to the effective artist, which is the dream or at least consolation of the vast majority of those who call themselves artists.

We will conclude that those who aspire to be an artist cannot become the artist known in the history books, if that’s what they’re thinking. That was a different world, now long past. Those who dream of being that, including any of the roles titled filmmaker, writer, and musician, etc., or even harboring the secret of being a “true artist,” must turn themselves into those fortunate never to have had that dream. “I wanted to be a writer as far back as I can remember.” That’s a lie; he hasn’t gone back far enough, disavows his self for the sake of backing up a recognized social role.

To wipe the slate clean is a huge, sometimes daily work, precisely what the artist only undertakes at the peril of her identity. In our society (that it’s ours goes without saying, for none escape) an artist is somewhere in the hierarchy of celebrities or on the road to becoming one. As a pathetic final resort they will be an artist in posterity, for which they must get their documentation together asap. To be an achieved artist is the greatest honor, the one that confers total freedom, as that word is understood (the flip side is chaos, psychosis). Donald Trump is not a politician but an artist and great improviser (improvisation is all the rage in academia these days… “everyone an artist” now means “everyone is an improviser”). The Donald is free to do and say anything he feels like, and respected for that even by his political enemies. He fulfills the goal that appeared in the early postwar period of spontaneity, irrationality in the face of an over-ordered society. He presents an image of total pleasure, and the society of enjoyment (the psychological shorthand for the society of the spectacle) eats it up.

What if instead we say, we are not artists but people doing things of our own interest, sometimes where others can witness us. True artists are considered rare; this is not, for it extends far beyond the field of traditional artworks. The most radical project imaginable is to do something of one’s own interest. It’s not a matter of renunciation, for that is always shadowed by hope that the prisoner of self-discipline will one day find they’ve left the cell door unlocked. Renunciation implies a “them” to balance “us.” What do they think? That  doing what you love must exceed doing what you love. Rather, one looks at a rotten apple and a fresh one on the table and makes the obvious choice. Clear, unclouded vision and knowing the difference in pleasure and nutrition is all that’s needed. The life of the artist is a hard life (at least initially) but to clean one’s window–the phrase is John Coltrane’s–is still harder. And there isn’t a clean window in the house, maybe just one tiny pinhole.

For those who choose to engage the work rather than be distracted by potential reward, work will be boring at times. That tempts them to think the boredom will be dispelled if only the other receives the work as interesting. To substitute the other for oneself is the entry ticket to the society of the spectacle; to go there is to sign the contract. The contract is printed with gold letters but the ink is indelible; few go back the way they came in. To clean the window is to read the fine print, usually too late. Even those destroyed by the dream will uphold it, as if maybe that loyalty oath will work for them. To think clearly about this, objectively without preference for the conclusion, is called cynicism, bitterness, the resentment of the failed artist. Yet one may fail as an artist without becoming a failed artist, who presumably didn’t want to fail. It’s possible to fail in advance of failure by creating work that consistently leaps outside as soon as market functionality is ready to pounce on it. Those who do so never get to know if they have actually done this or merely adopted the ego of the cursed artist (“I can’t help being what I am”–just another doomed essentialism)

To look up from the work and see the world rushing past it crushes the artist with humiliation. The escape it, and thinking “some day…,” is not to supply yet another work but to immerse oneself in the working. To have one’s work ignored then brings smiles rather than tears and gritty determination. The artist is one who not only knows but cares that attention paid to the work will give it value. Is there value “just for myself and my friends?” For society that cannot be the case, and we are society even in our alienation, a quality that applies to us all. Every ounce of value robs the maker and performer of their own honest valuation, until there is nothing left. Then one is the true artist, marked as significant, churning stuff out, and finally respected for doing so. Even one’s parents can be brought into the fold; reconciliation all around.What do people parade when they go to reunions? That they are artists who haven’t made it and never will?

Debord released things in order to offend the pubic. That’s still fulfills “artist,” for it isn’t indifference. All anti-art is art, in fact has become the epitome of art, enshrined because it’s no longer possible. Why do anything “in public” at all, when there is no more public (as Debord experienced it) and one can only create a substitute for oneself? Since the common aim of artists is towards what is anachronistically called the public, this should be a serious question. Coltrane resolved it for himself, said his recordings were not equal to what went unrecorded, but he valued live performance as the proper locus for his explorations, which were themselves often recorded. He did not glad-hand the audience but used his playing to close himself off from those who came to hear him.People walked out, stopped buying his albums, so what? His interviews during the period show he was not concerned.

Have the Coltrane clones been wrapped up in their search all these years? Is that even possible today? When the spectacle has become a totalitarian embrace, the model of what’s called “soft” censorship, what loophole is there, what possibility to find listeners so unsophisticated they will not compare this with that, that is, will not make a judgment? Where to find those who say, “I don’t know what you’re doing or why you’re doing it”? To ask that is neither a thumbs up or down. To answer it as an interview question is a non-communication.  The player turns into an interpreter who wants to be helpful and can only hope to be accepted. It’s answered rather by more playing—“Let’s try this–now do you know?” That is direct communication. And only if the other can say yes without adding a single word can the player think they truly know. If they still don’t say yes you play more.

The only possibility for artists today is to be perceived as to some extent avant-garde, which means that a consumer will say, “I almost didn’t get it.” What is outrageous and adventurous is a bounded field, and known as art. To make a name the initial work cannot show precisely what consumers (of course curators) think they want but must make them hesitate ever so slightly. That is “the difference” essential to the market. It is the play (the looseness between the bolt and the hole) between what is and what could be that makes one’s work visible. To leave “what is” behind and replace it with the full range of what could be, which I’ve called “free playing,” is beyond visibility.

To do nothing is to be invisible; to go beyond visibility is different. When one is invisible there is always the option to behave, talk, and make things that will make one visible. Once one that happens the option is off the table. That’s why the initial work is so important. After achieving a recognized (visible) name back from the spectacle it doesn’t matter too much whatever else one does. The aim of making art is to become a tenured artist. Like all those tenured, they seek rest from their labors, and the spectacle promises that, but puts them to work being the somebody they have become, so the achieved rest is from trying to be artists. The curse of the spotlight is that there is always a bigger one, and that whatever size you are awarded it never leaves you, there is no hiding from it. It is hungry for your life and sucks up every drop of it. To try to turn a little light on yourself, the job of every start-up entrepreneur, then is the real act of renunciation, for you have renounced the option of anonymity, otherwise known as “a joyless future.”

The historical avant-garde we have supposedly inherited was marked by an expectation that the future would be “freer and more truthful,” as Debord said.It could not represent the negative without this. It is this which is lacking in the avant-garde today, when the imaginary is only a bleak future. Debord claimed to be one of the “lost children,” meaning those who were sent on a mission and not expected to return. But he imagined being found, or rather was motivated to contribute to that utopian future. He did not die alone; that was merely the image he apparently had. There was a future and he inhabits it, but it isn’t one “freer and more truthful.”

That future was wiped off the hard drive by a world conceived as divided between worthlessness and individual triumph, the fulfillment of ambition. The society of the spectacle became the last utopia, finally arrived. It is the eternal future because the present has become eternal. The future previously implied the presence of hope, against which the present stands condemned. Some few—but enough, including artists—thought this validated the struggle to achieve it. This is not possible when the future is seen to be growing worse all the time, as if what the spectacle of daily events offers is reality. That denies any point to struggle, transforming those fighting into either noble fools or poseurs. That’s no criticism, for the spectacle needs them desperately.

Whether to prepare something in advance, such as improvising along a certain line rather than playing without that intention, is a question of trusting one’s immediate intuition alone, not even knowing what that might be. To assert the latter should never deny the value of mixing that with preparation, the will to create continuity or to make something acceptable to others. One has simply carved out a space for not following those related values. The immediate-intuition approach must have some protection for it to be asserted as something that can and does occur, which is why I reserve for it the name of playing freely. It doesn’t mean one is a free person, but that in the midst of playing, painting, dancing, etc., one is faced with the naked awareness of what is going on. Instead of imposing an idea on that and trying to make it something according to one’s will, one relies only on that situation, to which everything else is dismissed as external and irrelevant.

I am speaking here of art-making but it is only as part of all one’s life activities. To walk down the street with one’s usual gait is to fall into a normal pattern just as much as to play one’s conventional style or follow a score: Neither good nor bad, but that is what one is doing, it is one’s limit, and it’s possible to be aware of just what limits one chooses to observe. Following one’s secure habits or caring about the other’s judgment will not disturb others, whether audience or those seeing you walking. But in free playing mode, disappointment and frustration, even collapse occurs when one becomes aware of the penetration of any external element, which are blocks to immediate engagement.

As distinct approaches to making art, there is a constant tug of war between them, and neither is superior to the other. In one the artist has a vision or inspiration of what a work can be, maybe changes it somewhat in process but essentially seeks to fulfill that vision. In the other, the artist simply begins doing something and follows with something else, perhaps ending with no perceptible unity or fulfilling ending. A painting appears unfinished, and even the painter must make a leap to see that it is perfect as it is. In the first, freedom (spontaneity, intuition) is present to a flexible degree: one can operate freely within the plan and forget it somewhat, then return to it as the ultimate vision. In the second however, any hint of following a plan disrupts one’s moves. Those of the first approach are uncomfortable with an empty space; those of the second find anything but open space to be cluttered.Each is dissatisfied but for opposite reasons.

These two are not poles, such that each can reach toward the other more or less. For free playing, at least, it is not a question of balancing them. The first can reach toward the second, but if the second reaches towards the first it automatically becomes a version of the first and disappears as a possibility. It is purist except for this: those preferring it are obliged to recognize that both are valid art and can stand on their own, and they should never insist that theirs is the only way. Dogmatic insistence would deny almost all existing art, including most abstract expressionism, a kind of sectarian position that is useless to defend free playing (incidentally, this reverses an opinion I held through the early nineties). It is not so important for artists of the first approach to recognize the second, since they are already using intuition as a component of their work. What would be incorrect is for them to say they are playing freely when they are perfectly satisfied with mixing intuition with what preexists the situation.

The free playing approach is an obstinate reality in the cracks of our culture, which insists that there is no art without conception and “meaning.” Thus it can only go against the grain of what is socially valued, what we all mostly value. Free playing conceives culture as clutter, and sets about the work of removing it, an unending task, for “culture” is what is inevitably left in its wake. It is called “self-indulgent” but from its perspective it is the other that should bear that, for it indulges the players’ wish to conform. For this reason free playing is barely known as a possibility nor taken seriously by professional artists, and audiences cannot easily tell the difference. Those who prefer to play freely can however suggest it to anyone, including so-called serious artists: here’s something you might try, and we invite you.

Theoretically one can do both, but it is difficult, for it is inevitably a kind of dabbling, with the mind confused about what is to be done. In attempting to play freely one will be tempted to perceive where it is going and try to shape it, to create continuity rather than letting it emerge, if it ever does. If continuity and form in general seem diminished, one will try to insert meaning so as to restore it, . What latitude should be allowed for diverging from one’s conception of what art should be? That brings the deliberating mind into the game, such that one is trying to do two things at once: playing freely and taking care not to violate the border that is felt must be there.

When it is said that we all fear freedom this is meant, that there is a border out there we might violate, be accused of it, and will pay a penalty rather than be rewarded. Even darker is the suspicion that we have a deep wish to violate the other and will do so unless held in check by some sense of rightness that preexists our actions. Preexistent rightness is the common notion of form, and therefore art. In this way art gets aligned with the social order in its moral rather than institutional guidance system. It is that which determines what is freedom and what is illicit indulgence, what individualism is approved and what is asocial.

Free playing is first of all a protected, private, and disciplined space, like meditation, where one can learn by doing just how deeply the mind is penetrated by the need to conform to given form and order. There the need appears and we can let it go, as false and burdensome. It is where we can test our mutual fear of freedom before putting it to the social, collective test: What harm could it do to make this sound rather than that? Only then, when we’re able to dance semi-confidently on that shaky ground, do we open the door. A swinging door, as we discover, for that empty space is soon filled with all kinds of clutter.

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.”