What has happened to the avant-garde in our "suspended" culture?
What has happened to the avant-garde in our "suspended" culture of the 's is a psychological equivalent of what has happened to it sociologically. Sociologically, it has been institutionalized by the universities and the publishers, which by definition means that in its modern phase it has to come to an end. At the same time, it has been internalized, so to speak, in the flexibly dialectical mind of contemporary criticism. In this withdrawal from the field of action it finds a possibility of continued life. The resiliency of the best critical minds must be counted on the keep the avant-garde alive during periods which have no immediate task for its polemical mission.
Yet the task of the temperamental or born avant-garde critic is not limited to the polemical purpose of converting the philistines to art. [S]He is also perennially the disinterested student and historian of culture, looking into the past and the present for the radical and not merely the contingent and incidental facts. The past convinces him that discontinuity and contradiction have always been of the essence of American culture. The present convinces him that among critics only the most powerful and resilient of "suspended" minds are capable of keeping alive the avant-garde spirit, or any spirit, or of embodying cultural contradictions of any sort without collapsing under the great strain into a formless middle way of feeling and thought. Who can doubt that this formless middle way of feeling and thought, with its increasing moralism and conventionality, is hardening into the new "cake of custom?" As for the future, one can only believe that the end of the present interim period will be marked by a new resurgence from the uneasy subliminal depths of our culture, in the classic manner of avant-garde action - provided, that is, that  marks the end of a phase of American culture as we have known it, and not the end of that culture itself.
* * *
OK. I didn’t write the above. In fact, it was written in the 1950s by Richard Chase. Don Share has some more of it posted on his blog:
What fascinates me is the obvious "ahem" quality of the piece. I couldn’t help changing the dates. It points well not just to the avant-garde, but also to the artistic situation: The “cultural contradictions” the avant-garde embodies, the “middle way” of the period style that surrounds it, the way an avant-garde becomes tomorrow’s dessert item, institutionalized by the universities and the publishers, and the every-present consideration of the future. So are the early 2000s a repeat of the midcentury 1900s? Fun question.
And the Chase essay is made all the more ironic by the fact that it was published in 1957, one year after the publication of John Ashbery’s Some Trees, which was something of the start of what David Lehman has termed “The Last Avant Garde.” (Define “last” as you wish! It’s a term, and we know what happens to terms.) Will the circle be unbroken?
I’m positively giddy with it all this morning. And isn't that a wonderful picture of Ashbery?