Friday, June 17, 2011

“Avant-Garde” Is a Marketing Strategy

I think, yes, I think we've discovered a new poem!

Or, rather, the theory of the majority is the problem, really, as vanguardism is a self-proclaimed status: we are ahead of the majority; we are advancing into new, hostile territory; we are going where the more timid rest of you will follow in the future, once we’ve staked out the territory.

The problem with this notion, in recent years, is how easy of a time the avant-garde has it out there in the wilds. Academia, journals, awards, and audience (well, in the landscape of poetry, I’m tempted to write “audience”) have all been quite ready to be friendly and hospitable to the avant-garde. In poetry, the group that would be called avant-garde is also, often, called the representative art of our time. Such a thing should not be possible.

So instead, to soften it, we call the art that would be called “avant-garde,” “experimental.” This is just as difficult a word to hold onto, because once the experiment is successful, it’s no longer an experiment. The type of poetry that might at one point have been highly experimental (LANGUAGE poetry, say, in 1981) now is routine. A routine experiment is an exercise.

In an age marked by the pastiche of the post-modern, it makes sense that such distinctions fail to be distinct. Combination and recombination are the norm. In this situation, avant-garde and experimental become honorifics, not descriptions.

Yes, but where does she keep the chicken?

You see this most obviously in music. Lady Gaga is, in many respects, avant-garde (in much the way Madonna was 25 years ago). Her look, her style, her travelling egg, all feel avant-gardy, while her actual music is conventional and, to say the least, popular (this year she’s sold about as many albums as the rest of the music industry combined). The Avant-gardy is in vogue in the arts.

Reminder: Art's been weird since art began.

It’s certainly in vogue in children’s television: the fractured narratives, discordant logic, and breaks of continuity, have a lot in common with The Love of Zero. But comedy (Charlie Chaplin!), and animation (Looney-Tunes!) have always been sites for the absurd, the surreal. It’s the culturally sanctioned space for such things. Failing to get the message, for the past 50 years, artists have been bringing these tendencies into what would be called high art, if we still talked about things as high and low art. It doesn’t take much to link TV shows like Courage the Cowardly Dog, Spongebob Squarepants, and the Teletubbies, to literary theory. So why should Jeff Koons then surprise anyone? Or, to be more specific to poetry, why should Tao Lin then surprise anyone? Flarf, etc., seems to make perfect sense in this economy, no matter what flarfists said about their intentions. And then now, the way some poets are investigating and using spirituality, and this type of “New Sincerity” seems to be perfectly in line with the arc of thinking.

Love minus zero / no limit = Courage, little doggie.

So the distinctions between labels blurs. So then what? Is it going to be “whatever, dude?” Is it going to be “Why worry about it? Like what you like?” Sure, but people are pushing things at us. It’s easy to find the most popular. It’s difficult to avoid. But “most popular” does not mean “best.” And therein rests the problem. Market forces will quickly tell what is the most popular. But what tells what is best? Because best matters. At least it matters to us individually. I like this. This is my favorite. This is the best, to me. And our reasons for saying such things wobble between subjective criteria all the way through market justification.

Lady Gaga is far and away the most popular, but I’ve yet to see Born This Way on the top of anyone’s Best of the Year list. Sure, she might well win a shelf of Grammys, but that’s beside the point. And why is it beside the point? Because people go to art for different things.

Most people go to art without a lot of critical apparatus. They want something playing in the background. They want to escape somewhere for a bit. They want to disengage from problems. Or they want a quick, uncritical comfort or support for their ideas, thoughts, beliefs. Lady Gaga has fans who call themselves Little Monsters. She tells them in her music to put their paws into the air. It feels good to have your paws in the air as one, uncritically. Low art, this was called, right?

Other people go to art to engage. It’s always going to be a minority of the population, because who wants to engage all the time? It sounds dreary. But not if you like to engage. Which has been the hallmark of high art.

Your lens or mine?

But this is further complicated by content. To what do you like to engage? To what do you like to disengage? What happens when high art is all mixed up with low art? When these distinctions are not distinct? And avant-garde is meaningless? There’s no longer a concept for “Keeping Things Straight” in art. We have no RAW and COOKED charts. And we’re aware that every style of art, every genre, every method, will have limitations. My own favorite poets, like John Ashbery and Rae Armantrout, are not without limitations. One cannot be “experimenting” on all things at once. One cannot be engaging all things at once. One cannot disengage from all things at once (and remain alive).

How will the future sort us out? Who knows. How we make art, and what art we’re making, is how we know ourselves, and how the future will know us. We can say these distinctions and categories are meaningless, but the work itself isn’t. It’s vitally important. And it’s necessary we continue to discuss and take care of what’s important to us.

I like the phrase from Rolfe Humphries I posted yesterday: “Editors have little to worry about if they print it.” What is that true of these days? It seems as true to say that editors have something to worry about no matter what they print, as it is to say they have little to worry about no matter what they print. It all depends on who they’re listening to, and what market segment they’re engaging. Which crowd around which bonfire, meaning us to us:

John Ashbery

Ages passed slowly, like a load of hay,
As the flowers recited their lines
And pike stirred at the bottom of the pond.
The pen was cool to the touch.
The staircase swept upward
Through fragmented garlands, keeping the melancholy
Already distilled in letters of the alphabet.

It would be time for winter now, its spun-sugar
Palaces and also lines of care
At the mouth, pink smudges on the forehead and cheeks,
The color once known as “ashes of roses.”
How many snakes and lizards shed their skins
For time to be passing on like this,
Sinking deeper in the sand as it wound toward
The conclusion. It had all been working so well and now,
Well, it just kind of came apart in the hand
As a change is voiced, sharp
As a fishhook in the throat, and decorative tears flowed
Past us into a basin called infinity.

There was no charge for anything, the gates
Had been left open intentionally.
Don’t follow, you can have whatever it is.
And in some room someone examines his youth,
Finds it dry and hollow, porous to the touch.
O keep me with you, unless the outdoors
Embraces both of us, unites us, unless
The birdcatchers put away their twigs,
The fishermen haul in their sleek empty nets
And others become part of the immense crowd
Around this bonfire, a situation
That has come to mean us to us, and the crying
In the leaves is saved, the last silver drops.

One day in Poetryland, the poets decided to have a party.


At 6/17/2011 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think everything even vaguely "innovative," "experimental," "avant-garde" (in poetry) is always out ahead of the larger culture, almost by definition. In part because the larger culture has grown more suspicious, more conservative--I would argue--since the heyday of High Modernism. Or turned in on itself, like a wound. So what we might call "innovative" (etc.) circles at its margin--ahead of its margin--in a more or less indefinite holding pattern. That is why, as Wm Logan has argued, we see the same patterns over & over gain in so-called "innovative" writing.

I wish you would enlarge upon the aspect of entertainment by & for children, since this is, of course, the central insight behind art brut etc. As others have said, the question is not "when did you start making art/writing poetry," but "when did you stop." The sense that one somehow "grows out of" the fracture that, say, LooneyTunes so effectively explored (Carl Stalling! Carl Stalling!) needs more examination.

What I hate about Jeff Koons is the slick cynicism. There is no wonder here, merely marketing. Or, if there is wonder--of a truncated sort--it is wonder at the marketing, at the very commodification of vision, the possibility of commodification (and reproduction, viz. Walter B.).

I do disagree with you in re "most people go into art without a lot of critical apparatus." I think "most people" (including--especially--my educated colleagues who make only occasional forays into art or literature)--go into art with an enormous critical apparatus, except that it's disarticulated. In pieces. Unspoken and unspeakable. It surfaces as vague likes, dislikes, hesitations. The rest of the iceberg remains beneath the surface. It would be ugly if we could photograph it, I mean as a whole.

The distinctions are meaningless, but the work is not. The work matters. In all senses of that word. It is, first and foremost, there. (Artaud: First, the theater must exist.)

We were talking, backchannel, about Krazy Kat, Pogo, Winsor McCay. Say more?

We are the bonfire, or we are the crowd?


At 6/17/2011 8:32 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Winsor McCay's "Little Sammy Sneeze" that's on Wikipedia illustrates the future quite well, doesn't it?

And the fact that these cartoons were originally marketed to adults. Children didn't really take over as the primary audience until TV came into it? I think?

But now, we have several generations of adults that were raised on Looney-Tunes, and, more importantly, people now in their 40s were raised on The Simpsons, and those close to 30 were raised on Courage the Cowardly Dog.

That explains, to me at least, the arc into Zachary Schoburg, Heather Christle, etc, better than strict literary history does.

But a better response will have to wait, as I'm needed to drive a car containing children now.

Eliot, five, was just watching Phineas and Ferb. He'll be ready for Russell Edson any moment.

At 6/17/2011 9:52 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Eli, you write:

[I think "most people" (including--especially--my educated colleagues who make only occasional forays into art or literature)--go into art with an enormous critical apparatus, except that it's disarticulated. In pieces. Unspoken and unspeakable. It surfaces as vague likes, dislikes, hesitations.]

I agree with you. These people, I put in the “critical apparatus” category along with those who have a more articulated apparatus. In the other category, I put most of the rest of the population. Those who don’t participate with art as a way to be, but do so on a daily basis as background.

At 6/17/2011 10:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If art (like morality), is not pure science, then we have to deal with our subjectivity, and be OK with our inability to fully understand and articulate what is or isn't "best," for instance.

Not dogmatically absolute, neither irrationally relative, but in that gray area that some are suspicious of to say the least.

Maybe like Keats with his negative capability?

I'm don't think what is "best" in art can be defined without accepting binary logic which is self-defeating. It's a snakehead circling around to eat its tail. The process leaves one partially devoured, if not totally crapped out. (One result: seems to me absolutism also leads to absurdities, turning acolytes into apostles.)

However, that doesn't mean one should quit thinking and just say "I like it 'cause it feels good," or "I like it because it makes good sense."

Anyway, I think some are lazy enough to simply use the marketplace as the criteria, as though that is best way to gauge the importance and validity of everything in our culture. Well, selling big is relavent for the artist--maybe then they can then quit their day job. Good for them.

--Chris D.

At 6/17/2011 11:06 AM, Anonymous Eric A said...

“So why should Jeff Koons then surprise anyone? Or, to be more specific to poetry, why should Tao Lin then surprise anyone? Flarf, etc.,”

Society has no hippocampus, which is odd considering the amount of historical information now available to us online.

I wonder if this is due to a disinterest in lineage, or traceable history, that is rooted in the rise of suburban culture. I don’t mean that as a swipe at the middle class. After the rise of grid based city planning (beginning with Jefferson’s University of Virginia) Western culture became uprooted, abandoning the idea of passing down a house along with the family and communal histories tethered to it. As a house was passed down from one generation to the next, I imagine there was, in most cases, a pride of learning and curating the histories of both the house and the family. Could this abandonment of accepted and learned continuation be connected to are disinterest in the importance of previous movements and schools within the arts, sciences, etc...?

This is probably a stretch, but Lady Gaga’s impersonation of David Bowie is a stretch, and its worked out fine for her.

At 6/18/2011 6:50 AM, OpenID belz said...

John, in our version of socialized capitalism everything is subsumed under the marketing purpose. A savvy younger poet will make the right connections and figure out how his/her book can benefit its publisher. Maybe someday marketing itself will be regarded as one enormous work of performance art. Meanwhile, I hope my poetry is called "avant-garde" and turned into a marketing strategy. That way, people will read it, even if temporarily. Not to say what sells is "best," as you rightly point out. But if "best" doesn't sell, what is it? This is the old tree falling in the woods question. Very philosophical. This is why I read your blog, John. Thank you.

At 6/18/2011 6:59 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Two responses:

1. In a direct way, popularity IS a sign of what's best. It's just a question of which demographic the art is popular with.

2. Most people come to Spitsbergen to see the polar bears, but some come to collect the rocks. Either way, they're in Spitsbergen, having an experience.

At 6/18/2011 7:06 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Cris wrote:

"Anyway, I think some are lazy enough to simply use the marketplace as the criteria, as though that is best way to gauge the importance and validity of everything in our culture."

And some do this without realizing it. This is a point I like to keep making about art: Access. If people don't come across something (because it's kept away by gatekeepers), they (aha!) don't come across it, case closed on Shakespeare’s sister, et al.

At 6/18/2011 8:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does Spitsbergen have to do with Shakespeare's sister? I'm confused.

At 6/18/2011 8:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kent Johnson has impersonated both.

- René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke

At 6/20/2011 8:30 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

One need poetry can meet is novelty. But: novelty is only one need people have.

At 6/20/2011 10:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, I was just re-reading the early 1990s Larry McCaffery interview with David Foster Wallace the other day, where he states that "when rule-breaking -- the mere form of renegade avant-gardism, becomes an end in itself, you end up with bad language poetry and "American Psycho" 's nipple-shocks and Alice Cooper eating shit on stage'.

I think maybe he was referring to Ozzy Osboure, I don't know, but I think I get what he means.

Wallace goes on in that interview to say some additional neat crap about dividing by zero, etc.

Where's a good poem by old de Luna when you need it. Best,


At 6/20/2011 10:29 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>One need poetry can meet is novelty. But: novelty is only one need people have.

Into the Bartlett!

Though if poetical "novelty" sets out to meet a "need," is it really any kind of actual novelty, you know?

At 6/20/2011 10:35 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, it's Jordan's point, not mine, but there is surprise in the best art. And though surprise and novelty aren't the very same thing, I'll go along with it. And, of course, novelty can also become a flip book.

At 6/20/2011 10:40 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


De Luna died in a freak snow-boarding accident, I heard. And then came back (apparently?) for a bit, but couldn't quite get back into the swing of it. That often happens when the deadcome back, I hear. It's the basis of many Hollywood movies.

My guess is Ozzy regretted biting the head off that bat.

At 6/20/2011 10:46 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

John, don't disagree with you there. And not disagreeing with Jordan, either, really...

I'm thinking a bit of Benjamin, the opening of his "The Task of the Translator."

As well, so-called novelty comes back to haunt us out of the traditional. Plenty of examples of that.

And, too, there are some curious examples of "avant-garde" poets writing in the most "unnovel" ways in efforts to find new, brush-covered tributaries into surprise. Pessoa, Prigov, two examples that jump to mind.

At 6/20/2011 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A snow-boarding accident, wow, I did not know that, John, say I, in my best Johnny Carson voice.

And so many other noble ways to go: war, giving birth to a child, writing an avant-garde poem ...

RIP de Luna. Best,


At 6/20/2011 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd love it if someone smarter than me would write seriously on the nature of surprise and novelty. I certainly subscribe to the idea that success (in the eye of the beholder) depends, in part, on the right mix of predictablity and surprise, reassurance and novelty, or however you'd chose to phrase that binary.

But when you get to a specific poem or story or piece of music or visual art, and try to convince a skeptic, it's rough going. What I tout as surprise will often be dismissed on grounds of the existence of precedents (nothing new under the sun and all that).

My arguments will invariably devolve into ever more subjective language, like "freshness," and "yeah, but this is somehow different," or, "i know i when i see it, jerk."

I wish Marshall Arisman's brilliant 1996 essay, "Is Neo Newism New?" was available online.


At 6/20/2011 11:04 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Oh, I think de Luna will come back. He may have died in an extreme-sports accident, but I suspect there are lots of poems he had written that we haven't seen.

de Luna: the next Frank Stanford?

At 6/20/2011 11:13 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

The Battlefield in which de Luna Says I Love You . . .


I've often had the same thought about surprise and novelty and the fringe aesthetic. Tan Lin and Robert Duncan also come to mind as "The Quotidian as Novelty" or something like that.

Paul, I agree. I want a better conversation about that. It crosses aesthetics, and is just kind of nodded at, as if we all know what we're talking about.

I'll have to look for that essay. It sounds interesting.

At 6/20/2011 11:14 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

And by the way, any publishers out there who are curious about de Luna, I would be happy to put you in touch with the person who has all his work. I am actually serious in making the parallel with Stanford: The two are different poets, of course, but there are key likenesses, too, including absolute genius exploding out of sometimes (often, in fact) awkward and imitative moves; their youth; the enigma of their persons; their in-your-face Deep Image-like registers, but inflected with keen ironies; their early deaths. I can be reached at
de Luna will eventually explode into the world with a book. Someone smart will move on it.

At 6/20/2011 11:16 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Make it novel.

At 6/20/2011 11:18 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Oop-a-doop: lost the link.

At 6/20/2011 11:18 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Because we all know novels sell better.

At 6/20/2011 11:23 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>Make it novel.

Which in poetry should mean (if it's going to be *novel*), making authorship a deep and thorny part of the plot.

"Why leave fictional experiments to the fiction writers?" --Armand Schwerner

At 6/20/2011 12:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'll have to look for that essay. It sounds interesting."

It was a spoof. I can scan and email it if you like.

Turns out that the author behind the pen name has been a department chair at the School of Visual Arts in NYC for 40 years. He won't answer my fan mail.


At 6/20/2011 12:45 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

"Authorship should be at least as well written as prose." -- Edgar Allan Poe

At 6/20/2011 4:10 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>Authorship should be at least

Which is why Flarf, I guess, even with all its Experimental Authors, collapsed...

At 6/20/2011 4:20 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

On my above, I should qualify: At least it seems so (the collapse), I could be wrong: I don't have Facebook, and I haven't looked at any of the Flarf blogs for a long time. So possibly I'm just out of the loops de loopy.

Is that anthology still coming out?

Flarf, if you are indeed down, we love you get up.

At 6/20/2011 4:31 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>Which in poetry should mean (if it's going to be *novel*) making authorship a deep and thorny part of the plot.

I said "should," but I really meant "could."

I'm sure glad I didn't say "must"!

At 6/20/2011 4:43 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Nobody's judging you. Also, everybody's judging flarf.

At 6/20/2011 4:50 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...


At 6/20/2011 5:15 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Sorry, I just noticed that last message got cut off, where the last word in the paragraph was "sleep?"

Now I can't remember what I said, but it was something about feeling trapped inside an obsession of Randall Jarrell's.

Jordan, I know I'm not being judged by you, believe me, I do know I'm not. But on this authorship question, or its many questions: there *are* plenty of people "judging" it, really. I promise.

I was going to say something about something really interesting, but now I've decided not to. Hold on for just a few months, OK?

At 6/20/2011 5:47 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Let the fly out of the klein bottle.

At 6/20/2011 5:50 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

I don't really go for appeals to some anonymous judging mass of people, Kent. History, posterity, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania (do they have regents, maybe), the ghosts of famous writers, etc.

By the way, Kent, what significance does teasing have for you.

At 6/20/2011 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We're holding, Kent, we're holding.

We can't help but hold.


At 6/20/2011 9:11 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6/21/2011 11:49 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>By the way, Kent, what significance does teasing have for you.


What is the relation between Legal intimidation and teasing?

At 6/21/2011 2:01 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Excellent question.

At 6/21/2011 2:17 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

One good question deserves another: what do you think about talion?

At 6/21/2011 2:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Talion is my favorite concept.

- Kent Johnson

At 6/22/2011 7:46 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>One good question deserves another: what do you think about talion?


Thanks for this, Jordan. It's in.


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