“Avant-Garde” Is a Marketing Strategy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.