Sunday, January 16, 2011

What has happened to the avant-garde in our "suspended" culture?

Ashbery in 2010. I like this picture a lot.

What has happened to the avant-garde in our "suspended" culture of the [2000]'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 [2011] 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?


At 1/16/2011 10:37 AM, Blogger Archambeau said...

John Ashbery and Creed from The Office -- separated at birth?

At 1/16/2011 2:11 PM, Blogger Henry Gould said...

To me it's Ashbery mugging as TS Eliot. There are photos (or maybe I'm thinking of ONE photo) where TSE looks up with just that impish pursed-lip smile. & they have the same eagle beak, too.

As for the avant-garde... I'm reading early Chas. Olson lately. Avant-garde in poetry began with Pound & Eliot fighting in the captains' tower. Both conceive the poet as a "culture-maker", not just an experimental/critical/bohemian bystander (a typical a-v aesthete attitude). Olson is the pivot, as the grandson of Pound : & Olson stands for radical change, discontinuity (claiming the Holocaust as definitive end of the humanist civ. starting with Renaissance). Thus Olson is the origin of much of the binary us-them polemic which has obsessed US poetry. He fuses a poetic (Projective Verse) with a polemic, a world-view (anti-humanism; rejecting the "closed forms" of the past). This is the basis of New Americans, & after them, the Language Poets - their ground for proposing a definitive break with "tradition".

Eliot, in contrast, proposed a medieval sensibility as the cure for Renaissance humanism & its technocratic desolations. But you can't impose a sensibility or a worldview; you can only claim it or mourn its loss.

Personally, I'm closer to Eliot, in that I share the theological notion of (Holy) Spirit as the subjective (personal) root of the reality we experience. I see poetry as actually a celebration of this implicit presence (a potentially redemptive, restorative presence) - its enactment as spiritual freedom. I see the Acmeist ideology of Gumilev, Mandelstam, Akhmatova as harmonized with Eliot's stance. Poetry, according to Mandelstam, is a form of "domestic hellenism" - humanizing reality with spiritual warmth.

Where I disagree with Eliot, of course, is with his anti-democratic, "monarchical" notion of both culture & politics. This is the down side of his medievalism. To this I would counter the spirit of Roger Williams : whose theology of creation & divine "Providence" underwrites a cosmopolitan, diverse, tolerant & democratic world civilization (since its moral basis is not in idiosyncratic or individual "faith" or belief systems, but in the recognition of common humanity - all are citizens of the human city).

Sorry to ramble into my own opinions... but I see these issues as still relevant today. Olson & Pound's radical approach posits a discontinuity in human history, & hence a rejection of "tradition." Eliot's (& Acmeism's) sees continuity based on the pivotal historic event of Redemption. Olson & Pound would toss out humanist-Platonic-Aristotelian categorical abstract reason; Eliot & Acmeism, while recognizing the inherent limitations of human reason, understand it as something that can be synthesized & harmonized with vision & faith.

Such a position may seem (to your avant-garde aesthete bohemian bystander) as the essential compromise of the bourgeois middle way... but I see it as a partial expression of the philosophical sanction for the spiritual freedom of art & poetry...

At 1/19/2011 6:34 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I wanted to ask something that doesn't have a direct relation to the post (except for the feature of Ashbery, a tremendous collage artist)-- but with a view towards a project mentioned below, I'm sincerely looking for responses if anyone has names to offer:

What contemporary poets (publishing actively since 1970, say, alive or not) are also serious and accomplished visual artists? Here are a few of the "older"-generation names that I know: Ashbery, David Shapiro, Stephen Rodefer, Bill Knott, Tom Raworth. I know there are others (I have a small list of younger poets, as well). I'm trying to compile a good list for a possible exhibit at a prominent museum, initial discussions being underway.

Any help appreciated!


At 1/19/2011 6:52 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Had meant to attach my email, in case people prefer to write back-channel with suggestions:


At 1/19/2011 7:45 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Susan Wheeler comes to mind. I really like the postcard collages I've seen of hers.

Dean Young does his book covers. I don't know about anything else he's done.

Mark Strand does quite a bit of painting.

Donald Justice also comes to mind, but maybe he misses your date cut off?

That's all that comes to mind right now.

And I'm going to start any minute now with my visual art career. Any minute. Yep. Right after I do the rock and roll thing.

At 1/19/2011 8:10 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Thank you, John.

I'd meant to say that the parameters for this envisioned exhibit and whatever would accompany it by way of text and so forth are U.S. and UK poets.

At 1/19/2011 8:27 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And don't forget Keith Waldrop!

At 1/19/2011 10:10 AM, Anonymous david j. miller said...

some younger poets who do visual work are jen bervin, jill magi, & carrie olivia adams, if that helps.

At 1/19/2011 2:15 PM, Anonymous Brett DeFries said...

Peter Richards is a sculptor and brilliant poet. Oubliette and Nude Siren from Verse Press/Wave and his new forthcoming Helsinki from Action Books.

At 1/20/2011 3:07 AM, Anonymous Alice said...

Joe Brainard. Russell Edson.

At 1/20/2011 8:20 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

John, Brett, David, Alice, thanks very much for the names. Waldrop, Edson, Brainard, Yes!

And I appreciate the younger names there. I'm aware of some others who are mainly doing collage and assemblage work--Brandon Downing very prominently, of course, also younger poets like Micah Robbins, Brooks Johnson, and Peter Davis. Lytle Shaw is an amazing conceptual/installation artist. Any more names and suggestions appreciated!


At 1/20/2011 8:37 AM, Anonymous Jeff Hamilton said...

There was an exhibit of this kind at Washington University St. Louis a few years ago called The Dual Muse -- catalogue of the exhibit, conference w/ panel-papers etc. All available through booksellers --

At 1/20/2011 9:21 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

A few more per Kent Johnson's query;

Ken Irby
Andrew Hoyem
Ian Hamilton Finlay
Alec Finlay

I also like Tom Clark's painting on the cover of "Baseball"

At 1/20/2011 9:49 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

nice words "serious and accomplished"—

but in my case desultory sporadic and amateurish might fit the bill—— at any rate, a couple hundred examples can be viewed on my "art" blog at:

At 1/20/2011 9:52 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Excellent. Thanks Jeff and Michael.

On another note, one much more immediately relevant to John's post: Chicago Review now has available in PDF Keith Tuma's essay "After the Bubble." It's all about, precisely, exploring "what has happened to the avant-garde in our 'suspended' culture," with particular focus in the essay's first half on the American Hybrid anthology and the new big-tent career-oriented habitus of U.S. innovative poetry. It's most definitely one of the most important considerations of the general "post-avant in the Academy" topic to date. The second half of the article, I should say, discusses me and Stephen Rodefer in distinction and opposition to the new poetic "professionalization," though not always (especially me!) in the most glowing terms, I suppose. There are some things I think Tuma misses in regards to my own work, but I've been invited to write a response by the CR editors, so I'll touch on those there.

The essay, though, is an important contribution to a growing discussion on a very crucial topic, and people should check it out. It can be accessed through the T of C at the CR site, here:


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