What Happens When Avant Garde Leaves the New Academy Behind?

Avant Garde. We all know what that means! We learned it in school!

There was always something of a cognitive dissonance, sitting in a slide-show survey class and taking notes to regurgitate on a test about how the modern avant garde was – and therefore supposedly still is – so transgressive! The old story about how it was a rebellion against the bad old Academy,

“Repeat after me! The Avant Garde rebelled against the Academy!”

All this, as we sat in what passed for the modern Academy, only now it was the home of all the transgressors.

For me this was before the eighties arrived, and we all got hip to the Market! It’s funny, not “ha ha” funny, the way the avant garde took so warmly to the Reagan Revolution. Even if the “content” was supposedly lefty, the point of it all was to WIN! And winning meant getting all the toys, just slightly different toys, but all in a way that made just as much sense to a stock broker as to a rising hip artists. They all went to the same clubs after all, and aspired to vacation on St. Barts, with the other Rock Stars.

Where does this history leave us now? We’ve had a few generations brought up on the perverse notion that to be mainstream is the same thing as being avant garde. There is a byzantine quality to the depth of orthodoxy today, and the way it defends itself as the only possible way to frame art. The beauty of this orthodoxy is in its chameleon-like faux rebelliousness. Nothing is too “extreme.” Nothing is too transgressive to not be safely held within its embrace. Nothing, except any attempt to take art seriously, and not play by the rules of money, of fame, of institutionalized pathways to “meaning.”

In this, the art world is a microcosm of the culture it reflects. They both share this notion of expansive freedom, so long as any expression of freedom remains within acceptable channels. The twist, over say early Calvinism or Social Realism, is that this orthodoxy is to be extreme, to break all the rules!

At one point this extremism was sharply defined. It held up a diversionary distinction between old-school “safe” styles, and the new “edgy” styles. Now, it simply holds them all within its embrace. It’s no longer questions of style that mark inclusion or exclusion, but those of context. Namely, no attempt at a broader context than the careerism of the art world is tolerated. Within this context any style will find its niche, and all will live happily together in a “Let’s all get rich together!” live-and-let-live atmosphere.

Only now, no one is getting rich! The pay-off is getting harder and harder to gain. The lottery doesn’t crank out winners.

This leaves everyone standing around wondering what happened, and kind of wishing it would all go back to normal. Normal being,

“We’re all avant garde! I learned that in school!”

Well, that’s all I have at the moment. I’m left wondering what happens now too. Is there anything salvageable from the original notion of an avant garde? Don’t forget that in the heyday of Bohemia, before 1900, it wasn’t all about getting rich. Now that getting rich is increasingly off the table, is there a space for an authentic avant garde? How will we recognize it? What good will it do for those involved? For the rest of us?

These seem to be the questions posed by anyone asserting to be an artist today.

This will be central to the discussion over at my new site, Stone Soup.

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