Thoughts on the Existence of an Avant-Garde

A welcomed Hudson-Valley-induced amnesia surrounding the idea of commercialism inevitably killing any bourgeoning art movement led to considerations of art looking like nothing I’d ever seen. The media’s influence of who’s important and what’s good isn’t nearly as potent as when I was being constantly inundated with supposedly definitive conclusions in Manhattan. I’ve been away long enough to realize the non-stop-art-news cycle, and its endless thread of criticism about a dense cluster of commercial galleries, distracts readers and viewers from acknowledging none of what they’re seeing is art—I don’t need suggestions about which overpriced shoes to envy. It’s clear to me now that there aren’t enough exhibitions on view downstate for publications to be critical, nor enough publications for critics to compete with promoters. And the readership is becoming less and less interested in distractions.

Cynicism toward those who have marginalized the avant-garde, such as galleries, schools, museums, and media, is partly the reason why so many artists are fleeing the five boroughs. They’ve come to realize the style championed by these institutions is nothing more than a business model, which is what Clement Greenberg alluded to in his 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” “Self-evidently, all kitsch is academic; and conversely, all that’s academic is kitsch. For what is called the academic as such no longer has an independent existence, but has become the stuffed-shirt ‘front’ for kitsch.”[1] This means Jeff Koons’s gigantic balloons made from shiny metal and Damien Hirst’s dead animals floating in formaldehyde are nothing more than watercolor lighthouses, and that pastoral palm trees are what’s lining the white walls of Chelsea and The New Museum. Koons, Hirst, and commercially oriented exhibition spaces may be easy targets, but naming them as kitsch also implicates less overtly co-opted institutions like the New York School of abstraction, Ivy-League Graduate programs, and journals like October and ArtForum. Such a statement affects artists because they want to preserve art, not contribute to its demise. Greenberg’s idea is supported by this passage from Roger Shattuck’s 1955 book, The Banquet Years. “In the United States, any active avant-garde is so rapidly absorbed by the cultural market that it scarcely has time to form and find a name.”[2]

The result is a willful abandonment of the mainstream. Artists are currently searching for something more ideal, an “ism” that disposes of self-imposed shackles. The most extreme tactic of freeing art from the market has been to develop an “ism” that disposes of the artist, cutting off the life force behind it. Attempts to decentralize art and its making have been labeled relational aesthetics, a movement that produces mostly imitators. This is partly because those who recognize and agree on the reasons for such an undertaking can’t organize a relationally based work without contradicting its premise. It’s also because when a decentralized movement, such as Occupy Wall Street, presents itself idealistic participants aestheticize what would otherwise sociologically yield leadership. The masses, which play a key role in relational aesthetics, will never accept it because decentralization of the making of artworks fundamentally contradicts the idea that art is a trade, a job of figuring out how to communicate vicariously through objects. Theory and reality aren’t always co-dependent, and in the case of relational aesthetics artists are almost as equally disenfranchised with it as they are with the market.

The concern is that society has reached a point where the avant-garde’s essential aspect of being at a tangent to both high and low culture may also be what prevents its existence. Shattuck’s discussion of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century avant-garde’s four stylistic characteristics acknowledges a division between those who have moved beyond institutionalization and those who remain or never were indoctrinated. “The childlike and absurd, dream and ambiguity are means of reaching into ourselves to extract what education and society may have buried.”[3] Both high and low are represented in this passage, demarcating a clear division. High is represented by those who enact these traits as a means of reaching into themselves in order to overcome societal conventions, and low by those buried by education and society. Greenberg’s essay reconciles this division with the avant-garde’s refusal to repeat the old masters. “The avant-garde’s specialization of itself, the fact that its best artists are artists’ artists, its best poets, poets’ poets, has estranged a great many of those who were capable formerly of enjoying and appreciating ambitious art and literature, but who are now unwilling or unable to acquire an initiation into their craft secrets.”[4] The estrangement Greenberg mentions is a result of what was once high becoming low via absorption into the commercial mainstream. This marginalizes the avant-garde into something opposed to what the majority considers to be art, forcing it to become evermore nuanced, veiled, and unrecognizable.

Because avant-garde is high culture after societal conventions like academicism and the market are subverted, and that purportedly non-physical and decentralized attempts have amounted to nothing but interactive performances steeped in theory, its existence is only plausible as long as champions of kitsch don’t become culture’s old masters. This is necessary for artists’ capacity to recognize they have the power to determine both.

What’s emerging now is a new style that returns to physicality. Intentionally misunderstood by the mainstream, it’s an avant-garde resulting from a generation of artists dissatisfied with art being a dead-end job. It’s a nuanced style rife with ambiguity: high and low, representational and abstract, physical and relational. Many works combine repurposed and utilitarian foundations with illustrative depictions made from things you can buy in an art supplies store. Artists are also going beyond their own creative processes, beyond what most would consider an artist’s responsibility, by building studios and organizing exhibitions in empty storefronts and in their homes. They’re creating nuanced works that don’t perpetuate commercially driven academicism, and, in doing so, not wasting their talents on trades arbitrarily labeled practical. It’s a perfect combination of art and life.

[1] Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Section II

[2] Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 42.

[3] Shattuck, 41.

[4] Greenberg, Section I