(In Which I Argue for the Irrelevance of the Avant-Garde but not for the Worst Reasons, Or Some Notes on the Failure of Modernism)
There are two things I want to propose about an avant-garde, or the avant-garde. The first of these is that I wonder if we need an allegiance to a certain idea about time to talk about it, or them (if there are multiple avant-gardes). What would this allegiance to an idea about time be? It would be an allegiance to an idea about how consensus is produced over time and to an idea about how some historically minded person, or anyone really, would choose to value this consensus. The person who believes in an avant-garde also holds a series of beliefs about how art and its institutions—though mainly the institutions are in question here—accumulate value (peoples’ interest, trust, etc.) in time and how consensus, which is to say certain kinds of majority opinion, serves to bolster the value of institutional practices, critical modes, or markets for art. Please bear with me, as I’m aware that none of what I’ve written so far is shocking. Let us imagine this person, the person believing in an avant-garde: An avant-garde, in keeping with the metaphorical application of the military term, is the group that goes ahead, that, by dint of its contrary tastes, indicates ways in which artistic products are recognized, valued, or loved by a majority or a conventional or otherwise dominant audience during its lifetime. The person who believes in an avant-garde also believes that the foretaste offered by the iconoclastic avant-gardist, the maker or critic, foretells what is to come, is in fact the future of the art object. The person who believes in an avant-garde also believes that there is something liberating or otherwise politically or aesthetically significant about this disruptive, innovative intervention.
Now let us imagine a different scenario. In this scenario, and please bear with me, an artist produces some original item that is read by his or her contemporaries as reconfiguring the artistic field in which it appears. If that reconfiguration is positively received (Infinite Jest), the artist is successful. If that reconfiguration is ignored or rejected or even fails to appear publicly (the inverted urinal by Richard Mutt), the artist is an avant-gardist. The problem with the way language is being used here is how little it is really telling us. If I want to measure David Foster Wallace against Marcel Duchamp—which is a funny thing to try to do—I’m forced, on these terms, to decide whether or not it makes a work of art better if that work of art tries to change the nature of what is understood to constitute a work of art, and, then, if this work of art either a. succeeds or b. fails. (Here “b.” might also include glacial or less than immediate rates of change in the present.) Can you see why this might be frustrating? Because often works of art that are immediately successful upon publication and display also constitute the future of the art object, since they, too, are destined, or doomed, depending, to be repeated.
What I am trying to say, with this very long example, is that the notion of the avant-garde is fundamentally tied to another critical conceit, that of modernism, which movement brings time into the question of the legibility and valuation of art in a more than slightly aggressive way. Modernism teaches us that time matters when it comes to works of art or literature. We have come late to the making of art. We have misunderstood art as eternal and universal rather than bound to the contemporary, to the everyday. We must make art convene to the terms, material and social and otherwise, of the present. Now, if we are modernists, an avant-garde shows us the way to undertake these acts. The avant-garde, both timely and prescient, tells us what we are now by telling us what we must be next.
I still have not directly answered my first question. Do we need an allegiance to a certain idea about time—or a certain idea about time and art—to believe in the viability of an avant-garde? If it seems like the answer to this question is yes (it does), I want to turn to the second proposal I have wanted to make: Could there be such a thing as a kind of anachronistic modernism, which is to say, an avant-garde no longer based in an idea about how art, and consensus about art, gets made in time? In other words, if avant-gardes are always historical, and always develop their techniques by seeming to “get ahead of” the present, what would it mean for some artist, writer, or group of artists and writers to fulfill the function of an avant-garde but without doing so in a historicist or orderly, timely, “chronistic” way? And what would we call these people?
There are a number of reasons to be dubious about what I am proposing here. One of the more interesting reasons to be unimpressed is that it is an experiment already completed in America, by artists like Robert Smithson or Charles Olson, who engaged space and site in place of modernism’s demand that the artist engage time or timeliness. Things get a little more interesting once we start trying to think of a Robert Smithson or a Charles Olson as an avant-gardist; the oddness of the phrase, “Robert Smithson, avant-gardist,” is pretty instructive, I think.
The real elephant in the room, of course, is what to do about modernism. The poet Aaron Kunin has a keen aphorism, “He had not given up on the ambitions of modernism. ‘Their importance will make me important.’” In what is possibly the most simplistic reading of modernism I can think of, modernism is a series of tricks for making writing matter by making it historical in a certain way, which is to say, already historical, even in the present. Think, for only the most obvious example, of Ezra Pound. However, since modernism favors innovation and does not like repetition, it is not easy for us, 100+ years after banner year 1913, to keep on employing modernism’s maxims, axioms, and methods. Here, at risk of presenting myself as a reactionary, I want to suggest that some of the notions of progress that are tied up with modernist avant-gardism have ceased to be, as we say in America, progressive. What seems of greatest import now is rethinking our relationship to history. Is history only temporal, like a timeline, or is it also social, spatial, material, itself a product of consensus, and so forth? It seems important to admit that it is of course also the latter and that if we were ever modern, we have also been a whole slew of other things. I wonder if it’s really so important to be “ahead of one’s time”—or to be “living in the future,” as someone like tech law guru Elizabeth Stark might say—and whether futurism is necessarily ethical. Perhaps what I’m saying is that the name “avant-garde” might be misleading. Certainly I want to hold on to the possibility that it might be OK to want something different.