"Why I Hate the Avant-Garde"

by on Jan.04, 2011

Here’s an interesting post by AD Jameson over at Big Other on why he hates the “avant-garde”:

“For one thing, it assumes an incorrect model of how art and innovation actually proceed. It begins by positing that there’s a single conservative high art world, which follows a long and noble yet conservative tradition, and that there’s a single low art world, which is popular and commercial (i.e., crass). And then it assumes that there’s a small band of daring creative pioneers, huddled in some corner of the culture somewhere, who pass all artistic innovation to both the highs and the lows. (It’s the art world version of Reaganomics.)”

(I left a long reply to it in the comment section.)

12 comments for this entry:
  1. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Knowledgeable and deep look at the basic problem of labels, they seem so necessary, unavoidable, yet few things in discussions of practically anything (art, politics, theology) are as problematic as labels. Whether one is championing or criticizing, it all gets so messy, mostly it’s hard to get two people to agree on the ‘true’ meaning behind a label, and nearly impossible to get ten people to do so.

    Poetry itself, in all its flavors seems to my mind essentially ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’ enough in regards to the rest of reality, as most art is, to be obvious. Daniel Tiffany articulated this much better than I can when discussing obscurity, i.e. that even the ‘simplest’ or plainest of poems, to the non-poet, often seem cryptic. I guess this is my way of saying ‘poetry’ feels like enough of a label, I’m not overly convinced further organizing is necessary for the best discussions about it. It seems to me more important to talk about what something seems to perhaps be, or what we think or feel about it, than what it ‘is’, where it falls on whatever spectrum one finds interesting, because chances are there are a lot of people who don’t care about that particular spectrum & might even fall into the very human trap of worrying over / talking about -that- instead of the work itself.

    Very interesting though, thinking about this term & others that have a more tangible history to them, something a bit more objective to look at; makes it easier I suppose to really get into the gritty of railing against that term’s conflation with others that simply shouldn’t apply. Again, though, it gets so messy.

    RE: what the term ‘assumes’ RE: echelons of art, I agree it does and that can be problematic but it also has some basis in reality for those assumptions, but I’m not ready necessarily to grant that entire argument because of that. Feels like a forest-for-the-trees thing, in the context of my previous discussion.

  2. Johannes

    Poetry is perhaps a marginal art form, but not all poetry is avant-garde.

    Whether one likes the terms or not, it does have a history – full of changes and purposes etc.

    A lot of poetry is incredibly invested in the idea of art as high culture, transcendent etc. I hate that stuff. The concept of “avant-garde” has been useful in exerting some pressure on this old (sexist, conservative) model of art.

    Though in the end, I wonder how useful it is these days – and this goes back to my problem with the insider/outsider model from a while back.


  3. Kent Johnson

    There’s another relevant post and discussion regarding the “avant-garde” (and Charles Bernstein) at Bob Archambeau’s Samizdat: http://samizdatblog.blogspot.com/

    Though Bob’s post pertains to the meanings of the term in relation to institutional location and legitimation (which is also the key concern of Peter Burger’s key study Theory of the Avant-Garde, of course)…

  4. Kent Johnson

    >A lot of poetry is incredibly invested in the idea of art as high culture, transcendent etc. I hate that stuff.

    But this begs the question: What are the dynamics and institutional mechanisms by which the erstwhile avant-garde repeatedly *becomes* High Art?

    Language poetry, for example, is now (in the blink of an eye) High Art. And the “experimental” tendencies that have followed in its wake pretty much openly position themselves to be legitimated as High Art (Hybrid, Conceptual poetry, Flarf, etc). The desire is written all over their poetic faces.

    You can’t talk about the “avant-garde” in the abstract, without talking about its attitudes and relations to cultural institutions.

    What kinds of poetic practices (or refusals), that is, would more effectively resist such ready-made absorption? Or is there nothing to be done about it, and the AWP and Academia is where it’s just going to be at?

  5. Johannes

    Read my post a while back on “outsider”/”insider.” Your insistence on your own outsider-ness is totally in line with Tony Hoagland and others. Merely refusing is just playing along with this model. More later.


  6. Kent Johnson


    Sorry, but this thing about my “outsiderness” is all in your head. I’ve never claimed to stand outside anything. Much of my work directly acknowledges, in fact, my participation in the festivities.

    I look forward to the “More later”!


  7. Kent Johnson

    And I have to say: Since when does someone like Tony Hoagland claim to be an “outsider”??

  8. Johannes

    Read my post. It’s an essential part of being a Poet it seems, even if you teach at U of Iowa and U of Houston and the whole shebang.


  9. Ryan Sanford Smith

    It almost seems a strangely moral matter; low vs. high is tasteful / disgusting, pleasing / offensive. I think if I feel I find an artwork offensive I’ve already failed. Good to find out what and why you like / dislike something but the high/low relationship has always been as unproductive as it is sinister in its seeming fortitude.

    I agree w/ Kent that there seems to be a pervasive anxiety over acceptance / legitimacy on all sides really, though the onus of it obviously trends heavier on endeavors outside whatever we might think of as ‘the norm’. I think this is, simply put, a bad thing, but it’s the bad of those bearing their poetic faces. Almost nothing can frustrate me more than the creative energy and emotion that is very genuinely wasted in such practices, i.e., seeing acceptance or, even worse, construction elaborate and wholly unnecessary structures of justification. No one needs permission, no one can grant permission. Find 5 people nodding in approval you’ll have 10 spitting on you, it never ends and it never matters but again it’s so human to not only let it matter, but let it dominate you. I think it’s interesting to discuss the presence of academia in this dynamic but I’m not ready to rail against it or point fingers. Anyone doing granting of legitimacy is only as powerful as the people agreeing it’s worth receiving (or more importantly getting all worried about).

  10. Johannes

    Yes, but Ryan, a lot of what you seem to see as “justification” is in fact an attempt of people trying to explain why they like something because they think other people should read it. It might seem that people outside the “norm” are more guilty of this, but that’s probably because they are told repeatedly that their writing is not acceptable, ie that they have to justify it. I feel it’s important for example to point out writers and artists I think are doing good job to make it available to people who might not have heard about it, or might not understand, or might have been persuaded against. Not the least by culture at large. People do grant/deny permission all the time. And that’s always been the case.


  11. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Yes I’ve really got zero problem with that, there should be oceans and oceans of such conversations, ‘X had this effect on me, read it as it might do the same for you’, etc. I’m specifically talking about discussions whose only purpose is the seeking / granting of a kind of objective validity, which is something I do in fact see much more out of the ‘insiders’, etc. They are of course the ones with more invested in there being such separations. I can ramble 10 books right now I greatly disliked but I’ll never say I thought something was illegitimate or tasteless.

  12. Johannes

    Yes, I think that’s correct. That is what I mean when I say there is a lot of discussion that merely want to legitimize – why I keep pointing out the kitsch rhetoric in poetry.