by Johannes Goransson on Jun.23, 2011
Johan Gallaher has written a post that deals with some of the issues brought up recently on this blog (some of which explains why I don’t think of myself as an “experimental” writer):
Or, rather, the theory of the majority is the problem, really, as vanguardism is a self-proclaimed status: we are ahead of the majority; we are advancing into new, hostile territory; we are going where the more timid rest of you will follow in the future, once we’ve staked out the territory.
The problem with this notion, in recent years, is how easy of a time the avant-garde has it out there in the wilds. Academia, journals, awards, and audience (well, in the landscape of poetry, I’m tempted to write “audience”) have all been quite ready to be friendly and hospitable to the avant-garde. In poetry, the group that would be called avant-garde is also, often, called the representative art of our time. Such a thing should not be possible.
So instead, to soften it, we call the art that would be called “avant-garde,” “experimental.” This is just as difficult a word to hold onto, because once the experiment is successful, it’s no longer an experiment. The type of poetry that might at one point have been highly experimental (LANGUAGE poetry, say, in 1981) now is routine. A routine experiment is an exercise.
I think John is fairly correct here. One good point is that the avant-garde cannot be both “representative” and “avant-garde.” Though I would add it can be Taste: for it to be Taste it has to be distinguished from most writing (the “too much” of American poetry). In academia, it seems most scholars study “avant-garde poetry,” by which they mean a very langpo-centered poetry. I am obviously not one of those people who are opposed to the academy (I love it without it I would have killed myself a long time ago), but it does seem that it has a tendency toward insularity and centralization.
However, it seems many scholars of contemporary American poetry, while incredibly well-learned in language poetics, know nothing about the “too much” of American poetry. When I go to conferences or when scholars give job talks here: I find that most of them know very little about the big field of contemporary poetry (the “plague grounds,” the “too much”). I remember talking to a very good scholar of contemporary American poetry last year and she didn’t even know what Fence was. (I think it’s pretty inarguable that Fence has been one of the most influential press in US poetry over the past 10 years, but has there been a single scholarly article about it?). They don’t need to engage with the plague grounds, because they are specialist in “experimental literature.” It’s taste or it’s Taste? Or just academic specialization?
Although I think John is astute in analyzing the shift from “avant-garde” to “experimental” (though I’m not sure he’s right), I think it’s unfair to say that language poetry has become “routine”. In that sense all art styles are “routine.” But it could be that it isn’t as startling as it once was. But to say that about language poetry, you would have to say that about Kay Ryan and whoever else John likes. And also, I think it’s not fair to say that “language poetry” is one stable thing; just like other poetic traditions, there are people doing new things etc. Good poetry is seldom “routine” to me. Ashbery’s recent work does seem to work with the idea of the routine Ashbery poem, but they’re often pretty great even as “routine” poems.
You see this most obviously in music. Lady Gaga is, in many respects, avant-garde (in much the way Madonna was 25 years ago). Her look, her style, her travelling egg, all feel avant-gardy, while her actual music is conventional and, to say the least, popular (this year she’s sold about as many albums as the rest of the music industry combined). The Avant-gardy is in vogue in the arts.
You might consider Gaga “avant-garde” but it’s hardly in the same tradition of avant-garde as it is defined in American poetry: a tradition that is very suspicious of spectacles, costumes, images, metaphors, flash, and mass culture. But of course the historical avant-garde (Dada, Surrealism) was not only interested and engaged with mass culture but particularly interested in out of date mass culture (ie Madonna 25 years ago). Andreas Huyssen makes this point in his book After the Great Divide. Benjamin talks about it in his pieces on Surrealism (he calls Surrealism “profane illuminations”).
It’s certainly in vogue in children’s television: the fractured narratives, discordant logic, and breaks of continuity, have a lot in common with The Love of Zero. But comedy (Charlie Chaplin!), and animation (Looney-Tunes!) have always been sites for the absurd, the surreal. It’s the culturally sanctioned space for such things. Failing to get the message, for the past 50 years, artists have been bringing these tendencies into what would be called high art, if we still talked about things as high and low art. It doesn’t take much to link TV shows like Courage the Cowardly Dog, Spongebob Squarepants, and the Teletubbies, to literary theory. So why should Jeff Koons then surprise anyone? Or, to be more specific to poetry, why should Tao Lin then surprise anyone? Flarf, etc., seems to make perfect sense in this economy, no matter what flarfists said about their intentions. And then now, the way some poets are investigating and using spirituality, and this type of “New Sincerity” seems to be perfectly in line with the arc of thinking.
It is true that Surrealism and Dadaism were in fact deeply influenced by “mass culture” (such as Chaplin! All the avant-gardists wrote about Chaplin! Cocteau did it, Henry Parland did it, he was an icon for many many artists). The problem with John’s argument here is of course: we wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t still think about “high” and “low” culture as separate! And by the way he puts it – “bringing these tendencies into…,” suggesting that indeed he sees them as separate. But also: Tao and Jeff Koons – blending the “great divide” is not the purpose of their art, it’s not all they do.
So the distinctions between labels blurs. So then what? Is it going to be “whatever, dude?” Is it going to be “Why worry about it? Like what you like?” Sure, but people are pushing things at us. It’s easy to find the most popular. It’s difficult to avoid. But “most popular” does not mean “best.” And therein rests the problem. Market forces will quickly tell what is the most popular. But what tells what is best? Because best matters. At least it matters to us individually. I like this. This is my favorite. This is the best, to me. And our reasons for saying such things wobble between subjective criteria all the way through market justification.
Lady Gaga is far and away the most popular, but I’ve yet to see Born This Way on the top of anyone’s Best of the Year list. Sure, she might well win a shelf of Grammys, but that’s beside the point. And why is it beside the point? Because people go to art for different things.
Most people go to art without a lot of critical apparatus. They want something playing in the background. They want to escape somewhere for a bit. They want to disengage from problems. Or they want a quick, uncritical comfort or support for their ideas, thoughts, beliefs. Lady Gaga has fans who call themselves Little Monsters. She tells them in her music to put their paws into the air. It feels good to have your paws in the air as one, uncritically. Low art, this was called, right?
Other people go to art to engage. It’s always going to be a minority of the population, because who wants to engage all the time? It sounds dreary. But not if you like to engage. Which has been the hallmark of high art.
Here it seems John defines a hierarchy of culture: low culture is just feeling good with your hands in the air, high culture is a more critical engagement. This is exactly the most fundamental definition of the great divide, how it has been justified since Day 1. I can’t tell if he’s being hypothetical here, or if he actually believes it; but the fact that this is such an obvious definition suggests we’re still living in a culture of the “great divide.”
Brian Evenson made the same distinction in his critique of “maximalism” the other day in the Collagist: the point of art is to separate itself from mass culture and its excesses (the irony of this essay was of course that Evenson does interesting things with genre, he himself is hardly a minimalist (should such a thing even exist in art, I think it’s an illusion)). In the introduction to American Hybrid, Cole Swensen made the same argument: poetry is opposed to mass culture, there is a morality in not giving in to the seduction of mass culture. This is of course also the old Clement Greenberg line as well: avant-garde is opposed to kitsch. Avant-gardism demands learning and thinking, while kitsch is seductive and fascinating, excessive and (thus) immoral.
Why is it important if Lady Gaga is on the tastemaker’s list of “Best” (officially sanction quality culture)? Why is it important to determine these objective evaluations? Obviously a lot of folks thinks her record is the best of the year (I haven’t heard the whole thing, I think PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake” must be the best record I’ve heard this decade).
I also think John disproves this argument: there has been a lot of interesting critical engagement with Lady Gaga (see Kate Durbin’s Gaga Stigmata blog for example). As I have said frequently, the writings about Lady Gaga tend to be much more interesting that writings about contemporary American poetry.
Perhaps most importantly, Lady Gaga’s presence in these discussions is important because she shows something I’ve said repeatedly: the tasteless or the kitsch is not a lack, as it often is perceived, but an excess, a too-much-ness, a costumery that rejects interiority (whether that is the gurlesque or Andy Warhol’s statement about “pop” turning the outside in and the inside out).
OK, that’s my very quick two cents. It seems he’s got some good points and some views I don’t agree with. Can’t really tell if he believes all these statements, they have a hypothetical ring to them. But I thought I’d post it here to tie in to the previous discussions.
What do the rest of you think? Josef? Adam? Lara?