Contamination (#100): Is the Avant-Garde a "Marketing Strategy"? (John Gallaher's blog)

by 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?

11 comments for this entry:
  1. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    Johannes, do you see a relationship between hands-in-the-air escapism and “costumery that rejects interiority?” Or rather, what relationship do you see? There is something I have been trying to puzzle out related to this that I am not sure I’m prepared to give words to yet. I am interested in seeing what you will say.

  2. Johannes

    Very briefly… The pageant that rejects interiority I think of as the opposite of escapism – an intense experience that is not stabilized by interiority, if that makes sense. I think when people want there to be a more definite critique (not referring to Lara here but in general) that stabilizes things too much, tries to restrict the power of art. Art makes all kinds of connections, anachronisms and apertures in culture. I don’t really have the words for it either! But I will try tomorrow or next week. Thanks for the question!


  3. A D Jameson

    I think this all comes back to the question of whether the avant-garde is elitist or not. Perhaps.

    Let’s break it down into the simplest terms possible. The avant-garde means that some folks somewhere are doing something that no one else is doing, and eventually a larger part of the culture will follow them in what they’re doing—i.e., many more people will adopt their habits and styles.

    Along these lines, the New Wave scene of late 70s midtown New York was definitely an avant-garde scene. By the early 1980s, their fashions (in music, clothes, dance) were literally everywhere. “From Poly Styrene to Madonna to the masses.”

    By this logic, too, dancehall music in Jamaica in the 1950s–70s was also an avant-garde scene; it was integrated into mainstream US and UK culture through the twin developments of hip hop and punk rock.

    Did the avant-gardists in those two smaller scenes have it tough? Not necessarily. Were they institutionalized? Not in the slightest.

    Can the avant-garde exist in the academy? Sure, I guess. It can exist anywhere. But, at the risk of generalizing, I think it’s harder for academics these days to influence the popular culture. But David Foster Wallace certainly did it, so it can be done.

    Is academia always accepting of the avant-garde? No, not necessarily. Back in the 1970s and 80s, I imagine very few US or UK academics were taking the aesthetics of dancehall or New Wave (or even hip hop or punk rock) very seriously. Of course, now, things have changed—the academy has caught up, along with the rest of the culture, to those innovations and developments. But, meanwhile, is it sympathetic to—is it even aware of?—what subcultures are birthing the next big thing? Who knows? (No doubt some professors are hipper than others.)

    As for academic poetry, that scene strikes me as more insular and anti-populist as ever. I know that that’s a stereotype and that there are exceptions—but I basically stopped hanging out with academic poets years ago because I could no longer suffer their myopia. In my experience, it was endless post-Language “readings,” followed by endless whining about why no one was reading “real poetry” anymore, waa waa waa. Everyone there seemed more concerned with cliquishness and willful obscurity than with art. (Present company excepted, of course.)


  4. A D Jameson

    I can’t tell how serious Johan is being in his post; he includes enough questions and ironic image captions to keep me guessing. But one thing I’d say he’s absolutely wrong about (assuming I’ve read him properly) is this:

    “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?”

    Very little has changed since Nietzsche wrote The Birth of Tragedy—or, indeed, since the days of the Ancient Greeks. The followers of Apollo still guard their city walls nervously as the followers of Dionysus party across the river.

    Which is to say: when one adopts a purely Apollonian view of art—all that matters is the intellectual—they will have a difficult, perhaps even impossible time understanding the Dionysian.

    Meanwhile, the spirit of the avant-garde is moving in both camps. (For one thing, dance and dance music wouldn’t progress without innovation. Although there are of course those who don’t consider things like dance and dance music art—unless it’s been intellectualized for them…)


  5. Danielle Pafunda

    One of my difficulties with the readings of avant-garde as marketing strategy, as impossibility this day in age, etc. is the assumption that to be avant-garde a work must be new, or must be quite grand in scale, or the like. There seems to be little room for avant-garde to circle back on itself or to move in any way other than forward/progressive. Spatially, our front lines as writers/artists are constantly shifting, and the avant-garde that takes on only noble battles (the war imagery being endlessly troublesome) is just one sort of glory-seeking enterprise. What about the less glamorous front lines? The artistic strategies that go out of vogue, become gauche, tasteless, boring, done to death? Don’t they then become, by virtue of abandonment, front lines? Like when properties in the city become rundown, become vacant murder lots, and then are reclaimed as community gardens with deranged garbage sculptures and murals by 6-yr-olds?Do we stop trying to figure out where avant-garde sells out or peters out when we start looking at it as a less unified strategy, more spatially diffuse?

    Also, to the Lady Gaga point–I think John might be glossing over some of the fascinating things about the fan-Gaga relationship–largely that she’s a sexualized body that fans don’t necessarily want to f*ck, or objectify. I asked my intro to women’s studies students about this b/c they’re often in the class to fulfill a requirement and thus I get majors from petroleum engineering, education, kinesiology, art, everywhere! Do you like Lady Gaga? Yes, all agree she’s interesting–like a song or a costume or just like to marvel at her. Is she attractive? No! Why not? She’s weird. Literally, they all said: she’s weird. Like you couldn’t want to have sex with a weirdo, like male gaze doesn’t work the same when confronted with weird. There’s something quite new in that pop star artist fan dynamic — or perhaps something that didn’t get fully exploited with Cyndi Lauper.

    Okay, typing real fast here! Hope that made with the sense!

  6. Josef Horáček

    Whether or not Lady Gaga is avant-garde is a good case study to consider in this whole debate. She’s definitely “avant-gardy” in all the ways that were noted in the post, but that only makes her potentially avant-garde. One thing to consider is whether or not her art is inhuman. (Excuse me if I look at this through the lens of gender – there’s obviously a lot more going on; also, if this is confusing, read the comment stream below my latest post.) So: Does her art attempt to assimilate and make sense of recent challenges to normative gender performance? Is its ultimate aim to provide a coping strategy for her little monsters? Or does she inhabit the gender crisis without resolving it, possibly even exacerbating it? (In other words, is “monster” a term of endearment or is it meant literally?)

    Hey, she may be doing both. Her work definitely engendered multiple interpretive communities. I think Gaga Stigmata attests to that.

    By the way, I’m totally comfortable with inconclusiveness. We can talk about certain avant-garde characteristics in this or that artist without declaring them avant-garde or not avant-garde. It’s still a useful way of looking at things.

    Some random addenda:

    Popularity isn’t a reliable yardstick. In moments of rupture, an avant-garde can become the thing everyone talks about. Representative? Not sure about that. Much depends on one’s perspective.

    Yes, LG’s music is utterly conventional. I sometimes wonder if this is intentional, if she craftily uses it as a vehicle for her visual performance.

    I don’t think people always go to LG as an escape, rather than to be challenged. It depends. As I said, multiple interpretive communities. Regardless, I don’t find this line of thinking productive, and I don’t think it defines the great divide.

  7. adam strauss

    For me a facinating quality of Gaga discourse is the downplaying of lyrics: it seems that a majority of analysis focuses/privileges the visual, the choreography etc, to the degree that I find myself asking myself if the analyzer is even aware that the visuals are part of a song, of a worded and not more strictly visual rhetoric. I do think this makes sense though: a few lines or phrases aside (“Vertigo Stare” for example ) I think one could make a strong case that her lyrics are the least impressive part of her performance.

    Note: I am basing my take off of radio exposure, so my sample is limited: it could be that the more interesting lyrics just don’t get constant air coverage.

    JH gets at this–or a vicinity–with: “Yes, LG’s music is utterly conventional. I sometimes wonder if this is intentional, if she craftily uses it as a vehicle for her visual performance.”

  8. Corey Wakeling

    Johannes, I think the historicity of avant-garde movements like langpo are worth the education, but by nature of being apprehensible as an historical instance of avant-gardism it ceases to be as such. Surely, if we have a vocabulary of the history of the avant-garde, some from a decidedly lofty academic realm or intellectual influence, like Bloomsbury, or low, like the Beats, we understand that the avant-garde is a moving target, a shifting frontier. The avant-garde by nature must be an espionage movement. So, yes of course when the wave breaks everyone knows about it, and everyone begins speaking in the new language of the invaders, a la Dada, or what have you, but it is at the moment of take over that the avant-garde is official(ly) dead.

    I think there is an easy distinction between experimentalism and avant-garde, but one that I think is crucial to make. Experimentalism must be understood as an experiment with something. Broad or minor, avant-garde or conventional, experimentalism is simply an artwork that might be seen as an experiment with its genre’s conventions, however understood. I think your very canny readings of the problems of aesthetic experimentalism say this, that majoritarian traditions can no longer be seen as experimenting with a convention when established as a convention. So, this is not to say experimentalism is good or bad, aesthetic or anaesthetic, such questions should come after the experiment.

    AD, I think your problems with Gaga and reading her amid the convolutions of criticism are good. The avant-garde is supposed to bear its meaning and violence along with it, or at least directly inform its critical field, demand one. I think Gaga rather offers a certain cartoon of fashion couture which is highly available to critical reading, but demands none. Snippets of avant-gardism seem to be bouncing off of her, Jonas Akerlund’s video for Telephone being one, and perhaps critical movements will make an avant-garde of her, though I don’t believe she herself is one.

    To bind my two different points, perhaps much of the dissatisfaction with these terms above is because they’ve been used in such unwieldy and attenuated ways. There should be no doubt about these terms, if there is you should be aware you’ve been handed a fish. The avant-garde declares itself or demands your criticise or read it, though we think we live in a post-manifesto environment, what has been one of the most exciting discourses on this site so far? The necropastoral manifesto. Experimentalism must be actively experimenting with something, something must be threatened with combustion, failure, fission, boiling or collapse, or it is not experimentalism. One does not wonder whether an experiment is taking place, you might simply be grafting a poppy to an orchid and getting nowhere, but the passer by will ask, what is your experiment? Popularity as a question should not figure in these debates.

  9. Lara Glenum

    Corey, I love this: “something must be threatened with combustion, failure, fission, boiling or collapse, or it is not experimentalism.”

    Also, your point that Gaga is highly available to critical reading, but demands none. This is a fascinating node/posture. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about her whole production to me.

    Gaga works because we don’t have systems in place to read her in any satisfcatory way. So we have to invent them, which is what thrills.

    Danielle, I love your point about the sexualized body for which no one has any actual sexual use. She never seems to signal her own arousal amidst all the excess; she allows the signs to play off her while she remains impassive. And yet we have the sense that the whole fantasia is some monstrous organ of desire. And then again, not. Just surfaces refracting off each other.

    What people resist, what keeps people from imagining their own sexual relationship to her clearly sexualized body seems somehow very important. Is it her brain armor.

  10. A D Jameson

    Hi Corey,

    “AD, I think your problems with Gaga and reading her amid the convolutions of criticism are good. […]”

    I think you’re misappropriating someone else’s thoughts here to me. I don’t have anything to say re: Lady Gaga (other than that she steals pretty heavily from Annie Lennox). And that sometimes I listen to her / watch her videos while at the gym.


  11. A D Jameson

    *”Misattributing,” I may have meant.