Cult films vs. the avant-garde

by on Dec.07, 2011

Capote's masked ball: middlebrowism at its sickening worst

A few years ago, James Shea asked me to come to a class he was teaching at Columbia College to talk about the political grotesque, the gurlesque, and other recent poetry movements I had written about on various blogs. Near the end of the class, one of his students asked me if I believed the avant-garde still existed in the modern-day poetry world.

My clumsy, not-very-thought-out response was that it didn’t, and that at a time when poetry readership was relatively small the idea that poetry could shock the masses seemed, to me at least, odd. Not even the American “bourgeoisie” read much poetry anymore. Or many novels. So in a sense there was no bourgeoisie to shock.

I don’t see anything wrong with this: how many people like a particular book or film or painting isn’t indicative of its power. I love the films of Jack Smith, and Flaming Creatures and Normal Love are two of my favorite movies of all time, and the fact that millions of people (arguably not even thousands) have even heard about these films doesn’t take away from my own enjoyment for a moment. In fact, I like that his movies are called “cult” films, as if they attracted a small but hardcore group of admirers.

But the difference, I think, between a great and eccentric work of art and a work of art that is labeled “avant-garde” by either the artist or a critic is that “avant-garde” implies the work of art in question is at the cutting edge of a large body of cultural production that is less cutting-edge, and that would seem to imply a body of cultural production that is still cared about by the culture at large.

People rioted at the opening of “The Rite of Spring.” But who would ever think of a symphony today as being capable of starting a riot?

If the mythology around the “Rite of Spring” riot didn’t exist, we would think of it in ways that would be closer to the manner in which we think about Jack Smith’s films: a strange and powerful work of art, but not “avant-garde.” Maybe a cult symphony.

This isn’t meant to be a reproach toward contemporary American poetry. Small readership does not mean smallness of soul.

I actually think American poetry is going through a Renaissance, comparable to what happened in the 60s. And quite frankly, I’m glad to be a poetry reader in 2011, instead of one in 1987, or 1993, or especially 1997.

But it does raise problems with the notion of the “avant-garde.”


Since that class, there have been many great discussions on this blog about the avant-garde, and about kitsch, which have led me to re-think my notion of the avant-garde. And in the new issue of The Nation, there’s a fascinating review by Jennifer Szalai on Dwight MacDonald’s Mascult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, a selection of his essays from the 50s and 60s, much of it from The New Yorker.

I still don’t believe that that avant-garde in American poetry exists, and yet the rhetoric of the avant-garde seems very interwoven with certain branches of the poetry scene. Even a nuanced critic like Perloff relies on it over and over again.

When she does though, her writing seems to harbor nostalgia for a cultural climate that has long since slipped away. And the term “avant-garde” and its variants begin to appear overly familiar and non-avant-garde.

MacDonald was in some ways akin to Clement Greenberg. He railed against kitsch, even coming up with the term “Lords of Kitsch.” As Szalai writes, Dwight saw the true threat to Great Art and the avant-garde to come from the middlebrow, from the masses who dabbled in literature and art, but appreciated only its supposedly lower works. This was especially a threat as a time when so many upwardly mobile Americans in the 50s and 60s had the money and time to take an intense interest in art and literature.

Szalai depicts MacDonald’s basic orientation as that of a general in a bunker: “Urbanized and universally literate, the masses of the industrialized world had lost its taste for the folk art of yore, and, seeing as they were stubbornly ‘insensible to the values of genuine culture’ [MacDonald’s phrase: notice how High Art is again tied to the ‘genuine’], they sought instead the easy trappings of kitsch.” (Szalia of course is being tongue-in-cheek here.)

But as Szalai points out, this viewpoint was doomed in two directions. Pop art was on the horizon. Also, though she doesn’t mention them, fiction writers like Pynchon and Reed and poets like O’Hara and Koch were radically undermining such True Art vs. the masses arguments.

Evidently, MacDonald didn’t try to tackle art created from this less hierarchical sensibility. Instead, according to Szalai, he “clung to art created before 1930.” He didn’t even care for Abstract Expressionism and Beckett’s work, even though other critics, like Greenberg, talked about such works within the rhetoric of High Art.

The second direction was economic. MacDonald envisioned a cultural climate that would always be the same. He wrote of 50s America, “The work week has shrunk, real wages have risen, and never in history have so many people attained such a high standard of living as in this country since 1945…Money, leisure and knowledge, the prerequisites for culture, are more plentiful and more evenly distributed than ever before.”

Lots of things wrong with that statement, starting with the idea that only money and leisure allows for the creation of art. Sometimes cultural collapse (for example, London in the late 70s) can be powerful generators of Art. But in terms of a certain notion of “High Culture” luring in a large swath of the population, he was on to something.

Szalai tells us that the Great Books Project (fifty-four volumes with “the likes of Hegel and Epictetus”), sold more than 50,000 sets a year in the early 50s. It’s unimaginable that something like that would happen today. And the celebrity-dom of “middlebrow” writers like Robert Frost or Truman Capote is largely extinct now.

But the statement also describes a place that is no longer with us in sheer economic terms. As Szalai writes, “The wage stagnation that begun in the late 70s has since bestowed on us the kind of income inequality more typical of a third-world oligarchy.”

The money and leisure needed for the cultivation of Middlebrowism, the scourge of the likes of Greenberg and MacDonald, and that element essential for the avant-garde to be “avant-garde,” has evaporated.

I have to admit, I’m glad the rhetoric of High Art vs. Middlebrow is disappearing. I also suspect the rhetoric of the “avant-garde,” so hidebound already, will be used less and less in the near future. And I strongly suspect more and more poetry criticism will be along the lines of Daniel Tiffany’s work, with its broad interests in history and “low” culture.

I just wish Art alone (Pynchon, Warhol, and the rest of the “postmodern” revolution) had been the force that had brought it to a close.

11 comments for this entry:
  1. Spencer

    Good stuff, James. Will share.

  2. James Pate

    Thanks Spencer…


    I should add there is also a nostalgia for middlebrowism, as can be seen in certain parts of the the Poetry Foundation. It’s the other side of the coin of avant-gardism. The two very much go hand-in-hand. My point is that that High Brow vs. Middlebrow are terms that don’t apply very much to what’s going on today…

    I also didn’t mention how the Internet relates to this, though it plays a major role, especially in how monstrously diverse (in a good way) poetry has become…

  3. Steven T

    Part of the problem with conceptualizing the avant-garde in relation to its disruptive capacity is that the masses don’t have access to anything that would culturally shock them. A book like Urs Alleman’s Babyfucker is translated into English on Les Figues Press and no one cares about it because no one (aside from a very marginal literate and liberal group) knows it exists. If you mailed a copy of the book to, say, Rick Santorum, he’d be all over it and then it would be covered by CNN. That’s how Americans outside of the High Art crowd found out about Robert Mapplethorpe — Jesse Helms “happened” to walk into an exhibit of his work. On mainstream TV, there are shows dedicated to odd culinary dishes. On season one of Fear Factor, one of the challenges was to eat buffalo testicles. Gross, but not shocking. Bull’s testicles in Bataille’s Story of the Eye was shocking…for 1928. I recently taught a class on the grotesque and the students’ reaction surprised me. Babyfucker: not shocked. Gurlesque: bored. Artaud: hatred. Artaud was where they threw on the brakes. For most of the semester, they’d been trying to get me to watch 2 Girls and a Cup. They embrace watching films involving feces but can’t read about it. Which leads me to revisit my opening statement. The avant-garde is no longer in the province of art but in the raw outskirts of the Internet. Of course, the irony is that the avant-garde made room for what would become the seedy underbelly of cyberspace.

  4. Johannes

    Isn’t it also true that there’s generally a kind of anachronistic or at least retrospective quality to “cult films”? They become “cult movies” later in time, not at their inception. They tend to move more secretly. Cultishly. But also I think about those video catalogs (copied on copy machines, not printed) from the 80s – where they used to sell cult films like Smith or b-movies like Russ Meyer or horror movies but also avant-garde film (from say 80s New York downtown scene) and foreign movies like Godard. I don’t know exactly what I”m saying but that was an interesting cultish distribution system in which high and low, cult and avant-garde, prestige and crap was mingled. Johannes

  5. James Pate

    It’s that secret underground quality to cult films that I find fascinating. And so much better than the notion of “real” culture that goes along with High Art. It’s the filth of cult films, the lack of purity, their underground economy, that carries so much energy. There’s something perpetually nocturnal about cult films. When I think of the wonderful video store Odd Obsessions in Chicago, the title of that place couldn’t be more perfect.

    And Steven T: very good points. I think the modernist notion of shock just doesn’t apply to contemporary culture. Not when hardcore porn is a few clicks away on the mouse. Or when so many of people pay money to watch movies like Saw and Hostel (films I despise; they seem like stupid versions of the brilliant Japanese film Audition).

    Or as I argue in the post, when the so-called “middlebrow” no longer exists in the way it used to, thanks to decades of class warfare.

    But I do think there’s a less modernist/teleological sense of shock that does still apply. The shock of experiencing incredibly intense, overwhelming works of art. Kafka’s axe that breaks up the frozen waters inside us. To me, there’s always something shocking about the last act in King Lear. And there’s something shocking about Blue Velvet and Melancholia. And it’s this type of shock I associate with Gleneum and Reines too.


  6. Kent Johnson

    What about “shocking” the Field of vanguard poetry itself (whatever “itself” fully means, granted)? The Art world has been doing this for a long time, it’s part of the tradition and “advance” of Art…

    It may not be possible to “scandalize the bourgeoisie” like in the old days, but there are arguably still ways of scandalizing the poetry world (because the Field is so deeply informed by certain “untouchable” conventions: categories and proprieties that one isn’t supposed to do or talk about vis a vis “itself”). Satire of the Field, of its institutions, ideological rituals, and protocols, might be one way of engaging the interests of an audience beyond the usual. Take a look at the reaction to what the Croatoans did, for one example–with considerable brashness, but not with a terrible amount of effort.

    I don’t think I’ve ever used this many inverted commas in a comment before.

  7. Kent Johnson

    >categories and proprieties that one isn’t supposed to do or talk about…

    that’s very awkwardly phrased, obviously, but I guess the idea is still there.

  8. James Pate


    Good points. I’m all for shocking “the field of vanguard poetry itself,” especially at it seems so based on plenty of outdated assumptions.

    The risk, though, is that attempts to shock it in that sense sometimes end up repeating the vanguard gesture. In other words, it might wander into “my avant-garde is purer and higher than your avant-garde.”

    But as long as the gesture is made in favor of inauthenticity, of undermining the very notion of the avant-garde, yeah, I’m all for it…


  9. Gene Tanta

    Hey, James and all,

    Good discussion. It seems to me the problem (and the gift) is the future. We envision it thinking we’ve invented scissors all over again and the clip-clip that follows the logic of the blades.

    If we are to progress in the cut of the redshift beyond Romantic notions of essential “self-expression” or even beyond Modernist notions of mechanized “self-expression”, we (don’t you go to the Church of we?) need to start talking about the WHAT and not just about the HOW of shock.

    Without questioning the ontology of shock (socially constructed content like identity and formal givens like breath), we’re only inspecting the epistemology of shock (its methods and effects). This proposal (suggesting that the present may no longer offer any formal means to protest effectively) raises another question about the Modernist/Postmodernist aperture which I’d like to frame this way: are you a cynic or a skeptic?

    Is a cynic or a skeptic more likely to consider the end-game (or “goals” to use the Progressive or AG term)? Frankly, I don’t know but I think faith and hope for the social animal hang in the balance. I think it’s important to be clear about what’s at stake when we fail to estrange (or even entertain) each other, isn’t it?


  10. James Pate

    Hi Gene,

    A skeptic.


  11. Gene Tanta

    Hi, James:

    I like to think I’m a skeptic too but its seems that to be a skeptic one has to refuse to enter the Postmodern present and to still believe in the possibility of progress and effective protest.

    I like to think I’m a skeptic too but its seems that to be a skeptic (not a nihilistic cynic like many CEOs who treat people as means to an end) one has to refuse to enter the Postmodern present (transnational sovereignty of capital) and to still believe in the possibility of progress and effective protest (whether through aesthetic means or any means necessary).