Friday, May 06, 2005

What is this avant-garde, and where are they going?

An interesting post over on Josh Corey's blog, quoting a Reginald Shepherd email, regarding the current debate in the blogosphere (and elsewhere) about what is (and is not) avant-garde. Here's a brief quote (I like the handy list of things "done by the Modernists"):

" . . . I don't see anything--and I do mean anything--in so-called avant-garde work that wasn't done by the Modernists: collage, montage, pastiche, quotation, parody, juxtaposition ironic and non-ironic, fracture and fragmentation, ungrammaticalities and syntactic deformation, decentered subjectivity, non-referentiality (whatever that can mean as applied to language, which only exists as such as the nexus of concept, sound, and physical mark), critical or celebratory incorporation of popular culture, critique of mass society and capitalism, critique of art as a social institution, etc. There is nothing in the so-called avant-garde, from the New Americans to the Language poets to whatever the contemporary crew wants to call themselves besides "too good for everyone else," that wasn't done by the Modernists. There's nothing wrong with this per se (as someone said once, there is nothing new under the sun)--after all, none of us invented the English language either, or the Roman alphabet, which doesn't mean that we don't have the right to use them or the potential to do interesting things with them. But as I said in one of my previous emails, there is a lot wrong with pretending that one came up with these techniques and approaches oneself, especially when one then goes on to congratulate oneself for one's daring and perspicacity.

"If one is in the "avant-garde," then one is part of the leading formation of some army or another. Besides questioning at the teleological nature of such a conception (toward what goal is one moving? what exactly is the goal of poetry in this progressivist conception? I feel a grand narrative coming on), I also wonder just what one imagines oneself to be in the vanguard of? . . ."

Great food for thought (or not, depending on your mood and point of view). Go visit and read the full text.


Tony said...

But historically speaking, the avant-garde precedes Mopdernism, esp. "High Modernism."

Avant-Garde begins in French Symbolism, and continues with Italian Futurism, and settles into English poetry with Imagism and Vorticism. Etc.

To say that avant-garde isn't doing anything modernism didn't accomplish is to ignore the fact that modernists WERE avant-garde. They're not seen in that light by many of us now because, like all true avant-garde movements, they were assimilated into the mainstream. Marinetti foresaw this when he built into his manifesto the continual destruction of the current generation's "avant-garde" art by the next generation.

By the time Paul Goodman pens "Advance-Guard Writing in 1950" (or something close to that's not in front of me), he concedes that the idea of an avant-garde seems a bit old-fashioned, but he appropriates the term for a community-based practice of poetry based on the occasional poem.

Again, to simply equate "avant-garde" with "post-modern" (whatever that means) or "experimental" misses the point entirely. The advance guard of a military unit either gets killed first, or the rest of the army catches up. Constant renewal is the point.

In my own critical work (largely unpublished and ignored) I use avant-garde to denote poetic movements particular to specific historical moments that emphasize close-knit communities and whose manifestoes and statements of poetics employ a rhetoric of violence and revolutionary change.

But, that's enough.

I'm annoyed though that one would simply use avant-garde to refer to "weird" poetry, or "experimental" work.

Peter said...

Tony: it's a fascinating topic; and I am not sure where I stand. It's such a shifting landscape. I know I like challenging work, risk-taking work, even when it fails; and I guess that is what the avant-garde means to me. I'm not sure about the "violence" though, because I'm not sure what it means, in the case of poetry, except in the sense one can't make an omlete without breaking some eggs.

jenni said...

It's all good as far as I'm concerned. The fact is nothing is born and nothing dies--it's all about manifestation at specific times and places (idea borrowed from Buddah, but I believe it applies to all things--even art.) Just write poems you want to write--it's that easy and difficult. When it comes right down to it, there's only two types of poems for me--the ones I like and the ones I don't.

Peter said...

Jenni: I agree with you (and Buddha). Just write the poems you want to write . . . though I am not against stretching my limits a bit now and then.

Charles said...

I completely agree with both Tony and Josh—the Modernists were doing things that were avant-garde because they were avant-garde, and that so-called "post-modernism" is often confused as plain old Modernism. I also agree that "experimental" is not "avant-garde."

Literally speaking, "avant-garde" means "forward seeing," so in essence avant-garde-ness can only be measured in retrospect. If a movement over time becomes the norm, then, at its inception, it was avant-garde, especially if it is largely rejected by the majority at the time of its rise.

I feel like what people call "post-modern" is a blending of Modernisms, including (especially) Dada and Surrealism.

Peter said...

"If a movement over time becomes the norm, then, at its inception, it was avant-garde, especially if it is largely rejected by the majority at the time of its rise."
Charles: Well put -- that makes perfect sense to me.

Emily Lloyd said...

Charles, Tony, I'm late to the table, but: yep all around.