Avant-Garde and Modern, Part Four
Like the previous post, this fourth and final post on this topic was largely prompted by Brent Cunningham's comments on the second post. Some of it will be more clear if readers refer back to that post and its comment stream while reading this entry.
I like the terms “Modern” and “Modernist” because of their bare descriptiveness: they make few claims but the chronological, their efflorescence coinciding with the transformation of western culture and society into what we now call the modern world. Modern art is the art of the modern world: perhaps one could call modernist art the art that is self-consciously so. Though Bürger undoubtedly means a disparagement in comparing avant-garde and modern/modernist art, the art that has lasted has been that which, like Cubism (again, his example) has set itself to explore the possibilities of the medium.
If by “experimental” one means “trying something out to see what happens,” then that still seems useful as a term and a procedure. Wallace Stevens wrote that all good poetry is experimental poetry; that may be an overstatement, but there is a great deal of truth to it. It’s when the term “experimental,” like the term “avant-garde,” begins to be used evaluatively rather than descriptively that it becomes problematic. The attitude and activity of exploration and experimentation was and isn’t restricted to those who either proclaimed themselves or were proclaimed to be “avant-garde.” As Henry Gould has pointed out on a different post’s comment thread, much of John Berryman’s work is in style and attitude as wildly exploratory as anything in The New American Poetry, about which there was so much discussion some time ago.
One of my objections to the use of the term “avant-garde” in relation to contemporary work is exactly that it’s often used as a synonym for “good poetry” or “the poetry I like,” or “the poetry I’m willing to respect. (Stevens’ reminder that “It Must Give Pleasure” is frequently left by the wayside: one doesn’t get the feeling that many people enjoy the poetry they champion as avant-garde.) Too often these terms aren’t used to make distinctions among different kinds or work doing or attempting to do different kinds of things, but as marks of virtuousness or sinfulness. I don’t think that at this point they refer to actual entities but instead announce attitudes and positions: “I am of the angels’ party and you/they are of the devil’s party.”
Brent Cunningham writes that “one of the main articulations of the historical avant garde was that good and bad are not transcendent judgments, but are always closely determined by specific, lived contexts.” It strikes me on the other hand that Dada, Surrealism, Situationism have no interest in producing works of art at all, let alone in making aesthetic judgments among such artworks. That, it seems, would strike them as mere “art appreciation.” Their interest is in process, by whatever name that process is called—the Surrealists and the Situationists called it revolution. Andé Breton wrote that the supreme Surrealist act would be to discharge a loaded pistol into a crowd.
With regard to separating the work from the person, with much historical literature we do this a matter of course, as little is known of the author. It’s a necessary condition of reading at all: Shakespeare has been dead for a long time, and yet we can still read his plays and poems. The work is separate from the person; as Picasso allegedly said, art is called art because it is not life. In any case, for me at least, my interest in the author derives from my interest in the work. (Though there are some authors whose works don’t interest me but whose lives do, like Ronald Firbank.) If my primary interest is in an historical period, a social context, I read about that, rather than trying to read a piece of literature as a social document or record—a novel or a poem is a very inefficient way to learn about history.
By the end of his comment, Brent Cunningham seems to end up defining avant-garde not as a kind of art or a way of proceeding in the making of artworks, but as a way of reading and interpreting already existing artworks. An avant-garde reading would be one which we “[talk] about how the writer and the work are interlinked and socio-historically situated,” whereas a non-avant-garde reading (whatever name one would give to that) would ignore “the whole complex politics of poetry.” I have written on many occasions that a work of art, that art itself, emerges from a specific social/political/economic matrix, from a specific individual on what Foucault has called the grid of specifications. My point is and always has been that it is not defined and wholly determined by what might be called the conditions of its production.
And with that, I bid everyone a fond good-night.
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...