Monday, September 28, 2009

The impossibility of the avant-garde



While aimlessly watching TV for the first time in days, I noticed the above spot, and it reminded me of something Stanley Kubrick once said about how some of the most "brilliant" cinema happens in TV commercials.

If that is true, I wonder about the effect -- either for cinema, or for art in general.

The clip above is fairly "weird" by the aesthetic standards of, say, People magazine. It has the feel of something designed to provoke, and intended as art. It is informed by experimental techniques, however inauthentically. But it is being deployed by a major corporation. To sell jeans. And it will probably be seen by millions of people.



The problem that follows is at least as old as mass media itself: how can there be an outside-of-the-mainstream, if anything can be absorbed and used by the mainstream?

Once upon a time, there was this idea (probably hooey to begin with) that being a "true" artist was about staying a step ahead of whatever the latest cultural "norm" was. Our mission as artists (so we thought) was to figure out which components of a particular practice had been done to death, and then to innovate something new.

We have that impulse toward innovation still, but what's the upshot? It doesn't even matter whether "everything has been done before" (the big complaint of young artists). When the raw power of anything can be instantly appropriated by the people who have the budgets, and the products to sell -- recall Jim O'Rourke's comments on "context" -- there has to be some other reason to make art.

As artists, we may find this or that aesthetic approach tiresome, and we may go after something different in the process of escaping what we already know (that's part of the fun) -- but nowadays, that's ultimately a personal journey, never a broadly groundbreaking act of artistic rebellion.

Which is maybe how it should be -- and maybe how it's always been, under the surface of our mass media economy. There really is no "mainstream" or "avant-garde." No "in" or "out." Art wants to be de-centered, despite all our attempts to organize and rank it. Art wants to be local (and not strictly in a geographical sense). And critical categories ("hip" / "square," "cutting edge" / "predictable") may make sense in the context of a particular microcosm, but beyond that, who really knows? Or cares?

(My wife just walked through the room. She wanted to know who I was yelling at.)

[photo credit: meddygarnet]

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10 comments:

Jill Knapp said...

I don't think the top video there is weird at all. It features young, nubile bodies doing random young-person stuff. How is this different than anything else on TV or in People Magazine?

If the magazine featured aging, saggy women or "unattractive" people (whatever that means), then we'd have something to talk about.

(Just me $.02. That, and $2.48 can buy you a cup of coffee.)

Mike said...

great post - always get a laugh out of "alternative" rock... sorta like insta-cool....

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks for the comments!

I don't think the top video there is weird at all. It features young, nubile bodies doing random young-person stuff.

You're right. The content isn't really weird, but the style (editing, sound, mise-en-scene, etc.) definitely draws on experimental cinema (again, in a somewhat shallow way). When was the last time People magazine featured nineteenth century poetry recited by an old man while young kids ran around with torches and deer heads?

At the same time, your point is sort of my point too. Because what was once avant-garde has become so naturalized, so common, so easily-appropriated, we don't even really notice it in this context. Which suggests that when we notice it elsewhere, we're being somewhat selective.

Stanley Jason Zappa said...

"Which is maybe how it should be -- and maybe how it's always been, under the surface of our mass media economy. There really is no "mainstream" or "avant-garde." No "in" or "out." Art wants to be de-centered, despite all our attempts to organize and rank it. Art wants to be local (and not strictly in a geographical sense). And critical categories ("hip" / "square," "cutting edge" / "predictable") may make sense in the context of a particular microcosm, but beyond that, who really knows? Or cares?"

The line "under the surface of our mass media economy" is really the pivot point of the argument--because once you are selling jeans, or on the television, or selling jeans on the television, verily the 'expression' has then becomes not only a part of the larger, anti-art crap stream gushing out of 'our' every media hole (The Spectacle if you will)--not matter how 'zaney' that expression may be. If it is on the television functioning as a sales tool it is (ipso facto) deth kulture propaganda devoid of truth content.

Because really now, to suggest that outside of or apart from "the surface of our mass media economy" (as far reaching and all pervasive as it may be) "There really is no 'mainstream' or 'avant-garde.' (let alone) no 'in' or 'out'" doesn't really stand up--for in the end, "avant garde" and "mainstream" and "in" and "out" refer not to the content, but the contents ability to 'recuperate' the capital put into it. Those who suggest the opposite are telling themselves things to make themselves feel better about themselves.

On a different note, are you going to the apple tasting at the Portland Nursery?

mrG said...

Allow me to offer a different operative definition for Artist and Art, albeit one that will offend many people who make their living at both: 'Art' is an artifact that, when experienced, inherently illustrates some previously unknown quality of ourselves; an 'Artist' is a research scientist who employs their training and insight to discover heretofore previously unexperienced instances of 'Art'.

Thus, for example, the Mona Lisa is 'Art' not for its photographic depiction of the woman, which is unquestionaly masterful, but for the way Leonardo applied that skill to illustrate the illusion created when tone density says smile while colour hue says no-smile; he is illustrating a principle of cognitive perception of light vs colour that, while he had no science to explain it, he nonetheless had empirically discovered and could clearly demonstrate.

Notice some qualities of my definition:

1. there is no 'ownership' of the art, only a reputation as the 'discoverer'; it is us being human creatures that makes it 'Art' worthy. Whales may not 'get' our art, we may not 'get' theirs.

2. once uncovered, the artifact is of no further use to the Artist except as a reputation device. As research scientists, the Artists are far more interested in moving forward, exploring the space of experientially 'knowing' who (or what) we are.

3. any particular skill set is only a means, any particular theory is only a strategy; many skill sets and strategies are permissable, very likely most will fail to find anything 'new' and thus it is foolish to think that going to 'Art' school (or not going) will make you an 'Artist' ;)

4. once an Art principle is discovered, it makes perfect sense that it should become incorporated into the popular culture; it's a simple fact of us as the animal that we are! Thus, as my theory predicts, Kitch is very popular :)

5. being a master craftsman is a completely honourable profession, worthy of respect, renoun, fortune and fame, and there is no crime in spending one's life producing well crafted artifacts never once even attempting to find any actual new 'Art'. If everyone gets the top designation, it loses meaning and the lost meaning loses inspirational value. The truth is there is lots left to discover, for those skilled enough and bold enough to go looking for it.

As I say, it is an operative definition which I am not totally happy with, but its the best I've come up with to explain and make sense of the 20th century to myself.

Comments?

Anonymous said...

I mean, Eisenstein and Riefenstahl were important technical innovators. I don't see why you couldn't be as innovative in a commercial. I don't have any examples to back me up, though.

SenseiHollywood said...

Art is a flower growing from a crack in the concrete...

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks for the additional comments, sorry for the delay in following up...

Here's another way of putting it: clearly, the issue of scale affects these ideas about "in," "out," and so on. Media wants to be as big as possible, because of its need for ad revenue. Its size (and thus its power) means it can afford to suck anything in, and use it for its perceived cultural value, depending on the audience it is trying to sell to. Media is, one might say, always on the prowl for the "next big thing."

It's dangerous for artists to get caught up in that game of looking for the most "out" form of expression, because the media dynamic makes it a bait-and-switch: now you're hip, now you're not. Who cares how "avant garde" you are if whatever is "new" about what you do can be instantly made "old," or at least "safe"?

So it boils down to the obvious: make the art you want to make, because you want to make it, not because of any concerns about cultural importance.

one that will offend many people who make their living at both

How so? Seems a pretty good definition to me.

are you going to the apple tasting at the Portland Nursery?

Alas, no. And yet I should, b/c our own apples are turning out pretty lame this year.

Danny Jimmy said...

I find mrG definition of art too narrow, too preoccupied with derivation, innovation for the sake of it, the illusion of originaly than with "self-expression"

Art is simply human creation, art is just the action of giving shape to the personal or intimate ideas of the artist.

A 6 years old child drawing an house an a tree is ART, in its purest form and sense. If you take 300 6 year old kids and ask them to write an house and a tree, you will realize that even if the "subject" has been "done to that", each drawing will be unique and original in itself because no mind processes data in the same way.

I think the anti-hedonistic attitude of post-modernism has come to an end for good, after a century of pseudointellectualism and snobbery. The ideology of the artist as an inventor of something that didn't exist before and of art as a contest of who makes the most, never done before (which would also mean playing naked, playing a violin with a knife... the point is that "not done before" opens the door to dishonest calculated gimmicks, not meant to express anything from the author inwardness) pseudo-innovation, was just that: an ideology and a poor ideology at that with an unbelievable dose of irrationality.

With my example of children drawing the same subject but ending up with completely different artistic expressions, I want to prove that humans "can't helps but being original".
Everything we do is just a processing of old sensory data, there's nothing "new" but each mind process those data in a "new" and "unique" way.

That's why the real souce of originality is in free self-expression and not in calculated artifacted pseudo-originality for the sake of it.
By cutting ties with our past, with our sources of inspiration, with all the data we have accumulated in our sensory experiences while living; we get rid of the only source of "originality" we have and end up with a wannabe or self-appointed "originality" wich is just the quintessence of unoriginality.

Art is self-expression of whatever kind and quality that might touch the chords or certain people but not of others. It is not a "stuff only" technical dry contest of structures to find the most "new" one and assign a prize.

That would like claiming whatever book "unoriginal" for belonging to same genres, for using the same words belonging to a language, for using the same alphabet and attempting to be "fakely original" by writing the book in a meaningless random language or leaving the pages black while using weird stuff to make the cover or making books that have strange shapes "never done before".

I'm sorry this is neither art nor originality, it's a poor attempt of pretending originality with randomness. What matters is the content, what matters is the self-expression of the creator and what he/she meants to say.

Anonymous said...

Avant-guardism ended. The search for 'new' or 'out' is okay within personal "microcosms", but is naive in the big picture.

I believe much of the comments so far are attempts to estimate the value of 'art'. There is no right answer.