Post-Modern Vanguard

Edward Mendelson

  • After the Wake: An Essay on the Contemporary Avant-Garde by Christopher Butler
    Oxford, 177 pp, £7.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 19 815766 5

Christopher Butler’s survey of post-war literature, music and painting maintains a judicious critical distance from its subject. Readers who wish a more direct report from the front lines of the avant-garde should consult a new anthology, Collective Consciousness: Art Performances in the Seventies, edited by Jean Dupuy.[*] This documents the work of almost two hundred avant-gardists from Europe and America who displayed their most advanced work at a gallery in New York and wrote explanatory statements for inclusion in the book. Despite the large number of participants, the level of inspiration and accomplishment is remarkably uniform. One artist, no better and no worse than the rest, supplied a colour film of a naked man scrabbling about in a forest. Another showed a videotape of himself bowing solemnly to the camera. A third tacked up a scrap of paper that read, ‘Look in the mirror as I fuck you up the ass, the pain on your face is my freedom, your tears are the drops of my manhood,’ and waited for angry women to tear it down. The established justification for this sort of thing is the thought it supposedly provokes in the audience. But the most thought-provoking sentence in the book was not written by any of the participating artists. It is the matter-of-fact statement printed in large type on the copyright page: ‘Publication of this book was made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC, a federal agency.’

Government support for the avant-garde has started only recently, and with little public comment. By now it is a commonplace that bourgeois culture has learned to tolerate, even cherish, a tame avant-garde in its midst, but it is a different matter when tolerance is written into the national budget. Public funds that were awarded once for the preservation of acknowledged masterpieces are provided now for the encouragement of acknowledged trash. Cultural Endowments, Ministries and Councils of the Arts, and sometimes their counterparts in multinational corporations, eagerly subsidise random-noise concerts and exhibitions of stacked bricks. None of this is a sign of aesthetic enlightenment or bad conscience on the part of executives and officials. The reason behind their generosity is simple: a flourishing subsidised avant-garde serves as cheap propaganda for the West. Artists and intellectuals in Russia and Eastern Europe are shown that artists on this side of the wall are not only free to ignore official policy, but are actually paid to do anything they like. Triviality is no impediment, ineptitude no hindrance. The West presents itself as the artists’ paradise. So long as the Soviets maintain Socialist Realism as their one approved style, the West will continue to give its official blessing to minimalism, conceptualism, and any other diminution of art that its artists can devise.

The official arts policy of the West is not to have a policy at all, but to support a little of everything. This is preferable to the alternatives followed elsewhere. But it is also the explanation for the otherwise baffling persistence of certain cultural bureaucrats in jobs for which, by any ordinary standards, they are manifestly unqualified. Year after year, the press reports in wonderment that Mr X and Mr Y, like most of their official colleagues, have not yet learned to distinguish genius from junk. But X continues to hold down the post of Ceramics Director, while Y is rooted still to the office of Embroidery Administrator. What the press does not realise is that it is X and Y’s incompetence that guarantees their employment. Were they to supply funds only to artists whose work deserved it, the number of foreign artists who envy life in the West would be drastically reduced. X and Y have never guessed that they are being paid to support bad art. Unlike the bureaucrats who run the Soviet Writers’, Artists’ and Musicians’ Unions, they are not called upon to be time-servers and hypocrites. Incompetent as they are, they sincerely do their best. The dimwittedness that makes them ideal for their jobs is also what keeps them from understanding why, as far as their employers are concerned, their best is good enough.

The West’s avant-garde needs no cultural commissars to keep it in line. Leave the avant-garde entirely on its own, and it gives the corporate state exactly the propaganda the state requires. The managers of such a state prefer their subjects to believe that public policy is too complex or too boring a matter for ordinary self-respecting citizens to bother with: better to leave it in the benevolent, efficient hands of the technocrats. The avant-garde encourages this belief when it holds the mirror up to nature and reveals all the standard items in the avant-garde catalogue: gratuitous gestures, celebrations of chance, empty ‘concepts’, visions of anomie and helplessness without external cause. The state doesn’t mind if subsidised artists issue manifestos claiming revolutionary virtue for their work, provided the work itself has none. Bohemia never notices who makes the trains run on time, or if they run at all. An alliance, unconscious on the part of the artists involved, unites avant-garde minimalism and technocratic bureaucracy. It is an alliance against the rights and obligations of citizenship. Normally invisible, traces of it surface in the work of a critic like Hugh Kenner, pillar of the reactionary National Review, who gives equal praise to the joking despair of Beckett and the regimented utopianism of Buckminster Fuller. The alliance, in one form or another, is of long standing. Baudelaire understood its nature more than a century ago. ‘This use of military metaphor,’ he wrote of the literary application of the word ‘avant-garde’, ‘signifies minds, not militant, but formed for discipline, that is, for conformity; minds born subservient, Belgian minds, who can only think collectively.’

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[*] New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1980.

[†] Cadmus Editions (Santa Monica), 1980.