Saturday, March 6, 2010

The avant garde

The term avant-garde is not used much these days.  At least I don't find it in the reading I do.  Thinking about that,  I wondered if one should say the term is dead, or perhaps the avant-garde has won.  It does seem that all art more than a year old is passe and valueless in the aesthetic sense.  Much art may continue to sell and draw huge auction prices but very little of it seems to be spoken of as innovative or challenging.
What risks are there for the artist today?  There are no barriers to self-expression, no statement too outrageous, no subject so vapid, no color so misused, no space so filled with dross, that art cannot find a way to transform it into its green web of commerce. 
Today, in museums and galleries, we are confronted with art works that look like materials left on the floor for the sweeper.  But this distribution of materials is intentional.  The jumble of wire, the splintered axe handle, the fine layer of sawdust, the irregular stack of newspapers are meant to speak to us by the unusual, even outrageous presence of their incongruity.  There is meaning here if we will give ourselves the unbiased chance to discover it.
Once the avant-garde artist flouted the norms of our culture and provoked us to feel and to think about how we see the world and how we spend out lives.  It remained moderately successful on the margins and was useful as a catalyst to the mainstream world of art.
Now the outrageous is the norm.  The avant-garde is the New Bourgeoisie. 

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