Spider-Man: No Way Home challenges the hegemony of the single Spider-Man narrative which pervades our received notions of the superhero universe. In this latest installment of the franchise, the conventions of the single-savior complex have been destabilized, to effect an uncertainty in the viewer: what is the “reality” of a superhero timeline? who is the real Spider-Man?
It’s hard to believe that it’s been half a century since the great avant-garde works of the late 1960s to early 70s. Works like Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting, Bas Jan Ader’s I’m Too Sad to Tell You, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, bring back a flood of warm fuzzies as we recall them. Their legacies persist today, but in a changed art world half a century later.
I was listening recently to a podcast discussing the differences between contemporary art — the art we think about when we say the “art world” — and other, we might say, more commercial art, though, the recent spirals of the art market adds a certain irony to this distinction. The podcast brought to mind the legacy of the avant-garde, though this legacy was not mentioned in the podcast. The podcast discussion raised the questions of why, generally speaking, the art world disdains the more commercial products of culture, and what qualities set a contemporary art object apart from a more commercial one. It seems to me that the legacy of the artistic avant-garde is a crucial piece to understanding these questions. Being a half-century later, most artists working today were born after this momentous period, and the avant-garde legacy has become a backdrop for their own art-making, but, as was apparent in the podcast, and as well in some artwork and art writing produced today, this legacy has become an unexamined backdrop, accepted uncritically. As in David Foster Wallace’s fish-in-water analogy, the legacy of the avant-garde is the water we swim in but don’t see.
The way we make and view art today, and the way we write about that art, owes a huge chunk to the ground-breaking work of the avant-garde peaks. And as well to the critical writing on that work, from writers like Rosalind Krauss and Craig Owens. What we haven’t come to terms with, or at least not fully, is the historical end of the avant-garde project. We’re in an ongoing denouement, or continuous twilight, of its aims and ambitions. To understand the avant-garde project and its aims and ambitions, we need to go back to its origins. At the risk of re-treading this well-worn history, it’s worth a foray here, as the interplay between the rise of Modernism, the role of the bourgeoisie, and their influence on taste and culture, yield specific insights on the cleft between, on the one hand, contemporary art-making and art-viewing, and, on the other, the more “commercial” arts.
But before rewinding to the origin story, I note, as motivation for the claim that the historical avant-garde has ended, that this end was already diagnosed in the early 1970s, nearly contemporaneously to the avant-garde peak of that time. In Aesthetic Theory (1970), Theodor Adorno wryly notes:
Further, the concept of the avant-garde, reserved for many decades for whatever movement declared itself the most advanced, now has some of the comic quality of aged youth.
And Peter Bürger, in Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974):
What Adorno calls “mimetic adaptation to the hardened and alienated” has probably been realized by Warhol: the painting of 100 Campbell soup cans contains resistance to the commodity society only for the person who wants to see it there. The Neo-avant-garde, which stages for a second time the avant-gardiste break with tradition, becomes a manifestation that is void of sense and that permits the positing of any meaning whatsover.
So we’ve had a half-century to digest this, and, while we less often self-consciously claim the mantle of the avant-garde today, its ambitions are still apparent in our practices of art-making and the rhetoric of art-writing. As an unexamined background for our activities, we have fallen into an uncritical avant-gardism.
The military term avant-garde started to come into use in the Western art world around 1910, so about the time of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (No 2). The feeling of being part of an “advanced guard”, ahead of the main army, made sense for artists like Picasso and Duchamp, whose works created furor when first displayed. The analogy with a military “advanced guard” also made sense in light of a common front arrayed against it. In this case, the front was good taste and common sense, the expectations of Western bourgeois culture. But why this war against bourgeois culture? Possibly Picasso and Duchamp were simply continuing in the tradition of earlier scandalists, like Gustave Courbet and the Salon des Réfuses, but why were these earlier artists waging war with bourgeois culture at all?
The origins of the avant-garde is multi-layered, but I wish to emphasize one part of the story which I think is decisive. It comes down to the art market and a burgeoning elite taste. After the end of artistic patronage, the artist came to depend on the art market, which was quickly growing to satisfy the cultural needs of a growing middle class. The second half of the 19th century into the first half of the 20th saw a rapid growth in populations, and an industrial age producing goods to meet the needs of the masses. Culture too became industrialized, and the products of these culture industries, like popular movies, comics, and pulp novels, came to be identified with the taste of the nascent (petty) bourgeoisie. At this time — and just as today — differentiation in the market allowed an elite consumer to separate from the more popular desires. Clement Greenberg's essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” is one well-known reading of the tension between the tastes of the masses and those of the elite. The avant-garde arose out of the rejection of the popular bourgeois culture, and allied itself with an elite consumer. Mutual interests between the artist and the elite consumer, namely, money and status, allowed the identification of the elite consumer with the fine art connoisseur. An important correlative in the fine art object is a marker which differentiates it from the more common object. This marker is a “defining itself against”, the basis of the avant-garde object. This marker serves to differentiate it, and its value, within the cultural sphere.
Other accounts of avant-garde art emphasize other historical aims, such as its emancipatory claims; or its aesthetic ambitions (l’art pour l’art); or the merging of art with life; or the destruction of art institutions. These aims are interwoven in the way we see these works of the historical avant-garde, and certainly constitute part of the utopic spell they hold on us. I agree with Bürger in seeing that the historical avant-garde failed to achieve its aims, and I think this is the consensus today. Any use of the term “avant-garde” to describe an artwork today may connect it stylistically to its historical antecedents, but does not truly make a claim to any revolutionary import, nor scandalize us in any way. Nevertheless, its legacy has a strong hold, and we still see the markers of differentiation in the art market, the markers of “defining itself against”. Even if we can see ourselves as post-avant-garde, the marker of the avant-garde strongly remains, because its use in setting elite tastes apart from popular tastes remains.
So where does this leave us? How do we navigate the terrain of the post-avant-garde? As art makers and art writers, recognizing the legacy of the historical avant-garde may allow us to be better cognizant of our own aims and ambitions. By gaining perspective on the relation between avant-gardism and market differentiation, we may get clearer on signal versus noise. Lastly, the emphasis above placed on the art market should not be taken to imply that the power of art is exhausted in market terms. In fact, my hope is that, in being better attuned to the effects of the art market, we can look past it to other shores. Art is a conversation, with our world and history. It’s fundamentally bound up with our aspirations for human freedom and possibility. It brings us closer together. These are a start.
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