A few years ago, James Shea asked me to come to a class he was teaching at Columbia College to talk about the political grotesque, the gurlesque, and other recent poetry movements I had written about on various blogs. Near the end of the class, one of his students asked me if I believed the avant-garde still existed in the modern-day poetry world.
My clumsy, not-very-thought-out response was that it didn’t, and that at a time when poetry readership was relatively small the idea that poetry could shock the masses seemed, to me at least, odd. Not even the American “bourgeoisie” read much poetry anymore. Or many novels. So in a sense there was no bourgeoisie to shock.
I don’t see anything wrong with this: how many people like a particular book or film or painting isn’t indicative of its power. I love the films of Jack Smith, and Flaming Creatures and Normal Love are two of my favorite movies of all time, and the fact that millions of people (arguably not even thousands) have even heard about these films doesn’t take away from my own enjoyment for a moment. In fact, I like that his movies are called “cult” films, as if they attracted a small but hardcore group of admirers.
But the difference, I think, between a great and eccentric work of art and a work of art that is labeled “avant-garde” by either the artist or a critic is that “avant-garde” implies the work of art in question is at the cutting edge of a large body of cultural production that is less cutting-edge, and that would seem to imply a body of cultural production that is still cared about by the culture at large.
People rioted at the opening of “The Rite of Spring.” But who would ever think of a symphony today as being capable of starting a riot?
If the mythology around the “Rite of Spring” riot didn’t exist, we would think of it in ways that would be closer to the manner in which we think about Jack Smith’s films: a strange and powerful work of art, but not “avant-garde.” Maybe a cult symphony.
This isn’t meant to be a reproach toward contemporary American poetry. Small readership does not mean smallness of soul.
I actually think American poetry is going through a Renaissance, comparable to what happened in the 60s. And quite frankly, I’m glad to be a poetry reader in 2011, instead of one in 1987, or 1993, or especially 1997.
But it does raise problems with the notion of the “avant-garde.”
Since that class, there have been many great discussions on this blog about the avant-garde, and about kitsch, which have led me to re-think my notion of the avant-garde. And in the new issue of The Nation, there’s a fascinating review by Jennifer Szalai on Dwight MacDonald’s Mascult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, a selection of his essays from the 50s and 60s, much of it from The New Yorker.
I still don’t believe that that avant-garde in American poetry exists, and yet the rhetoric of the avant-garde seems very interwoven with certain branches of the poetry scene. Even a nuanced critic like Perloff relies on it over and over again.
When she does though, her writing seems to harbor nostalgia for a cultural climate that has long since slipped away. And the term “avant-garde” and its variants begin to appear overly familiar and non-avant-garde.
MacDonald was in some ways akin to Clement Greenberg. He railed against kitsch, even coming up with the term “Lords of Kitsch.” As Szalai writes, Dwight saw the true threat to Great Art and the avant-garde to come from the middlebrow, from the masses who dabbled in literature and art, but appreciated only its supposedly lower works. This was especially a threat as a time when so many upwardly mobile Americans in the 50s and 60s had the money and time to take an intense interest in art and literature.
Szalai depicts MacDonald’s basic orientation as that of a general in a bunker: “Urbanized and universally literate, the masses of the industrialized world had lost its taste for the folk art of yore, and, seeing as they were stubbornly ‘insensible to the values of genuine culture’ [MacDonald's phrase: notice how High Art is again tied to the ‘genuine’], they sought instead the easy trappings of kitsch.” (Szalia of course is being tongue-in-cheek here.)
But as Szalai points out, this viewpoint was doomed in two directions. Pop art was on the horizon. Also, though she doesn’t mention them, fiction writers like Pynchon and Reed and poets like O’Hara and Koch were radically undermining such True Art vs. the masses arguments.
Evidently, MacDonald didn’t try to tackle art created from this less hierarchical sensibility. Instead, according to Szalai, he “clung to art created before 1930.” He didn’t even care for Abstract Expressionism and Beckett’s work, even though other critics, like Greenberg, talked about such works within the rhetoric of High Art.
The second direction was economic. MacDonald envisioned a cultural climate that would always be the same. He wrote of 50s America, “The work week has shrunk, real wages have risen, and never in history have so many people attained such a high standard of living as in this country since 1945…Money, leisure and knowledge, the prerequisites for culture, are more plentiful and more evenly distributed than ever before.”
Lots of things wrong with that statement, starting with the idea that only money and leisure allows for the creation of art. Sometimes cultural collapse (for example, London in the late 70s) can be powerful generators of Art. But in terms of a certain notion of “High Culture” luring in a large swath of the population, he was on to something.
Szalai tells us that the Great Books Project (fifty-four volumes with “the likes of Hegel and Epictetus”), sold more than 50,000 sets a year in the early 50s. It’s unimaginable that something like that would happen today. And the celebrity-dom of “middlebrow” writers like Robert Frost or Truman Capote is largely extinct now.
But the statement also describes a place that is no longer with us in sheer economic terms. As Szalai writes, “The wage stagnation that begun in the late 70s has since bestowed on us the kind of income inequality more typical of a third-world oligarchy.”
The money and leisure needed for the cultivation of Middlebrowism, the scourge of the likes of Greenberg and MacDonald, and that element essential for the avant-garde to be “avant-garde,” has evaporated.
I have to admit, I’m glad the rhetoric of High Art vs. Middlebrow is disappearing. I also suspect the rhetoric of the “avant-garde,” so hidebound already, will be used less and less in the near future. And I strongly suspect more and more poetry criticism will be along the lines of Daniel Tiffany’s work, with its broad interests in history and “low” culture.
I just wish Art alone (Pynchon, Warhol, and the rest of the “postmodern” revolution) had been the force that had brought it to a close.