A Practical Avant-Garde

The avant-garde isn't what it used to be. Our sprawling culture industry busies itself mainly in locating things in the network presented by the relatively recent past. Everybody is described as the love child of so-and-so and so-and-so, so everybody gets called neo this or neo that, unless the parents are divorced—then they get called post.

Toward a manifesto

Practical avant garde
Dan O. Williams, 1. Digital. 2005.

The avant-garde isn’t what it used to be. Our sprawling culture industry busies itself mainly in locating things in the network presented by the relatively recent past. Everybody is described as the love child of so-and-so and so-and-so, so everybody gets called neo this or neo that, unless the parents are divorced—then they get called post. Not that we need a new “ism” exactly, but, ironically, looking back has gotten old.

Artists, in the meantime, have gotten young. They are being sold so young that they have to come with papers to confirm their lineage. Legions of culture workers produce wall paragraphs, catalogs, and magazine blurbs to confirm young debutantes. Collectors are thus invited to speculate on promising futures, but the art objects themselves look remarkably retro.

The big books about the avant-garde are also retrospective. Renato Poggioli gave us The Theory of the Avant-Garde, which is a dry book about the Romantics, and Rosalind Krauss wrote a book to show that the avant-garde was a modernist myth.1 I am tempted to say that the post-avant-garde is then a postmodernist myth, but I’m not here to argue theory.

I am a painter, so I want to be practical about the situation. The various accounts of our condition that I have read have struck me as either hysterically reactionary or irresponsibly giddy. People decide that art is either dead or immortal, but no one wants to admit that it might be a little sick.

To remedy the situation, I am going to take a very simple position on the avant-garde. I stole it from Fairfield Porter, who said the avant-garde was always just the people with the most energy. The question for us is what should these energetic people do now? How should we advance? To answer this question, I am going to talk about rectangles.

As the last century thought more and more about painting, it produced more and more plain rectangles. They came in different national flavors. In Russia, Malevich’s squares were hung high in the room and compared to icons and revolutions. In the European North, the rectangles were cold and got turned into furniture. When Mondrian brought them to New York, they got jazzy. In America, we had the great rigid aphorisms of Ad Reinhardt, and his black rectangles ended painting. But painting kept ending, so by the ’70s we got Mel Bochner’s various conceptual grey grids, followed by Peter Halley’s more up-to-date day-glo rectangles. Then Halley went on to found a magazine and run a grad school, and here we are.

Paintings, apart from the very occasional tondo or altarpiece triangle, all start out as rectangles. But to end up with just a rectangle, you have to keep a whole lot of things out. This repudiation, too, comes in different flavors. You could reject the tsarist system, transcend all representational antics, or just have your studio assistants get out the masking tape and go to town. Photography, or revolution, or atomic weapons had repeatedly pushed painting into a zone of near-paralytic self-consciousness. By the late ’50s, flatness was enthroned, with zip lines and stripes providing the only variation. Everything—the body, gesture, ideas, materials, politics, process, and critical dialogue—was taken out of paintings to make them correct and serene. That was the avant-garde of the rectangle.

Its impolite rival and savior is now called postminimalism, but it went by many names: body art, performance art, conceptual art, land art, protest art, process art, anti-art art. Ana Mendieta rolled in mud.

Vito Acconci, now an architect, sat under a slanted gallery floor and masturbated for days on end. Chris Burden nailed himself to a Volkswagen, was shot in the arm, and shot at airplanes with real bullets. Not having been there, we learn about these new art forms from the leftover paraphernalia. Books and museums show us black and white photographs, gallery invites, artists’ statements and manifestos—all of minimal visual interest—and the putatively unrectangular event gets reduced, through a ruse of history, into that very familiar rectangle: the 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of copy paper in a course packet.

Minimalism and postminimalism agreed on one thing: eliminate pictures. Painting took to a pure territory, while the new art forms expanded the realm of art to every conceivable issue and strategy. The scene seemed wild, but there were simple rules all along. You were given a white room in a Big Art City for a month. You had to do something in that room to generate attention beyond that month. You had to be written about, bought, or at least widely discussed. Then you would get to have the white room again for another month, and so on. If you did this enough, you had what was called a career. This generated what is perhaps this century’s biggest art movement: careerism.

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