Friday, February 22, 2008

Avant-Garde vs High Modernism

One of my pet-peeves is the way the term "avant-garde" is used interchangeably with "high modernism." For example in the recent "post avant" debate.

Charles Olson was not avant-garde. TS Eliot was not avant-garde. Ezra was not a-g. (Not that they weren't influenced by a-g ideas and techniques). They are high modernists.

Of course, there is no cut-and-dry difference, but one important one (which Backstrom discusses in the essay in the recent Action, Yes) is an attitude toward mass culture. And like Backstrom, I think Andreas Huyssen's After the Great Divide makes this distinction pretty clear. The historical a-g was all about reconfiguring the attitude between high and low culture. You can see it in Apollinaire's use of talk from the cafe, Breton's use of advertising fonts, Henry Parland's use of film and photography and fashion and jazz (or all of Dada's identification with jazz).

In his book on Henri Michaux, Backstrom calls attention to the connection between the historical avant-garde and Bakhtin's idea of the grotesque. I think this is really important (which is why I'm including the idea in the paper I am currently writing about Aase Berg). I think you can see this very well in Alice Notley's work.

That is why I found it so wrong when on Silliman's blog Simon D. and some others speculated that the difference between "true surrealism" and "soft surrealism" was that real surrealism had an antagonistic attitude toward mass culture. This is a total 2008-American-"post-avant" re-reading of the historical avant-garde (simplistic, reductive, describing our own poetry rather than the aesthetics of the 1910s and 20s). This is also why most poets who today claim or invite comparison to the "avant-garde" strike me more as descendants of high modernism.

Ron for example seems extremely high modernist to me. His distinctions between genres seem positively greeenbergian. Perhaps the best classification would be "high postmodernist."

If classification is your deal. Do I contradict myself? So what, I contain multitudes.


Blogger mongibeddu said...

You're right that Olson was not avant-garde, but I'm not sure I'd agree that he was high modernist in Huyssen's sense. There's a critique of mass culture in his work (derived in part from Ortega y Gasset), but it's not based on a high art/low art distinction. If anything, it's based on a distinction between the popular and the mass―the former produced by individuals embedded in their particular circumstances, the latter an abstraction capitalism and fascism imposed on the particular (speaking here from Olson's point of view, although he doesn't use the term "popular"). To my mind, the main reason he's not avant-garde is that he saw the past as having hidden resources that the present could or should exploit. But Olson, it must be said, was a poet-scholar. The role he fashioned for himself as an intellectual was pretty unusual. It bears comparison with Pound's, except that Olson left the government to become a pedagogue, whereas Pound abandoned academia for the life of a propagandist. I see a closer match, frankly, with Walter Benjamin (with Melville as Olson's Baudelaire), except that Olson traced the shock of modernity back to the imposition of logos-as-rationality, which means, unlike Benjamin, he became increasingly less interested in the present as such. My wife (Carla Billitteri) draws a parallel in her forthcoming book on language theory and utopian poetics between the projects of Olson and Laura (Riding) Jackson, but L(R)J certainly believed in the high art/low art distinction. Hell, for her, high art wasn't nearly high enough!

What do they say in taxonomy? That there are lumpers and splitters? I'm a splitter.

Ben F.

4:42 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

Yes, the whole issue of the past does seem much more important when it comes to Olson/avant-garde.

Interesting connection to Benjamin; interesting also because Benjamin may still be the best theorist of the avant-garde (mechanical reproduction, translation, Surrealism etc), from whose articles a lot of these ideas about avant-garde are still coming.

It's also true that a lot of supposed avant-garde qualities excludes almost all American poetry.

Susan Howe's Emily Dickinson seems more insightful when it comes to talking about a lot of these American poets.

I'll look forward to reading your wife's book. Sounds super.

I think I'm a splitter too. Entries like this one is mainly meant to disrupt the easy distinctions that people are throwing around.


6:24 AM  
Blogger Jasper Bernes said...

It's an important distinction, for sure, Johannes, even if it's not one that always admits of mutually exclusive definition. I'm not sure I think it incorrect to define the European avant-garde as antagonistic to mass culture. Certainly, there was also an antagonism to high culture. And there was definitely an *engagement* with mass culture. But the attitude doesn't strike me as one of embrace or acceptance either. More an attempt to use mass cultural elements as the foundation for some sort of alternative, but still non-bourgeois, mass culture--or so says the Burger book. The idea of an avant-garde that embraces bourgeois commodity culture--a torch carried by Kenny G. and Christian Bok--only comes in once the neo-a-g (Warhol and Co.) rediscover Dada as embalmed by Madison Avenue. For that reason, it's not exactly correct to call such artists avant-garde, however much Schwitters blazed that trail.

Which is also to say that modernism in many cases grows out of an initially avant-garde position. This is as true of Pound as it is of Picasso, both of whom began as a-gardistes (or passed through the avant-garde) and ended as paragons of modernism. This might be true of Ron as well.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Well, Jasper this becomes something like a definition game - ie what you mean by "embrace" or "engage".

It's absolutely true for example that both Futurism and Dada identified with jazz music - called themselves jazz poets etc - definitely embraced it (in a way a certain Mr Adorno did not). Henry Parland, Cocteau and many others absolutely loved Chaplin. Cendrars wrote film scripts (and I think Prose of the TransSiberian can be seen as a kind of commentary on film) and wanted to make a kind of visual language out of film. There's a real utopian phase of a-g's engagement with mass culture.

But they didn't see it as "bourgeois." If that's what you mean (they had a totally different idea of the bourgeoisie at that point.). In fact they strangely saw it as in many ways the antithesis of the bourgeois, contemplative art of the 19th century (Richard Murphy makes the argument that the a-g was interested in a return to art as affect, not art as object of contemplation). However, when the talkies came along, many saw them as the bourgeois-ification of film, a return to the 19th century.

Michael North's book Camera works analyzes this connection to great detail.

I also don't agree with you that Warhol was the first to embrace mass-produced culture (though perhaps we can say that he embraced a later stage of capitalism). Benjamin's "mechanical reproduction" seems important here. Not to mention Henry Parland!

Maybe I misunderstand you.

You shouldn't trust Burger all that much. He's often reductive and writing out of *his* time period (early 1970s Germany, pretty much the most radical context possible). Some serious flaws in that book.

Backstrom's article in Action, Yes deals a bit with this.

You make a good point about how modernism may appear to "grow out of" a-g. But I'll quibble with the words "grow out of" - That suggests that the a-g is base and modernism more advanced.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, "the variety theater".

11:41 AM  
Blogger Jasper Bernes said...

I'm not taking a position any different, really, than Benjamin's. Risk of excessive generalization aside, interest in film technology or advertising or cabaret didn't necessitate an acceptance (much less a celebration) of the uses to which those things were put at the time. The attraction, it seems, lay in bending such forms to new purposes, ones that were not merely culinary. And one can hardly deny Duchamp's condescension for those chocolate grinders. Nor deny the merdes in Merz.

And, like I said, I agree it's important not to confuse this with the appeal to a high cultural preserve of absolute autonomy from mass culture.

Still, the absence of critical distance that you get in, say, Warhol or Johns in the 50s strikes me as entirely different. And interesting, in its own right, for that difference.

9:20 PM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...

Inserting the word "bourgeois" into this discussion is a little like wedging a chisel into a hairline fracture: it brings to light the tensions involved in conceiving of "mass culture" as a unified whole. To say that a modernist artist who loved Charlie Chaplin or jazz or the Sunday funnies embraced mass culture is true, but only up to a point. Such love defined itself in large part as a rejection of many other artifacts equally representative of mass culture. Victorian knick-knacks, anyone?

Though "bourgeois" in the Marxist sense doesn't quite map onto "middle class," I do think, in the American context, that a horror of middle-class culture was involved in the particular likes and dislikes of the modernists. There's nothing particularly strange in this: they responded to mass culture the same way they did to "high culture": sorting out and praising what they loved; no surprise that they tended to reject the literary equivalents of Victorian knick-knacks. Whether that pattern of reception was anti-bourgeois in the Marxist sense, however, is another question. Jumping back to Europe for a moment: I find it interesting that Benjamin, who was certainly a Marxist, felt no such horror for middle-class culture. His interest in its artifacts was deep and abiding. Of course, Benjamin was also a scholar (and also a collector).

Jasper's right that Warhol's work represents a different pattern of reception, but in some respects it's even less of an embrace. E. E. Cummings thought Krazy Kat great art. Did Warhol think the same of Dick Tracy? Maybe he did; this isn't a subject I've looked into. But even if he did, that love is not a central fact for his work, as it was for Cummings'. And insofar as that difference is indicative of a more general historical shift, it's worth thinking through. I'm not sure, though, that the categories "high modernist" and "avant-garde" would help in that thinking. But maybe!

Ben F.

6:01 AM  
Blogger rodney k said...

Hi Johannes,

One of the questions this great post raises for me is whether "avant-garde," as a concept, really fits in an Anglophone context. Has Britain or the U.S. ever really had an "avant-garde," had room for it in their conceptual attic? Or are they condemned to be high-Modernist, fade into "experimentalists," or move to Paris?

9:06 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Thanks for the responses. I'm in grading jail and have a freaking child next room but I'll make some quick points and then return for more.

Ben is right - for a lot of the avant-garde, Victorian stuff was the bourgeoisie.

Part of what Picabia loved about mass production was indeed that it destroys the aura (the new MIT book about him digs up letters from the early 1920s between P and Benjamin to this point, thus preceeding Work of Art.. by some 10 years) and the whole signifying exchange system.

Yes, Picasso was a great Krazy Kat fan as well. As was pretty much all of the avant-garde, come to think of it. Just like they were all in love with Chaplin.There's just no way around that. The fact that it may seem incomprehensible I think is a US-2008 bias.

Rodney may be right. I have had this thought too.

But at the same time the same could be said of just about every country other than France and maybe Germany...

1:52 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, Schwitters lived in his Merzbaum. He can't have hated it that much. The same is true of Duchamp.

4:53 PM  

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