The Avant-Garde Is So Passé

There may be fewer things less avant-garde than the avant-garde. If the avant-garde is supposed to be the “advance guard” of art, leading the way, pushing the boundaries of the accepted, challenging the status quo, critiquing art itself and the relationships among the artists, the art, and the audience, then what we are still calling avant-garde art is anything but.

The primary home of the contemporary avant-garde are our universities. What could possibly be a surer sign of the full institutionalization of the avant-garde than the fact that professors are the primary movers and shakers in avant-gardism? Literally nothing has changed in 100 years — it’s the same dadism, surrealism, theater of the absurd — it’s the same attempt to “shock” the audience, using the same images, the same methods over and over and over. It is now normal art.

Thomas Kuhn developed the idea that science evolves through paradigm shifts and periods of what he called normal science. That is, during periods of normal science, everyone is investigating the last Big Idea(s) until there isn’t much left to investigate and the models are starting to fail to describe the world now that the parts of the world that the ideas did describe have been thoroughly investigated. This then creates the conditions for a paradigm shift — big ideas take over again — which is then followed by another period of normal science in the fallout, when everyone more or less agrees on which of the big ideas of the paradigm shift were right.

Art goes through exactly the same cycles, from normal art to renaissance to normal art. Hegel theorized the “end of art” because he came at the end of the big idea of romanticism and was seeing the vast majority of artists simply investigating that idea. Danto later made the same declaration after seeing Warhol’s Brillo Boxes — but he was saying that after seeing the beginning of the period of normal art we call postmodernism that is nothing more than the continued investigation of everything the Modernists did. And that’s why nothing that the postmodernists do is edgy, or even all that interesting. They are simply working at the margins, going over and over ground the Modernists already covered, trying to find some small space that hasn’t been walked over, and finding less and less that hasn’t.

Thus, what we see now is artists and audiences giving each other a wink and a nod that something interesting is happening. The audience may not know exactly what to expect, but when things get going (in, say, a performance), it is not long before the audience is thinking to themselves, “Oh, okay! This is going to be a violation of the frame of the theater, just like . . .” and then they think of two dozen artists who did the same exact kind of thing. The audiences who show up aren’t going to be surprised or shocked, but because they are the kind of people who show up to avant-garde art shows, they get to consider themselves cool and edgy. But it’s really all just a simulacrum of cool and edgy, from a simulacrum of surprise and shock. The whole thing is itself a performance, where everyone pretends that what is going on is experimental, radical, unorthodox, innovative, and a critique of something, but which in fact is none of the above, having been thoroughly institutionalized long ago.

I say all of this as someone who actually enjoys Postmodern and Modern art. I have actually read The Surrealist Manifesto(s) by Andre Breton and was influenced by his ideas for a while. I get it. But I also don’t think that it’s remotely on the edge anymore. It hasn’t been for a long, long time. Even Warhol’s Brillo Boxes is really nothing more than a kind of inversion of Duchamp’s Fountain — where Duchamp took a regular, known object and signed it to present it as a work of art, Warhol created an artwork that was indistinguishable from a regular, known object. Both blurred the real-world-object/art distinction in subtly different ways, but really they were the same investigation. With Warhol, the age of normal art began. And we are still in it.

And that’s why there’s not a great deal of respect for the arts right now. What is more boring than normal art? Or, in fact, normal science? I think that science is facing a lot of problems right now because it is in need of a significant paradigm shift, but it’s still stuck in normal science mode. The same is true of art. Both are supported by institutions — government and universities — that reward conservatism and the status quo. So-called shocking art gets mostly eyerolls and ridicule from the people who are supposed to be shocked, while the people who show up to the shows are mostly self-congratulatory on how they “get” it. Bad news: everyone gets it. There’s nothing special about the avant-garde. Not anymore. Not for a long, long time.

Perhaps the most revolutionary work of art today is one of the most popular: Hamilton. Here’s an idea: let’s do a hip-hop musical on one of the founding fathers of the U.S. and make the entire cast nothing but minorities! But wait! What we have here is a combination of postmodernism (the choice of cast, among others), including pop culture elements (hip-hop), and some more traditional elements (a history play, the use of rhythmic speech and rhyme, etc.). Lin-Manuel Miranda has managed to bring together the history of the Broadway musical, history itself, hip-hop, avant-gardism, Shakespearean elements, and traditional costumes to create something completely new and revolutionary. And the fact that it’s wildly popular is no argument against it, because that means he actually is able to present some fairly controversial artistic ideas to people who would otherwise snub their nose at them. In the controversy surrounding the current Vice President’s attendance of Hamilton, what everyone seemed to miss was that he was there at all. A socially conservative Republican. At a hip-hop musical with a minority cast representing the Founding Fathers. Seriously. Now that is revolutionary art.