Friday, August 10, 2012

What's in Your Post-Avant Garde Toolbox? | Open Thread

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a guest columnist at The New York Times for the moment. Let's hope they decide to keep him on permanently. In his column today, he redefines "culture" in what strikes me as an important way to think about it (forgive the long quote, but it's essential to understanding my next thoughts here):
When people invoke culture in the Romney manner, what they are really invoking is a scale by which humanity may be ranked from totally dysfunctional to totally awesome. The idea is that culture is a set of irrefutable best practices, when in fact it is more like a toolbox whose efficacy depends upon the job. If you want to create a nation with a dominant entertainment media, perhaps American culture is the way to go. If you’re uninterested in presiding over a nation with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but only 5 percent of its population, perhaps not.
Whenever this particular incarnation of the culture wars erupts, I think back to my earliest experiences with my august employer, The Atlantic. On the scale of ashy to classy, I was more the former than the latter. But my relationship with the magazine often put me in the dining company of men and women who were not unused to nice things. These were the days when I powerfully believed Breyers and Entenmann’s to be pioneers in the field of antidepressants. My new companions had other beliefs, a fact evidenced by our divergent waistlines.
They organized dinners featuring several small courses, most of which were only partially eaten. The general dining practice consisted of buttering half a dinner roll, dallying with the salad, nibbling at the fish and taking a spoonful of desert. The only seconds they requested were coffee and wine.
I left the first of these dinners in bemused dudgeon. “Crazy rich white people,”  I would scoff. “Who goes to a nice dinner and leaves hungry?” In fact, they were not hungry at all. I discovered this a few dinners later, when I found myself embroiled in this ritual of half-dining. It was as though some invisible force was slowing my fork, forcing me into pauses, until I found myself nibbling and sampling my way through the meal. And when I rose both caffeinated and buzzed, I was, to my shock, completely satiated.
Like many Americans, I was from a world where “finish your plate” was gospel. The older people there held hunger in their recent memory. For generations they had worked with their arms, backs and hands. With scarcity a constant, and manual labor the norm, “finish your plate” fit the screws of their lives. I did not worry for food. I sat at my desk staring at a computer screen for much of the day. But still I ate like a stevedore. In the old world, this culture of eating kept my forebears alive. In this new one it was slowly killing me.
It was like trying to drive a nail with a monkey wrench. And it could work in reverse. I could easily see how the same social pressures that urged dietary moderation could drive someone to an eating disorder.
Using the wrong tool for the job is a problem that extends beyond the dining room. The set of practices required for a young man to secure his safety on the streets of his troubled neighborhood are not the same as those required to place him on an honor roll, and these are not the same as the set of practices required to write the great American novel. The way to guide him through this transition is not to insult his native language. It is to teach him a new one.
I've been thinking about that idea since I read it last night (yes, you can read tomorrow's news, reviews, and opinions today, thanks to the Internet): how the wrong tool for the job causes unforeseen cultural problems. I've also been thinking about it in the context of Robert Hughes' passing away. The "shock" Hughes had discussed back in the early 1980s seems almost quaint today. 
Even people unfamiliar with contemporary art are now so accustomed to the idea that its job is to oppose mainstream cultural values, that they can knowingly chuckle to themselves as they happily ignore it and carry on. Arguably, then, vanguardism has ceased to be the right tool for the job. 
OK, but I've gotten a bit ahead of myself. That assertion requires a declaration of what exactly the "job" is. What is the job of an artist? And more specific to my declaration, then, what was the tool of vanguardism designed to address? 
The original ideals of the avant-garde approach had been to position oneself between the extremes of so-called high culture and mass-produced popular culture as a means of revealing via the middle-ground something closer to the "truth" of the human condition. It was intentionally designed to be adversarial, as a means of shaking people out of the slumber of their current thinking. What happened though is a classic example of being a victim of one's own success, leading to where even the most conservative among us came to know exactly what "those wacky artists" were up to with their avant garde culture, thereby neutralizing its impact. More importantly (and disempoweringly), though, as Harold Rosenberg summed up best perhaps, this had ceased to be a credible ideal by the 1960's because culture had become "a profession one of whose aspects is the pretense of overthrowing it." 
Indeed, the jig was up. And yet, should we accept that its the "job" of the artist to capture something significant about his/her time; to reveal what is right before our eyes, and yet not obvious; to inspire and show us our follies as well as our better selves through beauty and/or wonderment; to show us and posterity our "truth"; what is the appropriate tool today to do so? 
I have some ideas about this, but am actually more interested in hearing yours at the moment. Consider this an open thread on the "right" tool for the job today.


Anonymous James McAnally said...

In the present moment, there is a desire for a form of utility not seen in most vanguards of the past century. In many areas of the art world, this is seen as a fallen avant-garde, but we have to ask, as you have, what tools are required for art to become more than shorthand for exclusivity and excess within broader culture? One "tool" is an emphasis on art in the public realm so that it is interacting with the broader culture through public interventions and interruptions that posit alternate uses of space, communication, and community. Art has to imagine alternate worlds, but for anyone to notice, it must interact with the worlds we know.

8/10/2012 11:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Sue Post said...

I am a traditionalist of the modernist persuasion, and so while I agree with your definition of the function of art in society, I believe that what remains important in today's world is not only why but also how we act, and I believe that some artist get mired in reaction. For me, formalist or aesthetic decisions or ones based on contemporary social or political issues are all capable of being used to make art that holds up over time, but only if they address the fundamentals. So I would say that the most important tool in my toolbox is my integrity.

8/10/2012 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Saskia said...

Interesting post. After you asked what is the "job" of the artist, I thought the answer to that was going to be part of the open thread. So was surprised to see you define it at the end of the post.

I like your definition, but I am wondering why "job", and "truth" are both in quotes? I promise, I'm not over-thinking this, it just makes me wonder if they are the right words for what we are talking about?

Maybe it's just that I want to follow Ta-Nehisi Coates' example and be relativist about defining job(s) of the artist(s).
Stemming from that idea, in Coates' examples, once you know what the job is, the tool seems pretty obvious.

8/10/2012 01:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My #1 Tool is Cold Precision. From There I can go anywhere. FAIR WARNING.

8/11/2012 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

If viewing my art led one to revelation, wonderment, etc., that would be a nice result but providing such is not my job. I prefer experiential to didactic learning. and prefer to think of my art as something that can be part of another's experience. There is no lesson. An immediate barrier arises when I suspect an artist of placing me within a hierarchy. That artist doesn't know me.

The tool I've always found best is the attempt, the struggle to understand myself and my surroundings. When I'm struggling, when I'm trying to cross a threshold, I'm doing something genuine.

8/11/2012 04:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The artist as political commentator has taken a severe beating with the designated savior president leading the weakest recovery in American history. This epic fail, by rights, would be fodder for artistic comment. Unfortunately, they offer blindness rather than enlightenment.

8/12/2012 02:35:00 AM  
Blogger emon sristy said...

Sometimes in life, we get stuck in the Midwest. But that is OK. Eventually we get to ride down to Hotlanta, for your Amateurs out there that need clarification we are referring to Atlanta, Georgia. South Beach

8/12/2012 08:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

what is the appropriate tool today to do so

...which implies an utility, a functionality. Whereas if one conceives art as to act as a counterbalance to the inevitable, unconscious changes brought about through the use of any technology, then instead of art being a means to an end, it might be better for art to be considered inutile, hung on walls and placed on pedestals so that all that remains to us is an approachment and openess between the art and connaisseur.

So that what is priveleged, is not a function, but a developing state of relationship, open ended, no goal in mind, revealing of the other and so ultimately of ourselves and our condition.

Art needs to be an untool, something considered frivoulous so that we can only approach it, instead of being able to use it. The 'tool' is relationship building, much like love that is undefinable but recognizable by each of us. So art without an agenda opens us to the universal through the particular. Art with an agenda is but design, addvertising or progaganda. Not that art shouldn't have integrity, but that isnt a purpose, only a way of being.

8/13/2012 10:08:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I also disagree with the notion that art should have a function, per se, and in that sense, "tool" is perhaps the wrong term, but clearly artists use methods and/or techniques with goals of better expressing themselves or enabling the viewer to see what they see in mind, so we do need to be able to discuss that somehow.

8/13/2012 10:55:00 AM  
Blogger edmundxwhite said...

I saw the Rineke Dijkstra retrospective at the Guggenheim this weekend and think she's done a wonderful job of navigating this very issue.

8/13/2012 12:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life experiences + time frame in history + Virtuoso Technique = Immortality : Bacon/Picasso /Hendrix/Carravagio, Ect.

Lets say you had a Soldier who was a good Painter knee deep in a river of blood . he comes back from the war and starts painting again VS a Mfa from Yale.

who do you think will make the better the best art?

8/13/2012 12:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

whichever medium is chosen, I'd think the artist must be engaged with it, ("if the writer doesn't cry first, then the reader can't)

I still privelege visuals

i think painting still has many more horizons to be imbued with.
2 such are:

i find shifting the heirarchy of visual cues through time based hue shifts via our rod vision opens up two distinct horizons - the paintings shifted heirarchies allows meaning beside meaning giving rise to further juxtaposed meanings (one painting , two or three fictions) and two, giving room for peripheral, light sensitive rod vision concerns speaks to our two vision systems, and steps beyond painting's historical limited focus on the defined conal vision. We have two vision systems for a reason, when painting speaks to only one, we leave a significant aspect of our way of seeing the world "unspoken". Integrating these two ways of seeing and so of knowing the world has certainly been lacking. Besides, cinema has its own sense of time, allowing painting to bring forth another unique sense of time is fun.

the vocabulary used should remain epochal

8/13/2012 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger Richard G. Crockett said...

I have never had much success proselytizing my take on this, but here it is: The role of the artist is to set goals for the society. He or she is in advance of the culture.

Corollary: If your culture is messed up, it is because not enough artists did their job, and now we pay the penalty.

8/13/2012 07:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

part of my toolset is to remind myself:

Although the nations citizens may vicariuously partake of victory of olympic athletes every 4 years, art is direct, reborn at each interaction.

Art has no equivalent to the IOC Drug testing committee, but non the less there are established norms and expectations.

The art market is a market of one, dont be confused by the museums requirement for mass market attendance.

8/14/2012 07:04:00 AM  
Blogger Danielle said...

My view is that art is a way of figuring out what it means to be human. There are many different tools with which to do that. An overused tool (yesterday's avant-garde or trope) becomes invisible. A tool too reflective of current culture is hard to see, difficult to identify as not just part of it, until enough time has passed. It must hold up. Depends on how much time you have to wait. Or if you even care if others catch up. A tool which is just advanced enough, or different enough, or honest enough, to stand out is the best one, immediacy-wise. You can even use yesterday's tool again if you modify it. Right now one of my tools is color. Pure, simple, nostalgic color.

8/14/2012 04:09:00 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

The tool will probably be a trope and/or a meme.

8/14/2012 06:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Eron Rauch said...

This is a fantastic question. I am winging this, but I think there are two tools that are relevant to art in the "post-avant garde," at least in how I approach art. Not having set this down in words before, I would probably name them "pause" and "bridge."

First, "pause" is valuable because spectacle, shock and noise are now the norms of our current living/social environment. Art that can be leveraged to create a pause, or a mediative moment, or a small refreshing of senses in the midst of the 24/7 deluge of global-media-multitasking-immersion will be potent: Take the"slow food" movement's "radicalism", and imagine now how relevant a "slow image" movement might be.

The second, "bridge" is a valuable tool because of the way that post-industrial, post-globalized, post-internet social groups tend to hyper-balkanize. Nowhere is this more rampant than in music, where people who like neo-slowcore-black-gaze will hardly talk to people who like retro-shoegaze-slow-blackcore. This ever-tightening circling of the cultural wagons means that art which creates avenues conducive for travel between these encampments will be invaluable (even if it is often grudgingly accepted). The artist's radicalism isn't offered in the traditional avant mode of direct challenge to a hegemony, but instead by pointing out similarities between seemingly divergent socio-cultural groups. I'm not talking about silly universalist "group hug" type work, but instead work that, points out that two groups are working on understanding similar ideas, even if the vocabulary and statuses are different.

To dig a bit in to the original meanings of the words, this isn't the avant garde of an approaching army set to destroy, but the pathfinder who creates routes through the wilderness for ideas and people to flow between isolated groups.

[As an observation/aside, this "bridge-work" of work seems to be inflected with that same inherent sense of irony and humor that is produced when you have two friends who you have long wanted to meet, but when they do they spend all their time nitpicking and arguing with each other.]

Anyway, these are two of the major tools that I use in my own work and also find interesting in the work of others across the contemporary field. Again, a fantastically interesting question.

8/14/2012 06:48:00 PM  
Blogger findingfabulous said...

Maybe art and culture in the traditional context is now just a way to unite a bunch of people who like tho think about "fine art" in a cerebral context. One big salon. I bet Gertrude et al were all about us (who get it) and them. Still, some riveting things appear but not with the intent of changing the word but rather for uniting those who "appreciate it". And what used to be the avant-garde probably now resides firmly in pop culture and social media. the internet meme maybe.

8/14/2012 08:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose it depends on how you view the mainstream. After all, the mainstream media clearly has a leftist slant to it (you'll find way more news articles criticizing Romney then you will Obama). The same goes for movies and novels. Liberalism, in many ways, has become the new mainstream. Thus, it is impossible for artwork hailing liberal ideals to be considered avant garde.

In fact, if it is 'going against the grain' that you are seeking, it would almost have to be found in some ultra-right wing artwork or artwork targeting 'left accepted' social concepts.

8/15/2012 02:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

I'd chirp in that that bridge would be awesome between eras and epochs and not simply within a generation.

History and future still are significant.

8/15/2012 06:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Eron Rauch said...

@Gam — I think that is a good catch for an additional use of bridging, since part of the challenge of existing both as an artist and as a person in the hyperkinetic global information rush is it's insinuation of an ahistorical world — A world of instant amnesia where context is so schizophrenic that it context seems pointless. This isn't true, of course, but it is in the interest of the 24/7 media and internet to exploit this sense of non-history. Looking more closely at it, even in my own work, it seems as though bridgework always ends up with a significant historical component.

8/15/2012 12:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

King Tutankhamun would buy my work.
so would the Greek Philosophers.

The Romans and Christians would find me threatening and hunt me like a Dog.

I could sell my work to the Muslims and Indians empires of old.

In the yEar 2012
Most Women dont like my work .
I Make Dude Art , I make a very narrow brand of dude art the weeds out a lot of people.

Russian Oligarchs and Arab Shieks would buy my work if i could reach them. Donald Trump or Mayor Bloomberg would not buy my work.

8/15/2012 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

What I'm constantly reminded of anymore is how insignificant we are. We always have been but are now more aware of it. That doesn't mean we can't effect change both positive or negative but that change is seen within a wider context. So a sense of futility seems significant. Forget categorization - that is so 2 years ago.

I like Gam's idea of painting, and perhaps, attention to history leading the way. That feels right.

8/15/2012 07:59:00 PM  
Blogger Astrid said...

@ Eron Rauch. Pause and bridge are really beautiful touchstone words for an artist. I am going to borrow your thought as I move forward. The two words that sprang to my mind while reading Ed's rumination (as tools I constantly reach for)

The personal

And the specific.

For me those two words dovetail nicely with yours.

A great way to start the day, thinking about such things.

8/29/2012 07:47:00 AM  

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