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.