Monday, October 25, 2010

Whatever Happened to the Avant Garde?

One of my favourite recurring discussions is about "whatever happened to the avant garde?" Salt publisher Chris Hamilton-Emery has raised the question on Facebook....

"What is now avant about the UK avant-garde? When everything is permitted and supported, and much experimental practice is now 100 years old, are we left with modal adjustments and questions of tone and affiliation? Can it be possible to make it new? Or merely make it again?"

It's a broad-brush question using "avant garde" to mean experimental literatures spinning from modernism, rather than a particular sub-genre. I tend to prefer the term Experimental Literature - and tend to use it to mean writing that is deliberately experimental, rather than writing which is genuinely new. Therefore George Eliot and "The Dubliners" are equally excluded, though they both offer something new, whilst "Finnegan's Wake" is included. There are a few experimental literatures that become mainstreamed I guess - the toolkit you find in "Ulysses" or "The Wasteland" is frequently used in contemporary mainstream literature, yet you can still read "Tender Buttons" and see the shock of the new as its impossible to assimilate it. I wonder if that's what we really mean by experimental literature, just the same as what we mean by experimental music. Chuck Berry may have been the shock of the new, so was "The Rites of Spring", but both are assimilated to the extent that we would tend not to include either in a survey of experimental rock or classical music. Throbbing Gristle and John Cage remain un-assimilated. I originally wrote "Velvet Underground", but they too have been - car adverts and influencers - perhaps its only time that matters here.

There's a tendency to think in terms of new "forms" - yet form and content seem to be entangled, necessarily. And I realise already I'm making a distinction between modernism, which one can consider a sensibility as much as a movement, and experimental writing, which might be seen as a genre in its own right, with its own conventions and orthodoxies. A history of experimental literature finds room for Sterne, but not for F. Scott Fitzgerald.

There's clearly an artistic aesthetic that we need to consider here as well. For to choose, is to also condemn - what we like and don't like. Yet if the music lover can be a Stockhausen fans who can listen to Queen, heaven forbid, then we need to fall back on our personal aesthetics. Is someone who only listens to extreme music really a lover of music at all? Or are they as limited as the Eurovision song contest completist?

And it's not always the case that one's taste is reflected in one's talent. We are not all Stuckists, mirroring our orthodoxies of taste with our orthodoxies of creation; rather it might happen the other way round - we write a poem, or a story or a novel and then look around to find the historical justification and lineage. I don't think we have the "anxiety of influence" so much as the need for it. A nature poet will find it easier: the lineage is there, whether Ted Hughes, John Clare or William Wordsworth; than, say, a British political poet (though if we ever find another great political poet, then he will too find his lineage, and Wordsworth is in that last as well.) In this sense, the role of the avant garde remains as it always has, as a questioning alternate history, that, given a fair wind, and, more importantly, talented writers, will rewrite that history to include and exclude different writers. But it requires that talent. If it is the Patersons, Armitages and Duffy's that are the defining British talents of the age, then it's likely that the historical lineage gets rewritten in a different way than if its a less obviously conventional bunch; yet their backgrounds are themselves unorthodox, perhaps that was the bigger hurdle, and communicating with a wider audience was the bigger leap of faith? If our experimental poets are just that, experimenters, or are indifferent talents, then there's not much chance of rescuing the past from those who are more conventional. Modernism may die with the last of us to care about it.

There have been several attempts over the years to will into existence a British avant garde - in fiction, particularly; and yet its a hard case to make; and perhaps only becomes makeable when you include big name writers like Burgess and Lessing alongside B.S. Johnson and Ann Quinn. We wait in vain for Stewart Home's masterpiece; for J.H. Prynne's crossover work.

It's this orthodoxy that worries me - and on both sides of the divide. I would hope young (or newer) writers, however "mainstream" their sensibility would not be deterred from experiments with form or content or language, but in the current literary climate, any interest in those things seems to define writers as outsiders, even if they are literary insiders. On the other hand, a novel as strange as "Wolf Hall" or "Cloud Atlas" is defined by its success and its conventionality, rather than by its strangeness. In Britain, that orthodoxy is accentuated by a suspicion of the foreign and the different. The shortlist for the inaugural Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry was laughably conventional. Like contemporary pop music, where the sub-Madonnaisms of Lady Gaga are marketed with an edgy subtext, contemporary writing remains too willing to please and be marketed; and "experimental writing" becomes a ghetto out of which it is hard to travel without papers.


David Rose said...

Interesting stuff. Surely the answer is that the avant-garde no longer exists. A comparison with the visual arts is helpful. There, the avant-garde died in the Sixties, strangled in the embrace of the art establishment as curators and critics all tried to get in on the creative action (see Thomas Crow's The Rise of the Sixties). So although Hirst, Emin et al. like to think of themselves as edgy outsiders, they are in fact the establishment, the academy.
It had to be: a Duchampian gesture can only be made once, Malevich's White Square on a White Ground can only be done once. After that comes chasing after novelty.
I liked your point about Experimentalism as an end, an orthodoxy in itself. The composer Peter Maxwell Davies once said there is no such thing as experimental music: if the experiment works, it is an acieved work of art; if it fails, it is a failure. I see the logic, but that is disingenuous. For there are composers like Britten who were able to say new things in the existing language, and those like Tippett, who had to invent a language of their own, which others then learnt.
It comes down to motive. Take Finnegans Wake. Much was made of Joyce's "Revolution Of The Word" and comparisons made with Shakespeare's late wordplay. But Leavis was quick to point out that Shakespeare's inventions were born of the impulse, the pressure, to express difficult thought, not play for the sake of play.
Maybe the point is, we no longer need a self-defined avant-garde. What we do need, always will, is a willingness to take risks in the pursuit of new angles on the world, using whatever means are at hand, inventing new means as needed, and allowing the results to find their place, whether in the mainstream or on the margins.
Here's to the New.

litrefs said...

I'm not sure I know the difference between "avant garde" and "experimental". Naively I say that the "avant garde" has pretensions to being the first of many, whereas "experimental" is just trying something. The avant garde has been reportedly dead for years, and confused with other terms for years - "[from 1960] the poetic avant-garde was drawn into the mainstream of American literary life: since then there has been no avant-garde, though there have been poseurs", Robert von Hallberg; "The original notion of experimental literature as an avant-garde movement parallel to abstract visual art loses its general validity at the moment when this literary vanguardism was reduced to typographic and sound poems. The true counter-movement to conventional, descriptive use of language is based rather on the discovery that one can move in language as if in another world, without having to cling to connections, objective facts, and events", Heissenbuttel; "If we are all postmodernists, we are none of us avant-garde, for postmodernism is the institutionalisation of the avant-garde", David Lehman; "Latter-day discussions of avant-garde, alternative, experimental, innovative or investigative cultural products generally are species of nostalgia.", David Kennedy; "It has become a critical commonplace in recent years to proclaim the end of the avant-garde. According to Andrew Ross, Andreas Huyssen, and other theorists of postmodern culture, the lines between popular culture and avant-garde (high) culture and between mainstream and oppositional aesthetics have been blurred in all the arts...Postmodernism, they claim, revealed the 'high modernist dogma' of avant-gardism as fundamentally sterile and outmoded", Christopher Beach; "As a form of human behaviour, experimental writing clearly belongs with play: immature members of the group dress up in eccentric clothing, walk in eccentric ways (on one foot, for example), paint their faces, make non-linguistic noises, refuse to speak in words, make up imaginary languages. In developmental psychological terms, games serve to rehearse people (or monkeys or cats) in complex behaviour patterns, needing practice; [...] Young animals play the games most suited to their inner state and developmental needs at any time; games are not arbitrary but pre-selected by innate self-organizing learning programs. [...] What the avantgarde seem to be playing at is practice making up rules and telling other people what to do and disapproving of them if they don't comply. ", Andrew Duncan).

I would hope young (or newer) writers, however "mainstream" their sensibility would not be deterred from experiments with form or content or language - and there are signs that this is so. The special section of the latest 2 Rialto issues, or even "Identity Parade" show that there's hope.

Bournemouth Runner said...

The good thing about starting a discussion like this is what other's bring to the table. David, I think it's so right that we look at the literary avant garde (whatever that means) in the context of music and visual art, and I sometimes wonder at a literature that seems oblivious to what's happened, and happening in other art forms. The YBAs may not be establishment exactly, but they're clearly courted and financed by the establishment. (Just in the same way that investors in Google and Apple are the same investors as used to exist for General Motors etc.)

Litrefs, I'd not seen the Heissenbuttel quote before but its an apt one. (Though one could argue that Postmodernism is over, and that we're still left with the unfinished business of modernism.) I'm reading Nathan's selections for the Rialto, and will probably write about it shortly.