Avant-garde - Avant-garde and Mainstream Society

Avant-garde and Mainstream Society

See also: Media culture and Spectacle (critical theory)

The concept of avant-garde refers primarily to artists, writers, composers and thinkers whose work is opposed to mainstream cultural values and often has a trenchant social or political edge. Many writers, critics and theorists made assertions about vanguard culture during the formative years of modernism, although the initial definitive statement on the avant-garde was the essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch by New York art critic Clement Greenberg, published in Partisan Review in 1939. As the essay’s title suggests, Greenberg argued that vanguard culture has historically been opposed to "high" or "mainstream" culture, and that it has also rejected the artificially synthesized mass culture that has been produced by industrialization. Each of these media is a direct product of Capitalism—they are all now substantial industries—and as such they are driven by the same profit-fixated motives of other sectors of manufacturing, not the ideals of true art. For Greenberg, these forms were therefore kitsch: phony, faked or mechanical culture, which often pretended to be more than they were by using formal devices stolen from vanguard culture. For instance, during the 1930s the advertising industry was quick to take visual mannerisms from surrealism, but this does not mean that 1930s advertising photographs are truly surreal. It was a matter of style without substance. In this sense Greenberg was at pains to distance true avant-garde creativity from the market-driven fashion change and superficial stylistic innovation that are sometimes used to claim privileged status for these manufactured forms of the new consumer culture.

A similar view was likewise argued by assorted members of the Frankfurt School, including Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass-Deception (1944), and also Walter Benjamin in his highly influential "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). Where Greenberg used the German word kitsch to describe the antithesis of avant-garde culture, members of the Frankfurt School coined the term mass culture to indicate that this bogus culture is constantly being manufactured by a newly emerged Culture industry (comprising commercial publishing houses, the movie industry, the record industry, the electronic media). They also pointed out that the rise of this industry meant that artistic excellence was displaced by sales figures as a measure of worth: a novel, for example, was judged meritorious solely on whether it was a best-seller, music succumbed to ratings charts and the blunt commercial logic of the Gold disc. In this way the autonomous artistic merit so dear to the vanguardist was abandoned and sales increasingly became the measure, and justification, of everything. Consumer culture now ruled.

The avant-garde's co-option by the global capitalist market, by neoliberal economies, and by what Guy Debord called The Society of the Spectacle, have made contemporary critics speculate on the possibility of a meaningful avant-garde today. Paul Mann's Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde demonstrates how completely the avant-garde is embedded within institutional structures today, a thought also pursed by Richard Schechner in his analyses of avant-garde performance.

Despite the central arguments of Greenberg, Adorno and others, the term "avant-garde" has been co-opted and misapplied by various sectors of the mainstream culture industry since the 1960s, chiefly as a marketing tool to publicise popular music and commercial cinema. It is now common to describe successful rock musicians and celebrated film-makers as avant-garde, the very word having been stripped of its proper meaning. Noting this important conceptual shift, major contemporary theorists such as Matei Calinescu in Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (1987), and Hans Bertens in The Idea of the Postmodern: A History (1995), have suggested that this is a sign our culture has entered a new post-modern age, when the former modernist ways of thinking and behaving have been rendered redundant.

Nevertheless the most incisive critique of the vanguardism against the views of mainstream society was offered by the New York critic Harold Rosenberg in the late 1960s. Trying to strike a balance between the insights of Renato Poggioli and the claims of Clement Greenberg, Rosenberg suggested that from the mid-1960s onward progressive culture ceased to fulfill its former adversarial role. Since then it has been flanked by what he called "avant-garde ghosts" to the one side, and a changing mass culture on the other, both of which it interacts with to varying degrees. This has seen culture become, in his words, "a profession one of whose aspects is the pretense of overthrowing it."

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