Thursday, January 11, 2007

Who Is the REAL Avant Garde?

In 1982, Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard published in Art in America (Vol 70 Number 4 April 1982) an article entitled "Grass ROOTS Vanguard" in which they argued that the REAL avant garde artists were not the seemingly alienated experimental artists identified by the art world, but rather the "neighborhood artists" who step outside the marketplace to create art. They write:

A neighborhood artist (sometimes called a community artist or an animateur) is someone whose work consists of placing artistic skills at the service of a community (neighborhood art thus also requires the skills of a community organizer — the ability to explain, assist and to learn from others). He or she abandons the old idea of the artist as a person who is set apart from others. "Artistic alienation" then takes on another meaning. It is alienation from the values of the marketplace and the snobbery of the academy, from the pabulum in commercial culture and the bland acceptability in government art.

The conventional idea of the avant-garde equates alienation from the values of the marketplace with alienation from all aspects of society: if the artist refuses to assume the values of the official culture, the only alternative is to be an isolated individual, a law unto oneself. But neighborhood artists are not alienated from their communities. They have chosen a role which demands that their work be valued for its utility to those communities. This is a standard of value which is completely separate from the question of marketability or acceptance by critics and agents. But how have members of this new avant-garde come to their work? Certainly a few have simply followed the logic of innovation, moving by increments outside the gallery or theater and into the life of a community. But most have acted deliberately to avoid the circumscribed role to which artists in our society are consigned.

We have spoken with many groups of young artists — in art school seminars, panel discussions, and in workshops designed to offer "pointers" on grants and marketing. These meetings tend to be suffused with powerlessness and desperation, and for good reason. Often, the lot of the young ambitious artist is to be a kind of Sleeping Beauty, one who must wait to be "discovered" and whose mode of life is to prepare for this discovery. The artist then alternates between fond hope and despair — and frustration at enforced passivity and the capriciousness of "success."

The new avant-garde — the neighborhood arts movement — is not waiting to be discovered. Justification and gratification are inherent to neighborhood art; they are not postponed until the verdict of arbiters of success is given. Neighborhood artists want their work to have impact, to have meaning to others. Each day they are able to see that art can help transform the experience of the members of a community. Their work is thus not the expression of a single sensibility, but part of a continuing dialogue among the members of a community.

Read the whole article by clicking on the above link, and then think hard about your categories...


parabasis said...

perhaps we should just think hard about categories in general, and exactly how much value they actually hold. In other words, is debating which group is the real avant garde worth anything?

I certainly believe that much of what is called "Experimental" is actually extemely conventional-- just obeying a different set of (often self-determined) conventions.

What are your thoughts, Walters?

Alison Croggon said...

Firstly, this is about visual arts, and I'm not sure that you can really compare the dynamics of visual arts and theatre - they are very different. It's impossible to be a theatre maker and not to be aware of community. I don't know one theatre artist who is not interested in creating a community.

Also, I don't know one single artist - poet or theatre maker - who would describe him or herself as avant garde. Most object strenuously when they are labelled that way. Ionesco points out the silliness of the term (how can you know you're the vanguard of something that hasn't happened yet, and mightn't happen anyway?) And on the whole, it isn't artists who set themselves aside. They are set aside by the values which that commercial sales, critical validity etc are the criteria on which their work must be judged. That isn't a redefinition of "artistic alienation" at all. (Yes, we have moved on from Rousseau - can we take it for granted, please? It's 2007).

I don't know of any interesting theatre artist - even Alan Ayckbourne - who works to the demands of the "market". "Real" artists are in it for something else. This passivity - and I have observed it - seems to inhabit those with no ideas or passions of their own, who are told and then believe that is how things work, and take their values from those places. I first really noticed this is poetry here when creative writing programs started to take hold, about 20 years ago...

Scott Walters said...

Isaac and Alison -- The problem is that theatre artists claim the moniker "avant garde" when it suits them (and while "experimental" may have replaced "avant garde" -- remember, the article is 20+ years old -- the concept remains the same). The point being made -- and yes, it is referencing visual arts, but it is by two writers who are also deeply involved in all of the art forms -- is that when one focuses purely on the community, one steps outside the star-making economy. The young, experimental Edward Albee is suddenly tapped on the shoulder and hurled into the international limelight with Burton and Taylor appearing in the film version of his work. Adams and Goldbard are saying that this fantasy is in the back of even the most resolutely experimental artist (Richard Foreman takes "Threepenny Opera" to Broadway), but community-based artists, through the very nature of the artistic choices they have made, step outside this possibility. Traditional playwrights, mainstream or experimental, usually insist that they are writing "universal" plays (although if you wish to be disabused of this notion, read Laura Bohannon's "Shakespeare in the Bush<" which undermines the universal messages of "Macbeth" hilariously -- But Community-based artists make no such claim, and do so proudly. Their plays and productions are by, for, and about the community in which they perform. If there are others who can find something in their plays, that is fine, but it is not a concern. By maintaining this local focus, they have stepped outside the global arts economy completely -- thus the claim.

Of course, as Isaac points out, labels are odious, and I don't think the primary purpose of the article is to wrestle over the term avant garde, but rather to claim an artistic position for community-based artists that demands respect as an intentional artistic choice. Both mainstream and experimental theatre artists have had a tendency to dismiss community-based artists with a variety of adjectives (sociological, amateur, narrowly-focused, etc), and this article asks that such artists be taken seriously.

As a sidenote: I still see an awful lot of Rousseauian rhetoric in the theatre blogosphere. Alienation from the mainstream is still a badge of honor.

By the way, Isaac, I'm not certain if your question about my thoughts is asking me to focus on my own ideas rather than quoting and linking. If so, I have decided lately that part of the power of blogging is drawing attention through linking. There is a great deal of very, very interesting material at the Community Arts Network website, and I would like to use my little platform to draw attention to some of those articles. This may mean that, at times, my own voice will be subsumed in that of another. But I think that has value, if others are led to discover these marvelous voices.