Friday, January 7, 2011

The Fate of the Avant-Garde: an historical document

Does anyone know Richard Chase's essay, "The Fate of the Avant-Garde," which originally appeared in
Partisan Review waaay back in 1957? It used to be quite famous, but seems to have fallen into obscurity, though it does get cited now and then.

In view of some recent blogging about this very subject, and to augment my own questions on the subject (e.g., How big is an avant-garde? Is the avant-garde a permanent movement? Etc.), I herewith present, for your entertainment and/or enlightenment, some brief excerpts.


It is the custom nowadays to pronounce the avant-garde dead. But the fact seems to be that under modern conditions the avant-garde is a permanent movement. Far from being merely the isolated band of highbrows and sterile academicians many Americans think it is, the vanguard of writers and artists has been, for more than one hundred and fifty years, a necessary part of the cultural economy, and the health of culture depends upon its recurring impulse to experimentation, its search for radical values, its historical awareness, its flexibility, and receptivity to experience, its polemical intransigence.

Historically the avant-garde is the heir to the aristocratic coterie or court circle of artists and intellectuals. But whereas the aristocratic coterie of medieval and Renaissance times had no commitment except to itself and posterity and consequently felt free to cultivate the disinterested pursuit of art and ideas apart from the rest of society, history has imposed upon the modern avant-garde the duty not only of disinterestedly cultivating art and ideas but of educating and leading an aimless body of philistine taste and opinion.

The historical role of the avant-garde was thus necessitated by the breakdown of the aristocratic class and by the spread of literacy. After the eighteenth century, the democratization of culture and the new literacy confronted the advanced intelligence with a newly arisen welter of taste and opinion which, left to itself, found no other standards than the conformism, at once aggressive and complacent, of the bourgeoisie. In this situation, the dissident intellectual, himself characteristically a bourgeois, found his mission. The mediocrity and, as it were, historical helplessness of his class in matter of art and ideas were an open invitation to his powers of discrimination and foresight. At the same time, his instinct for self-preservation and his powers of polemic were animated and challenged by the hostility with which his efforts were met.


What has happened to the avant-garde in our "suspended" culture of the 1950's is a psychological equivalent of what has happened to it sociologically. Sociologically, it has been institutionalized by the universities and the publishers, which by definition means that in its modern phase it has to come to an end. At the same time, it has been internalized, so to speak, in the flexibly dialectical mind of contemporary criticism. In this withdrawal from the field of action it finds a possibility of continued life. The resiliency of the best critical minds must be counted on the keep the avant-garde alive during periods which have no immediate task for its polemical mission.

Yet the task of the temperamental or born avant-garde critic is not limited to the polemical purpose of converting the philistines to art. He is also perennially the disinterested student and historian of culture, looking into the past and the present for the radical and not merely the contingent and incidental facts. The past convinces him that discontinuity and contradiction have always been of the essence of American culture. The present convinces him that among critics only the most powerful and resilient of "suspended" minds are capable of keeping alive the avant-garde spirit, or any spirit, or of embodying cultural contradictions of any sort without collapsing under the great strain into a formless middle way of feeling and thought. Who can doubt that this formless middle way of feeling and thought, with its increasing moralism and conventionality, is hardening into the new "cake of custom?" As for the future, one can only believe that the end of the present interim period will be marked by a new resurgence from the uneasy subliminal depths of our culture, in the classic manner of avant-garde action - provided, that is, that 1950 marks the end of a phase of American culture as we have known it, and not the end of that culture itself.


N.B. PR's editor, William Phillips, described the modern artist as "a suspended" person who "keeps the balance of opposing forces." Ur-hybridism?! PR writer Lionel Trilling similarly viewed culture as "nothing if not a dialectic. And in any culture there are likely to be certain artists who contain a large part of the dialectic within themselves..."


Now. Remember Steve Allen?? It always bugged me, what he did with Elvis Presley and that hound dog on his TV show.

And yet... This is from a note he wrote in 1960:

Interesting point: modern art, modern jazz, modern sculpture, modern poetry, modern politics, modern science, modern philosophy, etc., seem to leap far ahead of their audiences. The mass audience, which evidently will never learn, is not content to say "I just don't understand this new jazz." The usual comment is "It's not funny ... it's not jazz ... it's not poetry," etc.


OK, let's get back to the "present" situation. Bob Archambeau says:

"... we need some kind of a deep, non-anecdotal understanding of the relationship between poetry and power, something that gets beyond claiming that one or another poet is resistant to, or complicit with, the powers-that-be."

You can read his thoughts on the a-g (or shall we say arrière-gardisme?) here. And John Gallaher's here.


Rodanthi said...

I m doing research on the Dada movement at MIT, and I keep bumping into Richard Chase's citation. Do you happen to have the pdf of his "Fate of the Avant-Garde"? Thanks!

Don Share said...

You should be able to find it in the 1962 tome, The Partisan review anthology, prob'ly avail via MIT library or BPL, or if not, interlibrary loan. Cheers!