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Pre-Homeric Management Secrets

"Avant to Be Alone"

In its origins, the notion of an avante-garde is a military one: the literal meaning of this French military expression refers to the "advance guard," the force of troops that arrives first and, by definition, is there to prepare the way for those who come after. An avant-garde cannot last if it remains an avant-garde: If the main force does not appear in its wake, the advance guard is merely an isolated aberration with no purpose. If the main force arrives and prevails then it, and not the avant-garde, defines the situation thereafter; the members of the advance guard, possibly with a medal or two, are reabsorbed into the newly dominant force. Whether by its success or its failure, an avant-garde should quickly either disappear or become part of the usual scenery.

Almost every artistic or literary approach that we might now take for granted was once avant-garde. Byron and Shelley were scandals in their day, but they and their Romantic approach have been comfortably mainstream for centuries. The experiments with color and form of painters such as Whistler or Turner caused no end of perplexity and drew no end of scorn when first revealed, but today are taken for granted as part of the basic painterly vocabulary. The high Moderns -- Pound, Eliot, Picasso, Dali and the Surrealists, Le Corbusier and the like -- have reached or are fast approaching the century mark. Even a work as initially impenetrable as Ulysses has grown tame: Joyce’s structural and linguistic tricks and techniques feature in the standard toolbox for contemporary novelists, and have now for decades. And so on.

For every avant-garde impulse that has succeeded -- in the sense that the territory into which the vanguard launched its assault has been more or less successfully occupied by the cultural troops that followed -- the field is littered with avant-gardes that failed, ideas and approaches that proclaimed themselves the wave of the future but that are now seen as quaint antiques, dead ends or mere oddities. Pre-Raphaelites, anyone? (Mind you, one of my shameful aesthetic secrets is that I am rather fond of the Pre-Raphaelites. Except perhaps in the decorative arts (by way of William Morris), their influence was ultimately minimal and they survive as little more than a picturesque artistic cul de sac.) It is worth recalling that Custer was heading up an avant-garde at the Little Bighorn.

One troublesome sort of avant-garde is one that succeeds, but then outstays its welcome. The International Style in architecture is a good example, as Michael Blowhard has suggested here. In fact, he suggests here that Modernism as a whole might serve as such an example.

Another potential avant-garde trap lies in a movement that seeks “newness” for its own sake. In extensive debates* over the past week or so among some of the more prominent poetry weblogs, the “cult of the new” has been a notable sub-theme. That aspect of the discussion was first raised by Chris Lott here, and continued in later posts on Chris’ weblog and elsewhere.

So, lessons learned: New is good, but not in itself. Whether it was worthwhile to have been new can only be judged when one is no longer new. Keeping a thing around out of sentimental attachment to its former newness is a recipe for disappointment and aggravation. Everything old is new again. What’s new with you?

* The overall debate, which mostly has to do with the [once new but now increasingly old] question of whether a contemporary poetry is possible using older forms and also to do with whether any worthwhile poetry has emerged from the “new formalist” school, has grown much too elaborate to be collected in links here. Those who want to wade into it at this point might as well start with Mike Snider’s site, on which it first emerged here; Mike’s most recent contribution, which links many of the others, is here. There has been a lot in between, on Mike’s site and numerous others, so allow yourself plenty of time if you decide to venture down this particular rabbit hole.


Rick Coencas

Of cul de sacs and the "troublesome sort of avant-garde is one that succeeds, but then outstays its welcome", in which category would you put Post-Modernism?

George Wallace

A fair question, Mr. Coencas.

A lot depends upon which aspect of "post-modernism" is on the table. The French structuralists/deconstructionists, for instance, strike me as having made some valid points but have passed their sell-by date as a going concern. Like the "towers in parks" Michael Blowhard discusses, structuralism and deconstruction enjoy elaborate and entrenched support in academia that effectively keeps them on life support.

Looking back at the original post, I omitted what may have been an important point: even the products of ineffectual or outmoded or unduly prolonged avant-gardes can, in themselves, be worthwhile. Dali (early Dali, not the parody of himself that he later became) and the other original surrealists produced work that continues to repay scrutiny, even though surrealism as a movement has pretty much been reduced to just another stylistic tic of advertisers and music video directors. [Robert Hughes does a nice job of putting Dali in perspective in a piece for the Guardian, here, which I'd been wanting to link. Thanks for the excuse.] And you know firsthand my fondness for the Modern poets, particularly Eliot.

I suppose, as I think aloud about this, that the important distinction becomes whether the particular avant-garde under consideration is still going forward on its own energy and momentum [a "good" avant-garde], or whether its continued action is a product of inertia or of an entrenched elite that is imposing it as "the way" things must be done [an avant-garde that has "gone bad"].

peter duffy

How do you explain art students who simply produce post modernist work at gcse alevel and at foundation level who do not know the history of art and how avante garde works?

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