My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, November 28, 2014

What is Avant Garde? (Mailbox)

Not always a compliment.
What does "avant garde" mean?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox, but likely only if you ask a question. I can even define poorly defined artistic movements.]  

Holly asks:

You seem to know your shiz way more than most of the other students in my MFA program (and half the profs if you want my opinion). My classmates keep calling my work avant guarde[sic] in workshop, but I don't really know what that means or why they call it that. I wouldn't say that's what I'm going for and I thought it was like Kafka, Woolf, or Ezra Pound--old shit from before the sixties. 

What gives? You asked for questions, so here's mine. Give me the down-low in straight language and make me laugh while you do. Cause you're really good at both.

My reply:

When your honest opinion is so complimentary, of course I want it. When it's critical, you keep that shit to yourself. 

I guess the answer "Uh...I dunno, like Samuel Becket?" doesn't really help you, right? Okay, fine, I'll bust out the two dollar answer. But I must warn you.....there are only so many threesome jokes I can throw into an answer like this, so proceed at your own risk. Given the date, I'm sure this metaphor will not go amiss: I'll toss as much gravy as I can on this answer, but the turkey we're going to talk is a little dry.

"Avant garde" is probably one of those words that suffers from the elasticity forced upon it by people who don't really know what it means, so actually, there are several answers to this question. It's literally SO hard to define that entire books have tried to do so in the sixties, but were considered insufficient and have been added to and expanded and are still contested. I can fill you in on the broad brushstrokes, but it's going to be up to you to decide if your fellow MFA writers are the Machiavellian, back-handed compliment types, or if they might be trying to give you a high five on the down-low from "The Man." 

Or, you know, maybe they just think it makes them sound like they know what the fuck they're talking about.

You mean it doesn't mean whatever I say it does?

Avant garde literally translates to "advanced guard" in French. You know the yahoos that run in and take the first round of cannon fire (probably because they had a threesome with the general's wife and sister or something). I'm sure there's a metaphor for art in there somewhere....

The idea is that avant garde is a group of artists who are pushing forward, defying convention, testing new ground, experimenting, and innovating in the arts. It first sprang up in the early 20th century as a direct descendant of Dada (which was almost explicitly anti-"art") and in addition to the writers you've listed, includes ee cummings, Joyce, Ginsberg, Miller, Nin, Nabakov and a few others you've probably been stuffed with if you've taken 20th Century American Lit. But the timing is important because while the initial stages of the avant guard occur prior, the movement really didn't take off until after World War I.

"These guys are basically the hipsters of the art world."

Seriously there was a time when all the major players were considered avant garde. You were either avant garde or you were Robert Frost. Even Hemingway was playing around with things like having the central action of a short story occur outside the story.

The thing you have to understand about art at this time was that everywhere you looked, artists were saying FUCK YOU to the system. They weren't just bent out of shape because artists like to be snotty and yell at their parents, "you don't understand my pain!" The world, in a very real way, had let them down. The culmination of 100 years of modernism, militarism, technology, industrialization, social darwinism, and imperialism was not the utopia they had been promised it was all leading to, but rather even more capitalism AS WELL AS the worst war anyone could ever conceive of. The sense of chaos and of cultural rejection of the old rules was a driving force throughout the arts.

We were supposed to get flying cars; instead they gave us mustard gas and machine guns.

Now you have all the rules that ever existed getting goatse'ed by the heavy hitter artists. Surrealism and cubism are all over the visual arts. Stravinsky wrote a ballet that was so unlike anything else that it caused a riot in the audience. Plays were fucking with the three act structure (and sometimes even central tension). And writing was experimenting too, writers like Joyce and Woolf were playing with stream of consciousness instead of hard narratives. Cummings ditched grammar. Gertrude Stein wrote in the progressive tense with reductive style...thrice. None of the established art world liked any of this stuff.

Rodchenko's Dance is one of the most famous non-Picasso works of cubism.
Most people have never seen or heard of it.
So all the splinters of meaning that have come off of "avant garde" have this core theme of those who reject convention and experiment. It pushes the norms and conventions and challenges the status quo. So your classmates might just be saying that you're fresh and innovative.

Part of "avant guarde" will always be at its inception as any movement that takes a label, no matter how elastic the label is intended to be. (We still have modern innovations in jazz today, but the idea and flavor of the word "jazz" will always be rooted in ragtime and blues and the New Orleans bands.) Avant garde will always conjure images of Ulysses's stream of consciousness and T.S. Eliot's Love Song–that rich deep immersion into a character's mind that is sometimes devoid of narrative arc or classical plot tension that fucking drove you bonkers in high school and were the bane of your literary analysis in college. These works defy conventions of storytelling or poetry not for mere anarchy, but for the artist's own eclectic sense of order. So it is possible that your classmates are telling you that your work reminds them of the period of American literature between the turn of the 20th century and World War II with works deeply rooted in surrealism, expressionism, and (in literature) stream of consciousness explorations.

However the "avant garde" has also been "claimed" by several more specific movements since the fifties. It sort of shifted from "any artist at all who defies convention" and traced a more formal path through various post war artistic movements. A lot of people and movements have described themselves as avant garde at the time, but it really stuck only with a few particular movements, especially anti-establishment and radical artistic movements.

In the fifties, that means you're talking about Marxism and the Situationists. Yep, dirty commies. In fact, the face of "avant garde" became decidedly anti-capitalist and intensely political and social. Towards the end of the sixties the avant garde label was taken up by the Language Poets and even the Postmodernists. So it is possible that your classmates are suggesting that you are following along the post war "torch bearers" of the avant garde movement, and that your work has a Hemingway/Kerouac/beat poets feel.

At this point (if you know your artistic movements) you might be scratching your head. Or if you're a little melodramatic and flying on pumpkin pie, maybe you've flipped a table. Weren't the post modernists reacting to the modernists by bringing back some of the historical and classic artistic stuff? Yes they were. That doesn't sound like these rowdy group of socialist malcontents you've described at all, Chris. What the actual hell? See at this point what had been avant garde was becoming cliche so these malcontents reacted against the conventions....again.

I hope the theme of "avant garde" is becoming clear here. These guys are basically the hipsters of the art world. If something becomes too mainstream, they immediately rebel against it. They thought everybody's earlier work was better (before they sold out). They were the original "you've probably never heard of it," brigade.

That means that the definition is a moving target. If I wrote a Beckett style play today (and please shoot me if I ever do), people would call it derivative rather than avant garde. Many movements in art begin as avant garde by their nature but then fade as they become popular or mainstream. That's why the term becomes so slippery after the seventies. Everyone was avant garde...until they weren't. Then the conventions of old movements that are broken then become the backbone of new movements that are themselves rebelled against. And sometimes the most radical thing an artist can do in the modern world is to write an English sonnet in iambic pentameter with a proper rhyme scheme or do a novel with a classic three act structure, central tension, and an omniscient third person narrator.

Avant garde is about breaking the rules. It's about defying conventions.  Of course in literature, there is only so much convention you can defy before the text itself becomes unreadable. (But by god, they try.) Sometimes you have things like Avatar (not the Dances With Wolves remake with the blue natives, but rather a hundred and tenish page novel with no punctuation...at all). Some of these works can be intensely difficult to read and of very limited appeal to mainstream audiences. Modern examples of avant garde works that actually are popular would include Infinite Jest or House of Leaves.

But now we're getting into the territory of the three meanings that it is far more likely your classmates mean.

The intense anti-establishment, anti-convention, even anti ART overtones of avant garde means that in particular they hate the ivory tower.

Hate it!

I mean hate it so bad that if an avant garde artist and a professor in tweed see each other across a crowded room, you wills hear two lightsabers ignite, and only one of them is getting out of there not cut in half or falling down a bottomless pit. This antithesis is so pronounced that it is sometimes much easier to define avant garde by what it isn't–or rather what it stands opposed to.

They can fight on this rooftop.

University art programs look lovingly at the last generation of artists (which are now contextualized into formal movements) and of course, the classics, but you have to understand just how much the avant garde artist hates them for not encouraging (real) innovation and experimentation.  Avant garde artists rebel against everything university art programs teach. If crusty ol' professors call it art, they ain't doing it. And if crusty ol' professors say not to break X rule, you can guarantee they'll write an entire work based on breaking that rule. So it's possible that your classmates are saying that you are a raging rebel within your MFA program and calling you "avant garde" is their way of fist bumping your professor-ignoring pioneer spirit.

Oh Holly! You machine-raging rabble rouser you!

The other thing they might mean is sort of a back handed compliment. Avant garde is often tied intimately with modern art's trends of absolute incomprehensibility. These artists often try to be so different and so convention defying that they leave behind influences and recognizable themes, and end up with something that even other artists can't find the artistry in. An open jar of Hellman's Mayonaise sitting in the middle of an alkali desert is billed as "a bold take on avant garde expressionism." Now I don't know what that means, and I suspect the person who wrote it doesn't either, but sometimes the reputation for being complete bullshit is very well earned. People call bullshit avant garde because it's gauche to actually call it bullshit.

But it is actually bullshit.

When conservatives go after the N.E.A., it's always by pointing to some avant garde work and saying "You want your tax dollars to pay for this?" So it's possible what they're trying to tell you is that your work is so inaccessible that they can't think of anything else to call it that isn't laced with expletives about fecal mater.

Given that my tax dollar (and it's an exaggeration to assume I actually pay a whole dollar in taxes to the NEA every year)
 paid for maybe 1/10,000 of one cent for this particular work, it's probably bothering me less than you might imagine.
Plus this is kind of neat.

However Holly, here's my suspicion: they don't quite know exactly what they mean. The convention-defying nature of avant guard work, especially against conventions of structure, and its slipperiness with any particular movement since the 70s or so, mean that it gets used synonymously with "experimental" a lot. That is to say it often gets used instead of, "I don't get it."

Here's the problem: a lot of CW program students wouldn't know really experimental if it bit them in the ass. They put the established "rules" of a Cummings poem in the same box as someone who just puts the line breaks and random punctuation wherever the fuck because it feels "edgy." They can't tell the difference between Gertrude Stein's choice to repeat a sentence and an undergrad who just went through and picked out four random sentences. I've literally seen a workshop of MFAs students who couldn't tell the difference between a powerful literary choice and a grammar mistake.

Clearly this is brilliant....I think.
This isn't to impugn or besmirch your work or your classmates' abilities to read it. (Well, maybe their ability to read it.) It's just sometimes workshops of rushed, distracted young writers (who are mostly worried about their own work being seen for its brilliance) and who have read your work once, probably right before class, aren't the best audience with whom to try something radically different.

So any time a work is weird and a creative writing student doesn't quite know what to make of it, they often go with the vernacular they've heard around them instead. They toss out the "buzzwords" they know. They know that "Shit, man I don't get what the hell you're on about with the butterfly part," isn't going to sound very writerly of them, so they say "This is a very.....avant garde piece and I particularly loved the expressionist juxtaposition with the Dada symbolism you encapsulated in the butterfly and how the chiasmus of contrast gave relief to the part about the butterfly collector with the net. It reminded me so much of Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, which I've totally actually read."

So, Holly, at the end of the day, I know what avant garde means (kind of) and if you're not asleep yet, you do too, but when it comes to your classmates, I'm thinking an Inigo Montoya quote might be appropriate.

I'm thinking an Inigo Montoya quote might be appropriate.

I'm thinking an Inigo Montoya quote might be appropriate.


  1. Not sure if this matters, but this post showed up in a "suggested posts" group on Facebook ... so cool?

    1. Be true to your own voice, tell your own stories, learn the rules before you break them -- IOW, don't just run off at the mouth -- and to hell with labels.

  2. That closing quote, though. "You keep using that word to critique my work. Prepare to die."

  3. Yep, that turkey IS a bit dry. Where's my beer?

  4. Excellent answer. I suspect they’re intimidated by you. Take it as a compliment and keep pushing those boundaries!

  5. In my role as a Creative Designer it is my responsibility to create a company calendar every year. The monthly images would be shots of our various products in as many market segments as possible. The cover is always a unique image and not displayed inside. My boss requested one year to make the cover "Avant Garde." Knowing she didn't have any
    art education background, I wasn't sure she knew what that term meant and even if she did what she actually wanted me to do. Being an artist and having a fairly good grasp of the various meanings, as-in what people mean when they use that term, I had to do a few iterations of what she might mean...while still making it appealing enough for someone to want to look at it. This, by some people's definitions, is totally the opposite of Avante Garde. So you can see my conundrum. It ended up being some graphics unrelated to what our products actually are in our corporate Pantone 281 C Blue with our logo and text identifying the year and that it was a calendar. Hardly ground breaking, innovative or really Avant Garde at all to my way of thinking. Who asks for that anyway? Oh well.

  6. I made an Avant Garde film. It experiments with perspective, editing, temporal dimensions, etc. Nothing like it. It's a "me" film. Nothing commercial about it. Meant to be seen and not meant to make a profit. A means for me to express ideas and emotions through the medium in a way that pulls the viewer in and gives them plenty of room to feel and think and think about how they feel.