THOUGHTS ON MUSIC AND THE AVANT GARDE
Marcel Duchamp's Fountain
Considerations of a term and its public useINTRO
By Chris Cutler
This essay was commissioned for a book dedicated to Prof. Gunther Mayer on his 70th birthday. A highly respected academic, musicologist and a supporter of avant garde and adventurous music, Gunther always trod a quietly dissonant path through the political complexities of the old German Democratic Republic. I should add that my take on these matters is not one he would easily endorse, though I know he appreciates the central argument which, like his own thinking moves obliquely against the orthodoxies of current scholarship.
In hot pursuit of the Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote runs straight over the edge of a precipice. He's so fixated on his forward goal that he fails to notice there is no longer any ground underneath his feet. Twenty metres out, he makes the fatal error of looking down and gravity takes care of the rest. In this essay, I want to suggest that something very loosely analogous happened to art in the first half of the last century. For the avant gardes, there was nothing underfoot after about 1915 – but it wasn't until the mid 1950's that the realisation – and the disorientating consequences – of that fact kicked in. Then, art became weightless and any sense of forward motion disappeared.
I will argue in this brief notice that at the moment it went into reverse, art both validated and made meaningless the idea of an avant garde.
1. Art and anti-art.
Art as currently understood is neither essential nor timeless. References to 'primitive art,' 'medieval art' or 'the art of ancient Greece' create confusion by conflating fundamentally different and functionally incommensurate social practices1. In our own time, vernacular understanding of what art is has evolved out of the category of Fine Art, coined in the eighteenth century to claim an elevated status for specific artisanal practices as a connected sphere of autonomous cultural production. Two hundred and fifty years later, this status is about the only thing that survives intact, every other original attribute assigned to the term having been incrementally rejected, the whole finally succumbing to a hail of manifestos, experiments, outrages and innovation in the early part of the twentieth century. In spite of their re-integrative ambitions, it was the historic function of the early twentieth century avant gardes to complete the redefinition and consequent emancipation of art consciously begun in the early eighteenth century, and to free it from every involuntary alliance and restraint. We have been circling around the consequences ever since.
It was Dada, the most radical and ambitious of all the movements, that finally put the new concept of art itself to the question2. But in spite, or maybe because, of its best efforts (since a lever can never raise its own fulcrum), the established status of art as a privileged mode of communication has survived intact - and we the public, the critics, and all our institutions, continue to accept the old eighteenth century creed that art is not merely a functional aspect of the life of a social group or community but is a self-reflexive, autonomous, discourse, answerable ultimately only to itself.
But autonomy tends to separation. And if art wants separation it must expect incomprehension. If it really wants to be reunited with life, it would have to accept that it would cease to be 'art.'
To be free, as art, it must accept its alienation; to be free of art, it must dissolve itself and learn to serve. But whom? And how?
II. The avant garde.
Recently minted, the qualifier avant garde has served various offices: first military, then political, then literary - as applied to a group of writers in mid-eighteenth century France who mixed political and artistic radicalism. It was extended in the last quarter of the eighteenth century to writers without political inclinations who, in pursuit of the logic of their own autonomy - and finding themselves increasingly disconnected from the established institutions of art - responded by insisting that they could be the only proper arbiters of what art could, or should, be, concluding that it should be more like a science: investigative, experimental, permanently moving forward; not a servant to the market but an independent actor pursuing the logic of its own necessity. As a movement towards the liberation of form this avant garde, though culturally embattled, remained - in general - socially disengaged. It was the historical avant gardes that followed - in particular Constructivism, Russian and Italian Futurism, and Dada - which, though owing a huge debt to l'art pour l'art and the experimental model, were driven not by an urge to abandon the world for formal purity but rather urgently to change it through an aggressive programme of demands that art be revolutionised, redefined, and brought back into the weave of quotidian life. As means, they proposed various combinations of new and old media - performance, political engagement and metaphysics - agreeing only that the past had to be torn up and the cultural clock reset to zero. All failed in their specific missions, but together they succeeded in their attack on the academy. In the space of little more than a decade, they had challenged every convention, rule and aesthetic supposition they could identify. Without agreed political affiliation, they nonetheless held in common a political desire to look beyond the artwork and towards the role of art in the construction of a new world. In the ensuing ferment, movements proliferated and permanent revolution became the public way of art. I say art; I mean of course the latest, the newest, the art which claimed to be the real art, the revolutionary art that would relegate yesterday's revolutionaries either to the museum or the dustbin. Such became the image of the phantom restless phalanx of the avant garde: always on the move, always locked into the new, always a step ahead. Deep in this model is an unquestioned teleology - a confident acceptance of direction and future. Avant garde is a concept inseparable from the idea of progress.
Where should one look for an avant garde when the idea of progress is no longer credited; when any identifiable garde has fractured into a million shards and there is no linear forward march to be in the vanguard of?
More than forty years ago this ceased to be a rhetorical question.
III. Continuity and discontinuity. Artist's relations to their history.
As already noted, before they were 'Arts,' painting and music were skills and crafts, working occupations whose practitioners were paid to produce as artisans - usually to very explicit order. Art connoted varieties of skill: breaking horses and cobbling were arts. Fine Art evolved symbiotically alongside a strengthening bourgeoisie which, in forging its own understanding of culture, supported those painters, composers, sculptors and writers who shared with it a desire to remake the world. However revolutionary their humanism, these new artists did not reject their artisan precursors. Politically, they may have been radical, but culturally they were pursuing better conditions and more interesting problems to solve.
In the late nineteenth century, a different attitude emerged. Many artists no longer looked so benignly on their predecessors, and by the early twentieth century, the whole sweep of the past, along with the institution of art itself, had been tossed into the shredder by the historic avant gardes3. The old structure of a loose network of schools collapsed into a militant wave of movements as these artists, casting a cold eye on imitation and representation, leapt headlong into the new world of electricity, machinery, photography, telephony, phonography, flight, radio, mechanical warfare, speed and science. By 1917, Marcel Duchamp, throwing down the gauntlet of the readymade, brought it finally to the condition of philosophy - in which the question of what art is became a vital part of what art is.
Perhaps for the sake of simplicity, the art history of the twentieth century is often told through the successions and negotiations between its self-generating movements: Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Supremicism, Futurism, Dada, Bauhaus, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, Arte Povera - and so on. And although this desire to keep the historical narrative tidy has lead inevitably to distortions - very often missing the point altogether - there is no doubt that these movements existed and that they did help create through their work and manifestos both coherent communities and focused discourses, or, that by holding on to an idea of history themselves, even in the context of continuous supersession, they managed also - more or less - to hold together a centred public narrative of progress. And because this history had a centre and a direction, it could also have outriders: avant and arriere gardes. By the 1960's, this belief was thoroughly compromised; art went into free fall and begun increasingly to repeat itself. From the 1970's onwards, there were few new major public movements that were not somehow looking backwards. And without a self-understood centre, there could no longer be meaningful edges or fringes. Positions that had once been orientated toward a putative future floated away and became independent propositions as a generation of artists emerged who neither accepted their forbears and moved on, nor demanded a tabula rasa, but began instead to pillage the past for fragments (or selectively to revive individual parts of it). Directionality collapsed. One artist's avant might be another's arriere (or derriere4). It just depended on which way you thought you were facing.
V. Unfinished business.
Why locate the tipping point in the 1960's, a period of great and radical upheaval in the arts; a period indeed which from our present perspective looks something like a golden age: one of those rare rifts in time in which the life of art seems to move completely into the present tense, when what is new is also immediately alive to public consciousness? Because, during the 1950's, a group of visual artists, despite the climate of relentless progress, had begun to look back into the past for inspiration, specifically toward the avant garde of Dada and anti-art5. At the same time, anti-art, in the form of readymade materials and non-intentionality, began to perturb the world of music for the first time, driven by the implacably consequent John Cage. These two tendencies slowly flowed together, and it was in the 1960's that their mutual offspring began exploding with a luxurience of hybrid applications. The consequence was a general shift in orientation, as the future began increasingly to be sought in the past.
'Making money is art [..] good business is the best art.' Andy Warhol (1975)6.
Appearing first in Britain but soon spreading to America, Pop Art (sometimes in its early years called Neo-Dada) rudely crashed Abstract Expressionism's party, wilfully flaunting both its claim to authenticity and its insistence on abstraction, emotional intensity, and immanence. Pop took Abstract Expressionism as a model of High Art, Pure Art and Art-for-Itself and opposed it with Dadaistic profanity, irony, ridicule and satire. Revelling in visual cliché, supermarket products, commercial imagery, comics, readymades, collage, quotations and nostalgia, Pop employed techniques adapted from photomontage, film, advertising and mass production, systematically undermining high art with design and commodity trivia. Politically driven, it succeeded in mounting an initially effective attack on a mediagenic world through iconic subversion and ironic commentary. And in the disbelieving hands of Andy Warhol it returned also, in another - and critical - echo of Dada and Duchamp, to a recontextualised self-reflexivity amounting to practical philosophy - although its provocations were now aimed as much at mass media and the marketplace as the art community and its institutions. With multiples and happenings, Brillo boxes and objects trouvees, books of raw transcript and films of raw time, Warhol mercilessly stretched and tested the category of art - again – but this time in the face of its dubious segregation from the rest of the goods in the store.
Deliberately using mass production techniques, cheap, impermanent materials, stolen images and his own variation on the readymade, Warhol invested his claim to art in an uncompromising attempt to avoid fulfilling any of its remaining criteria. Instead he immersed himself in an incestuous mediated culture of sensation, narcissism and money, throwing that world back at itself in a deeply ambiguous combination of ridicule and celebration.
Pop Art sent a tiny tremor through the system, but art-coded attacks on the status quo were familiar and easily absorbed. Even anti-art had long since quietly been re-categorised as art and, by 1960, Duchamp's Fountain was no longer a question but a keynote artwork, well on its way to becoming the apotheosis of art itself7. Whereas the Dadaists in their time had been peripheral, baffling and potentially dangerous, Warhol, in his, was a mainstream star, perhaps himself baffled (and eventually physically endangered) by his own success. Certainly, the harder he tried to affront sense and taste, or to deny that what he was doing was art, the more highly he was praised and the higher his status as an artist rose8. When asked - in what turned out to be his last recorded interview - what he considered to be his greatest achievement he said, with an honesty heard but no longer understood: 'Keeping a straight face.'
The rebellion of Pop ended when irony and reality became indistinguishable. Warhol's own kamikaze contribution, and what distinguishes him from his contemporaries, had been to show that, freed from the institutions, and even to a certain extent from the artists themselves, Art, with a capital A, was now the exclusive property of the market. And, alongside all the other isms, avant garde TM had also slipped quietly into its place as a wholly owned subsidiary of Art Inc.
'When everybody is a revolutionary the revolution is over.' Clement Greenberg (1968)9
Linear reading collapsed. The sixties saw movements implode, proliferate, fracture and recycle. Horizontal succession gave way to a chaotic vertical proliferation: Op Art, Object Art, Abstract Symbolism, Happenings, Assemblage, Photo-Realism, Hard Edge, Colour Field, Shaped Canvas, Earthworks, Body Art, Arte Povera, Minimalism, Kinetic Art, Performance Art, Luminous Art, 'NO!art,' Common object Art, Cybernetic Art and Systems Art; all came and went in the space of a few short years. More durable - and indeed still with us - was Concept Art, with its endless repetitions and permutations, and Fluxus, currently in the middle of a revival of interest. Like Pop, but with less acumen, and without the insight toward the new condition of ArtTM, Fluxus looked back toward the past. George Maciunas's 1962 manifesto: 'Neo-Dada in Music, Theatre, Poetry and Art' was unambiguous about this.10 And although it developed its own focus, manifestos and, sometimes, topical content, Fluxart remained in essence a revival, or, more positively, a taking up of threads. And revivals, while they may yet bring new arguments and new techniques to the table, may equally be indicators of cultural exhaustion. They are certainly not in any respect avant garde.
VI. Music and the historic avant garde.
How does music map onto this narrative? Although different media doenn't march in step, there are necessarily points of contingency where the specificities of any given discourse disappear into the broader concerns and perspectives of an age. Of the historic avant gardes, it can be said that virtually no music was directly associated with Constructivism, Russian Futurism or Dada. Italian Futurism, however, did produce a few half-remembered composers and four dedicated manifestos: three fairly run-of-the-mill pamphlets by composer Francisco Bailla Pratella, and one seminal work 'The Art of Noises' by painter Luigi Russolo, who also put theory into practice by building and composing for his groundbreaking, but largely ignored, intonorumouri. Although Russolo's manifesto was prophetic, none of his instruments, and only a few of their designs, survived. Of the handful of pieces written for them, mostly by the inventor and his brother, none is more than a curiosity today. And, although Stravinsky and Varese both expressed an initial interest, neither pursued it; indeed Varese, possibly the most visionary of all twentieth century composers, went out of his way to repudiate the Futurist's vision of music as early as 1916.
'There's still a lot of good music left to be written in C major.' Arnold Schoenberg.
More generally, Futurism did have a broad and sometimes powerful influence on a number of contemporary composers, and what came to be referred to as machine music was generally associated with the movement - or at least with Modernism as it was refracted through the Futurist lens.11 But then, music had always been at home with Modernism. Indeed, after centuries of being considered rather conservative and always lagging behind the visual arts, it had become, by the late C19, the model that all arts were said to aspire to.12 Yet, paradoxically, unlike the spatial or object-arts, which were constantly haunted by survivals from, and the authority of, classical antiquity, music had for centuries been looking forward, privileging novelty and innovation over lost ancient practices of which no sounding evidence survived. Thus while the object-arts were burdened by exemplary relics in a way that the event-arts were not - and might require nothing short of total rupture to free them - music remained preoccupied - and was continually revivified - by the internal problems arising from its own continuity. It was certainly not ready to dig itself up by the roots; indeed its primary urge remained to protect, as well as to extend, its borders, not to dissolve them. Dissolution would be the work of Cage, Fluxus and the New York School, many years hence13. Thus it was that, throughout the rampage of the avant gardes, composers for the most part continued in their traditional pursuit of individual solutions, quietly or publicly exploring possible ways of writing meaningfully for their own time. And while they could easily match the historic avant gardes for the number of riots provoked, rules broken and core assumptions challenged, composers, as a rule, continued to understand themselves as working within a tradition rather than against one14.
VII. The birth of anti-music.
It was not until the late 1940's that the qualifier avant garde was finally attached to a music, and then it was to the output of composers connected through the Darmstadt Summer school, home notably of total serialism, which for years did act as a group, did proselytise, was extravagantly ambitious and did appear to operate with collective rules - forcefully identifying itself as a leading cadre in the arts. Some of its celebrities were also immodestly capable of gross intolerance: 'All composition other than that of 12 tone is useless' (Pierre Boulez). Like other neo-movements, this 'avant garde' looked initially back to the past, extolling and extending proposals made by Schoenberg, Webern and Berg some thirty years earlier, but now raising them to the status of a dogma15. In the world of Art Music, it seems that the avant garde was born facing backwards. At the same time, in the United States, John Cage and his associates - who also constituted a distinct community, though with instincts far more revolutionary than conservative - did not consider themselves an avant garde at all but rather 'experimental' artists;16 indicating perhaps that the older term had already become associated with reactionary, proscriptive, intolerant and authoritarian attitudes. It was the experimentalist, Cage, and not the Darmstadt avant garde who arrived at the genuinely radical musical equivalent of the philosophical move first made by Duchamp with his readymades.
With Fountain (1917) Duchamp had taken an object - a mass produced commodity (thus devoid of originality) chosen, he said, for its lack of aesthetic significance, and had submitted it for exhibition. If it was an artwork - and it claimed to be - it took the form of a nest of questions.
With his 1952 composition 4'33", Cage issued a similar challenge to music. This work comprised three consecutive durations of silence - meaning that any sound actually heard in performance would not have been determined by the score (although it could be argued strongly that it was intentionally included in it) and would be completely outside the control of the composer. Of course, commonsense says silence is not music, nor is unintended noise. The event, however, took place in a concert hall and was announced as a composition by a recognised composer. If it was a composition - and it claimed to be - it took the form of a nest of questions.
Since neither Duchamp nor Cage could claim that their object - or event - had any intrinsic qualities that might distinguish it from any urinal or any silence, what made either of them art or music? To put it another way, what would art or music have to be for either of these productions to be an instance of it? That was the question. Cast in the form of a work.17
In its very quiet way, 4'33" represents nothing less than an attempt to dissolve the category of music. It asks of music, as the readymade asks of art: if this is music, then what is not? 18
This question has been the ghost at every feast thereafter.
John Cage's score for 4'33"
'Classification ... ceases when it's no longer possible to establish oppositions.' John Cage (1968/73).19
To be useful, a definition requires limits - things that it excludes. The implication of 4'33", as of the readymade, is that nothing is excluded and thus that any object presented to the eye could fall within the purlieu of art, or any presentation to the ear, whether it sounds or not, could be experienced as music. But the formulation 'X is everything' can hardly succeed as a meaningful definition. Thus it must be doing some other work. With Duchamp, I believe it was largely philosophical and metalinguistic. With Cage, thirty six years later, there is more: the question remains, but when it is cast in the light of his deliberate abandonment of intentionality the year before, it also becomes an instruction to the listener to interpret - and thus in large part to create - the work.20 With such mechanical chance procedures an author is at pains to create nothing and to say nothing. This can still function as communication on a metalinguistic level - as a kind of question - but only usefully once. After that, it is just repetition. Cage's use of indeterminacy is clearly not merely to pose a question but to impose a formula that seeks to make dialogue disappear into sets of interpretative monologues.21 If Cage's move is accepted at face value, art becomes a series of riddles to which there are no answers. It also ceases to be a medium of communication and becomes instead an opportunity for perception.
While this notion has borne much fruit, it has also proved highly problematic.
Duchamp's radical proposition - his concept of a work that disappears into the idea of itself - was, I think, in the context in which it first appeared, meaningfully avant garde. Repetition of that question is not. Beyond this, when the primary responsibility for meaning is shifted deliberately from producer to interpreter, any residual notion of an avant garde must inevitably vanish with it. No public can be in advance of its own taste.
This mid-century return to the unfinished business of the historic avant gardes - especially in the unequivocal forms pursued by Fluxus - merged seamlessly with the dizzying influence of Cage's collapse of music, an event-art, into the condition of post Duchampian art-in-general. Sound was just to be another material. The border that had inoculated music against the existential crisis in the visual arts, a border maintained by a clear self-understanding of its own goals and limits and, above all, by the acquisition and manipulation of necessary skills, became increasingly porous - and after 4'33", (where that was accepted at face value) collapsed altogether. Cage and Fluxus merged their understandings with one another22. An Object-Art that had opened into an event became in principle indistinguishable from an Event-Art that had opened into an object: and now both vanished into concepts in which neither object nor event was required at all23. Art no longer merely aspired to the condition of music but absorbed it into its own general condition. Thus, while 4'33" may still be music, it may also be art, or performance, or theatre. Fluxartists refer to their instruction sets and scripts as scores while composers write scores that do not specify sounds; Fluxorchestras make cabaret, while composers tune radios, navigate with echolocators and noisily rearrange the furniture. Arts merge into art - which becomes whatever you can get away with - and skills become optional and interchangeable. Where does that leave Laokoon?24
IX. Other roads.
When everything is art, or when all sound is music25, there is nowhere left to go, except maybe to retreat to an earlier position in the hope of finding a road not taken that does not end in a cul de sac. From a different perspective, however, or from alternative readings of history, many viable roads may still beckon.
Theorists naturally have their own analytical agendas, but for artists local problems are usually more pressing - and more productive. And while they may lack the breadth of the death-or-glory narratives of the avant gardes, they are intimate with long, rooted, antinomies in their own fields; useful antinomies that continually generate solutions. Throughout the twentieth century proposals were made and works embodying them presented that did not trouble themselves with meta-discourses or global visions but quietly pursued their own discipline's more secular, local interests. Of course, all artists face the issues of their own time - that is, after all, the conversation in which they are engaged - but they do so for the most part within terms and boundaries that are inherited and not invented. To work at all, for the majority of artists, is to engage in a constant debate not only with the current concerns and propositions of their disciplines, but also those that extend far back into its past - because every gesture and tool at their disposal comes locked into its own history, which limits and makes meaningful its signifying possibilities.
'To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.' Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953).26
I want briefly to consider music in its aspect as a species of language. I know this is a minefield, so I will try to spell out what I mean and what I don't. I wish to highlight only that congeries of common features (or family resemblances) that unite a broad group of arbitrary, human signifying systems that pre-exist their users; were created by no one, are defined by no one and can be learned only through use and exposure - ideally from the earliest age. These are systems that live and evolve through informed use and negotiation (and in the modern world are constantly in a state of agonistic re-evaluation). I am not trying to map 1:1 semantic, grammatical or syntactical correspondences, just to claim a broad structural family resemblance. Like any signifying system, music is a medium of human communication dependent upon some involuntary ground shared between its producer and interpreter; it belongs within a loose family of language-games in which the comprehensibility of any utterance reflects the extent to which it has accepted and employed what is already given, even when that is expressed through determined subversion. To be meaningful, a new work must always be grappling with the language it employs and therefore with the history of that language as well as its immediacy. It can never be on solid ground and must always move in the awareness of many considerations and conventions at once. Thus, the accommodation of ambiguity and the expectation of goodwill are essential to it. And while fixity of meaning exists in inverse proportion to the amount of entropy or chaos in a signifying system, type of meaning is a function of the language game in play. Mathematical discourses seek to eradicate ambiguity; artistic discourses to exploit it. Both are dependent on resilient discursive structures without which directionality would be lost and conversation rendered profoundly unreliable. In use, languages simply work. But when the approach is analytical, then the model held of the system becomes critical. Instead of common ground enabling a generally secure passage through exchanges, a disconnected model of language - Saussure's, for example, where signifier and signified relate only to one another - makes a performer the manufacturer of an object and an interpreter that object's independent user. Interpretation then necessarily becomes increasingly voluntary and capricious at the expense of the integrity of language itself. As Saussure's dyadic system rigidified leads to the cul de sac of Derrida, so do Duchamp (or Cage) rigidified lead to the abandonment - or total relativisation - of art (or music). With no fulcrum, nothing can be moved. That is the essential point to which this essay constantly returns.
If my analogy is accepted on the terms outlined above, then perhaps we can use it to underpin a useful sense of the qualifier avant garde, since it was the distinction, it seems to me, of the historic avant gardes that they made a specific attempt to sever their dependence on inherited languages altogether, and not, as other movements and players had done, to extend, ramify or uniquely employ existing discourses, or selectively to challenge accumulated cliches and habits. Theirs was a change in quality, not quantity, and it answered a perceived crisis that seemed to call for nothing less than wholesale revolution.
It may seem at first that, from the point of view of the arts considered as a set of interlocked languages (or signifying systems), radical departure from all grounded rules would be self-defeating, since it would necessarily result in a kind of gibberish. However, the work of the historic avant gardes are certainly meaningful to us, indeed we celebrate it. In part, of course, this is because the work itself has in time helped to change our understanding. But I think there is another reason: the effect, especially of the most radical of the avant garde propositions, was not simply to run against habitual usage but to shift the entire discourse onto another plane - and into a different language: the meta-plane of self-reflexivity - mediated for the most part through verbal discourse (internal or dialogical)27 - and the language of philosophy. With this shift, art was enabled for the first time to speak to and about itself, as art, even if at the risk of ceasing to be comprehensible as art and becoming instead, at least in the immediate term, a species of thought. Nothing more encapsulates the power and the danger of this shift of discursive perspective than the readymade, which has come now to inform and legitimate much contemporary - and all conceptual - art. For some, what was once a question has now become a formula. 'Is everything art?' has been recast as 'everything is art,' fatally sidelining the intermediate pair: 'can everything be art / everything can be art,' both of which clearly keep the conversation open. The danger is that if Duchamp's move is accepted at face value (and the same applies to Cage in the sphere of music), then the bottle-rack or silence cease to be contextual conundrums about art and become solvents that undermine the possibility of coherent conversation altogether. The effect of this is to render obsolete the inherited languages of art and music, causing their roots to atrophy and their pasts to become little more than objectified material: useful for mining, plundering and making sly references to, but no longer part of any living body.
XI. Perspectives and conversations.
The early twentieth century was a time of general crisis for art, a time when many visual artists - and virtually all composers - were trying to find some firm ground from which to respond to the catastrophic problems and opportunities thrown up by new sensibilities, new media, electricity, Freud, Einstein; the whole apparatus of modernism - without necessarily vapourising, as the avant gardes proposed, the ground on which they stood. In their search for answers that would not destroy the patient, the constituents of the broader art community were perfectly able to distinguish between avant garde rhetoric and individual works. They took what was useful to them and ignored what was not; at the same time making their own proposals in the form of works that grew logically from the history and endemic concerns of their disciplines. This was particularly true in the field of music.
'... sounds should be just sounds….in order that each sound may become the Buddha.' John Cage (1959).
In all his aleatoric works after Sixteen Dances (1951), John Cage can be located at one extreme of a conversation about communication and reception that proposes to remove intentionality from the production of works. In this, he would share a practice, if not a motive, with Mallarme, with the many Surrealists who experimented with automatic writing and with Marcel Duchamp in his careful non-fashioning of readymades. More than any other composer Cage represents the anti-art aspect of the historic avant gardes, though he couches his own proposition in terms of dissolution through total inclusion. On the other side of this debate, defending the proposition that intention, as the basis of meaningful communication, was a necessary condition of music, we would find just about every other composer before 1950 - all of whom insisted on refining a more or less carefully planned architecture of tones, durations and their combinations in pursuit of order and argument; or emotional expression and sensation – or shaded combinations of the two. Between intention and non-intention, Process Music, Systems Music and Stochastic music emerged, moving the conversation deeper into the implications and possibilities Cage had raised.
Or again: the generating power of sacral mathematics and ratio have run like a root through the life of music for over two and a half millennia. In this debate, unlike the one above, Schoenberg, who dedicated his life to the retention and protection of the sacral, and who was profoundly convinced of the deep relation of number lying behind the flesh of sounding, would find himself close to his former pupil Cage - a man who for much of his life was so focused on form that it was a matter of relative indifference to him with what sound (or absence of sound) it was filled. La Monte Young would be a sympathetic contributor to this side of the discussion, as would R. Murray Schaffer, or Harry Partch - or, more ambiguously, Iannis Xenakis. Across the table sit those for whom the control of surface and the grain of sound-for-itself are more significant than spiritual depth or number - the phenomenologists. The radicals in this debate would be the pioneers of Musique Concrete, who eschewed the formalism of calculated structure altogether, focusing almost exclusively on sounding content: indeed, for them, surface was content. Less extreme but close would be someone like Edgard Varese.28 And, in general, their argument was little more than a logical extension of a feeling that was one of the practical distinctions of the twentieth century: that sound could be bone, not merely flesh.
Just about everybody agreed that the vocabulary of music had radically to be extended and made adequate to the needs and conditions of the day.29
Agreements, disagreements – always some focal issue, some question or problem intentionally addressed.
The point is that it is these conversations, oppositions, accommodations, compromises and proposals - made mostly in the form of works - that constitute the life of music and delimit the terms in which that life unfolds. There is no tidy, single, linear tale to be told. And on the ground, the conversation remains open, however inaudible some of the participants may be for much of the time.
In these debates the avant gardes might be said to have operated as a 'purgative' (Marcel Duchamp 1946).30 But they did not define the debate even if they made a profound and permanent impression on it, and they should be understood as embodying powerful propositions not, as they claimed, definitive endgames. That said, as a demolition crew, they were indispensable: the most powerful expression of an uncompromisingly revolutionary response to a pressing, if temporally local, crisis. And although that crisis is not yet resolved, their proposals have all been absorbed into it, even if not universally accepted. Well, all of them bar one, the most radical: that art dissolve itself altogether. This has proved impossible. Even at its most revolutionary, even with the readymade, even with 4'33", art could not make that fatal step away from itself: indeed, those very interventions could only be effective and meaningful if they were art, otherwise they would just be bottle racks and silences. The philosophical extension of art's own practice into self-examination, far from challenging the status of art, has been taken as a Cartesian proof of its existence.
The historical avant gardes have cleared the decks. That was their work and that work is done. You can keep blowing up the ruins but rubble is already rubble.
Offering radical propositions within a genre (or across genres) has been the general way of art throughout the twentieth century, so restricting the application of avant garde to those ultra-provocative movements that proposed the revolutionary rejection of inherited languages seems useful to me, and I propose to adhere to that usage, and not to extend the term to ever weaker assignments that merely describe what became twentieth century art-as-usual.
After Darmstadt, the description avant garde next appears in a wholly different context; applied to radical developments in a particular strand of black American jazz. Avantgarde jazz was conceived as urgent and visionary. It pursued formal and technical innovations, like l'art pour l'art, but at the same time lived in the intensification of emotional expression. A unique hybrid, it adopted from high art discourse the idea of extended technique, originality and genius, at the same time retaining from its popular origins immediacy, improvisational skills and the raw social intimacy of its quotidian context - clubs and bars. It made no claim to universality, nor to the future, but rather, by accentuating its difference from the familiar and the mainstream, addressed a specialised community in the immediacy of its experience. Through this unique combination of formal complexity and emotional directness it claimed authentic (as opposed to commercial) popularity, and at the same time declared itself a serious, and uniquely black, artform. This claim to art status from the sphere of popular music, especially the scary lowlife club culture of black people, was as unprecedented as it was radical. And in this sense, it wasn't merely avantgarde in its relation to the jazz world but posed a challenge not easily dismissed to the already beleaguered gatekeepers of art music for whom acceptance of Cage had created severe categorical difficulties. If all sound is music, so is the stupidest pop song, never mind a clearly 'difficult,' experimental and often abstract form like avantgarde jazz.
The jazz avantgarde, unlike its earlier namesakes was distinguished by its claim to art, not by a rejection of it.
This too was an avantgarde that neither rejected its forbears nor wished to set a new template for music. Having left both commercial and quasi-commercial music and their audiences behind, avantgarde jazz hoped by example to bring other musicians and an engaged, if limited, public - to its own position. But not more than that. Indeed it could be authentic only so long as it remained marginal. As the voice of a minority, its power was a direct political function of its blackness. It did not ask what its public wanted but offered what it thought that public needed to grow strong, identify itself and be free. In its difficult admixture of formal complexity, emotional directness, authenticity and protection from general absorption, this avant garde raised difficult questions that could only be answered outside the music itself. It also offered a complete inversion of the later Cagean position: where Cage had eschewed intention altogether through a rigid formalism, free jazz by relaxing nearly all formal constraints, allowed intention absolute dominion.
Two decades later, it was something like this jazz sense of avant garde that was applied to certain strands of rock, initially extending the art claim to elements of an even lower – at that time perhaps the lowest - musical form. However, while avantgarde jazz was pretty clearly defined, what qualified as avant garde rock seemed to be a question less to do with form and more to do with who was using the term, and why. By now, this vagueness of use seemed somehow to be correlated with a similar vagueness in the culture itself.
Sometimes, as with avantgarde jazz, formal innovation was implied - along with high/low and experimental/popular elisions; sometimes left wing political status; sometimes that the music was considered to be in advance of public taste (though there was no suggestion that the public would ever agree with that judgement or catch up with it); sometimes, simple outsider status was indicated, or that the music was considered shocking, or just unusual, by some designated listening community.
By this stage, in other words, the term was clearly in danger of losing any coherent meaning at all31. Look up avant garde rock on the internet; it has become little more than a hopeful badge of honour. Otherwise, it serves as an off-the-shelf commercial label for general application (Lou Reed, Brian Eno and John Cale are avant garde). In short, it has been colonised, flattened and neutralised and all the history has been drained out of it - in part because all the history is currently being drained out of history.
Thus has the practical wisdom of the demos been expressed through the evolution of language. To put it another way, so long as there is a meaning in the world, there will be a need for a term that encompasses it, and that term will emerge and hold itself together. When that meaning evaporates, the term it necessitated will escape, and either mutate to serve another useful purpose, or dissipate. When it is obviously floating free, that is probably a sign to let it go.
XIV. Lost, one signifier.
From this brief survey of the actual, non academic, use of the qualifier avant garde to music, continuity of meaning would imply that the baton of radical progress has passed from a strand of contemporary music to jazz, and then to rock. Or perhaps more plausibly that in these three genres a leap has been made to the condition of art, a condition that tends to level and dissipate their individual generic coherence - in other words, to erase them as independent genres. Certainly the fringes of contemporary composition, jazz, electronics and rock have become increasingly indistinguishable. On the other hand, discontinuity of meaning would imply that some thing-in-the-world has disappeared and left the word that contained it to drift and free associate. Both can be interpreted as true. Neither leaves much work for the qualifier to do.
The fact remains that in a media-dominated discourse, avant garde today implies little more than 'breaking or appearing to break ranks with market consensus,' even if sometimes it may still retain homeopathic traces of political engagement, cultural prescience or technical innovation. Even when those traces are strong, the term does them no service because it buries and negates them. One has seriously to ask whether anyone believes that the term can be useful any more, or whether, along with Freedom, Democracy and Truth, it should join the ranks of Vaneigem's corpses in the mouths of the bourgeoisie?
XV. Quo Vadis?
The struggle with the academy has been won. The market has taken its place. Unlike the old art institutions, the market, being impersonal, amorphous and many-headed, has no central authority to attack. Moreover it has the proven power to absorb whatever is thrown at it and to recast everything it touches into its own shape. Although avantgardism may prove to have been one of the great cultural achievements of the modern period, helping, through its very absolutism, to kick-start a new art practice and to liberate, once and for all, media, form and imagination - making everything and anything the proper matter of aesthetic work - the world that needs such avant gardes is gone, precisely because their work is done. That work was definitive; entropic; a river that may not be stepped into twice; a one-time catalyst that effected an irreversible change of state.
The new problems we face today are problems that avantgardism has helped to create and which its methods can no longer solve.
The avant garde is dead. That is its triumph. Let it lie.
"Look here, Cranly, he said. You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use... silence, exile, and cunning."
-- James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
See the footnotes for this essay (opens in new window)
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