The Avant-Garde's Slide into Irrelevance

The Avant-Garde's Slide into Irrelevance

Michael J. Pearce
Michael J. Pearce
9 min read

Many adherents to the aesthetics of the avant-garde in tenured positions at American art schools and universities are still enthusiastic supporters of the ideas and strategies that won them the culture wars of the late twentieth century. They steadfastly cleave to the doctrinal ideas that brought them into their positions of power and authority and have entrenched themselves in defense of an exclusively Euro-centric cult of avant-garde art. But as Western culture has changed around them, they have been outflanked by sentiment and technology.

The foundations of the avant-garde were built upon the opposition of true and fake art. The avant-garde provided true, ethical art, while its opposite pole was fake, sentimental kitsch. The Frankfurt School writer Norbert Elias was first to identify sentiment as the enemy, followed by Herman Broch, who provided doctrinal writings describing kitsch as evil, and tying true art to the exposure of social reality. The young Marxist Clement Greenberg came to the game late, famously bringing their ideas to an American audience with avant-garde doctrines that despised kitsch and favored an elitist intellectualism. Regardless of the importance of emotion in human relationships, a fundamentalist rejection of sentiment in art coupled with an embrace of ethical confrontation became doctrinal to the avant-garde throughout the twentieth century.

Representational artists—painters and sculptors who make images of people who look like people and things that look like things—were their favorite targets, partly because this was the dominant art of the West’s Soviet enemies. The Soviets used representational Socialist Realism to propagandize their ideology, and made use of sentiment as a manipulative tool. American Communism had fallen into disarray after the Stalin / Hitler pact in 1939, and after the war revelations about Stalin’s gulags turned many communists anti-Soviet. The US government courted their allegiance, enthusiastic to present America as the open-armed home of free thought – even if that thought was opposed to the government – in contrast to the straight-jacket of totalitarian doctrine. This created the paradox of American Marxist avant-gardists being set against Soviet Socialist Realism. Offering avant-gardism as a liberating alternative to the constrictions of Communism was essential to America’s strategy for winning the cultural Cold War. If the enemy restricted and controlled art in the East, in the West artists were encouraged to provide political commentary and to transgress. The avant-garde was fresh, seductive, and appealing. If sentiment and representation were the tools of our lying enemies, we must offer the opposite—concept and abstraction.

The establishment of the avant-garde depended upon an intellectual and financial dominance of American arts that was still possible when cultural gate-keepers like Greenberg, Alfred Barr, Nelson Rockefeller, Larry Gagosian, or Charles Saatchi maintained authority over the limited number of literary, museum, and academic outlets that controlled the discourse and development of American culture. Until the late twentieth century, critics could still speak of the “art world,” as a Western hegemony, a monolithic defensive line in which all artists must participate as avant-gardists or be sidelined.

But a true avant-garde leads the way forward. Establishment entrenchment behind bunkers is not a position for a revolutionary, progressive, or idealistic advance. Surely, avant-gardist artists should be at the cutting edge producing new revolutionary notions, not in the vampiric business of sucking school fees from students as payment for a dubious and outdated Marxist indoctrination. Consequently, although avant-gardists are fully established as the academic art establishment, their obsolescence is self-evident. Perhaps the reason avant-gardists traditionally wore black was because they knew they were heading for the funeral of their ideology.

By the 1980s the disintegration of the avant-garde art world had already begun. McEvilly had recognized the Western bias of the avant-gardist cause and pointed out its hypocritical exclusivity. He argued for a multicultural relativism that broke down the unilaterally white, Western, male order of this art world, giving equal credence to art originating from other races, cultures, sexual orientations, and genders, hoping to create a globalized culture that paid equal respect to all of its parts. But instead of creating a new, homogenized and inclusive art world, by the noughties and teens of the twenty-first century, this had led to bitter infighting and vicious power-struggles within the entrenched avant-gardist community as the various special interest groups fought from their corners.

Hamstrung by complaints of cultural appropriation, intersectionalist avant-garde artists no longer dared to produce work that referred to the struggles of racial groups to which they did not belong, or to explore the issues faced by members of cultures other than their own. Cis-gendered avant-gardists were censured for creating work that dealt with homosexuality or gender. Male avant-gardists could no longer produce works dealing with feminism, or the female body in any way. To stand for the oppression of others without being an initiate of that group was condemned as hypocritical and inauthentic. This was like a knife in the heart to avant-gardists. Their philosophy had insisted that artists must be ethically confrontational since its earliest days under Broch, whose ex-cathedra pronouncements placed ethical judgements of the human experience at the center of avant-garde aesthetics. The avant-garde art world was crumbling, brought down by its own proponents. A white female avant-gardist painter was excoriated for painting a canvas of a black boy who had been killed by police. A highly-qualified but white professor could no longer teach African Art History. An exhibit extolling the virtues of tearing down Confederate statues was condemned as racist.

And if the philosophical situation was deteriorating, the cultural situation brought avant-gardists even more bad news. Avant-garde social-justice activism was being flanked by multiculturalism at the same time as the rise of the internet-connected spectacular society. The latter had been predicted by the unhappy Marxist scryer Guy Debord, who foretold an inescapable capitalist Society of the Spectacle in which banking, entertainment, and culture were bound together by tight bonds of electronic communication. (Ultimately, perhaps his prognosis for the dominance of capitalism led to his suicide.) The spectacular internet has allowed the creation of multiple art communities, fracturing the hegemony of avant-garde authority. These communities feel no need to follow the rules of the avant-garde, building their own groups of people with specific interests. The democratic freedom of the web does not lend itself to elitist authoritarianism. A new heterodox bubble-bath art world replaced the avant-garde.

Representational artists and thinkers who disliked the authoritarian nature of avant-gardist academic discourse have created their own cultural bubble of conferences and conventions, of academies and ateliers, of magazines and journals. The Representational Art Conference series stands as evidence of this phenomenon, providing a place for academic studio artists, art historians, and thinkers who enjoy exploring and celebrating the philosophical and critical breadth of twenty-first century representational art. Under the avant-garde, artists who made an appeal to sentiment were reviled and traditional Western studio skill was decried and rejected in favor of “deskilling.” Now, powerful voices offer their support. Speakers like the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, presently embattled for daring to say that houses should be beautiful homes, were given a rare academic platform from which to speak about beauty. The libertarian Stephen Hicks, author of Explaining Postmodernism, was able to share his ideas about the shortcomings of avant-gardist philosophy. The great art critic Donald Kuspit said, “The Representational Art Conference is the most important art conference in the United States, and the world, in support of representational art, an art grounded in attention to objective reality, with no sacrifice of attention to emotional reality.” Among members of this community sentiment was welcomed, and technique celebrated.

In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, independent ateliers—traditional-style art schools with a focus upon skill based training—flourished as alternatives to avant-gardist University art schools and colleges, and are now accredited as legitimate institutions where students may learn studio techniques that lead to employment as fine artists and in the movie, animation, and video game industries. The New York Academy trains its students and demands imaginative ideas of them. The Laguna College of Art and Design produces distinguished figurative painters and sculptors like Julio Reyes and Candice Bohannon, until recently boasting “The Reluctant Realist” F. Scott Hess among their faculty. Daniel Graves’s Florence Academy brings international credibility to this form of disciplined art study, with ateliers based in New York, Sweden, and Italy. David Chang has established an atelier program in the art school of Florida International University—the first program of its kind in a public research institution. In Oregon, under Graham Toms’s guidance, the Salem Kiezer Career Technology Center is providing intensive training in drawing for high school students who are interested in acquiring marketable skills that may lead to jobs in the vast world of motion pictures and video games, an industry that is hungry for new employees who are capable, not only of using computer programs to render convincing digital imagery, but also of understanding anatomy, value, and color. This hybrid of traditional skill-based studio training merged with technology shows how avant-gardism is being out-flanked by the practical necessities of employment.

These schools offer accredited bachelor’s and master’s degrees. They are flourishing. Their graduates are equipped with real skills, and prepared for real jobs. University recruiters should be aware of their success in the face of the failure of the avant-garde academy to provide any prospect of a career to their students. Outstandingly skillful representational artists are prying open the doors of American galleries. Painting images of people who actually look like people, and things that look like things, remarkable artists like Teresa Oaxaca, Z. S. Liang, Pamela Wilson, Stephen DaLuz, Andrea Kowch, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Mario Robinson, Randalf Dilla and many others are enjoying successful careers in an art world that exists beyond the reach of the avant-garde.

In California and New York, high school teachers are enthusiastically accepting skill-based ideas about art education brought to them by the Da Vinci Institute, led by Mandy Theis and Kara Ross of the Art Renewal Center. Because of the need for contemporary education to provide assessable learning outcomes, atelier-style projects are returning to the art curriculum. The avant-garde treated art as a self-indulgent ejaculation of experience at the expense of technique. Now art training is opening up to the eminently practical idea that students need to acquire a skill set so they can create the images their imaginations offer and their future employers can use.

The science fiction and fantasy art world bubbles are growing too, developing huge followings of enthusiastic votaries, who meet at conferences like IX Arts, hold prestigious competitive exhibits, and share examples of their work in online fora. Much of the work is of exceptional quality, because many of its exponents have been trained at illustration trade schools like the Rhode Island School of Design, or the Pasadena Art Center—places where the avant-garde never encroached. Illustration was always unashamedly sentimental, because as the servant of advertising it depended upon it as a necessary tool. Illustration and art were separated because of this inconvenience.

Perhaps the greatest representational painter of the century, the extraordinary Odd Nerdrum, has re-opened the discussion of the place of sentiment in art, claiming that he is a “kitsch-painter” not an artist, pointing out the long-lived false dichotomy between avant-garde and kitsch. Nerdrum’s voice has a broad and significant appeal. David Bowie gave him the ultimate stamp of popular approval by collecting his work. Meanwhile, the Burning Man organization is a major funder of popular figurative and visionary public art—almost entirely sentimental and neglected by the academy, while deeply appreciated by its audience.

A generation of students has arrived at our universities which has grown up within constant reach of smart-phones, gaming consoles, and the internet. Born and raised in the twenty-first century, these students have never known a world without immediate electronic connection with friends and entertainment. They have no personal memory of 9/11, did not live through the last century’s culture wars, and think of the Second World War as ancient history. Consequently, their experience of reality is absolutely not the same as that of previous generations. Nor is their experience of art. Instead of receiving art through the vehicles of art magazines controlled by avant-gardist gatekeepers, they are under a constant deluge of images from a huge number of sources.

Much of this torrent is superficial. Much of it is an overload of the senses. Many of the people consuming it are wholly, thoroughly, and fondly addicted. When we walk across any university campus, we see two-thirds of the student body walking alone, in the characteristic pose of our time, with head down, gaze focused on both hands held together at waist height. Many of us decry this. We want to interact with them, but feel completely blocked by their digital focus, as if watching them in a boat at sea while we walk along the shoreline. But can we blame them for their distraction? They are afloat in a flood of extremes, a competitive flow of images that are bigger than, better than, and more than everything that has come before, in every sphere. Many of these images unashamedly appeal to sentiment. They are thoroughly kitsch. They have nothing to do with political ideology. Fluffy kittens! Pretty puppies! Cartoon selfies! There is no chance whatsoever of a small elite class of avant-garde authorities exerting any control over the aesthetics of the imagery our students share.

Spectacular society has allowed sentiment to over-run the avant-garde. With the popular abandonment of the heart of their philosophy, the avant-garde is hopelessly outflanked.

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Michael J. Pearce

Michael J. Pearce lives in Ventura County, California, where he teaches painting, drawing, and the philosophy of art at CLU. He is author of Art in the Age of Emergence.