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Thursday, June 19, 2003  
Some vague thoughts on the avant garde...

I attended a lecture by film-maker and producer Don Boyd on Wednesday evening entitled "Is The Avant Garde Dead?" (it would have been rude not to attend, after having spent the afternoon helping him put together the tape of film clips he was going to use on our digital video editing suite). Don's a lovely, passionate, erudite and knowledgable bloke, but he's not a lecturer, public speaker, or academic, and as such his lecture was rather wooly, formless and erratic. Nevertheless, his talk raised some interesting ideas in me about the crossover between art and entertainment in film, and, of course, music, specifically the question of what the avant garde is for.

The saying has its origins in the French military, and literally means advance guard. But what's it actually about in terms of (popular) culture and our lives? Don's vague but purposeful list of adjectives and impressions seemed to focus around the idea of the avant garde bringing us the "new... unpopular... strange... [and] romantic...", of people seeing film as a medium through which to express (?- create) art, influence deigned as more important than impact/popularity, cerebral and visceral engagement (and shock) seen as a preferable goal... The idea of shock caused some problems. Helen Taylor, head of English at Exeter, pulled Don up for the fact that three of the clips he showed (in particular a segment of his own Aria and the Cinema Of Transgression piece The Evil Cameraman) portrayed violence towards women; the insinuation being, I think, that the avant garde is a male territory and that shock equates with male-on-female violence. What's the necessity of shock anyway? Shouldn't avant garde be about doing things first, finding new things, uncovering ground not noticed or else left fallow, rather than desperatly seeking to shock?

And why do we need the avant garde anyway? With it's recurrent refutations of commerce and capital, with its prickly desire to be 'challenging' (shocking), is it seeking to enrich our culture, our experiences of what it is to be human, to further our sense of self and our ability to appreciate life? Or, as I'm beginning to feel, is it just another cog in the machine, another subcultural generator primed by the very capitalist regime it ostensibly seeks to free itself from. 'Influential' in Don Boyd's terms then becomes a more sinister thing, meaning 'the next new thing to be interpolated, watered-down and sold back in many altered forms'; less a spiritual or aesthetic influence than another thing to be turned into products. Which would seem to be anathema to what the avant garde is about. The idea of it being a scout discovering new territories for the furtherance of capitalism is a bad thing.

Isn't it?

I don't know. I'm certainly less wound-up about the idea of products and marketing then many people. 'Selling-out' isn't something I see as a bad thing per se. In fact, the concept and the unwritten 'punkrock rulebook'* it comes from I believe to be a distinctly bad thing. I have neither the time nor inclination to go into it now (this is an obscure blog written by a nobody, for fuck's sake!) but suffice to say I don't think its necessarily as bad as people might instantly believe. Whilst at the same time believing it (capitalism) to be an evil, insideous, awful thing.

There was a brief flurry of emails a few weeks ago between Marcello and myself about what avant garde meant, inspired by his assertion in his CoM piece about The White Stripes' crapulent retro-fitted blues-whore opus Elephant that gillian Welch's Time (The Revelator) was "perhaps the most avant garde album of the century thus far". I didn't fully understand then (hence the emails) and now, several weeks and two (wonderful) Gillian Welch albums later (Time and Soul Journey) I can grasp the essence of what he was getting at even if I cannot articulate it. It's not so much about why or how you do something, but rather what you do with what's available to you. Hence The White Stripes fussily only using pre-63 analogue gear to record Elephant (indeed, their whole stripped to the bone aesthetic) is a pointless gesture when all they're recording with it is pastiche and parody and witless homage. By contrast, Gillian Welch records with old gear in a stripped down manner because it is the only thing she knows how to do; the form and intensity (emotional, in this case) is what matters, not the method of its production.

A thread on ILM this week entitled When will we get bored of manufactured music? fills me with the occasional recurrent despair that, really, no one understands what they're talking about (least of all me). Indie/rock boy into 'real music'? All that old soul you love came straight off a conveyor belt. Those songs you profess to love, that you claim are superior to 'pop' songs? Swap their clothes, my friend, and I doubt you could tell the difference. It's all surface, all an aesthetic. Buddha teaches us that life is suffering... The desire for substance and the eternal frustration of that desire (in the face of there being no substance)... Ramble ramble ramble. That's part of this avant garde thing as well; can the avant garde (and therefore 'real' art) be manufactured? Two words - Andy Warhol.

Don Boyd's conclusion was that the avant garde (in film and art) had been subsumed and interpolated so much so that the arbiters of taste (Saatchi and the Tate seemed to recieve much of his ire) now define what is percieved as avant garde art by the average man, merely by what gets included in their 'controversial' exhibitions when they have them. The taste arbiters, wealthy men fishing for status (intellectual? class? bohemian?); for them avant garde becomes a nostalgia exercise in tourism, what has been much more important than what will be, even though what will be is what the avant garde was initially about. Don wanted a new 'post-gard' (look after that mail) of young auteurs, but that's never going to happen now, is it? Not now you can get grants and prizes and training on how to deal with (manipulate) the press. Experimental music plays to five men and a sweaty dog in a pit; 'sound art' plays at gallerys. All if it ends up filtered and packaged anyway. Find the package you like.

*Disclaimer (in case Mark Sinker ever reads this, which he wont); I don't mean punk, I mean distinctly punkrock which comes much much later and is American and is linked v.v.closely with Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain stencilling his garage with his own brain and culture-jamming and No Logo and other things instantly recognisable if not definable.

But what is punk anyway? It was already dead by the time I was born. What have Avril's fucked-up metaphysical ethics got to do with it? U2 claim to be post-punk but then what to make of Wire or Talking Heads or PiL or or or or or the fact that The Clash aren't punk and aren't post punk but yet I like them waaaaaaaaaaaaaay more than The Sex Pistols (who I own no records by, and what's more, cannot ever EVAH buy any records by because I am 24; ie; I was minus2 when Never Mind The Bollocks came out and it's just tourism now for anybody under the age of 40 to go back there and claim to understand, all those strands of identity being eroded, all that destruction of history and future and unwritten law [and the placement of the seeds of future unwritten laws] and meaningless meaning. Shorn of being there [plunging needle into Sid's arm and dick into Rotten's mouth] you can't have it, no context, no realisation of what it menat. Have these boundaries broken permanantly? No, of course not. Crazy motherfucker. It means NOTHING to me. It can't. And I can't clap along or dance to it or anything anything because it's not mine and never was; it was dead before I was born and its ghost isn't related to its life, it's just still got the same shoes on.)

6/19/2003 11:35:00 am


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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com

All material © Nick Southall, 2003/2004/2005