Tag Archives: avant-garde

Marxist Conservatism

One ought to recognize in the Marxist critique of capitalism a covert loyalty to an antecapitalist community. Marx was too sophisticated, too urbane to throw in his lot with those he dismissed as utopian socialists, yet, as his early writings show, his animus against capitalism derived, like theirs, from a reaction against capitalism’s desecration–desacralization–of traditional, patriarchal norms. He was, at heart a romantic reactionary, but forced by intellectual vanity to give his anticapitalism an avant-garde “progressive” cover, a project facilitated by the mental suppleness he absorbed from Hegelian dialectics.

If this covert nostalgia for the predeluvian past at the heart of Marxism is acknowledged, then the tendency of communist revolutions to bring to power archly paternal figures like the Man of Steel and the Great Helmsman can be appreciated as preservative of an ancient notion of regality. In effect, communism was able to give an absolutism threatened by the encroaching democratic corruption a new lease on life, thus safeguarding in distorted but still recognizable form the authority of the Great Father. Insofar as masculinity and what today is disparaged as “authoritarianism” are essentially the same thing, communism can be credited with having found a way to reinvent heroic virility as a modern virtue. This is why the monuments and edifices that remain from the Stalinist era, despite efforts to dismiss them as bombastic anachronisms or icons of “totalitarianism,” are paragons of aesthetic probity compared to the hysterically performative structures to which the postmodern cult of lameness has accustomed us.

Communism ultimately failed because, like modernism in general, it could not sustain the contradiction of attempting a modern, secular, humanist revival of a world that modernity, secularism, and humanism had destroyed. Nonetheless, the passing of modernism has left a void because modernism, for all its paradoxes, was the last heroic gesture that a senescent Western civilization was capable of before it completely surrendered to flaccidity.

Midas Touch

Art has always served power but in the premodern period, power, though associated with wealth was not its product. Contemporary power is corporate. It is the power of dead capital, which means that we are subjects not of the Sun King or the Pope but of the nameless, seemingly contingent forces that rule the global economy. This is a power that art is hard-pressed to exalt. The real story of modern art, once one gets past the self-heroicizing bluster of the avant-garde, is the story of the difficulties that had to be surmounted (the craft that had to be forgotten, the qualms that had to be allayed) before art could be sufficiently debased to serve capital.

For art to serve capital, it had to develop the means to give vacuity the appearance of effervescence. And beyond that, it had to develop means to glorify a wholesale inversion of values. Adapting to an ugly age, art learned to glorify ugliness. Adapting to a materialist age from which the sacred had been banished, it learned to glorify superficiality. Adapting to an age of diminished men, it learned to glorify stunted tastes and feelings. Adapting to an age in which the worship of technology had nullified virility, it learned to glorify effeminacy, lameness, and confusion. Adapting to an age “emancipated” from patriarchy, it learned to glorify perpetual adolescence, impotent rebellion, and formlessness. At every step, these adaptations had to overcome the resistance of artists, intellects, standards of taste and probity that retained some filiation with nobility. Finally, with the advent of postmodernism, a succession of triumphs over every lingering trace of decency was consolidated under a rubric that apotheosisized perversion and made an explicit principle out of the elevation of the marginal.

With each step forward into debasement, the diminution of quality has been accompanied by an expansion of quantity until, today, the term art is applied to the slightest affectation. We are now drowning in the excreta of swarms of “performative” mountebanks. Everything today is tainted by “art.” It is as if we are afflicted by the modern equivalent of the Midas touch–now revealed to be the curse of the total commodification of the world and the transformation of everything in it into a hectoring signifier of exchange value.

The deeper meaning of this wholesale artification of the late modern world is that it is driven by the need to aestheticize spiritual, cultural, and artistic degeneration, making the evil consequences of capital’s dominion appear deliberate, provocative, transgressive.

This is the fundamental mystication that underlies all modern “countercultural” ideologies. Thus, capital’s desecration of sex and sexuality is given the cover of a rebellion against “heteronormative” and patriarchal strictures. The destruction of tradition and the banalization of every aspect of existence are given avant-garde lustre. And, finally, every possible degeneration of taste, manners, and character is affirmed as “progressive,” so that the fatuous notion of progress becomes a synonym for civilizational putrefaction.

Perverts

Artists have to please much the same perverts that high-class whores do. And like whores, artists, too, have to pretend that they are self-motivated, that they put out because they enjoy it.

But what are the perverts after?

Some tangible, consumable sign of their alterity, some token that enables the rich to straddle both sides of the law: to be at one and the same time comfortably and smugly ensconced in the establishment and posing as its subverters.

The remarkable thing is that this collusion between pervert artists and pervert patrons can still somehow generate satisfaction despite the transparency of the collusion. For this, I think, we have to thank the abiding myth of the avant-garde. Officially, the avant-garde ceased to exist, oh, around 1960. But in reality the myth simply mutated. The cult of the modernist avant-garde mutated into the cult of postmodernist hipsterdom, which fulfills an identical function but without the utopian trappings of the former and, for that reason, with greater efficiency.

The figure of the hipster embodies the pervert fantasy reduced (or refined) to its essentials: conformist nonconformity, the covert acknowledgment of the law and its simultaneous disavowal. The pervert gets off by abusing/disabusing an imaginary innocence in which he is, perhaps, more invested than anybody else. Since this process can go on forever, we must assume that art too can go on forever despite its perennial promise to abolish itself by becoming indistinguishable from “life.”

Franchise

Duchamp had shown the way but his readymades remained for a long time encapsulated and quarantined within the transgressive aura of Dadaism. With Warhol, the integration of the artist into the market becomes overt: “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.” From this point on, the untenable model of the avant-garde artist operating on or outside the margins of society survives only in fantasy.  The critics, rightly fearing that in the age of Pop, their hieratic expertise was becoming irrelevant, did their best to ironicize Warhol’s perfectly explicit declarations of his crass ambitions.  The true irony, however, was that their efforts ensured the market value of work that might otherwise have failed to return a price above that of what it appropriated. A good part of Warhol’s genius, such as it was, was to recognize that there was virtually no limit to the intellectual self-contortion his critics were willing to undergo in order to safeguard the mystique of the avant-garde and the benefit they derived from positioning themselves as the avant-garde’s esoteric intermediaries. 

But Warhol also accomplished something else. Photography had threatened to make even the most uncommon objects common, at least as representations. Warhol turned this photographic devaluation of the uncommon on its head. He was able to turn the most debased photographic representations into objects of uncommon consumption. A can of soup, a bottle of Coke, a discarded picture of Marilyn, all these and others became superlative luxury items via the performative magic of Factory appropriation.

Warhol was famous for saying that he made a painting of Coca-Cola bottles because the popular drink was something that he and the queen could equally enjoy. What he left unsaid was that after the transformation of vernacular image into Art, only royalty could afford to purchase his particular brand of Coke.

Masochists

Art history is fiction, a compilation of nice stories people tell themselves because they want to believe that there is a logic, a progression, that links one style or trend to the next. There is indeed a logic, but it is a crude one, too crude to ever concern professional art historians. The logic of art history is determined by whatever at any given time and place captivates the rich and powerful. It is solely their whims that art, understood only as art, signifies.

The problem for the modern artist is that the rich and powerful no longer actually voice their whims or explicitly direct the artist to do their bidding. On the contrary, they insist that the artist should be solely guided by his vision, even to the point of appearing to be contemptuous of bourgeois taste. Like game fishermen, they want the fish they hook to give them a fight. In reality, no transgression that articulates itself within the frame of art can in any way threaten the bourgeoisie because bourgeois taste is quintessentially a taste for vapid novelty. Shocking the bourgeoisie and pandering to it have always been one and the same thing. Hence the masochism that characterizes the avant-garde’s most “radical” gestures. The performance art of the last 50 years or so (actually going all the way back to Dada) is full of spectacles of artists subjecting themselves to torturous and debasing ordeals. Why? Because the closest that art can come to stating the truth about itself in the modern era is to repetitively stage its own debasement, beyond which it cannot advance. A positive art, a sacred art, would be an art that served a consecrated culture and would therefore be an art that no longer had the qualities we associate with art since it would be bereft of the false autonomy of bourgeois art. The condition of art today reflects the impossibility of either art or the society that encloses it achieving sacredness. Instead, they both dwell in banal sacrilege, and art is forced to vomit as aesthetic spectacle the evidence of its impotence.

The very notion of history is a product of the profanation of culture. For history embodies a linear notion of time that marks the loss of contact with the eternal, which is radically timeless. Sacred art has no history. It does not progress. It can only be incorporated into art history once it has become a dead thing, a husk abandoned by the spirit.

Distinction

To support its self-regard, the elite needs to associate itself with whatever is uncommon. In the arts, for instance, the elite patronizes just those artists and designers whose work is inscrutable and even repugnant to everybody else. Thus the modern phenomenon of the avant-garde. But, elite snobbery expresses itself in moral as well as aesthetic taste.

Just as the elite patronizes the artistic avant-garde, it also supports what at any given moment pass for avant-garde attitudes, preferences, and lifestyles. The actual content of whatever ideas the elite embraces matters little because these ideas never serve the elite as anything more than fashion accessories. Outré ideas, ideologies, philosophies are easily embraced because easily discarded. The more perverse-seeming the idea, the greater its potential for displaying the elite’s extraordinary discernment. Thus, the same class of people who lauded Marcel Duchamp nominating a urinal to the status of art in 1917 today support a man nominating himself to be a woman and vice versa.

Progressivism has a longstanding association with snobbery, going at least as far back as the female-run salons of the 18th century that nurtured Enlightenment thought. In that particular instance, fashionable ideas did ultimately have unpleasant consequences for the silly blue bloods who entertained them, proving that the world is not entirely devoid of justice.