Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Paglia Examines the Body of the Avante Garde, and Declares it DOA

It's a few days old, but there's an interesting interview with Camille Paglia conducted by Robert Birnbaum from The Morning News. Mostly she's there to promote an anthology of poetry she put together, but they go off on some tangents on culture, education, politics, etc.

Some of her points are valid. Problems with the current university system, doing multiculturalism for its own sake and not to demonstrate different routes to quality, the false veneer of the wealthier people on the left side of politics. But one comment really got to me.

The art world has actually prided itself on getting a rise out of the people on the far right. Thinking, “We’re avant-garde.” The avante-garde is dead. It has been dead since Andy Warhol appropriated Campbell’s Soup labels and Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe into his art. The avante-garde is dead. Thirty years later, 40 years later, people will think they are avante-garde every time some nudnik has a thing about Madonna with elephant dung, “Oh yeah, we are getting a rise out of the Catholic League.”

Perhaps it's her age, perhaps it's her stature. Maybe she's never been that plugged in. But the avante-garde has always been, at least in part, about provocation. Her dear Warhol had a brilliant mind, a mind that co-opted images out of the daily popular vocabulary and turned them into high art. Inventive, with some profound things to say about life in the 1960's. But also provocative. It created quite the stir at the time, painting nothing but Campbell's Soup cans on large canvasses. A number of critics at the time refused to call what Warhol and the rest of the Pop-Artists created art. But it stayed long enough and it influenced enough subsequent art that Pop-Art is a required section in any survey book of modern art.

Earlier in the article, she interestingly criticized Serrano for his controversial photograph "Piss Christ". It is a beautiful image when separated from the idea that the cross is floating in urine. To say Serrano's purpose was solely to antagonize "the right" limits a work that does the very same thing Warhol did with his soup cans; both force us to look at and think about a common image in a new way. That we still discuss "Piss Christ", nearly twenty years later, is a testament to the power behind the idea of the work.

So what is the new avante-garde? That's part of the difficulty. As quickly as our culture moves, a trend that crosses boundaries one day is appropriated and even blase the next month. But it's still out through writers like Harlod Jaffe and publishers like FC2. But more than likely it's also brewing and growing in places and ways critics would never consider. Only time will tell, I guess.


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