Sunday, July 19, 2009

New Thoughts on the Avant Garde

I recently finished Tracy Daugherty's wonderful book Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme. While I am still digging through my notes and marked passages, one particular quote of Don B keeps coming up:

the function of the advance to protect the main body, which translates as the status quo

At least for me, this is a different way of thinking about the avant garde side of arts. Blame my binary brain but I often think of the avant garde as an antagonistic force, a side of the arts that seeks to lay waste to everything that came before and define its age through a new style or new philosophy. A session on reading difficult writers I went to at this year's Balticon solidified it for me: when people around the room took turns announcing their favorite authors nearly everyone groaned when one brave man pledged his allegiance to Thomas Pynchon.

But this small line of Bartheleme's hints at more of a symbiosis. Constantly pulling on each other to go one way or another, the two sides need each other to define themselves. Even more, it's the avant garde that steps out to try new forms and new ideas, to take the blasts venomous criticism so more mainstream lit can (possibly) borrow and modify what they do years later.

As a writer who took chances by playing with the form but still managed to publish work in mainstream mags, I can't think of anyone else at a better vantage point than Barthelme to make a statement like this. While this idea is still very fresh in my head----and thus about as firmed up as a pile of silly putt----I'm hoping to mull on it for awhile and start seeing connections the more I read. We'll see.

I'll have more of a formal review of the bio later this week, after I finish going through my note. Until then....


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