Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Re-booting the Avant Garde

A leading article in this Sunday's Guardian/Observer has piqued interest across the Twittersphere. Vanessa Thorpe's piece reports on the conflict between the custodians of the tradition of the avant garde and those who think it is now an anachronism.

What is avant garde? When the term is used, it tends to summon the idea of unexpected art - theatre, music, film or visual art - that shocks the viewer or audience by transgression across accepted convention. This often means trespassing on invisible demarcations that render the audience a separate existential entity or, further, the reality of the outside world a separate existential world from the fantasy world of the theatre. This trespassing is often referred to as 'pushing the boundary' (and in theatre that boundary is often referred to as the 'fourth wall').

The avant garde is often associated with the 20th century, rather than the progressiveness in art in previous periods, as one associates it with Modernism. If Modernism itself has a characteristic it is its explosion of the envelope of what constitutes art. Film brought a whole new wing of art, coinciding with the immersive, multi-dimensional pinnacle of the development of opera. In contrary motion to the ostensibly documentary-like properties of film came visual art's move away from literal, figurative representation to abstraction. Theatre straddled the fourth wall with work that begged more questions than for which it provided narrative, and for answers invoked responses in its audience rather providing information. All of this, naturally, coincided with the rise of psychoanalysis, the investigation of the outside superceded by investigation of the inside.

The avant garde then represents an extreme development to one end of the scale where the consumer - to use a modern term - feels involved in the art rather than at the other end, as an existentially separate entity, assessing it in isolation. The avant garde may be said to represent the Heisenberg end of the experience, where it is impossible to examine the worth or even viability of the art on its own terms, so wed is it to the experience of the viewer.

The natural development of this Modernist-inwardness is the biggest threat to the tradition (such as there is one) of the avant garde. Modernism's single most influential message is that the personal response is the basic arbiter of aesthetic and so moral validity. There has been an total, three-dimensional explosion of the consensus, which no longer exists. For every aesthetic opinion, the opposite may also be held, and there is no way of testing who is right. The extrapolated upshot is that someone may deny having an affronted response to art that is, in consensual terms, immoral - aesthetically impoverished - and there is not only no way of testing that response. In doing so it also dissolves the claim of the art to be avant garde. Post-Modernism is the awareness of the Modernist phenomenon and the viability of the consumer to manipulate that awareness to once again assert an existential separation from the art whilst simultaneously engaging with it.

The 'having your cake and eating it' mechanics of post-modernism means that the avant garde has little purchase. If the experience of the consumer can be effectively categorised as inauthentic via post-modernist double-think then the act that rendered the experience is coupled with that. The logical algorithm goes: Shocked? I can see why I was shocked. I didn't mean to be. It's not really meant to be shocking. It's not shocking.

My current experience of theatre is that if it can't join them it might just try and beat them, for example with pre-emptive intermediaries. Recent productions of Turandot, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tales of Hoffmann at English National Opera as well as the current Stephen Medcalf production of Aida for Raymond Gubbay all use an additional, mute character wandering the stage as a consumer figure that the director can control and manipulate to show the audience how he intends their responses directed.

Naturally, this post-modernist dissolution of the bathwater of the avant garde throws out the baby of something more worthwhile. And just as directors try to pre-empt the audience with proxies such as that suggested above, so others produce art that pre-empts the director with art predicated on market research. This is the art that is commonplace in the West End at the moment, anodyne, consumer-predicated art that plays to a market majority in the absence of an aesthetic objectivity. The irony is that this is not only the sort of uncontroversial art that is anathema - target, even - of the avant garde but, seen at arms length, is the cyclical opposite of it.

Cyclical? How will the avant garde return then? Post-modernism cannot simply be uninvented. Instead those who would see the return of the avant garde might have to try and re-establish some sort of aesthetic framework - some aesthetic objectivity  - whose bonds they can subsequently assault afresh.

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