"The Avant-Garde Ideal"

by Andrew McGinn

The contemporary artist that wishes to change the audience’s perception of their environment creates under the irregular shadow of the Avant-Garde. Whether purposefully identifying as Avant-Garde or not, a current artist with a socio/political agenda who experiments with form will consistently encounter the loaded term "Avant-Garde" in response to their work. That artist’s reaction to the term, notably his or her wish to be associated with it, can illuminate the immediate work in a historical context, as well as provide insight into the impact of the Avant-Garde legacy among current practitioners, Who better than a current, practicing artist whose work contain an immediately recognizable comment on the current environment (which can be any combination of the cultural, political, and physical) to provide insight on the state of existence of the Avant-Garde today, and offer fresh insight into what of its legacy is in current practice?

Such a subject is impossible to exhaust because there are thrice as many concepts of the Avant-Garde as there are practicing artists. Therefore, while I make no attempt to define the form of Avant-Garde today, indeed some stubbornly maintain that there is nothing to define; there is every attempt to notice its effect as a legacy on the much smaller scale of a new work of art. No total definition of Avant-Garde has ever been possible, and so approaching the term is best done in the context of response to culturally critical works. Looking at art and appreciating the work in relation to the Avant-Garde’s indefinable legacy with the artists themselves, conclusions may be arrived at about the Avant-Garde as an element of influence on current art with socially conscious content, and ambitions of changing the audience’s awareness of their environment.

The reaction to lines of inquiry through the filter of the Avant-Garde, from will necessarily vary in the artists. The selection of artists was arrived at by hunting for work in the Seattle area which had apparently socially critical content. This accurately implies an agenda on my part to find work that could qualify as Avant-Garde on the grounds of social criticism, and yet as is often the case with investigation, the conclusion is interestingly somewhat of a departure from the original draw. Of the two artists whose work is discussed, one identifies as Avant-Garde and one does not. As such, the points where these artists do not identify with the Avant-Garde are just as telling as those when they do. This defines actively creative boundaries, on an individual level, to the concept of the Avant-Garde and as such greater defines both the term, and more importantly the current work before us in what amounts in the end to an aesthetic appreciation of a new work of art through the lens of Avant-Garde theory.

The case studies themselves were arrived at by the aforementioned search for current works that depict social criticism. Content, a sense of critical intent on the part of the artist, and a "wow" factor on my own part as audience regarding the use of elements in their medium, were the main considerations in selection. Veronique Le Merre, a painter whose works are often on display at Gallery 110 in Seattle, has a current series in which she satirically revises popular fairy tales, addressing popular notions of gender and children. Her view of the Avant-Garde is that it is a term used to describe new artistic forms, and as such is a purely aesthetic term. She takes great care to use the elements of bold color and escapism in order to create a harmonious relationship between the viewer and the painting, while displaying content that defies established cultural associations. By contrast, a burlesque performer whose stage persona is "Randi Rascal" and whose tagline is "Your Own Private Radical" wants to effect discomfort - to a degree, depending on the audience - so that the audience will “take the shock with them” and be reflective afterwards. The elements of seduction, humor, and alienation are all mixed together in this yet developing new movement in overtly political burlesque performance that has been gaining momentum since the 1990’s, with Seattle and New York as the primary creative hubs. Rascal embraces consideration of her work as Avant-Garde, on the grounds that what they’re doing is new and absolutely critical of the current cultural environment, meanwhile Le Merre does not on the grounds of a non-agitating intent, and informed by an interpretation gleaned from her formal education in Fine Arts.

As is apparent in the diverse views about the Avant-Garde in these artists, "Avant-Garde" of course is not definitive, but a 200-year-old term descriptive of a critical, socially progressive intent. It carries with it, from its origins in Saint-Simonian circles, a utopian agenda that is meant to spur the audience into actuating new policies and advancing the march toward the future, which Saint-Simon dreamed was a march toward industry that was to be an equalizing force in class differentiation. For Saint-Simon, the Avant-Garde was not only to be revolutionary art, but artists were also to have their place in the highest forms of new government, on par with engineers and politicians, because they could interpret and communicate the improved future environment in ways unique to them.

This utopian ideal branched out into more artistic movements than one can count ever since - from Realism to the Angry Penguins to Post-Modernism - and has been the inspiration for new forms of art associated with the advance of mankind in conjunction with the advance of art. From its idealistic core, the Avant-Garde calls on artists to be useful in bringing about a better society.

But the means of social change are not always as harmonious as the envisioned utopian ends, and so it is with the tenor of much of the Avant-Garde art that was to come. The fantastic advances to art in the 19th Century found forms as radical as the social upheaval caused by revolutionaries, with some famous examples of radical form and social upheaval commencing at once, such as at the premiere of "Ubu Roi", or the Futurist Serate. The Avant-Garde came to be a term forever associated with radical art that frustrated bourgeois society.

As a result of agitating the audience, the artists reportedly hoped to send them away from the Avant-Garde space a changed unit back to the cultural space, newly inspired by a critical and revolutionary energy that will change the world. The art itself was like an upright trampoline that propels the audience who encounters it back into society with even greater momentum, resentful of the politics that forced the reactionary existence of the reorienting art. By nature of the art’s intent of changing the audience’s core perceptions, and the requisite disturbance necessary to achieve audience reorientation, the agitation inherent to it was described as "cruelty" by Antonin Artaud in 1938, over a hundred years after Saint-Simon coined the Avant-Garde as part of a solution to quell the chaotic transition from Catholicism and Monarchy to an industrialized republic.

An interesting revision of cruelty offered by these case studies has just as reorienting aims, but reflects a perception that the disorienting element in their art comes not from the audience’s encounter with the art, but rather from the destructive culture that the art counteracts by effecting harmony. The art, by nature of its being culturally relevant, carries with it an inherent measure of disturbance, yet the function of the art is to offer a more truthful and less disturbing alternative to the destructive environment. The art then counteracts the destructive culture by re-establishing vital harmony in the audience, bearing resemblance to theories espoused in John Dewey’s seminal book on aesthetics from 1980, “Art as Experience” which hypothesizes a triangular relationship between audience, art, and environment that the art crystallizes in what he calls “harmony”. What role does the perception of an environment that in itself is ugly play in the effect of harmony a work of current art can affect, and does that revise the Artaud’s cruelty to modern efforts? In these case studies, nobody wants to cause total disturbance in their audience, yet there was some degree of expectation that by reflecting the environment, disturbance was inherent. In a destructive environment, perhaps harmony is radical.

Veronique Le Merre makes choices that are meant to beautify criticism, particularly in the use of opulent, saturate color and coherent, figurative representation. Regarding her “Little Enchanted World of Fairy Tales” series currently on display at Gallery 110 in downtown Seattle, she states that "escape" is a major desired effect in her choice of elements, and to my delighted surprise, criticism was not an acceptable description of her intent, but rather satire.

In place of Little Red Riding Hood as an innocent young girl lost in the woods, she revises her in two works, “Little Red Riding Hood’s Reverie”, and “Here Comes Trouble”, as a girl who knowingly journeys into a land of danger and fornication. Her observations in conversation were that the myth of innocence in popular suburban culture, and that children have a vitality and drive for indulgence which is largely denied. The traditional Disney depictions of children’s tales is a massive part of this false perception, and she keeps the colorful fantasy world which we popularly associate with these tales yet reforms the story, and employs a more realistic, and much better fed, female form than the popular depiction of young heroines. This Little Red Riding Hood is knowingly rebellious, as she looks past the viewer with an implied sense of unsure privacy while she attracts the Big Bad Wolf with an evocative glimpse up her skirt. The thematic combinations of sex, wilderness, consumption, arousal, and complicity in the context of a popular cartoon, combined with associative bright color, conspire to invite and delight a viewer in the context of a critical message made satirical. This conscious mixture of culturally dissociative elements is a mark of Postmodernism. While the narrative, figurative forms in the paintings are unified with popular assumption, the character of the heroine is remade. Even the cute little bunnies fornicate in “Little Red Riding Hood’s Reverie”.

The interaction of saturate color is very much in line with the escapist intents one might find in popular cartoons for children, and its soft opulence lends itself to levity and humor. Le Merre turns escapism, long the pejorative title given to bourgeois works that lack relevance and utility, on its head. The inviting and super-saturate images project naiveté while the content is anything but innocent. To escape into Little Red Riding Hood’s world is an irony because everything about the character herself has more depth and reality in relation to vital urges than popular discourse about Little Red Riding Hood, or pubescent children, allows. There is an escape to reality, and that is the radical enchantment of Le Merre’s paintings. The palatable use of elements effects a harmonious relationship between the art and the audience, while the content effects a disunity with popular culture, and a laugh.

To identify with the art at the expense of cultural assumption is a reorientation from the false cultural context to reality. The stylistic harmony stands in contrast to fractured common perception, thereby establishing conflict between the environment and the art. The art is harmonious while the environment is not. While Artaud’s use of the term cruelty could still be applied to this paradigm, as there is yet an experience of audience reorientation, there’s an interesting view in the conflict between the art and the culture that is informed by the art’s opposition to a culture perceived as destructive. For Le Merre, the absence of disorientation in presentation connects the audience to a harmonious use of space that counteracts the destructive environment. There is a conflict between art and environment where the art draws in the spectator by virtue of what Dewey calls the impulsion towards harmony. “The moment of passage from disturbance into harmony is that of intensest life”, he states. “Inner harmony is attained only when, by some means, terms are made with the environment.” While Dewey was primarily concerned with fundamental elements such as line, rhythm, and shape, the same can be applied to cultural boundaries, which “The Little Enchanted World of Fairy Tales” reorients for the audience in truthful fantasy.

Another way of defining the elicitation of audience engagement would be seduction, as is evident in the Neo-Burlesque scene. As opposed to visual elements to draw the audience in to a "fantasy" that reorients the audience to a truth beyond cultural construct, the Neo-Burlesque engages the audience member’s innate impulse to counteract death and isolation via its utilization of the sexual impulse. In its own right a draw towards harmony, the overt sexual impulse is a key presence in the Neo-Burlesque environment, and it stands counter to established cultural norms. Usually taking place in a cabaret atmosphere, the Neo-Burlesque attracts a mostly supportive audience that expects character, narrative, and cultural criticism as part of the performance that traditionally, though not always, involves stripping. The performers themselves are commonly amongst the audience in various states of undress while other acts go on, and the Emcee is typically a character who entertains the audience with sexual wordplay, song, and otherwise directly humorous engagement. While countercultural and critical, the atmosphere is deliberately inviting, sexual, and playful. The erotic whimsy runs counter to a national public discomfort with sexuality, evidenced by a long political trend where contraceptive education and funding for pregnancy crises is in decline. Meanwhile, the average age of a person’s first sexual encounter steadily gets younger and younger and pornography has never been more consumed. According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, a research and education firm for reproductive health, among American teens age 18 to 19, from 2006-2008, 41% report that they know little or nothing about condoms, and 75% say they know little or nothing about the contraceptive pill. Additionally, the study indicates a 15% increase since 1995 in the number of teens who received abstinence education but not contraceptive education. Meanwhile, another report from the same research firm finds that 95% of Americans have had premarital sex, and has to roughly the same degree since 1940 - as far back as the study goes according to the age of those polled. Sex, it seems, happens everywhere while the expression of it is countercultural. In response, says Rascal about Neo-Burlesque, “it’s all a form of protest in that strippers' very existence is political.”

Like the paintings of Le Merre, Neo-Burlesque offers an, "escape" into a space that is opulently fantastical, while thematically relevant and in contrast to cultural assumptions. On the stage of the Neo-Burlesque, the acts can often reflect the negative views and consequences of cultural disavowal of sexuality. The space counteracts popular culture, and then act itself can counteract the burlesque space as a fantasy within a fantasy. While there is no shortage of purely titillating entertainment acts, critical performance is common in the Neo-Burlesque. Popular culture is then projected into the space through the lens of the burlesque form, imitating seduction. For the audience, when the burlesque act becomes culturally critical, or expresses pathos, there is a secondary reorientation. The occurrence of tragedy, for example, in such an environment is a separation from the positivity that pervades the cabaret, and is traditionally unexpected. In Randi Rascal’s act, "Cutter", she portrays the temptation to self-mutilate with a pair of scissors, with which she cuts away her clothes, and finally embraces. As with a traditional burlesque, the performer enters the stage showing some degree of skin, while the audience goes “woo-woo!” And in this performance the act of cutting away the clothing is immersive to the performer, as opposed to engaging for the audience by way of eye contact, or other forms of overtly eliciting response. Audience engagement is voyeuristic here, like naturalistic theater, but the contrast in mood and style from the Neo-Burlesque room has an alienating effect, and the audience is steered towards engaging intellectually, whereas with traditional burlesque the engagement was purely erotic. In the case of “Cutter”, the draw of the strip is in tension with the tendency to withdraw from the pathos implicit in the character’s relationship with the scissors. The audience is left with their own conflict to ruminate on, and reason a harmony between the burlesque environment, and the less ideal reality projected into it. “The appeal”, says Rascal about Neo-Burlesque, “is intellectual”.

Sighting the differences between the performance of stripping, burlesque, and Neo-Burlesque, Rascal first sights the small amount of money one can make in the Neo-Burlesque, compared with the potential for monetary gain in a strip club, or back in the Vaudeville circuit when Burlesque was popularized in America. That you can’t make money at it makes it art, according to Rascal. As such, the very impulse behind creating critical works of Neo-Burlesque is a non-materialist, radical impulse that repurposes a commercial tradition. Body ownership, protest, attention, and fun mark the impulses behind getting engaged in Neo-Burlesque. It is an unusual method of protest surrounded by joy and sensuality, making it a unique critical platform.

By not taking itself too seriously on the exterior, Neo-Burlesque intends to make the audience comfortable and at ease so that they will listen, “But I’m not joking” says Rascal. She believes that the mind is most open when people are having a good time, and in order to reorient the audience they must be engaged on a friendly level. The stripper in Neo-Burlesque assumes the Jungian archetype of The Trickster, enabling a positive expression of sensuality while simultaneously portraying pathos. Like the Yoruba trickster deity Edshu who wears a hat of two colors in order to stir debate between the people on either side of him about its color, the Neo-Burlesque performer causes debate within an audience member who wonders “Is she stripping for my pleasure, or is she trying to tell me something?” A good example of this quandary comes from a performance of "Cutter" when an audience member yelled, “Yeah, cut yourself!” as if one were yelling “take it off!” meanwhile the performer is engaged in a complicated relationship with self-mutilation. Perhaps the audience member was a sadist, but the conflict between erotic exuberance and pathos the performer establishes is evident in such a case. On the flip side, the act “Vagina Dentata” Rascal performs with her collaborator Wiggy Stardust depicts date rape in completely cheerful presentation, where Rascal’s character encourages audience enthusiasm with eye contact and willful suspense as she drugs her female date’s drink and removes both of their clothing. “Oh, I want them to cheer there, they’re supposed to cheer!” she says about the act. Certainly one wouldn’t assume that Rascal and Stardust are trying to reorient the audience towards greater appreciation of date rape, but the engagement is the trickster’s way of exposing the audience to cultural criticism while drawing them in with the spirit of fun-loving naiveté. When the clothes come off "the victim", we see the trick sprung when her puppet vagina is revealed to have big sharp teeth that scare "the rapist" off, leaving her alone and bewildered in her drugged state. While the conclusion is a humorous one, the message is clear that date rape has consequences. The audience cheering for date rape or shouting for the performer to cut herself, well exhibits the conflict and reorientation that occurs for the audience when positive and negative aspects of sexual perception take turns in the Neo-Burlesque space. Says Rascal, “It can be summed up this way: Titties!!!! …now think.”

The Neo-Burlesque’s audience and artists are primarily women, and activists for Women’s Rights have embraced it. A simple Internet search shows that Neo-Burlesque fundraisers for Planned Parenthood have been numerous over the past 10 years, as well as for arts organizations, and Burlesque festivals. A recent fundraiser for the Political Action Committee (PAC), "National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League" (NARAL) in Seattle featured eight acts that exhibited a range of styles, and an age of performers that spans the Neo-Burlesque. As a fundraiser for this organization that funds the campaigns of popular candidates who support their agenda, the recent rePRODUCTIONS fundraiser for NARAL utilized the attraction to Neo-Burlesque that has been developing since the 1990’s. A fundraiser for a national PAC, rePRODUCTION can’t be considered completely radical in a historically Avant-Garde context due to its participation in the established political structure, yet the overt participation in the political arena certainly evokes the Avant-Garde tradition. reRODUCTIONS certainly offered a range of style within the Neo-Burlesque genre and raised in one evening more money for their cause than the average working class American earns in a year. The Neo-Burlesque is certainly engaged in political action in accordance with the critical intent behind the acts.

“Art can change the world” is the idealistic legacy of the Avant-Garde, and that possibility is central to the reception and production of art to this day. Even in the most commercial theaters, galleries, and art-houses, the "Artist Statement", or "Mission Statement" is central to new work’s presentation, support, and discussion. This statement, like a diet manifesto, almost always carries a validation of the art’s existence, answering the classic Avant-Garde call for art to be socially relevant, and culturally useful. Garnering funds to support a profitless endeavor such as, for example, a popular theater is more often done in the name of social utility than commercial value. One can see the emphasis on social utility everywhere, including the mission statement of "The 5th Avenue Theater", who produces massive musicals and is a common testing-ground for developing popular smash-hits on Broadway. Their mission quotes “cultural enrichment”, “relevance”, and that its art “reflects the broad scope of the cultural significance of American musicals”. Autonomous, escapist missions are not in vogue even in organizations vaunting the Great American Musical, with aims to make commercial Broadway splashes. Avant-Garde ideals of relevance and utility, on the other hand, are.

To site another example of the prevalence of the ideal of social utility in current production, there is the entire existence of non-profit theaters in the U.S. who were founded on culturally utilitarian values. Jerry Manning, the Artistic Director of Seattle Repertory Theater, who has been a part of the non-profit theater’s growth from the 1970’s, claims that from the inception of resident theaters, the entire purpose of non-profit theater has been social utility. He refers to a mentor of his, Zelda Fichandler, with whom he worked with on one of the first Endowment Campaigns launched on behalf of a resident theater, in the early 1980’s. This successful campaign for Arena Stage in Baltimore was launched amidst a cultural backdrop of intense free-market fervor during the Regan years. It created its endowment under the banner of Zelda’s quote, “Theater is an instrument of civilization” [italics are mine]. The claim of utility sparked one of the first privately supported endowments, and it is a claim that pervades our artistic culture.

Even while the ideal of social utility is omnipresent, artists to not universally identify as Avant-Garde. Even in two artists whose themes and effects have so many similarities such as Le Merre and Rascal, being "Avant-Garde" has completely different meanings. The factors that mark those reasons provide some shape to the current understanding of Avant-Garde, but they are better suited to inform the appreciation of a practicing artist’s work. A dissociative tendency on the part of the artist can be for many reasons, such as the age of the term, or for its anti-establishment, socialist origins that a critical artist may not identify with politically, or she may value autonomy from "a movement". Yet a striking aspect to a modern, socially critical artist’s reluctance to be associated with the Avant-Garde, despite his or her ideological affinity with it, can be found in the quandary first theorized by Walter Benjamin, where art can be caught between “The Aestheticization of Politics” as performed by the Fascists where the Futurist concept of art, life, and political aim sharing the same space was made super-significantly manifest, and the “Politicization of Aesthetics” by the Bolsheviks where art was to be totally utilitarian in expressing party concepts. In these defining cases, argues Benjamin, the Saint-Simonean political/artistic agenda was actuated in Hitler as Futurist straordinario, and Lenin as chief curator. One does not have to dig deep to fathom an unwillingness to be Avant-Garde considering these significant associations between radical art and governance in the Avant-Garde’s historical heyday. Of course, identifying as an Avant-Garde artist does not definitively indicate being a Facist or a Bolshevik, but the famous associations are certainly a factor when artists consider a defining themselves as Avant-Garde. Defending the term against such associations with the Avant-Garde, Clement Greenberg famously referred to such politically useful art as "Kitsch" in his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, which came out in the same year as Artaud’s "Theater and Its Double". Ever since the 1950’s, most Avant-Garde considerations are non-political.

There is also in modern times a popular assumption that, for well or ill, the Avant-Garde is dead. In George Watson’s un-subtly titled article in a 1997 publication of The Sewanee Review “The Death of the Avant-Garde”, he argues that the historicization, and institutionalization of teaching the Avant-Garde comes into direct conflict with its anti-authoritarian origins. He argues that with the creation of the MFA at New York University, where students were to formally study the radical artists of the past, the radical nature he viewed as essential to the Avant-Garde was done away with. The Avant-Garde had become a bourgeois pleasure, in effect.

While Veronique Le Merre may dissociate from the term and Randi Rascal may identify with it, and while George Watson misreads Saint-Simon’s institutional ambitions, and while the term "Avant-Garde" continues to gather dust, there remains an Avant-Garde ideal about the usefulness of art that is central to current creation or appreciation of new work. To peg anything as "truly Avant-Garde" is - and always has been - futile, meanwhile cognizance of the scope and intent the term implies shall always be relevant so long as artists continue to aim towards effecting cultural reorientation on their audience. The Avant-Garde isn’t dead at all, any more than the American Dream ever existed as a structure. They are both ideals that motivate and perplex an experience of cultural harmony. For the reason of its yet common use as a context for appreciating new art, the Avant-Garde is an entirely relevant consideration because to dismiss the term is to plug one’s ears to the critical and useful artistic impulse, and it’s precedent. Attempting to close the book on the Avant-Garde would be terminally exhausting, and ignoring the Avant-Garde wherever there is critical art going on is ignorant because it’s the Apple Pie of relevance. It’s the tease in striptease. It’s the land of escape to, rather than from.