Any takers? Can you guess what I think is the problem here? It seems to point to a real problem with contemporary art, and how we think about it, which significantly DOESN’T apply to other creative genres like music, film, or literature.
I was re-watching an old documentary about American painters which I’d seen in art school decades ago. When art critic Clement Greenberg said this, in the interview, I typed it up. Greenberg is reviled these days because he was the preeminent promoter of American Abstract Expressionism, which belongs to Modernism, and that is now passé, and we need to reject his values in order to move on to Post-Modernism. But we still cling to the notion of the avant-garde.
The problem here, as I see it, is in NOT trying to make good art, but in trying to make oneself significant by making something recognizable new. The most important thing is to make oneself important. New styles have always evolved out of necessity, and grand paradigm shifts. This is a little different, it’s a newness for newness sake, and quality isn’t really as important. This doesn’t really happen in literature because it’s not possible to make clearly distinct and radically new styles of writing. Similarly, such early experimentation in music never found much of an audience. The more you deviated radically from melody, harmony and rhythm, the more you embraced annoying noise. People will not tolerate music that isn’t good. I, for one, have a rule that if it actually hurts my ears, I won’t listen to it.
I’ve understood the problem with avant-gardism since I saw this documentary the first time. I felt at the time that my fellow students were often trying to make art history, more than they were trying to make art. You had to make something new, and in so doing had to eschew that which had worked in the past, or disregard it altogether. The end result was that you should do anything other than what was traditionally conceived of as art. Instead, you should make a shockingly new spectacle. But how many performance art pieces with meat need to be done before it’s a bigger cliché than sitting around making pencil sketches of nudes?
I think Duchamp and Greenberg had it backwards. The aim should be to made good art, and to develop new styles out of necessity, not purely for the sake of it, in which case a lot of the new styles are empty and reflect little more than the artist’s attempt to be clever enough to secure his or her ego a place in the pantheon of modern art history.
I think it’s also harder to make good art than merely new art. I imagine it’s much harder to write a solid novel, than to devise some experimental writing system. But there is a certain allure to not having to be especially good at writing or music, and merely having to come up with a new way of doing it that somehow makes one above and beyond doing it in a more conventional way.
For example, I have an idea for a musical piece which I just came up with this instance in order to provide an example. I get a bunch of different clocks and alarms and randomly set them to go off at different times, say within a given hour. Then I set them up all around a room or auditorium. There could be hundreds or even thousands of them. The audience comes in and the unexpected result is the musical piece. No need for me to recognize a single note, be able to play an instrument, or know anything really at all about music. Once you start thinking in a “conceptual art” sort of way the ideas come fairly easily. This wouldn’t fly with music audiences, because they’d rightly think it sucked as music. It would need to be reclassified as “sound sculpture” and thus “art”, which is the arena where novelty is its own reward, even if it’s only new if you haven’t followed art at all since before you were born.
In music, new styles like rap or rock evolved out of a need and desire to express new ideas, sensations, and vantage points that couldn’t be expressed with existing styles. But with avant-garde art there is often no need driving the experimentation. It’s just trying to carve out a niche for oneself, even if the work in question can’t possible say much beyond simply being something a little different in and of itself.
If the art is good, it will probably need to spill out of existing molds anyways. Think of Bruce Lee. He was so good at martial arts that he invented his own style. If a would-be martial artist tried to invent his own style of fighting without first getting good at fighting, he’d get his ass kicked.
New does not equal good. Further, newness for newness sake is an old idea. Better to strive to make truly good art. And if you disagree I’ve got some avant-garde music and literature just waiting for you (including my illustrated novel, The Yellow Pages, signed by me and displayed on a pedestal where you can stand and read it).
Finally, don’t think I don’t like or get avant-garde art. I’m not conservative, traditional, or an old fogie. I like the painters in the documentary that Greenberg praises. And I enjoyed and understood Pollock or Rothko when I was still in my teens, and pretty much for the textbook reasons I was supposed to. I made my own abstract paintings and ink drawings then. My eventual art education was in radical art, and my teachers included big name art stars such as Paul McCarthy and Charles Ray. I’ve done performance art, conceptual art, and installations. I even like art I come down hard on, like Barnett Newman, just think it’s extremely overrated, and within a false, America-centric version of history. And I can understand why the work of a Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons or Paul McCarthy impresses, especially the work where they (cheated and) hired professional artists to produce their pieces for them. But there’s a reason that even intelligent, educated, cultured people who love music, film and literature don’t care about their work. Most people like art, but only a few like avant-gardism. Even those who do are a bit inured by the recycled attempts to shock that they saw decades before.