Since Klang Festival’s branding of their festival with this word I’ve been thinking about the term ‘avant-garde’ and wondering how to make sense of it in relation to both the festival and the field of contemporary art music. Do military notions still make sense in our post-modern age and what kind of framework do they provide for the music being performed?
Are they still appropriate in an age in which there is a huge upsurge of interest in simply “building things” rather than battling outdated cultural traditions. What are the alternatives? The festival organisers ruled out the term “New Music” since some of the compositions on the programme were composed half a century ago. At the same time they wished to underline the “cutting edge” aspect of the works being played — not just comfortable cultural fodder but challenging works of art that touch on very conceptions of what music might be — which is of course quite in line with how the notion “avant-garde” has been used historically. But does it still make sense to embark on a war against the terror of mass culture when that mass has already broken down into a myriad of small entities?
While trying to find new angles on this debate I came across an interesting article:
Today, when we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a YouTube rebroadcast of the Berlin Wall’s fall — i.e., when damn near everything presents itself as familiar — it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In so doing, in reimagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance, artists are paradoxically trying to restore what’s taken for “real” to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights.
Whatever charge of tastelessness or trademark violation may be attached to the artistic appropriation of the media environment in which we swim, the alternative — to flinch, or tiptoe away into some ivory tower of irrelevance — is far worse. We’re surrounded by signs; our imperative is to ignore none of them.
—Jonathan Lethem: The Ecstasy of influence
I find resonance with this take on our current condition and the attempt to reimagine what human life might be “across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance”.
Letham’s essay touches on issues such as copyright and gift culture and how they relate to the role of the artist. The reanimating qualities of the surrealists’ collage techniques, touched on in the excerpt above, emphasise, for example, the role of the artist as one who pries open the cracks in served “realities” making place for new perceptions. This is quite different from the artist coming down from the mountain with a set of revelations set in stone. A favourite quote that reflects this is Wim Wenders’ assertion that “noticing or revealing things is actually more precious to me than getting across some kind of message”.
These considerations in turn throw some of the “avant-garde” issues into relief. The notion of the present day artist as individual creator, no longer in opposition to the masses (and all that has gone before) but in collaboration with them. No longer having to stake out a pure position in relation to mass corruption but in a wild creative dance that embraces large chunks of the world. No longer the artist as intermediary pushing ahead on behalf of culture as a whole but rather one in dialogue with it.
I can understand that organisers need something clear around which to collect all the disparate threads that make up their festivals. Contemporary art music is no longer a unified field and its practitioners cannot themselves agree on how to name their activities. Nevertheless the words “avant-garde” are now apparently no more than an act of branding and their use seems like a last look back on an era past as we stand on the verge of a new one.