The End of the American Avant Garde

The End of the American Avant Garde: American Social Experience Series

Stuart D. Hobbs
Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 242
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qfvp7
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  • Book Info
    The End of the American Avant Garde
    Book Description:

    "By 1966, the composer Virgil Thomson would write, "Truth is, there is no avant-garde today." How did the avant garde dissolve, and why? In this thought-provoking work, Stuart D. Hobbs traces the avant garde from its origins to its eventual appropriation by a conservative political agenda, consumer culture, and the institutional world of art.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4485-7
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. PART I Toward the Last American Vanguard, 1930–1955
    • CHAPTER 1 Introduction: The Avant Garde and the Culture of the Future
      (pp. 3-18)

      In 1935, David Bernstein, editor of the American literary magazineThe New Talent, characterized the avant garde as a group of writers motivated by the “spirit of revolt … against artificial boundaries of so-called good taste, against hypocritical ‘sweetness and light,’ against formalistic strictures of language.” Through this revolt, members of the avant garde heralded and to a great extent created unprecedented changes, not only in art, but also in all areas of intellectual and material life in the West. The powerful impact of the movement was still apparent half a century and more later not only in museums and...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Communist Party, Modernism, and the Avant Garde
      (pp. 19-38)

      As the 1930s generation of American avant gardists sought a specific direction for cultural advance, many increasingly came to believe that the answer was to be found with the Communist Party. Cultural and political radicalism have often been linked. It was no accident that the termavant gardehad political connotations before artistic ones, and Lenin himself referred to the Communist Party as being the political vanguard. The Communist movement appealed to members of the avant garde for several reasons: Marxist philosophy explained the alienation cultural radicals felt in bourgeois society; the class struggle provided a direction for innovation; and...

  5. PART II The American Avant Garde, 1945–1960
    • CHAPTER 3 Alienation
      (pp. 41-58)

      In a 1956 poem entitled “The Suicide,” Stuart Z. Perkoff noted that in the aftermath of such a tragedy, the question asked out loud was always “Why did he do it?” But Perkoff argued that the most important question remained unasked, festering inside and “rotting the soul.” That question was: “How? Could I?” Suicide is one expression of an individual’s alienation from self and from society. Perkoff suggested that everyone in contemporary society repressed a great deal of alienation from the modern world. Perkoff was not alone in this belief: other members of the postwar avant garde were deeply alienated...

    • CHAPTER 4 Innovation
      (pp. 59-92)

      Cultural radicals are defined by more than their state of alienation from their culture; creative innovation is equally important. Poet and editor Cid Corman said in 1952 that “the subject and object of all avant-garde action … is the creative.” By “creative,” Corman and other members of the vanguard meant much more than technical innovations in their artistic medium or change for mere shock value. As Corman noted, “Avant-garde doesn’t reach definition in the word ‘eccentricity.’” Composer John Cage declared in 1956, that “I have never gratuitously done anything for shock … My work is almost characterized by being insufficiently...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Future
      (pp. 93-112)

      Members of the last American vanguard, like previous avant gardists, understood themselves to be explorers on the frontiers of the future. They did not believe that their work represented the future suddenly dropped into the present, but they did believe that their activities constituted the vital transition to the future. Cultural radicals maintained that the creative intellectual was the person in society able to envision most clearly the broad contours of what the future could be. For example, in 1956, the editors of the Los Angeles-based little magazineCoastlinedeclared their purpose: “We keep our eyes open to the coastlines...

  6. PART III The End of the Avant Garde, 1950–1965
    • CHAPTER 6 The Cold War, Cultural Radicalism, and the Defense of Capitalism
      (pp. 115-124)

      Political leaders of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union defined the struggle as a war between cultures. The conflict between the “American way of life” and Soviet society was seen clearly in the so-called “kitchen debate” between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In the kitchen of a model house at the 1959 United States National Exhibition in Moscow, the two leaders debated the merits of washing machines versus tanks. Of course, in the United States companies like Westinghouse produced both consumer goods and military hardware and the presidents of Procter and...

    • CHAPTER 7 Institutional Enthrallment
      (pp. 125-138)

      The assimilation of the advance guard that accompanied the Cold War gained the movement a place in cultural institutions from which it had historically been alienated. Museum curators and gallery operators placed the avant garde in a progressive interpretation of art history. By thus historicizing the movement, the art world gave the avant garde a pedigree, as it were, and legitimated innovative art for wealthy collectors and institutions. Educational institutions enthralled the movement as well. University administrators, especially at large state schools, expanded the fine art programs at their institutions, creating numerous new teaching positions. The prospect of being paid...

    • CHAPTER 8 Consumer Culture Commodification
      (pp. 139-168)

      By 1965, the relationship between avant gardists and their culture had changed greatly. Increasingly, innovative intellectuals were no longer alienated outsiders but trendsetters in the realms of fashion and ideas. Their art was featured in corporate collections and advertising, their poetry and prose read and dissected on campuses and in coffee houses, and their behaviors imitated by rebellious young people from the suburbs. In one sense, the assimilation of the advance guard into American society could be described as a victory as the predominant culture reflected the influence of cultural radicalism in matters of style and taste and, to some...

  7. PART IV The End of the Avant Garde, 1965–1995
    • CHAPTER 9 The Convention of Innovation and the End of the Future
      (pp. 171-186)

      In 1980, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas pronounced this verdict on modernism: “Modernism is dominant but dead.” Habermas’s dictum describes the ironic fate of the avant garde. Vanguardists strove to transform their culture, and by the middle of the twentieth century, the vanguard nemesis, the genteel culture, had been destroyed. A new culture emerged in which advance-guard influence was strong, but it was not the culture envisioned by radical innovators. In part, the avant guard had succeeded. But their success was also their dissolution.¹

      At the end of the twentieth century, the language of the avant garde was often still...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 187-214)
  9. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 215-224)
  10. Index
    (pp. 225-230)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 231-231)