(Roughly) Daily

“The avant-garde always has a bad time of it.”*…

Whither the innovative, the experimental, the challenging in our arts and culture? The Drift explores…

It’s commonplace to note that sociopolitical upheaval and artistic experimentation often flourish side by side. But today — despite an alleged “polycrisis” — new modes of cultural production don’t seem to be emerging. Three years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent George Floyd rebellion, the arts seem stagnant and stubbornly centralized: franchise fare dominates at the box office; literary output is hampered by monopolized publishers; even the obsession with so-called nepo babies suggests a cultural bloodline without disruption. The internet, meanwhile, tends to both homogenize art and silo audiences by algorithm. We’ve begun to wonder if we’re overlooking experimental movements, or if they’re going extinct.

For Issue Ten, we asked artists and thinkers across disciplines — novelists, sculptors, composers, dancers, critics — to reflect on the current state of the avant-garde. What’s to blame for the lack of a coherent movement? If the avant-garde is dead, what killed it — and what’s been lost along the way? In politics, nothing seems to surprise us anymore. In art, can we still be shocked? Should we?…

An example, from the contribution by Liza Batkin (@LizaBatkin), a writer, attorney, and former dancer

When dancers refer to the avant-garde, they tend, counterintuitively, to mean something old: experimental artists in the 1960s and 1970s in New York, who worked largely out of lofts and Judson Memorial Church. Modern dance, by that point, had moved beyond ballet’s pointe shoes, tilted heads, and sweet violins, but the avant-gardists went further. Yvonne Rainer wrote a manifesto in 1965 that rejected spectacle and virtuosity. Trisha Brown strung unremarkable motions together into what she called “accumulations.” A lot of the work, like Lucinda Childs’s “Dance,” a mesmerizing collaboration with Philip Glass and Sol LeWitt, was slouchy, cool, and organic. It didn’t express emotion or match its music, and no one smiled. 

Avant-garde dance had gone so far past ballet that it may have seemed it could go no further. But then it aged into the establishment. When “Dance” was restaged at the Joyce Theater in 2021, the performers were so virtuosic that they strained to recreate Childs’s nonchalance, and a show of Trisha Brown’s works on Rockaway Beach last summer, against sparkling blue water, could hardly be seen through the crowd. Choreography invented a half century ago — thrown limbs that propel the body, controlled movements that break into swinging, relaxed ones — is now vernacular.

Even as it borrows from the past, today’s dance has found new rules to break… 

What Happened to the Avant-Garde? “Publicists, Manifesto Pushers, Propagandists,” the current issue of @thedrift_mag.

* Anton Chekhov


As we explore the edge, we might send envelope-pushing birthday greetings to László Moholy-Nagy; he was born on this date in 1895. An artists and educator, his pioneering work in painting, drawing, photography, collage, sculpture, film, theater, and writing, was, in the words of art critic Peter Schjeldahl,  “relentlessly experimental” and was hugely influential in the European avant-garde. His artworks were included in the infamous 1937 “Degenerate art” exhibition held by Nazi Germany in Munich.

Moholy-Nagy taught, in the 1920s, in the Bauhaus school. In 1937, fleeing the Nazis, he emigrated to Chicago, where he founded the School of Design in Chicago, which survives today as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, and which art historian Elizabeth Siegel called “his overarching work of art.”

The photo included with Moholy-Nagy’s Declaration of Intention for US citizenship in 1938 (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 20, 2023 at 1:00 am

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