Mind the Gap
Posted on February 27, 2012
A scheduled contribution to the Temporary Art School on the 12th of March is encouraging me to get some thoughts together on the gap between the art academy-educated practitioner and the self-organising amateur. In the hope that the discussion event can give me a steer, and to invite any general comments, here’s an excerpt which reveals my line of thinking so far:
Mind the gap
Taking as read that Modernist types of art and artist are complicit in the distancing of art and artist from everyday, non-academic versions of same, something from Benjamin Buchloh’s leviathan, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry (2000) can help reinforce that assertion. In the chapter ‘Parody and Appropriation in Picabia, Pop, and Polke’, Buchloh makes a cast iron point about a strategic leitmotiv in appropriative practices of the avant-garde. The first part of his illumination is to list some of the contradictions inherent but oftentimes not explicit in normative avant-garde endeavours:
From faux bois to faux naif, one discovers in each historical instance of appropriation as much disguise as revelation. High art poses as low art; sophisticated academic erudition poses as primary, unmediated expression; exchange value poses as use value; contemporaneity (and exposure to very specific current ideological pressure) appears in the guise of a concern for universality and timelessness.
Observing that the ‘geographical provinces’ from which vanguard artists of Europe and America drew, changed regularly to serve the artists’ need for innovative appropriation, Buchloh helps us to see an embedded paradox in these working methods:
Every time the avant-garde appropriates elements from the discourse of low, folk, or mass culture, it publicly denounces its own elitist isolation and the obsolescence of its inherited production procedures. Ultimately, each such instance of ‘bridging the gap between art and life’, as Robert Rauschenberg famously put it, only reaffirms the stability of the division because it remains within the context of high art. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2000, p.349
For Buchloh, the acculturation process which ensues from the generation and presentation of inscrutably avant-garde artefacts leads to a further strengthening of the division between academic art and the stratum of the everyday sociopolitical of those who are not contributing stakeholders to the avant-garde and culture industry.
Buchloh reads further into the meaning of the identified paradox to consider the consequences of the reproduction of the division. In his analysis, each act of appropriation ‘perpetuates the separation of various cultural practices, and reaffirms the isolation of individual producers from the collective interests of the society within which they operate. It widens the gap it set out to bridge; it creates the commodity it set out to abolish’. And, ultimately, this eventuality sees that by ‘becoming the property of the “cultural”, it prevents the political from becoming real’. Buchloh, 2000, p.350
Buchloh has in mind here the work of Rauschenberg and Warhol. The ‘repudiations of gestural identity and originality’ of expression inherent in the use of silkscreen printing and other mechanical processes amounted to not much when the works ‘became the artistic masterpieces and icons of a decade that established a new viability for the procedures of painting.’ What is dispiriting for Buchloh is that the acculturation of these works takes place ‘despite their radical assault on the isolation of high art’ and ‘their critique of the rarefied, auratic status imposed on objects acquiring exchange value, and their denunciation of the obsolescence of artistic constructs originating from the conditions of this isolated social practice’. Buchloh, 2000, p.350
There is, of course, a lament in Buchloh’s work for the fact that the process of acculturation of even the most radical of avant-garde products seems inevitable. The deconstruction of the reigning status quo can only be ‘subverted’ through the hiring of the dominant capitalist system as a carrier of the artistic commodity, a transactional process which is regulated and validated by the institutions of art operating as central banks.
There is a second paradox of sorts to surface in this context. To state the obvious, the avant-garde can only be accused of strengthening the divide between the academic-professional domain of art and the public-amateur domain if it is allowed to proceed. That avant-garde practice does proceed, and in the inexorable manner described by Buchloh, is more than just redundant factuality. By this I mean what Renato Pogglio has expressed in clearer terms:
The avant-garde, like any culture, can only flower in a climate where political liberty triumphs, even if it often assumes an hostile pose toward democratic and liberal society. Avant-garde art is by its nature incapable of surviving not only the persecution, but even the protection or the official patronage of a totalitarian state and a collective society. Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avante-Garde, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1968, p.95
Poggioli’s sensitivity to the sociopolitical conditions that would allow the avant-garde to practice lends weight to Buchloh’s analysis: any strengthening of a divide in Buchloh’s model read through Poggioli, is a strengthening of conventional flirtation between the avant-garde’s coquettish antagonism and the ‘capitalist bourgeoisie’ within a climate conducive to pre-choreographed play fighting and love-making. In synthesising Buchloh with Poggioli, the point is this; the avant-garde is always already cultural. It is a sign of a certain kind of political scenario, not divorced from capitalism of course, a paradoxical indicator of a political liberty of a kind which permits the game play of the avant-garde strategists. The extent to which this arrangement belies a superstructural order of control incompatible with Poggioli’s sense of liberty is for another day: meanwhile, by being already cultural, the status of the avant-garde as isolated, rarefied, erudite and especial is profaned, and, thus, the domain of the amateur is closer than the academy might have you believe.