The avant-garde has been dead except conceptually since the triumph of Abstract Expressionism meant that everyone wanted to be avant-garde. Avant-garde as a distinction succeeded Existential with the same inexorable logic and force with which the avatars of pop art (Warhol, Rauschenberg, Johns, Oldenburg, Lichtenstein) displaced the "action painters" of the New York School (Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Kline, Newman, Gottlieb, Gorky, et al). It didn't help the latter's cause that the major abstract painters tended toward the suicidal. Ab Ex was a downer, suitable for a chapel in Houston. Pop Art was as happy as a wide paisley tie designed by Peter Max. Put it another way, Ab Ex was as hot as the radio vocies of wartime leaders in the 1940s. Pop Art was as cool as the image of JFK on TV.
I wrote those words twenty years ago and I stand by them today. When everyone wants to embody a concept, and that concept involves an opposition to the center, the power, the Establishment, there is a contradiction that can be bridged only by a certain principled hypocrisy. The avant-garde artists of today are the ones who plagiarize phone books as if to illustrate the caricature of the bohemian 1960s poet solemnly reciting names and numbers in a Greenwich Village coffee house. (This caricature appears in season one of Mad Men.) You have to scratch your head at the thought of a poet consciously imitating the type of bearded bard that persuades an advertising executive that there are lines of work or pseudo-work even more cynical than his own.
The critic Wallace W. Moon has suggested that "if you substitute the word fakers (or fakery) for the the word avant-garde wherever it appears you will gain in truth and you may end by achieiving a perfect example of the mass-produced, Derrida-infected poem you deplore." Moon, who follows these things more closely than I, has kindly provided a link to an example of the "compulsive critical discourse" in which, in the critic's words, "the fakers are as compulsive as plaintiffs in court -- they can't stop yapping. It is a punishment Dante might have devised for them." I find it hard to wade through the writing, and will suspend judgment, but I accept what I take to be his central point. The competitors in the avant-garde contest are like capitalists in every sense except that they claim to espouse views diametrically opposed to capitalism. Also irrefutable, it seems to me, is Moon's argument that aesthetics have become a branch of sociology.
As for the illustration we have chosen for this post, Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris (nee Holloway) in Mad Men, I leave its semiotic significance up to you, dear reader. -- DL