Monday, March 03, 2008

On Garde

Johannes Göransson blogged a while back about the distinction between “avant-garde” and “high Modernist,” which got me wondering if "avant-garde," as a concept, makes sense in an Anglophone context. Has Britain or the U.S. ever really had an "avant-garde," had room for it in their conceptual attic? Or are we condemned to being high (er, post-high) Modernist, deliquescing into "experimentalists," or moving to Paris?

Johannes points out that if that’s true, the same could be said of pretty much anywhere except Paris, and maybe Germany. When I think of avant-gardes and the cities not Paris that loved them, I think Vienna, Moscow, maybe Munich—places sort of on the lip of modernity, where “avant-garde” and the notion of progress it both celebrates and spraycans were largely aspirational. The nations neck-high in high industry and the Protestant ethic never seemed to have much time for an avant-garde, producing “decadents” instead.

Which would make Paris—wealthy, Northern, global—the exception, not the rule. But is Paris really French? It gathered up Europe’s broken dreamers and gave them an arcade to glitter in, while native business ground on as usual at the Bourse and inside the lycees (still does). But a true map of the avant-garde would look less like a British colonel’s, each zone a unit touches filled in red, and more like one of Brent Cunningham’s Even-Scale maps, a few hashmarks clustered in a number of different capitals. Except, I guess, London, or Dublin, or even New York until the French started arriving in the ‘30s, discomfiting the homegrown drunks.

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