The End of the American Avant-Garde

The above is the title of a book by Stuart D. Hobbs that I recently unearthed but haven’t yet read. It tailors with the current direction my thought has been driven to. My long, near lifetime obsession has been watching the mushrooming of a gigantic NYC based contemporary art world which I felt almost nothing toward but complete alienation, even having lived their for 17 years from 1984 – 2001. My overwhelming interest in pure painting without contaminating theories coming from a diseased intellectual culture made it impossible to operate within that art world. Nor to have any serious interest in joining it. The quote on the back cover clarifies this somewhat. The location of the death of the American avant-garde is located in the 60s. I didn’t enter art school into 1972, fresh and naive off the boat. I now thoroughly understand what I’d entered into and that’s why I’m spending time lately looking at it in a more structured way.

From the book:

In 1962, painter Ad Reinhardt declared, ‘No art as a commodity or a jobbery. Art is not the spiritual side of business.’ The commercialization of the advance guard concerned Reinhardt and other cultural radicals. If the avant garde did not quite become the spiritual side of business, the movement certainly became an important part of the business side of business. In an economy of abundance in which consumption was the goal, the avant garde fulfilled a need… Both cultural radicals and businesspeople of the twentieth-century challenged the values of producer culture. The members of the advance guard advocated liberation through creative self-expressionism. The corporate leaders advocated liberation through consumption. In the end, the merchants of consumption defeated both producer and avant-garde cultures. By the 1960s, creative self-expression and consumption were all but indistinguishable.

And so the dance of death has continued between business people and artists for over four decades. Is it showing signs of collapse. Yes, in my opinion. Having watched it closely for that length of time it’s showing enormous stress, primarily connected to the collapse of capitalism as a workable social model. Without the global empire of capital manipulating puffed up “art stock” like Hirst and Koons, the entire artificial system of art values would collapse overnight. But even advanced galleries like Gagosian are noticing that they’re in a nose dive of no credibility, thus artists like Picasso and Monet are being given summer blockbuster shows at his gallery along with major catalogues and promotion.

Modernism is under complete attack by the “traditional academies”. MoMA dismantled its narrative of Modernism years ago. Gagosian and his brethren know Modernism needs to be propped up in ways that would formerly have been unimaginable. Why? Because without it’s tenets, Koons and Hirst have no value whatsoever. And the empty, repetitive banalities of art like that of Koons and Hirst have undermined that  kind of work as remotely credible to any serious artists.

The prominent critic, Donald Kuspit, bailed on it a few years ago, writing “The End of Art”. Even the critics with enough financial detachment (or savvy knowing where the trends are turning) could write a book demolishing the whole American avant-garde.

Those are indications of clear end times. Other factors, like the emergence of the other markets outside the US point to the collapse as well. What will happen, I have little idea. I’m just looking at what looks to me like a system in peril…. much as I viewed the dotcom and housing bubbles long before their complete collapse. Whether the art market will follow those kind of collapses I have no idea. But a ponzi structure isn’t hard to identify these days, having witnessed so many of them.

The collapse of the housing bubble has initially boosted the art market bubble, where else for all that cash that the American public kindly restored to the banking class? Gold, silver, oil futures, art work…. Diversified portfolios. Capitalism does nothing but create instability and massive bubbles, and my hunch is the art market is next in line. “All that’s solid melts into air.”

Incidentally, I don’t mean to use Hirst and Koons as poster children. They’re just big enough for most readers to identify what I’m talking about. I don’t have animus towards them as individuals. Just as I don’t have animus towards Warhol, Johns, or the many artists whose work I find lifeless and mediocre at the end of the day.

To get back to the narrative, Ad Reinhardt was doing his level best fighting a rear-guard action to save the avant-garde but his only chance of doing that was the kind of “purity” that drove out all human creative expression and content. Fatal to any kind of art. Art without a depth of belief and human feeling is art with no future.

This is a black painting by Ad 1960-1966. It’s hard to read it as much more than an epitaph for the American avant-garde.

About trueoutsider

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7 Responses to The End of the American Avant-Garde

  1. trueoutsider says:

    Here’s a quote from the great American modernist composer Virgil Thomson from 1966: “Truth is there is no avant-garde today. Dada has won; all is convention; choose your own. What mostly gets chosen….is that which can be packed and shipped…[for] a conditioned public.” Irving Howe, writing in 1967

    it seems greatly open to doubt whether by now, a few decades after the Second World War, there can still be located in the West a coherent and self-assured avant-garde.. Bracing enmity has given way to wet embraces, the middle class has discovered that the fiercest attacks upon its values can be transposed into pleasing entertainments, and the avant-garde writer or artist must confront the one challenge for which he has not been prepared: the challenge of success.

    Hobbs opens his book mentioning the two quotes above. I’ve been addressing these same facts here on the blog, and to the extent I could given the lack of interest and overt censorship, on Natural Pigments forum.

  2. johnk823 says:


    I believe there will always be a place for avant-garde in a wolrd that is full of it. People are always daring themselves to go the next mile to express what their minds eye is seeing and so that is exactly what they do. Yes, maybe the corporate congloberations will keep it to a minimum in the museums, but there is also the fashion and entertainment industry always looking for the new and challenging, the dare to go where no one has gone before, and so if the end is near, for artists creative minds, so be it, but I don’t believe it can or will ever happen, because there is no money in it being gone. And, isn’t that really what is going on in the art world of today, it’s all about the money all of these big wigs with high dollors can make off of our minds eye and our artistic labors.

    Take away every artist on the planet and what do you have for all of these people making big dollars off of the artists- NO MORE MONEY TO BE MADE OFF THE ARTISTS! just ain’t going to happen. That is what you would have, so IMO that is never going to be an issue. Now, they may try to set a tone of the artists and get rid of some of the totally bizzar stuff going on out there, or maybe thats what they really want, but there can not be an end to art, just maybe an end to what we see art as, what art is suppose to be, from a sort of a common liberalized standard.

    It all begins in the art schools and acadamies and with the teachers.If they allow trash to happen in class and condon it, well there you go, it has been condoned before it ever gets out the door. There are no values to begin with if one allows the sick and discusting to take place in art, yet alone condon it as good. I think art IMO is something I would like to show to God and say, “Well Lord, what do you think, is this pleasing to the eye”. Doesn’t means that it can’t be challenging, different, indifferent, but at least pleasing and respectable for all to look at, even children wanting to be artists someday. Art shouldn’t be about big corporate business of the day or on the stock exchange, it should be about the pleasure one is suppose to get out of observation of the art itself.

  3. trueoutsider says:

    John, I don’t find it “sick and disgusting”. I find it boring and vacuous. The Village Voice championing Karen Finley’s performance piece “Stuffing Yams Up My Ass” isn’t sick and disgusting to me.

    What I ask myself is:
    What do arts organizations think they’re doing funding Piss Christ and Karen Finley? One could look at it as them doing their best to destroy the Democratic Party. If that isn’t their intention, they’ve done a heckuva job, Brownie.

    Why are corporations supporting that kind of art? Do you think it might have something to do with the fact that it’s been instrumental in destroying the Democratic Party’s political viability?

    That’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? Here are corporate boards of major museums with large financial investments in the very artists they show and lo and behold they shower grant money and support on artists who are putting crucifixes of Christ in urine and elephant dung on the Virgin Mary. They support other things as well. But why that kind of work? What kind of art critic would provide a justification for Piss Christ as a meaningful piece of art or Karen Finley working out her psychological issues.

    I wonder why corporate investors and museums infested with corporate board members are supporting that kind of work?

    If I was judging art and somebody showed me a photo of a crucifix in urine I’d say, “Are you fucking nuts?” But the Manhattan art world says here’s your NEA grant and here’s your major gallery and now get out there and start photographing corpses.

    To be honest, I really don’t care what people do privately for sexual kicks. I do care that American Art has turned into a three-ring circus of narcissistic mediocrity. There are big worries now that Contemporary Art will get defunded. Why should it be, when it’s working so well for Republican interests? But the Republicans have been taken over by the real far right and so who knows? Maybe the Tea Party will succeed. Stay tuned.

    Also, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Caravaggio were homosexuals and who knows who else. Greco-Roman artists had no problem with it and those cultures are the basis of Western Civilization.

    Edward Burra, who I’ve just been exploring as one of my favorite artists of the twentieth century and to my eye one of its greatest was homosexual.

    Here’s a good quote from Karl Marx to think about a bit: “Works of art, which represent the highest level of spiritual production, will find favor in the eyes of the bourgeois only if they are presented as being liable to directly generate wealth.”

    I checked out Karen Finley’s website. There’s a quote that reads.

    Not only did she create Shut Up and Love Me (which will soon be adapted for film) but she took the controversial step of posing nude for Playboy. For anyone else, these latest turns in her career would seem hypocritical. But when seen as part of Karen’ Finley’s life and work, they make absolute sense.

    Apparently, avant-garde artists are incapable of hypocrisy, even while selling out everything that their work has formerly claimed to be about. What is all this avant-garde art about anyway? We have to start reading some art reviews to see if we can puzzle it out.

    The Finley thing is “artist as victim”. How this differs from Jerry Springer and Oprah and the millions of other victims out there will have to be explained by someone else. Why aren’t we handing out NEA grants to the victims of all our cluster bombs?

    Of course, even by writing this about poor Karen and the others I’m adding to their victimization. Apparently, we are told that Karen never shoved the yams up her ass. She used different kind of food props symbolizing abuse of women. We read her father committed suicide and her family were hereditarily depressed. Depression is pretty small-time really. Who isn’t depressed these days? It’s pretty hard to find people not on anti-depressants or some kind of medication.

    Anyway the family depression got her a Guggenheim grant. And then she delivers:

    “I smeared my body with chocolate, because I said in the piece, I’m a woman, and women are usually treated like shit. Then I covered myself with red candy hearts ‘because, after a woman is treated like shit, she becomes more lovable….. etc. etc.”

    I’m beginning to wonder why Valerie Solanis didn’t get an NEA grant. It might have saved Warhol being shot.

    Look. I sympathize. I’m sorry that Karen had a rough life. And that Valerie Solanis was probably a paranoid schizophrenic.

    But what’s going on that the NEA is giving out grants for this stuff?
    Anyway, more power to Karen Finley. May she find happiness and love. My blog isn’t about Karen Finley. I’m looking at the corrupt and manipulative art system that has done its level best to destroy any notion that painting can be practiced as a form of spiritual expression.

    • johnk823 says:

      Bart, Whether boring, dull, inane or empty, sick or even digusting, it all falls into the catagory for me. Politics should have no place in art, yet it does and mostlikely always will, because that is what the big boards and museums, shareholders, critics and the like have made it through their own lack of wisdon, knowledge and understanding. And, as for the artists, some of them play their game for a couple of reasons, first being that they rely on them to present and sell their art and second because of their own lack of wisdon, knowledge and understanding. Now, that can only make sense.

      As an artist, I draw and paint what I want and feel, not what some art teacher, museum director, corporate big wig thinks I should paint or draw. I am my own decission maker, where some arts tend to rely on these beasts of greed for their direction. If an artist sets out into a world filled with every kind of misguided desission making process there is to get sucked into, and rely on those processes for their vision, then to me it wasn’t their own vision to begin with, they were just following the trend of the moment and like you say it’s looking at the corrupt and manipulative art system that has done its level best to destroy any notion that painting can be practiced as a form of spiritual expression. This is all based on either good or bad decission making from both sides of the artistic coin – the people involved in the total process.

      Yes, the artists chances out there are becoming very much an inferno of damnation and many artists have only their self to blame, because they actually participate in the whole disgusting process and bring alot of it on themselves in that manner, again, because of their own lack of wisdom, knowledge and understanding about what is really going on out there in a world gone mad!

      I really don’t see a lot of lovely out there anymore. It’s instead about paradoxicals and the subjective material required by the big daddy rats that seem to be trying to run everything, like they have the answers for the entire art world. And their only real interests – MONEY!! The big dollar for their corporate muse.

  4. trueoutsider says:

    OK. Just so folks don’t think I’m picking on one of the gals, I’ll tee off a bit on one of the big macho men sculptors, Richard Serra, next up. If I had to make a choice between Karen Finley and her food fixations and Richard Serra’s ridiculously pompous steel eyesores, I’d easily go with Karen. Besides Karen has a nicer ass than Richard does. Of course, Serra’s rear end hasn’t been photographed by Annie Liebowitz so maybe I’m making a premature assumption.

  5. trueoutsider says:

    I can get to Serra later. I think the more appropriate male companion piece to Finley is Paul McCarthy. I saw one of his videos at some Manhattan gallery. Amusing and dumb at the same time. It was him smearing food all over the place wearing a clown costume or something along those lines. I can’t recall it and I moved on after a couple minutes.

    See how long you can watch this dope go on with another of his conceptual performance masterpieces. This is LA art at its zenith. I could line up any number of them doing stuff along the same lines.

    The key with all this work is that you ridicule artists like the Abstract Expressionists or any other painter who actually believes in painting and the discipline of actually working with one’s own hands and heart.

    The critics largely adore this. As far as I know, only Donald Kuspit has gotten completely fed up with supporting this particular avant-garde.

    Here’s a giant inflatable dog turd for a Swiss Museum. Wonderful, hilarious, thought-provoking.

    He plays the same stupid note on and on through any number of “artworks”…. presumably. I can’t bother to look at more than the above two.

    You can try reading some of this to get the dazzling intellectual thought process behind McCarthy’s work.

    McCarthy’s video challenges image of the painter as a lonely genius. The new networked possibilities for art are not so far from models of participation (not collaboration), but reveal them and remind us of their timeless utility, while also firing a volley at the “lonely genius” stereotype.

    The “lonely genius” stereotype. Oh, brother.

    What’s Mcarthy’s art really about? It’s all made so that yahoos like the one below, who calls himself a visual arts reviewer can go on and on endlessly with his addle pated thoughts trying to “explain” Mcarthy’s relevance and his heroic innovations and updating of Marcel Duchamp. Who reads any of it? You got me. I could only get to the second sentence when I read other “elusive descriptors exist.”

    What’s a descriptor? I’ve never heard anybody use that word. Aha! I’m in artspeak land, where Roget’s Thesaurus can go hog wild. Descriptor, Merriam-Webster tells me descriptor is a word that serves to describe or identify. Synonyms are: course, frame, shape, kind, sort, bod, pattern…. ad nauseum. Noun descriptor : a piece of stored information that is used to identify an item in an information storage and retrieval system. Synonyms: signifier, form, word form.

    Word games. “Art critics” play endless meaningless word games. They write books about “The End of Art” “The End of the End of Art” “Endless Endings of Never-Ending Endless Art.” You know how someone qualifies to be an art writer? Perhaps they had to finish grade school. But I don’t think that’s even necessary nowadays. All one needs is the ability to talk complete horse shit without blinking.

    Piero Manzoni was canning his shit decades ago.

    Read about Schwarzkogler. Self-mutilation and the “hollowness of existence” are old news. But not to the contemporary Avant-Garde. Never ending….. ever ending and never ending. It’s quite a spectacle. It of course requires the endlessly gullible who have never read a piece of art history. They have no idea that Mcarthy is just recycling versions of the same old Manzoni canned shit.

    Rudolf Schwarzkogler (13 November 1940 in Vienna – 20 June 1969) was an Austrian performance artist closely associated with the Viennese Actionism group that included artists Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, and Hermann Nitsch.

    He is best known today for photographs depicting his series of closely controlled “Aktionen” featuring such iconography as a dead fish, a dead chicken, bare light bulbs, colored liquids, bound objects, and a man wrapped in gauze. The enduring themes of Schwarzkogler’s works involved experience of pain and mutilation, often in an incongruous clinical context, such as 3rd Aktion (1965) in which a patient’s head swathed in bandages is being pierced by what appears to be a corkscrew, producing a bloodstain under the bandages. They reflect a message of despair at the disappointments and hurtfulness of the world.

    Chris Burden once remarked that a 1970s Newsweek Magazine article, which had mentioned himself and Schwarzkogler, had embarrassingly misreported that Schwarzkogler had died by slicing off his penis during a performance.[1] A scene in Schwarzkogler’s foto-performances had been starry-eyed misinterpreted. The castration theme in some of them — for example, in Aktion 2 he posed with a sliced open fish covering his groin — have additionally fueled this myth. Ironically, the protagonist of the Aktion in which the cutting of a penis was simulated, was not Schwarzkogler himself, but a friend and model, the renowned photographer Hans Cibulka. When Schwarzkogler died, the series of performances had been finished long ago. He was found without any evidence for more than an accident, under the window from which he fell. It generated speculations and further myths.

    I’ve been watching this go on for years living in NYC, which is probably why I’m not shocked, just bored beyond belief. Don’t forget I went to art school in the mid-70s where I had to view Bruce Naumann’s masterpiece rubbing black grease paint on his balls filmed in close-up at infinitely slow speed in a contemporary art history course. He’s been doing the same thing in different versions up until today. And guess what? He’s considered one of the greatest living American artists.

    Here’s Nauman. Notice any similarity between this and the half-witted crap churned out McCarthy?

    There’s nothing remotely shocking or sick about any of this stuff. These guys aren’t sick at all. They’re perfectly rational. They’re making fortunes comparable to King Midas with their cynical nihilistic bullshit.

  6. trueoutsider says:

    The point isn’t what the artists are doing or who the artists are. The point is that for going on close to 50 years this half-baked endlessly repetitive nihilism has been supported by the United States.

    We started out with some a great many first-rate American artists in the 50s. Pollock, Gorky, Rothko, de Kooning, and a great many others….. How did we go from great painting to Bruce Nauman and Paul Mcarthy?

    I find it interesting. I’m not railing away at it. This isn’t a diatribe. It’s an attempt to understand it better. I have to do more research and reading.

    Go here for the continuation of the topic:

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