The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist

The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist

by Donald B. Kuspit

Arguing that modernist art is essentially therapeutic in intention, both towards self and society, Donald Kuspit further posits that neo-avant-garde, or post-modern art, at once mocks and denies the possibility of therapeutic change.

Stripping avant-garde art of its missionary, therapeutic intention, neo-avant-garde art instead converts it into a clich of creative novelty or ironical value for its fashionable look.

Incorporating psychoanalytic ideas, particularly those concerned with narcissism, The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist offers a reinterpretation of modern art history.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Art
  • Rating: 3.55
  • Pages: 188
  • Publish Date: July 31st 2008 by Cambridge University Press
  • Isbn10: 0521469228
  • Isbn13: 9780521469227

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The apotheosis of the avant-garde or modernist artist as the symbol of heroic resistance to all that is oppressive and corrupt in bourgeois civilization, if not as its savoir, has been until recently the major way of stating the significance of modern art. So-called postmodernism or neo-avant-garde art is the symbol of its passing, the indication that the idol has feet of clay. The avant-garde artist is conceived as a kind of Promethean adventurer, an individualist and risk taker in a sheepish society, an Overman bringing to the more timid world of the herdman, to use Nietzsche's distinction, a new kind of fire, burning away blinding darkness and affording new insight as well as sight, a new vision of what art as well as life can bea comprehensive new enlightenment. "A painting being auctioned off for 50 million has more impact on how art is perceived and understood today than the actual art...produced." For the neo-avant-garde artist, the artist has an inherent right to fame simply by reason of being an artist, which is transparently narcissistic assumption. Duchamp: "The artist's attitude counts more than their art." Picasso: "Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon." Distorting is a characteristic of the 20th century, and with all the painters, whether they're Fauves, Cubists, and even Dadaists or Surrealists, it is a reaction against photography, an avant-garde method and an end in its own right. Picasso and Duchamp try to maintain perpetual artistic motion through self-contradiction. They, not their art, makes the ultimate claim on our attention. Ultimate avant-garde fame comes from being categorized as uncategorizable, that is, utterly individual. Warhol showed the glamour of fame to be a hollow artistic construction: in his hands art became a banal method of glamorizing banal people and thingsa tautologization of banality. They were more rewarded, certainly, than were esoterically famous avant-garde artists, who still did not realize the futility of wanting to changereoriginatelife through art, thus changing art in the process. Joseph Beuys: "In places like universities, where everyone speaks so rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear." the avant-garde artist, implicitly and often explicitly critical of his audience, tends to be innovative in medium as well as well as in manner, or else stretches a known medium and manner to their breaking point. Warhol's ironic indifference is like Duchamp's ironic difference Only in a Germany shaken by the collapse of the fascist ideal of rigid monolithic homogeneity, reifying a simplistic idea of the Germanic, could a radical yet socially committed individualist like Beuys appear. And only in an America confident to the point of mindless arrogance could a socially indifferent and mock individualist like Warhol appear. Only in a Germany in which avant-garde art had been declared degenerate and stifled, and in which creativity had become compliant to ideology, could an avant-garde artist like Beuys emerge, willing to take social and aesthetic risks that were unthinkable even before Hitler. And only in a self-satisfied America could avant-garde art reify itself and become socially conformist, attaching itself to the apron strings of media sensibility, with its determination to present everything with mystifying banality. Healing is avant-garde art's last stand. Beuys is the grand climax of a long line of self-contradictory avant-garde narcissists in conflict with a society they want as their audience. With each avant-garde artist whose isolated suffering it rationalizes, it proclaims its collective solidarity. Ultimately society banalizes the avant-garde artist's narcissistic suffering and conflict with it into a universal ideology of heroic selfhood triumphing over great odds and obstacles. The real tragedy of the avant-garde artist is that they want to heal a society that has a vested ironic interest in their pathology. Avant-garde art's oppositionality is a necessary social illusion because it strengthens society's conviction in its own invincibility. Society's assimilation of avant-garde art demonstrates this; it is immune to artistic transgression. The avant-garde artist is in fact society's tragedy in ideal and harmless public form, allowing society to believe that it is less pathologically tragic than it is. Beuy's personal tragedy was that he did not understand that his avant-garde performance of Germany's tragedy not only failed to heal it, but unwittingly justified Nazi Germany and its criminal behavior. Tragedy may state the pathologywith special narcissistic vehemence and morbidity in avant-garde tragic artbut comedy alone heals, if healing is possible. Picasso: "I'm just a public entertainer who has understood his time." From Beuy's point of view, psuedo-avant-garde art threatened to drive out true avant-garde art the way bad money threatens to drive out good money. Duchamp's silence was a shrewd irony at the expense of art, a debunking strategy that was ultimately, for Beuys, an empty gesture. They made a farce of the very idea of art, especially as an attempt to emotionally and existentially help others, while Beuys privileged himself and Bergman as authentic artists, making art that was not only innovative but helpful. The deeper point is that the PAGA wants to save society's face, and in so doing, save art's face.