The Artistic Triumph Of New York

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It is sometimes argued that the idea of the avant-garde has in the last several decades lost its force in American life. The avant-garde is dead because there is no longer any significant resistance to artistic innovation. The time-honored bohemian battle cry, “Shock the bourgeoisie,” requires the existence of a middle class capable of being shocked and shamed, but Court TV and supermarket tabloids have rendered that impossible. Today the old forms and formulas of the avant-garde are in use but are often denuded of meaning or content; the result is a species of parody, whether witting or inadvertent. There is a degree to which success, especially early success or success attained without obstacles, must terminate the vanguard pretensions of any piece of art. It is all but inevitable. Janet Malcolm sums up “the common perception” in a recent piece on David Salle, who made a fabulous amount of money as a thirty-something postmodernist painter in the 1980s. “The spectacle of young millionaires who made their bundle not from business or crime but from avant-garde art is particularly offensive,” she writes. “The avant-garde is supposed to be the conscience of the culture, not its id.”

How different from the conditions confronting the Abstract Expressionists fifty years ago. What they faced was hostility, not indifference; ridicule, not grants from the government and major foundations; cafeteria meals and park benches, not champagne brunches and celebrity status. The abstract painters hanging out at the Waldorf Cafeteria, at Riker’s (where the food was better), or in Washington Square Park had every reason to suppose that public acceptance of their art was not a realistic possibility. The routine philistinism of the time was matched only by the ingrained anti-intellectualism.

It was precisely this resistance that made the idea of the avant-garde such a compelling one in the postwar era. The strength of the resistance, and the urgent need to overcome it, gave Abstract Expressionism as a movement both its impetus and its characteristic seriousness, which distinguished it so dramatically from the whimsicality of pop art, the movement that succeeded it as the art world’s fashion statement in the 1960s. There is a world of difference—not only in degree of quality but in kind, in temper, and in aspiration—between Jackson Pollock’s Cathedral (1947) and an Andy Warhol brand-name soap pad or soup can twenty years later. White-hot, the Pollock radiates the ferocity of defiance; laid-back, the Warhol is content to be a copy of a mass-produced copy, an icon of consumer culture. Pollock’s is the art of refusal, Warhol’s that of acceptance.

Is the avant-garde, as an idea or an ideal, through, kaput, obsolete? For the moment, yes. Once avant-garde has been identified publicly as a good and rewarding thing to be, there is no stopping the hordes from invoking the gods of vanguardism to justify their productions. In an application of Gresham’s law, the bad art committed in the name of the avant-garde will chase out the good. So it has happened. The fact that something advertises itself as avant-garde art is no guarantee that it is either art or avant-garde. The term is therefore in bad odor, though that is subject to change—or to redefinition. I tend to Fairfield Porter’s view that there will always be an avantgarde “if we define the avant-garde as those people with the most energy.” But there is no denying the detrimental effect that indiscriminate acceptance can have on new art. The absence of cultural resistance gives rise to the seemingly unquenchable thirst for novelty, which leads in turn to Warhol’s conception of fame as an erasable interval lasting fifteen minutes. The Abstract Expressionists had a grander sense of fame and a loftier notion of time.

It was Clement Greenberg who made the case for American avant-gardism in his first major essay, which he called “AvantGarde and Kitsch” and which ran in the fall 1939 issue of Partisan Review . Greenberg had just turned thirty, but he’d already had the seminal experience of taking classes with Hans Hofmann, the German-born abstract artist who as a teacher had a decisive influence on many of the painters in the so-called second generation of the New York school. As Greenberg framed the terms, the avant-garde had to do battle with kitsch, or “ersatz culture,” which was everywhere in America, where the “debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture” were on sale. “Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations,” Greenberg wrote. “Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time.” The task of the avant-garde artist was to oppose this “rear-guard” action—“to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence.” (This is another difference between Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock: Warhol coolly mimed the monuments of kitsch; Pollock fought them all the way.)