Searching for Yale’s avant-garde

From the frail, weathered sheet of paper, typed neatly in electric green ink, the words ring with the exuberance of a creative product still in the making. “Beat, beat, whirr, thud, in the soft turf under the apple trees/ Chorus nympharum, goat foot with the pale foot alternate./ Sea crescent bends blue-shot waters, green in the shallows.”

Nearby, in a separate folder carefully labeled and filed in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, a hand-scribbled envelope is addressed to the author of those typewritten lines: “Ezra Pound Esq, 5 Holland Place Chambers, Kensington W8, London England.”

Pound’s notes for the fourth of his Pisan Cantos represent a mere sliver of the Beinecke’s staggering collection of materials on modernist literature, a collection that encompasses a flock of major names (James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Thorton Wilder, Bryher, H.D.) and at least a handful of minor-isms. Looking over page after page of what is essentially the architecture of Pound’s unfinished brainchild, a faint sense of élan shoots through all those Latinate phrases and disjointed images — the distant tremor of joy the poet must have felt in breaking down the artistic conventions of yesterday. Equally apparent is the irony that Pound, like so many other writers who once bore the proud mantle of the avant-garde — the modern! the strange! the new! — has now been canonized, catalogued and shoved into a museum.

It’s tempting to suppose that as those writers and thinkers fade into history, so too goes that mantle and all it connotes. The brigades of crusading modernists who first laid claim to the title of “avant-garde,” after all, are dead, prompting the question: Is the avant-garde old-fashioned and the modern, simply old?

“One main problem with modernism is that it uses that word ‘modern,’” said Tim Young, a curator at the Beinecke. “It makes it sound as if we’ve reached the end of history, doesn’t it?”

Insofar as the leading lights of modernism (or at least what Young calls “modernism with a capital M”) have been consigned to the Beinecke alongside Carolingian texts and Romanov family albums, the end of history indeed seems like a plausible explanation. Choose your own analogy for the West’s frenetic race toward intellectual modernity: the hurricane, the blazing fire, the bull in the china shop — all of them suggest processes that must, at some point, exhaust their own possibilities. Elegant as such images are, they paint a dreary (not to mention self-indulgent) picture of a contemporary world in which there’s nothing left to say or do. Naturally, the same specter haunts the arts and culture at Yale.

But today’s campus hints at the existence of something different, something much harder to encapsulate. There’s activity and energy, but there’s no army. There’s plenty of motion, but there’s no movement. As Stein herself said in another time and place, “There is no there there.” Call it the Ghost of the Avant-Garde.

‘The desire to overturn the existing order’

The etymology of “avant-garde” carries distinctly martial overtones, which seems appropriate enough for an artistic sensibility so often associated with assaulting the status quo.

“The term originally came from French military parlance,” said Seth Kim-Cohen, a Yale lecturer who currently teaches “Art, Music and Theory since World War II.” “It was used to describe the forward edge of an advancing army — literally, the cutting edge. After it had been appropriated by the artistic and intellectual worlds, of course, it became synonymous with the desire to overturn the existing order.”

Leery of the artificiality of any hard-and-fast bookends, Young nevertheless offered a tentative take on the lifespan of the avant-garde: 1880 to 1940. It’s tentative because, as Young noted, one could easily include several post-World War II personalities in the mix.

The artists associated with the avant-garde shared the common impulse to array themselves in opposition to the dominant conventions of the time, and many of them cultivated the reputation, even the very label, of being avant-garde. Spawning a dizzying profusion of self-identified-isms, the leaders of the avant-garde indeed appear, in retrospect, to resemble military officers in their desire to enforce ironclad codes of conduct for their disciples.

“You have to remember that a lot of these movements had manifestos,” Young said. “They had rule books.” Young quickly mentioned the French society Oulipo, one of whose members, the writer Georges Perec, wrote a 300-page novel entirely without the use of the letter E. (The novel, “La Disparition,” was successfully translated into English as “A Void.”)

Even leaving aside the apparent anomaly that a fiercely unconventional movement would promulgate such strict rules for itself (indeed, would consider itself a movement at all), it’s impossible not to smirk at the sheer earnestness of many 20th-century avant-garde practitioners. Challenging tradition, subverting the status quo, was apparently quite a serious business to them.

It’s not selling out, it’s buying in

In many instances, the avant-garde was also good business, and that fact may explain, better than any other, why the avant-garde as a movement disappeared from plain view.

“What happens when you have somebody who publishes an avant-garde novel or short story that gets published and gets read by lots of people?” Young said. “As soon as it becomes successful, it becomes mainstream.”

Whatever disagreements might persist over the definition of the avant-garde, one thing’s for sure: It isn’t mainstream.

But after a perusal of the Beinecke’s modernist collection, it becomes more clear that the avant-garde probably wasn’t squelched or stomped out so much as subjected to a benign death by institutionalization. Stein’s poetry isn’t any more comprehensible than it once was, but it has long since been incorporated into the canon.

By most standards, acceptance into the mainstream would qualify as a measure of success. But the notion of success is far more slippery in the context of a movement whose very premise is the rejection of that mainstream. One inevitable conclusion is that the avant-garde ended at the gates of the ivory tower.

J.D. McClatchy, an English professor, poet and editor of “The Yale Review,” has to some extent witnessed the de-fanging of the avant-garde during his time at Yale.

“I brought Allen Ginsberg here to do a reading in the late ’70s,” McClatchy said. “And I remember him as carrying this great air of entitlement. At that time, some people who probably had never heard of Shakespeare had heard of Allen Ginsberg. Looking back, he was probably more of a social phenomenon than an artistic one. Will his art be remembered for as long as Shakespeare’s? Probably not.”

Ginsberg’s visit to sturdy, gothic Yale — not just as a bohemian poet, but as a celebrity bohemian poet — was somehow indicative that the old beatnik’s razor-edge had already been blunted, that his claims to wildness and unconventionality had been deflated the moment the man was plucked from the intellectual vanguard and awarded his own place in the shrines of mass imagination.

“In many respects, popular culture has swamped high culture, and in the process it has absorbed what used to be avant-garde,” McClatchy said, noting that much of what passes under the guise of contemporary culture is now dominated by commercial concerns. “Radical people still have to run a business. They still have to balance the books.”

Ultimately, that may be the biggest reason for the end of the avant-garde as a moment in history: Its most talented acolytes balanced the books so well they no longer found themselves arrayed in opposition to the culture around them. They had become that culture.

From Dali to the Rumpus

So much for the avant-garde movement, then.

Most students at Yale probably share the general observation of YCouture’s director of design Nozlee Samadzadeh ’10 that “the avant-garde, capital A, capital G, is pretty much over.” Cultural pessimists might be swift to seize upon the postmodern world as a terrain bereft of any further artistic possibility — for if the self-proclaimed harbingers of everything modern have run their race to its conclusion, mustn’t Ecclesiastes be correct? Is there really nothing new under the sun?

“I think that’s a failure of imagination,” Kim-Cohen said. “Every generation has that feeling. As a noun, the avant-garde is dead, yes. As an adjective, though, it’s still alive.”

The definition Kim-Cohen supports is subtler and, in many ways, more stable: the avant-garde as not a discrete movement on a timeline, but rather a generalized attitude that demands a constant reevaluation and challenging of convention. Art, according to this view, is an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one — something that continually draws on the existing forms of the world around it. And under this definition, also supported by Young, the avant-garde is something that was alive long before the term itself was coined.

“The avant-garde really has to do with the energy of youth,” he said. “The avant-garde is questioning. You don’t inherit everything from your parents and say, ‘All right, everything’s okay.’ ”

That impulse — that critical spirit of subversion and reinvention, whatever one might choose to call it — exists in abundance at Yale, and not so quietly either.

It’s in Samadzadeh’s organization, YCouture, which manages to bring students out of the woodwork every time it organizes a new fashion show.

“Our events are usually standing-room-only,” Samadzadeh said. “We try to let in as many people as the fire marshal will allow.”

The same spirit is also in the world of Yale theater, where a flourishing crop of companies have dedicated themselves to critiquing convention through experimental production techniques and risque content. The Control Group is a relatively well-traveled outfit whose past renditions of Shakespeare have included puppets as well as scenes performed on the sidewalk outside the theater; the new group -Isms intends to employ a different modernist approach in each show it produces; and John Hansen-Brevetti’s ’08 original play “Witness” contains such volatile subject matter that it was written without an intermission in order to keep too many audience members from walking out.

The spirit of subversion can even be found in what is — let’s admit it — Yale’s most widely-read source of satire, the Rumpus.

“Ionesco said that the avant-garde man is a rebel living in the city he’s trying to destroy,” Rumpus co-Editor in Chief Kai Thaler ’09 said. “I kind of see the Rumpus in that light, as throwing stones from within the walls of the ivory tower.”

Common to all these student groups, and others on campus, is the continual impetus to question established norms, whether aesthetic or social.

“It’s something that theater has been doing for a long time — deconstructing and defamiliarizing something that most people take for granted,” Hansen-Brevetti said. “One of the goals of ‘Witness’ is to make people think about what our culture is like and what it’s based on, not to sugarcoat it.”

Such an attitude seems to have descended directly from some region of the avant-garde. But to Sarah Holdren ’08 of the Control Group, the important thing is that the attitude of innovation exists without any of the self-imposed restrictions created by so many of the modernist marauders of yore.

“The Control Group doesn’t really define itself as avant-garde, just because it doesn’t really define itself at all,” Holdren said. “Probably our defining characteristic is that we’re always fluid and always in development. There’s really no preconceived notion of what is supposed to be done. It’s very liberating not to have to live up to any sort of expectation.”

Compare Holdren’s distaste for labels with the obsessive taxonomy practiced by groups like Oulipo, or the Italian Futurists, and you get an idea of the peculiar situation of the cutting edge at Yale: The inquisitorial spirit of the avant-garde is alive in a host of atomized student groups that share almost none of the historical movement’s superficial characteristics. Even the -Isms group, with their intention to survey a wide array of different avant-garde sub-categories, appear to offer a cosmopolitan repudiation of such provincial divisions.

Today’s constellation of nonconformist groups at Yale are loath to confine themselves conceptually. They are also, for the most part, free of the self-importance that plagued the avant-garde of a former age.

“Rumpus tends to make fun of anyone who takes themselves too seriously,” Thaler said.

Such a sensibility — no doubt commonplace to many Yale students by now — is probably less radical than, say, the literary endeavors of Georges Perec. But it’s also, in its way, far more subversive and far more enduring. After all, there will always be popular trends to skewer and fashions to flout, even if the army has temporarily disbanded.

A new vision manifests: a vast, unending battlefield, filled with conventions and all their earnestness, ready to fall before the withering advance of the avant-garde.

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