Saturday, 1 March 2014

Is the avant-garde over?

Still trying his best to forget twerkogeddon, Michael Peters contemplates hipsters, high rent and the digital revolution in his search to find the ragged remains of the avant-garde.

Writing for the Guardian, Suzanne Moore argues that postmodernism killed the avant-garde (Postmodernism killed the avant-garde, October 2013).  This may seem a rash statement, hysterical in the light of Lou Reed’s death and the 2013 phenomenon that was twerkogeddon. But there’s definitely a note of truth in there: art, in perfect increments, is sliding into dangerous territory, more style than substance, a cynical joyride over the edge of pop culture. And that’s where hipsters come in.

“Hipster” is what happens when avant-garde and money start dallying with each other, and nowadays we live in a world where Topshop pays people to find out what’s hot and what’s not – Central Saint Martins even offers a course on 'cool hunting' for chrissakes. 

But I suppose one can’t be too critical of this practice; most hipsters are the offspring of 80s yuppies, and all they’ve done is work out that cool and avant-garde are big business. You can do anything – anything at all – and make it sell as long as it’s nicely packaged along with an obscure music genre called something like 'shoe-trap', and you live in a slightly rough-around-the-edges area of London that’s still relatively central (see: Dalston).

Hipster culture is a grave robber of the avant-garde: relentlessly cynical, an ironic wasteland of knowing laughter and intentionally ugly fashion decisions that gossip mags would probably label 'wardrobe malfunctions'.  It cherry picks from history, collaging together the old and setting it to a club friendly soundtrack, then posting the lot on Tumblr. In this world where we endlessly vomit our lives into cyberspace, a new avant-garde could never truly develop. 

The digital revolution denies counter culture its necessary gestation period – it becomes increasingly difficult to move faster than “the system”. Everything is so instantly accessible, so immediate, that there remains no space for mystique and the unexpected. Where the new, fresh and genuinely exciting does emerge we run the risk of destroying it with our eagerness to blog and share, like mother penguins who inadvertently crush lost chicks, so great is their maternal instinct.

David Byrne, in his book How Music Works, states that one of the essential factors in the formation of a counter cultural movement is low rents, and this is true, but it could never really work in the cities that defined the avant-garde: New York, London, Paris (in other words, the places where hipsters are). 

Art has become synonymous with gentrification. And many of the 'creative young types' I know are simply too fixated on image and self-publicising to really give due focus to their art. They don’t want to pay £100 a month for a tiny bedsit in zone 6 where they can sit and think about art all day. Instead, they want to emerge from trendy nightclubs foaming at the mouth on cocaine, to be greeted by a phalanx of instabloggers brandishing iPhones.

As for art, the epicentre of the avant-garde, it’s been blown apart. Every barrier, social taboo, whatever – it’s all been broken. The only thing left to do is sell. I suppose the YBAs finished us off in that sense, Sensation was the last contemporary art exhibition to really excite the cultural consciousness of the average Brit, and that was 16 years ago, before Tracy Emin sold printed egg cups and Charles Saatchi was photographed strangling Nigella. 

A strange irony has occurred here – the art world has been radicalised to the point of domesticity, our most prominent living artists have become dependable establishment stalwarts whose exhibitions are flocked to by the chattering classes.

'Avant-garde' used to mean artistic experimentation and innovation, but in reality these are more likely to emerge from Silicon Valley than Shoreditch. The avant-garde cannot survive without its denizens, and although hipsters may profess to loathe the mainstream, they are in fact part and parcel to the whole thing, addicted to the attention given to them by an eager blogosphere and selling themselves to the corporate machine that they profess to hate. 

Perhaps, however, the technological advances that have contributed to the collapse of the avant-garde (as we know it) may offer hope yet – the recent rise of post-internet art offers a vision of contemporary art that is uncompromisingly linked to our time, a pixelated blur that may open a window onto a digital horizon.

Michael Peters

Photos by Michael Peters

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