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The Tired Old Game of Shocking the Middle Class

The point has been made very often by now, but this is a particularly good and compact instance, from the unsigned "Notes & Comments" column in the May issue of The New Criterion:

Épater la bourgeois: shocking the middle class has been a cherished goal of the avant garde since the birth of the movement in the nineteenth century. The fact that the middle class long ago enlisted themselves as co-collaborators in this project of rote titillation transformed the avant garde into a reactionary force in everything but posture and rhetoric. The amazing thing has been the longevity of this new incarnation of Salon art: year after year, decade after decade, “artists” and their eager if jaded public rehearse the tired old pantomime: the party of the first part recycles some bit of Dada while the party of the second pretends to be shocked or at least interested. 

Most of this takes place well beyond the notice of the actual bourgeoisie, some of whom (mostly Christians) are still capable of being shocked. Now and then, those do have their attention directed to something that offends them, and a grand time is had by all as each side attempts to surpass the other in outrage. The same TNC issue contains an interesting article, "Fires In Their Bellies," by Judith H. Dobrzynski, which documents a recent instance of which you may have read, in which an 11-second segment of a film got noticed by the wrong person and became the occasion of a few days' worth of news. The article may be available only to subscribers, but here's a good summary paragraph:

Shall we file the recent debacle at the National Portrait Gallery under “Return of the Culture Wars,” “Homophobia,” “Christian Bashing,” “Media Circus,” “Politics As Usual,” or “Men Behaving Badly”? All of the above would be accurate. But “Men—and Women— Behaving Badly” seems most appropriate. Nearly every person or group who claimed a part in this sorry episode in American cultural history exacerbated what should have been a minor incident, or perhaps not an incident at all.

(NB: I don't accept "homophobia" as a legitimate or even very honest term for objecting to those who believe homosexual behavior to be wrong, but other than that I think she's right.)


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My only quibble here is this:

shocking the middle class has been a cherished goal of the avant garde since the birth of the movement in the nineteenth century

Seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I don't think it was the cherished goal of the likes of Debussy, Satie, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Picasso, Dali, etc., to shock the middle class. That lineage can, IMO, be extended up through present day.

I think we can assume they (whoever wrote the piece) didn't mean that. The magazine generally pretty much reveres the high modernists. It was founded by Hilton Kramer, an art critic who seems to be very much a partisan of abstract expressionism and other forms of modernism in the visual arts. Most of those you name didn't seem to have much if any desire to shock people. Satie & Dali are possible exceptions. I expect that in using the phrase "avant garde" the writer meant specifically to refer to those for whom upsetting conventions was definitely part of the point, such as the Dadaists, as opposed to those who were just doing what they felt driven to do.

Yeah, I don't know that guy, the magazine, or the author, so I didn't know the background. Anyway, I guess that's the trouble with the term "avant garde" -- it means & has meant different things to different people at different points in time.

Part of the problem with the term, and part of what they're getting at, is that "avant garde" became a fossilized set of attitudes and techniques, not a description of genuinely new ideas. Someone who's basically just trying to recapitulate Duchamp may or may not be doing interesting work but certainly isn't "avant" of anything.

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