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Just How Dead Is the Avant-Garde?

Review of:
American Avant-Garde Theatre: A History, by Arnold Aronson

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in American Theatre, Apr. 2001, Vol. 18, Issue 4, pp. 47-49.

PERHAPS I’M TIPPING MY HAND A BIT here, but Arnold Aronson’s fine introduction to the American avant-garde started me thinking about pornography–and not just because of the photo of the Performance Group’s Dionysus in 69. Pornography and the avant-garde have both managed to occupy a place at society’s margins while maintaining a shifting and often troubling relationship with the commercial mainstream. Both are considered subversive–one to conventional morality, the other to conventional aesthetics–and both have engendered a phalanx of interested parties whose attempts at defining either term result inevitably in a spectacle of floundering. In the case of the avant-garde, people tend to mirror a judge’s famous remark about porn: They might not be able to define it exactly, but they think they know it when they see it.

American Avant-Garde Theatre: A History offers its reader stimulating descriptions of subversive acts staged by the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, the Wooster Group and, in lesser detail, Jack Smith, Reza Abdoh and a handful of others. Aronson ties his observations together with useful, sometimes amusing tidbits culled from various sources, ranging from a review Foreman wrote of one of Wilson’s earliest productions to the story of Robert Edmond Jones’s prodding a young Judith Malina and Julian Beck to be more daring. While he seems anxious about his neglect of a number of avant-gardists, his choices make sense given his desire to focus on the most influential figures. Aronson’s prose–conversational bordering on chatty–avoids the often nebulous catch-phrases that clutter the more theoretical discussions of the same topic. The problem of defining and analyzing the avant-garde surfaces throughout Aronson’s book, but it’s not so much through his own shortcomings as it is a result of grappling with an impossible task.

For a performance to be avant-garde in Aronson’s framework it needs to hold an adversarial relationship with mainstream culture; reject traditional narrative techniques; avoid “illusionistic” presentation, or anything predicated on a suspension of disbelief; reject “consumerism,” which I take to mean the work’s own, almost inevitable status as a commodity; and change the way the audience views theatre, and therefore the world, by “reorganiz[ing] the sense of reality.” For the foundations of this avant-garde, Aronson takes the work of Gertrude Stein, Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht and John Cage, with perhaps the greatest degree of emphasis on Cage and his activities at Black Mountain College. Indeed, for Aronson, the American avant-garde first comes into existence in 1948 with a Black Mountain College staging of The Ruse of the Medusa by Erik Satie, who was the subject of lectures that Cage was delivering there.

Obviously, Aronson is aware that the concept of the avant-garde goes back further than 1948—he refers to the coining of the term in 1825 by Henri de Saint-Simon and rightly concedes that naturalism itself was an avant-garde movement. But he never quite articulates the avant-garde’s relationship to modernism, and his definition of the avant-garde in the 20th century results in his casting Samuel Beckett as “not … the epitome of the avant-garde but an end point of the modern (i.e., post-Renaissance) theatre.” The term “post-Renaissance”–far too broad to be of any use–surfaces often, but equally critical is the question of why one would consider Beckett’s one-acts to be more illusionistic or traditionally narrative than plays by Richard Foreman.

Aronson fixates on narrative as if it polluted everything that approached it with a fetid air of traditionalism, but any number of artists have shown that narrative, an emphasis on language and avant-gardism can indeed coexist. The omission of Adrienne Kennedy and Funnyhouse of a Negro is instructive, because Funnyhouse not only undermines the label of newness that Aronson attaches to Suzan-Lori Parks or Mac Wellman but also throws up an important marker for a strain of the avant-garde that he basically ignores: theatre simultaneously political and aesthetic, warping rather than destroying narrative, emphasizing the potency of words based not only on sound but on meaning and context.

If he weren’t so vigorous in excluding European artists from the discussion, he’d see the tradition of avant-garde narrative writing from Brecht’s Lehrstücke to the works of Heiner Müller, and he’d also be forced to confront the distinction between avant-garde directing and avant-garde playwriting. Peter Brook, Ariane Mnouchkine, Christoph Marthaler and Einar Schleef have earned a claim to the avant-garde mantle, and yet they have often done so while staging narrative, canonical works. Indeed, so has Robert Wilson, but Aronson doesn’t dwell on that very much.

ARONSON CLOSES HIS DISCUSSION BY announcing for the umpety-umpth time that the avant-garde is dead. Richard Schechner was premature in doing so in 1981, he says, but this time, it’s really, really dead. And he knows who’s responsible. The Web (with its nonlinear hyperlinks), not to mention MTV, has made avant-garde challenges to linear narrative seem passe; The Media, with its manic thirst for anything new, reduced originality to novelty and fashion; and finally Academia, along with Corporate and Government Subsidies, by giving the avant-garde an imprimatur of institutional authority, destroyed the counter-cultural spirit upon which the avant-garde’s existence was founded. Aronson argues that a fragmented work such as Anne Bogart’s The Medium does not undermine postmodern viewing habits but, rather, satisfies them, while downtown “hip” productions have too little substance to subvert anything at all.

At any rate, if Paul Mann’s Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde wasn’t enough to dissuade people from pronouncing the end of formally subversive theatre, it probably won’t accomplish anything to argue that one can never predict when originality will end, or to argue that the avant-garde, despite claims to the contrary, has always borrowed heavily from the past. I’m also clearly a minority in thinking that the differences between modernism and postmodernism have been overstated, that the web and MTV have not revolutionized our modes of perception and that linear, psychological realism is still the dominant method for creating anything in TV, film and theatre. I also fail to understand why accepting a grant from the NEA or Philip Morris should jeopardize one’s avant-garde status more than taking money from Mom and Dad–which, as Aronson points out, played a role in the survival of Richard Foreman, the Living Theatre and many others. Indeed, if, as the oft-repeated piety holds, subsidy were a threat to subversive art, then politically radical theatre should be more seldom seen in Europe than in America, but the opposite is true.

Defining the avant-garde as that which might startle or subvert the aesthetic expectations of an average viewer, we’re left with the question: What’s an average viewer? For, in a strict sense, after the narrative subversions of the Dadaists or Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera, viewers among the cognoscenti might not have found anything to be particularly startling. Merely “understanding” the contrivance of past aesthetic rules does not mean that we can no longer be viscerally surprised by a demonstration of their absence. Indeed, what Aronson’s book does so well is to demonstrate how artists such as Foreman, Abdoh and the Wooster Group became important not by negating the past but rather by cleverly using the tools invented by others to challenge our habits of viewing. To suggest an end to the avant-garde assumes an end to cultural reliance on habit–a sanguine idea of modern humanity which, fortunately for the avant-garde, sounds highly unlikely.

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