“Avant-garde” has been used as a descriptor for a variety of things, many of which are not avant-garde. Once the term was applied to the early Modernist art movements, it evolved from adjective to noun—a proper noun for improper art—making the term problematic as a descriptor for later art that was also avant-garde. Punk was avant-garde, surely, but even art so radically original that it shocks us doesn’t remain avant-garde indefinitely. Rap was avant-garde, it pissed a lot of people off and scared others. Then it became popular, then it became popular in the suburbs, and then it found its way into advertising jingles. Public art can be like that, too. It gets installed, unnerves us with the way it alters a once-familiar landscape, then we get used to it, and even start to like it. Then birds crap on it. Then we stop seeing it. That’s the way of things; it’s in our DNA. We cannot maintain any strong emotion forever, so we adapt. It is the job of the artist to come up with new ways of shocking us out of our complacency in order that we may once again see with new eyes, hear with new ears.
So can just we uncouple “avant-garde” from, say, Cubist paintings, and apply it to cultural phenomena on the thin edge of the self- consciously new? Probably not, but maybe we could try. Maybe we should start a new movement with just a few artists who, at the end of their brief terms, will be eaten by other artists determined to take their places (not literally eaten, of course, but all their ideas, manifestoes, values, judgments and pronouncements would be shredded and not recycled).
In this issue of Puppetry International, we will consider the avant-garde of the early 20th century, as well as later creations, genres, artists and teaching methods that work on us in the same way, making us question what we know about the world.
We are not suggesting that only “new” art is good art. The works of Shakespeare are still being revived, still move us, still “hold a mirror up to nature,” but art that is shocking can be a useful way of adjusting our perspective on life. Some of it may even have abiding value. Time will tell. It is possible to be avant-garde AND enduring, just not at the same time.
-Andrew C. Periale