Sunday, December 15, 2019

Adieu to the Avant-Garde

Adieu to the Avant-Garde is an old, old essay in Reason that is still worth reading.
"Exactly a hundred years ago," Wolfe is saying, "there was a survey taken by a French newspaper–they used to love to take this kind of survey–in which they asked leading French art dealers, critics, curators: Who would be the French artists of the 19th century who would still be the giants of art in the year 1997? By the standards of that day, it was a huge survey. And the results were, number one, Adolphe William Bouguereau; second, Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier; and, third, Léon Gérôme. They were looked upon as the giants."
Who? Wait, there's more. "Even after the era of Andy Warhol, who left an estate of $510 million, we cannot begin to comprehend the scale on which these artists–Bouguereau, Meissonier, Gérôme–lived." Wolfe sketches in some detail. "Two- and three-story-high studios. Belgian hangings on all the walls. There were always Persian rugs strewn wherever you could strew one: on top of the piano, on top of the balcony railing, on the bed, everywhere, even on the floor." 
"By 1920, all these people were forgotten. They had become, overnight in terms of the passage of history, zeros, grand zeros in art history." Why that happened–the coming of the various movements of modernism, from the Berlin Secession to Cubism–is not Wolfe's subject. Regime shifting is.
"The `Regime Shift,'" says Wolfe, "is a term that I'm borrowing from economics. It refers to a situation in which suddenly the rules are changed. And when that happens, suddenly a lot of assets are lost, chaos results….Well, such things oddly enough can happen in art. Not quite as rapidly, but they have happened extremely rapidly."
I'm not entirely sure that this is true, but the really interesting question is, why isn't it true in music? The great names in composition around 1919, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, are just as big today.


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

There was a 20th anniversary retrospective at NMB with a ... pretty long interview a couple of years ago:

" ... As for the more polemical aspects of the Derriere Guard, these too seem to have been tempered somewhat in de Kenessey’s thinking.

“I didn’t have a strict ideology,” de Kenessey maintained. “It was not like you had to write music in a certain way or to paint in a certain way. The idea was simply to let these new kinds of artistic endeavors have a place to flourish … I really just wanted to kick down some walls and open up some venues. Why could only dissonant, harsh, terrible things be represented in The Kitchen? It’s not monolithic. You don’t have to dress in black any more to enter its halls. That’s partly why I had Tom Wolfe there in all white. I’m being silly here, but you know what I mean. It’s just to allow a kind of a multiplicity of voices to be honored in a way that I don’t think was as routine as it is today. I really do think that the establishment itself has been more fragmented in its understanding of what is possible, and what is honorable and interesting to support. You’re much more likely now to go to a concert and hear new pieces on it of very different stylistic bents. Thirty years ago, it would have been a pretty safe bet what you might have heard.” "

Anonymous said...

The fact that Mahler, Stravinsky, etc were able to be experienced by many people in a larger context (i.e. the concert hall) in comparison to the way other art forms (painting, sculpture, etc) were presented may have something to do with it.

Even if a new work by a well-known composer was perceived to be mediocre at the time, it would still immediately generate public interest. Also, newspapers reviewed performances which would appear the next day, further cementing a composer's reputation, whether good or bad in the eyes of the public.

A seeming contradiction in this theory is that it takes a very long time to generate consensus of major works and artists. Western art music in the 20th century was extremely complex to grapple with, but there is now something approaching agreement. Who will be the giants of the 21st century, or will it be so fragmented as to defy an overarching, definitive analysis?

Bryan Townsend said...

Upon further thought--well, I really don't have any further thoughts. A lot of the discussion of this kind of topic veers into the technical details, which is what someone like Schoenberg would call the craft, not the art, of composition. And if you dig into Schoenberg and Stravinsky, you don't have to go very deep before your realize that, no matter how advanced the surface sounds, underneath, both of those composers were extremely capable craftsmen. In other words, yes, they could not only splash paint, they could also draw. So, at least in some aspects, the history of 20th century music is a bit different from the history of 20th century art.

Maury said...

The people asked in the French survey are those people with a vested interest in the artists that gave them a living. It is not a survey of readers or attendance at art shows etc. In addition the vast majority of 20th C "paint splashers" could draw very well but found that there was little market for conventional drawing, with Picasso and Kandinsky being obvious examples.

But there is an asymmetry for art vs music in that concert attendance is easily documented while art shows and purchases by connoisseurs occur off screen. No one prizes the purchase of the printed score. All of the major turn of the century artists esteemed now were esteemed then except possibly for Van Gogh at first. The one area where there might be a slight divergence are the Symbolisme painters who were probably more noted then than now.

I think the history of Art generally indicates that virtually all great artists in whatever field - painting music sculpture literature - were esteemed during their lifetimes. The caveat is that esteem is not neccessarily financially rewarding.

Bryan Townsend said...

The big, huge difference between the visual artists and the composers was that the invention of photography dealt a body blow to the whole craft of naturalist drawing and painting. Sure, we now know that photography is simply a different art form, but a lot of the realist painters, it seems, were revealed as photographers avant le lettre. The art and craft of music is just rather different.

Maury said...

Well, the invention of recording and subsequent audio editing has had a profound effect on the craft of music, allowing musicians without notation skills to create relatively sophisticated compositions in the recording studio. I was simply commenting on the arguments in the quoted essay which I think downplayed the awareness at the time of all the artists we now regard as great. Yes there are always promoted safe artists who mean nothing artistically but are simply ways to get high prices from the establishment.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, sound recording has made an enormous difference in the practice of music, not just the craft, but the art as well.

Will Wilkin said...

In a 2-volume Norton Great Scores paperback set I bought for my son (just before I discovered IMSLP and tablets), there were mostly enduring greats like Beethoven symphonies, but also a few composers I'd never heard of and now here at a jobsite can't remember. That was an early lesson for me that the critics and audiences can't always judge what music of their own time will be valued as the world changes.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, very true. If the Norton anthology is the one I am thinking of, the collection may have originally been put together forty years ago. And tastes have changed since then. But also, there were probably pieces included because of their historic, not aesthetic, importance. For example, C. P. E. Bach is not hugely admired these days, but a piece by him might find its way into an anthology simply because he is one of the important figures in the transition between the Baroque and Classical styles.