VL 4 : The Neo Avant-Garde - the 1960s and beyond

The fourth video lecture is given by Graham Whitham and covers the Neo Avant-Garde. The named periods and movements have often left me slightly befuddled. I know many of the names, but not necessarily what they equate to, what they encapsulate. The Avant-Garde is a term that probably means more to me in terms of film, especially with the French experimental films of the 60s, things like La Jetée, although even this is not something that is especially relevant to me (yes, I have La Jetée and Sans Soleil on DVD, but that's about it... does Easy Rider count as Avant-Garde well?)

The introduction to the Avant-Garde was useful, from Henri de Saint-Simon and his original meaning within the realms of Socialism and the painting of Gustave Courbet, which took art from the normal cadre of high art, the aristocracy and social standing and into representation of the working classes (something that would become more popular with "beggar photography" and representations of the "Other" - a different reason of taking on the subject matter).

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Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849
from VL 4

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Paul Cezanne, Grounds of the Chateau Noir, 1900-04
from VL 4

Later however, Avant-Garde began to mean "modern", epitomised by unconventional techniques rather than any social sense as was once the case (as with Cezanne and The Grounds of Chateau Noir). Between the wars these radical methods accrued a political slant as might be epitomised by movements such as Dada, and the anti-war collage being created at the time. Also in the inter-war period, there was Surrealism which further questioned conventions of form and the controlling systems. Works such as Dali's Rainy Day Taxi can be seen as precursors to contemporary installation art.

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Salvador Dali, Rainy Taxi, 1938
from VL 4

That's the Avant-Garde, but what of the "Neo" bit? It is thought the term was first coined retrospectively in the 70s to describe work where the subject dominates (as opposed to the concepts of Modernism) and has some political reason, such as being critical of the institutions, etc. The Neo Avant-Garde rallies against Greenberg's thinkings that paintings are paintings, and sculptures are sculptures, and that these high art objects are for the gallery.

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Mark Rothko, Black and Maroon, 1958
from VL 4

I looked at Fluxus briefly whilst studying for my photography degree (part of a module on visual culture), specifically Mieko Shiomi's Disappearing Music for Face featuring Yoko Ono. Other "happenings", such as Shigeko Kubota's feminist performances are a pastiche of Jackson Pollock, whose work was deemed to be very masculine. This pastiche element is something that recurs, with other artists also parodying the modus operandi of the conventional (Modernist) arts, such as Nam June Paik’s
Zen for Head, Piero Marzoni's eggs with thumb prints as signature, or Bruce McLean's transitory sculpture.

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Nam June Paik, Zen for Head, 1962
from VL 4

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Bruce McClean, Pose for Plinths 3, 1971
from VL 4

Film and video is another medium that is utilised, not like the Avant-Garde films I mentioned earlier, but in very much an anti-Hollywood vein, with artists such as Martha Rosler producing the fixed camera position video that works against the conventions and aesthetics of film making and providing a comment against the traditional view of a woman's place within the home in Semiotics of the Kitchen

Another theme that appears repeatedly within the Neo Avant-Garde is destruction. However, does this really adhere to the intentions of pushing the boundaries and challenging the system? Yes, it is shocking, but then we become more used to being shocked with the proliferation of media of varying types; the shocking nature of the work becomes accepted as being part of the establishment and therefore in order to push the boundaries and be a challenge, the work needs to be be more shocking, more destructive. Whilst Yoko Ono's Cut Piece might once have been really quite something to behold, today in order to be "shocking" it's not clothes that are cut, but the body itself as was seen with the work of Franko B in the previous Video Lecture.

The political leanings of the movement seem very left wing/communist in nature, with the language of the Fluxus manifesto making statements like "Purge the world of bourgeois sickness... Promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art... Fuse the cadre of cultural, social & political revolutionaries into united front & action." This in many ways reflects the times, with the anti-(Vietnam) war movement, the marches in London, riots in France and the shooting of the likes of Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Martha Rosler received a second mention in the lecture, this time with the anti-war collages of Bringing the War Home, in many ways a return to the Dada principles with collage and political commentary as she juxtaposed the weekly images of war from Life magazine with lifestyle and luxury.

Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes, 1967-72 [photomontage]

Whitham calls on the writings of Peter Burger and his book The Theory of the Avant-Garde to propose that the Neo Avant-Garde may be thought of as having failed as they perpetuated and repeated what they were trying to challenge and their critique of the political and cultural elites. If Neo Avant-Garde is to be thought of as being "anti-establishment", then what of Yves Klein's Anthropometries? The work was made as a "happening", a (high art style?) performance in front of an exclusive audience and featured the painting of naked models with Klein's trademark blue paint before being directed to the canvas. These works, if the video below is to be believed, were then sold for 40000 French francs to collectors, and have been exhibited in museums. Hardly pushing against the art establishment, rather perpetuating them as Burger suggested.

Returning to Rosler, her Bringing the War Home series was originally conceived as agitational works and distributed via the underground press. However, as described in an essay by Susan Stoops (Martha Rosler: Bringing the War Home (1967-2004)) contained within David Evans' book Appropriation, the images entered the art world in the 1990s, when Rosler noted that if they were to enter art history, they would have to be "somehow normalised", thus bringing them "fully into the postmodern discourse Rosler's practice had helped shape" (Evans, p59). Whilst in this case the work was not intended to be sold and exhibited, 20 years after they were created, this was indeed what has happened. Is this, and other similar cases, symptomatic of "selling out" to the establishment in some way?

Is it still selling out if artists sell their "work" as a comment on the art system? The example given in the lecture is Marzoni's Artist Shit - canned excrement sold at the same price, pound for pound, as gold. And is it art? Well, anyone can be an artist, and anything the artist "produces" can be thought of as art if that is the artist's intention. Who am I to argue, but I know I wouldn't be even remotely interested in seeing the "work", never mind buying it. Something like this does indeed challenge the theory that art is a pursuit of aesthetic harmony though, and I suppose in that respect it is successful.

There was some further mention of the feminist practice within the Neo Avant-Garde, with Hannah Wilke's Through the Large Glass, a performance and video piece featuring Duchamp's work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Harrison, Kelly and Hunt's sociological study of women in the workplace (lower wages in the workplace and then more work for free when at home). There was also Jo Spence and the Hackney Flashers, similarly focussing on women's contribution to the economy.

The final section of the lecture covered the Artist's Placement Group that sought to put artists into industry, a form of residency, whereby the artist would be paid as a member of the workforce but rather than do the work, they would produce some artwork relevant to the residency. Stuart Brisley produced a somewhat Modernist sculpture from the frames of chairs, but Ian Breakwell's video was cited as being the one that pushed the establishment in the most useful way; the video and accompanying report drove change at the Rampton Institute for the Criminally Insane. A return to the social meaning of the first Avant-Garde.

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Ian Breakwell, The Institution, 1978
from VL 4

In some respects, the Neo Avant-Garde has opened the gateway for some of the more controversial work of those that came after the movement ended in the 70s. I can't help but wonder what the YBA would have been like without the Neo Avant-Grade having gone first - in many respects, they are standing on the shoulders of those who went before. It's the same with previous movements though, with everything building on or reacting to earlier histories in some way. Would Casey Jenkins have done her 28 day knitting performance Casting Off My Womb without some of the earlier mentioned works, such as Kubota's painting having passed first? And where does the K-foundation's burning of £1m figure?

Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849 (from VL 4)
Paul Cézanne, The Grounds of Chateau Noir, 1900-04 (from VL 4)
Salvador Dali, Rainy Taxi, 1938 (from VL 4)
Mark Rothko, Black and Maroon, 1958 (from VL 4)
Naim June Paik, Zen for Head, 1962 (from VL 4)
Bruce McClean, Pose for Plinths 3, 1971 (from VL 4)
Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975
Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1965
Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes, 1967-72
Yves Klein, Anthropemetries, 1962
Ian Breakwell, The Institution, 1978 (from VL 4)

The Neo Avant-Garde - the 1960s and Beyond, Video Lecture 4. Unknown. [Video Streaming] Graham Whitham. Open College of the Arts

Evans, D (ed) 2009.
Appropriation. Whitechapel Gallery. London

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