IT AMAZES ME that some lit writers still cling to obsolete notions of “avant-garde” which haven’t been relevant for fifty years.
In the chapter “The Avant-garde Dies” in his 1995 book, The Age of Extremes, historian Eric Hobsbawm argued that mass entertainment like rock n roll destroyed the old avant-garde. Some quotes:
“—the rise of a revolutionary popular entertainment industry geared to the mass market, reduced the traditional forms of high art to elite ghettoes, and from the middle of the century their inhabitants were essentially people who had enjoyed a higher education. The public of theatre and opera, the readers of their country’s literary classics and the sort of poetry and prose taken seriously by the critics, the visitors to museums and art galleries belonged overwhelmingly to those who had at least completed secondary education—“
“—higher education increasingly provided employment, and constituted the market for men and women with inadequate commercial appeal. This was most dramatically exemplified in literature . . . More dangerously, academic demand encouraged the production of creative writing that lent itself to seminar discussion, and therefore benefitted by complexity, if not incomprehensibility—“
“—in the 1960s a few intelligent critics began to investigate what had previously been overwhelmingly dismissed and rejected as ‘commercial’ or just aesthetically null, namely what actually attracted men and women on the street.”
“The achievements of post-war modernist painting and sculpture were incomparably less and usually much inferior to their inter-war predecessors. . . . It consisted largely of a series of increasingly desperate gimmicks—“
“The smell of impending death rose from these avant-gardes. The future was no longer theirs. though nobody knew whose it was. More than ever, they knew themselves to be on the margin. Compared to the real revolution in perception and representation achieved via technology by the money-makers, the formal innovations of studio bohemians had always been child’s play . . . What were concert experiments with electronic sound in modernist compositions, which every impresario knew to be box office poison, compared to rock music which made electronic sound into the music of the millions? If all ‘high arts’ were segregated in ghettos, could the avant-gardes fail to observe that their own sections of the ghetto were tiny and diminishing, as any comparison of the sales of Chopin and Schoenberg confirmed?”