The avant-garde was a magnificent and revolutionary phase in the history of art, but it’s completely over. Artists and galleries must (in Ann Landers’ immortal words) wake up and smell the coffee! The avant-garde, whose roots were in late-18th-century Romanticism, was a reaction against a strong but suffocating classical tradition. The great modernist artists, from Picasso to James Joyce, were trained in that tradition, which gave audacity and power to their subversion of it.
But then modernism began to feed on itself, and it became weaker and weaker. As I argue in “Glittering Images,” there has been nothing genuinely avant-garde since Andy Warhol except for Robert Mapplethorpe’s luminous homoerotic images of the sadomasochistic underground. Everything that calls itself avant-garde today is just a tedious imitation of earlier and far superior modernist art. The art world has become an echo chamber of commercially inflated rhetoric, shallow ironies and monolithic political ideology.
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The problem is that explicit sex has become so diffused through the general culture that it’s lost its charge, which once came from the sizzle of transgression. I’m nostalgic for that primal shock quality, which was still there in spades when a juicily plump Madonna was doing her pioneering videos in the ‘80s like “Burnin’ Up,” “Open Your Heart” and “Like a Virgin.” No one could writhe better than Madonna on the prow of a gondola!
But that’s the same phenomenon at work in both cases, spread out over 60 or 70 years or so. Pop culture, whether in the form of the original modernists, or pop music, in the form of rock and roll in the 1950s and early Beatle-era 1960s, only really produces anything interesting and new when it has a more conservative and traditional overculture to push against. The original modernists had a millenia of tradition to rebel against — or reject outright — in the late 19th and early 20th century. At least until another group of leftists, led by their own wannabe artist, were even more eager to “Start From Zero” in Germany’s post-Weimar era. (Philip Johnson, who founded the Museum of Modern Art’s architectural department really hedged his bets, by maintaining a concentration camp in both groups.)
By the 1960s, there was nothing left other than modernism, which is why every office building built in America looked like Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and 860 Lakeshore Drive, and every corporate and government logo incorporated Helvetica:
Similarly, MTV was the perfect platform for Madonna to mount (OK, pun slightly intended) to release her early videos, to blow off (sorry) 30 years of the network Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters. Once that was gone — and particularly, once Madonna released her Mapplethorpe-inspired “Sex” book in 1992, where else could the culture go? How does an artistic movement continue its “nostalgia for the mud,” once it’s wallowing in it?
Of course, Paglia also talks politics, pointing out inconvenient truths which likely caused plenty of teeth to gnash at arch-leftist Salon:
As a registered Democrat, I am praying for a credible presidential candidate to emerge from the younger tier of politicians in their late 40s. A governor with executive experience would be ideal. It’s time to put my baby-boom generation out to pasture! We’ve had our day and managed to muck up a hell of a lot. It remains baffling how anyone would think that Hillary Clinton (born the same year as me) is our party’s best chance. She has more sooty baggage than a 90-car freight train. And what exactly has she ever accomplished — beyond bullishly covering for her philandering husband? She’s certainly busy, busy and ever on the move — with the tunnel-vision workaholism of someone trying to blot out uncomfortable private thoughts.
Fortunately, a competitor to the Hillary juggernaut is emerging — a man who has spent about the same amount of time in politics as Hillary, and with almost as little to show for it, as Jonah Goldberg writes at NRO:
Not counting rumors that Anthony Weiner’s marriage has hit a rocky patch, it may be the worst-kept secret in politics: Joe Biden wants to be president.
On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the vice president’s inner circle is swabbing the decks, battening down the hatches, and hoisting the mainsails for USS Bidenpalooza 2016. “Everyone involved in his world,” a Democratic official told the Journal, “is engaged in taking all the steps that make sense to prepare for a run, if he does run.” Biden’s people are apparently willing to go for it even if the allegedly inevitable nominee, Hillary Clinton, decides to run.
Why is this happening?
It’s a difficult question to boil down to a single variable, given the swirling maelstrom of egos, agendas, and issues at play. Still, one answer does seem to cover the waterfront: because ours is a just and generous God. From my admittedly selfish perspective, a Biden candidacy would be great for everybody — and by everybody I mean people who would like to see the Democratic party descend into a chaotic food fight.
Indeed, while most of the punditocracy is obsessed with turning the mostly trivial sniping between New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) into proof of a bloody civil war on the right, the Democrats are poised to descend into a family squabble of historic proportions that will amount to a riveting political reality show.
I’d say “Faster, Please,” but I’d prefer that this leftwing internecine struggle continues deep into 2016.