Ed Driscoll

The Age of the Avant-Garde

As Paul Johnson wrote in the early 1980s in Modern Times, the 20th century was the age of relativity and relativism, a trend that has only accelerated in recent years:

At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.

No one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension. He was bewildered by the relentless publicity and error which his work seemed to promote. He wrote to his colleague Max Born on 9 September 1920: ‘Like the man in the fairy-tale who turned everything he touched into gold, so with me everything turns into a fuss in the newspapers.’ Einstein was not a practicing Jew, but he acknowledged a God. He believed passionately in absolute standards of right and wrong.

He lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a social pandemic, just as he lived to see his fatal equation bring into existence nuclear warfare. There were times, he said at the end of his life, when he wished he had been a simple watchmaker.

The public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.

Concurrent with moral relativism becoming the law (or the lack thereof) of the land, to paraphrase TV writer Anne Beatts, the avant-garde, who first spread this notion, simply became garde. How they did so is a topic that the recently deceased Hilton Kramer, then the chief art critic of the New York Times (before founding The New Criterion a few years later, a publication now edited by fellow PJM columnist Roger Kimball) explored in a 1974 Commentary essay titled “The Age of the Avant-Garde” that’s well worth your time reading in full today:

At a time when avant-garde claims are enthusiastically embraced by virtually all the institutions ministering to middle-class taste, the old pieties about what Trilling calls “the adversary intention, the actually subversive intention” of modernist art are clearly out of date. An accommodation has obviously been reached—an accommodation that makes nonsense of established notions of cultural warfare. We have, in fact, been witnessing a startling reversal of roles. The appetite for innovation is now voracious on the part of the new public for art, but it is more and more a source of impotence and despair among artists, who recognize that this volatile and often heartless taste for the “new” can be quite as destructive of any real attachment to the objects of the artistic imagination as the old philistine resistance ever was. It is now the artists who represent “tradition,” if only the paradoxical tradition of the avant-garde, and the “informed” public that is likely to be quickly bored with what is established and familiar. Under the circumstances, we have ample reason to wonder what it is exactly that modernist art intended to subvert—to wonder what the once exacerbated relation of the avant-garde to the middle class has come to, and indeed, what it actually was in the epoch of its legendary conflicts.

I doubt if we can fully appreciate the fate that has overtaken the avant-garde in our own day without some drastic alteration in our understanding of the avant-garde as a historical phenomenon—without a clear understanding, first of all, that it is a historical phenomenon rather than an immutable fixture of cultural life. Contrary to the romance that encloses so much of its history for us, the avant-garde belongs ineluctably to the world of the middle class, and is barely conceivable in isolation from it. The avant-garde has been, from the start, a vital coefficient of bourgeois culture. Beginning as an avowal of the life of feeling that the defensive and insecure institutions of the middle class could not bring itself to acknowledge, lest its precarious hold on its own self-esteem be shattered, the avant-garde developed into the critical and increasingly combative conscience of bourgeois civilization. The cultural history of the bourgeoisie is the history of its gradual and painful adjustment to this conscience—an adjustment that made the bourgeoisie, despite its own worst inclinations, the moral and aesthetic beneficiary of the avant-garde’s heroic labors.

In 1987, Allan Bloom would take up the role of the avant-garde versus bourgeois society in The Closing of the American Mind, about which Andrew Ferguson writes this month in the Weekly Standard:

Bloom wrote a moment before the population of modernity’s Holy Trinity​—​Marx, Freud, and Darwin​—​decreased by two-thirds. Marx lost his allure, at least nominally, after the collapse of the murderous regimes that had been built from his ideas. Freud was demoted from scientist to cultural observer, and an unreliable one besides. Only Darwin survives, undiminished and if anything enlarged, as the font of a new materialism whose effects Bloom foresaw even then and witheringly described. I can think of lots of reasons why The Closing of the American Mind deserves as many readers as it earned in the eighties; Bloom’s sly wit and the torrential energy of his prose are worth the price of admission, in my opinion. But this one carries a special urgency. As well as anyone then or now, he understood that the intellectual fashion of materialism​—​of explaining all life, human or animal, mental or otherwise, by means of physical processes alone​—​had led inescapably to a doctrinaire relativism that would prove to be a universal corrosive.

The crisis was​—​is​—​a crisis of confidence in the principle that serves as the premise of liberal education: that reason, informed by learning and experience, can arrive at truth, and that one truth may be truer than another. This loss of faith had consequences and causes far beyond higher ed. Bloom was a believer in intellectual trickle-down theory, and it is the comprehensiveness of his thesis that may have attracted readers to him and his book. The coarsening of public manners, the decline in academic achievement, the general dumbing down of America​—​even Jerry Springer​—​had a long pedigree that Bloom was at pains to describe for a general reader.

“The crisis of liberal education,” he wrote, “is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization.”

He asked readers to consider contemporary students as he encountered them. They arrived ill-equipped to explore the large questions the humanities pose, and few saw the need to bother with them in any case. Instead, he said, they were cheerful, unconcerned, dutiful, and prosaic, their eyes on the prize of that cushy job. They were “nice.” You can almost see him shudder as he writes the word. “They are united only in their relativism,” he wrote. “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.”

Relativism, in fact, was the only moral postulate that went unchallenged in academic life. Defenders of relativism often defend it by denying it exists: No one, they say, truly believes that one idea is ultimately as good as another. And of course they’re right that none of us in our own lives act as though we believed this. But most of us profess it nonetheless, especially if we’ve got a college education, in which case we will be careful to use air quotes when we are forced to say the word “truth” in polite company. In a genial but harrowing review of Closing, a professor at -Carleton College, Michael Zuckert, told of canvassing the students in his class on American political thought. He asked whether they agreed that the truths in the first lines of the Declaration of Independence were indeed “self-evident.” Seven percent voted “yes.” On further conversation, he wrote, it turned out “that they were convinced there is no such thing as ‘truth,’ self-evident or otherwise, in the sphere of claims of the sort raised in the Declaration.” He would have gotten the same response in almost any college classroom today, and I’m not too sure about the 7 percent.

What follows when a belief in objectivity and truth dies away in higher education? In time an educated person comes to doubt that purpose and meaning are discoverable​—​he doubts, finally, that they even exist. It’s no mystery why fewer and fewer students in higher education today bother with the liberal arts, preferring professional training in their place. Deprived of their traditional purpose in the pursuit of what’s true and good, the humanities could only founder. The study of literature, for example, was consumed in the trivialities of the deconstructionists and their successors. Philosophy curdled into positivism and word play. History became an inventory of political grievances.

Into the vacuum left by the humanities comes science, which by its own admission is unconcerned with the large questions of meaning and purpose. Even so, on campus and elsewhere, science is now taken as the final authority on any important human question​—​and not always the rigorous physical sciences, either, but the rickety, less empirical, more easily manipulated guesswork of behavioral psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, developmental studies, and so on. Nowadays, if we seek insight into the mysteries of the human heart (not high on the academic agenda in any case) we are far more likely to consult a neurobiologist or a social psychologist than Tolstoy or Aristotle. This is not progress.

Bloom himself was rather blunt in The Closing of the American Mind as to one of the causes for the moral relativism of the last 45 years or so:

This popularization of German philosophy in the United States is of peculiar interest to me because I have watched it occur during my own intellectual lifetime, and I feel a little like someone who knew Napoleon when he was six. I have seen value relativism and its concomitants grow greater in the land than anyone imagined. Who in 1920 would have believed that Max Weber’s technical sociological terminology would someday be the everyday language of the United States, the land of the Philistines, itself in the meantime become the most powerful nation in the world? The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.

Although these days, the ride doesn’t seem as much fun — particularly when the bill, both emotionally and fiscally, is increasingly coming due.

Related: Glenn Reynolds explores why skepticism over science is rising. Say, I thought from the academy’s point of view, skepticism was a good thing.