Adieu to the Avant-Garde

As the artistic regime shifts, realism, rhyme, and representation make a comback.

Tom Wolfe is holding his audience spellbound with what seems the unlikeliest of stories.
Spotlighted in a bare, black "performance space" deep in downtown Manhattan, Wolfe is evoking the careers of a trio of mostly forgotten 19th-century French painters. The story's certainly entertaining, thanks to Wolfe's talent for such narrative. But what's really interesting is his reason for telling it: Wolfe is here to celebrate the approaching fulfillment of a prophecy of his, and to announce the end of a cultural epoch.

First, though, his story. "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."

Such Belle Epoque sumptuousness reflected the near total cultural power these painters wielded; it derived from canvases which were not only admired, purchased at staggering sums (Meissonier, Wolfe notes, was once offered a million francs just to sign his name), and studied by crowds of intense young
artists; they were considered to have carried French art to unsurpassable heights of draftsmanship, composition, and color. Bouguereau's technical ability still impresses Wolfe. "God, what a master of silk folds! He could show you an archangel with a sheet of paper in his hand: You'd want to eat the paper, it was so rich!"

Then, poof. "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."

Wolfe believes that such a cultural shift is occurring right now. "I think it was 1985 or 1986, I was giving a talk at a museum out on Long Island. And the title of the talk was, `Picasso, the Bouguereau of the Year 2020.' And this was really a prediction of a Regime Shift." Wolfe's prophecy went totally unnoticed at the time. "The only reward I had was a diatribe at the end of the talk," he recalls, by "an extremely angry man."

That was then. Tonight in Chelsea there are no angry diatribes. On the contrary, most of those gathered agree with Wolfe, and many of them are painters, poets, and composers who have been working for years with much the same overthrow in mind. So did it happen? Is Picasso's fate really on the way to becoming that of Bouguereau? Is the art regime actually shifting? "I can sense it here," Wolfe says. "This very festival is a sign of it."

"This very festival" was staged by the Derriere Guard, a loosely organized group of painters, poets, and composers, founded last year, who celebrate technique as artistically liberating, and beauty as a universal value. For four days, from March 20-23, they exhibited paintings and architectural drawings, read poetry, performed concerts, held symposia, and questioned the assumptions underlying the arts of the 20th century. Their activities were a study in cultural dynamism, a picture of the art world in flux. Tom Wolfe was not originally part of the program, but was sufficiently intrigued, when he heard about it, to offer to speak. Indeed, although the celebrated essayist, inventor of journalisms, and best-selling novelist commands speaking fees in the tens of thousands of dollars, he volunteered to address the Derriere Guard's audience for free.

This only added to the event's air of cultural warfare. For one thing, the Derriere Guard's founder, Stefania de Ken-essey--a classical composer who teaches at the New School for Social Research --staged the show at a historical mecca of the left-ist avant-garde scene, The Kitchen on West 19th Street. (The Village Voice describes The Kitchen as being "for 25 years a living synonym for avant-garde.") The 270-seat space earned its bad-boy image when it became home to the spoken-word and performance-art pieces that dominated the downtown scene in the 1980s and early 1990s. Among these were the performances of Karen Finley, which enraged Republicans and helped lead to cuts in federal arts funding. The Kitchen's lobby even features a Finley monologue on a pair of large bronze plaques.

"I was surprised I wasn't laughed or condescended-to out of the room," says de Kenessey of the moment two years ago when she presented her idea to The Kitchen.

De Kenessey's proposal for the festival explained that, "What was once revolutionary is now the ruling orthodoxy...the avant-garde has become the status quo. A new generation of artists are actively re-engaging history...they neither regress to the distant past nor yearn for a now vanished world; instead, they strike out in an altogether different direction. By fusing tradition with innovation, the Western with the Eastern, they offer a radically new alternative for the art of the new millennium." She presented the proposal on stationery that had a logo of a hand shielding a pair of buttocks. The Kitchen agreed immediately.

New York artists who participated in the Derriere Guard Festival included the Absolute Ensemble, a group of young classically trained musicians who play everything from Mozart to Frank Zappa to Black Sabbath on classical instruments, and incorporate visual art, film, and performance elements into their presentations; 25 Realist painters who share a commitment to representational work, including Steven Assael, Martha Mayer Earlebacher, Vincent Desiderio, and Wade Schuman; several sculptors; the internationally acclaimed Ahn Trio, three young South Korean sisters trained at Juilliard; verse poets such as Dana Gioia, Tom Disch (perhaps better known as a science fiction writer), R.S. Gwynne, Charles Martin, and Molly Peacock; and New York architects Richard Franklin Sammons, Anne Fairfax, and David Mayernick.

In another symbolic challenge, de Kenessey intentionally scheduled the Derriere Guard Festival to open on the same day the Whitney Museum of American Art was opening its 1997 Biennial. This was not an opening volley in the cultural war; Realist painters, including a number of those exhibiting at The Kitchen, have been in open conflict with the Whitney for some time. Their continuing argument about art is one front in what is turning into a much broader engagement.

On September 29, 1995, painter Steven Assael stood on the steps of the Whitney before more than 200 protesters. For them, the Whitney was a Xanadu of pierced bodies, vomit displays, and other forms of avant-garde art; a symbol of what had become--in a supreme irony--Establishment cultural orthodoxy. He and his fellow painters in the Realist movement, though hardly speaking with one voice on all aesthetic matters, had put aside their differences to protest the Whitney's prejudice against their style of art, much of which makes use of classical techniques.

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