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.

One of the country's most powerful arts institutions, the Whitney's notoriety stems from its infamous 1993 Biennial exhibition, which, as usual, professed to survey the American art scene. The 1993 Biennial sought to right such socio-aesthetic wrongs as, for example, Jewish homosexual artists having to submerge the iconography of their religious heritage–or hide their sexual preferences–to get into prestigious galleries. Other works in the 1993 show drew attention to the ills of colonialism or sexism. Huge blocks of chocolate pointed to the horrors of anorexia and bulimia in a society based on "white-male hierarchy." In 1995, the Biennial again focused on shock-value avant-gardism that some audiences found more obscure and unintelligible than shocking.

But at the Realist protest, painters took the microphone to describe their alienation from what remained of 20th-century modernism. "There is a renewed interest in a realism that blends the tradition of the past with our pure contemporary content," Assael said that day.

Assael and his fellow painters, like the poets, architects, and composers they joined in March at The Kitchen, are harbingers of a new cultural development: They represent the emergence of a third front in the nation's long-waged culture wars–one that its adherents hope will render the rigidly polarized debate between right-wing conservatives and left-wing avant-gardists defunct.

That cultural battle has been raging in universities over the literary canon, as Shakespeareans have fought multiculturalists. In 1995, the battle broke out at Lincoln Center over the jazz canon, with blues-and-swing purists like Albert Murray and Wynton Marsalis fighting avant-garde musicians like Cecil Taylor. This past February, a skirmish over race, representation, and cultural power in the theater occurred at New York's Town Hall between playwright August Wilson and Robert Brustein, critic and director of the American Repertory Theater.

In virtually all the manifestations of the culture wars, the right has favored tradition over evolution, and Western culture over multiculturalism. The left has usually favored gender-, class-, and race-based analyses, and excoriated the West for colonialism and bigotry. For both sides the stakes have been high: The winners hope to write the history of the arts in America, and control the nation's cultural future.

Enter, now, a group of artists and scholars who reject the ethnocentrism of the right, the demonization of the West and identity politics of the left, and the dogmatism of both. For them, great art can include–but ultimately transcends–political goals. They include Christians and atheists; WASPs and recent immigrants; blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians; straights and gays. The cultural battle lines are being redrawn.

A week after 1995's Realist protest, Assael faced Whitney director David Ross in a radio debate. "Sometimes the present created the future by breaking the shackles of the past," he said. "But sometimes the past created the future by breaking the shackles of the present." Assael was borrowing the words of University of Texas at Dallas Professor Frederick Turner, words describing the apparently cyclical nature of cultural movements. Like Turner, Assael hopes that a decaying modernism will lead to an aesthetic rebirth.

Turner, in fact, was a key guest at the Derriere Guard Festival. Dubbed by Kirkus Reviews as "Apollo to Camille Paglia's Dionysus," Turner is, like Paglia, an intellectual maverick, but lacks her sensationalistic strategies crafted to garner media attention. Like Wolfe, Turner has also prophesied a cultural shift. In his 1995 book, The Culture of Hope, he wrote that "a growing number of artists in various fields" have rejected modernist orthodoxy and, like the World War I-era artists who broke with their aesthetic establishments, "are preparing their Armory Show." Turner's phrase for those artists who are attempting to shift the cultural regime is the "radical center."

Apart from having published five books of poetry–including two book-length epic poems–and a novel, Turner served as editor of The Kenyon Review, one of the most influential literary magazines in America, in the early 1980s. (He is also a contributing editor to REASON.) The Culture of Hope serves as an artistic manifesto (some attendees at the Derriere Guard Festival had the book under their arms). In that book, Turner calls on the artists of today to bridge the gap between the elitist avant-garde world and the general public, and celebrates the conflation of high and low culture which is now occurring.

According to Turner, artists who fall under the "radical center's" umbrella because they exploit world classical traditions include Frederick Hart, sculptor of Three Soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Ex Nihilo at the Washington Cathedral; earthworks sculptor James Turrell; Tom Wolfe, who has criticized the self-absorption of modern fiction and called for realistic storytelling; composer Philip Glass; "world music" practitioners; Peter Brook and his "ethnodrama," which makes use of Kathakali, Japanese Noh Theater, and ballet; dance troupes such as Sankai Juku, Momix, and Mark Morris; and pop artists such as Laurie Anderson and David Byrne.

Some of these artists, such as Frederick Hart and Tom Wolfe, are aware of the cultural trends they embody, and consciously support a specific cultural movement. Others may not be aware of the larger trend. Some, like Laurie Anderson or Philip Glass, have long been classified as "avant-garde" due to their experimentalism, yet they also use classical traditions.

Turner describes the "death of the avant-garde"–a trendy topic among many academics in the disciplines of English and cultural studies, most of whom agree that the avant-garde has died. But he also deals with the question, "What's next?" And he suggests answers for the questions that preoccupy artists: Why create art? For whom? What kind? In response, he has developed a philosophy of the arts based on what he calls "natural classicism." Based on recent advances in neuroscience and Turner's own collaborative research with neuropsychologist Ernst Poppel, it suggests that human beings are biologically hard-wired to appreciate the classical genres of art–visual representation, narrative, melody in music, verse in poetry, and dramatic mimesis.

It is no coincidence, Turner argues, that these genres manifest themselves in the arts of all world traditions. Artists of the future, he predicts, will eschew the cynical and desperate mannerisms of postmodernism, and exploit these multiple classical vocabularies to make art of lasting value. These artists will tap into the fundamental artistic principles that are recognizable across cultural barriers. During the 20th century the artist was commonly perceived as a denunciatory prophet, whose main goal was to expose the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie–a notion that still dominates the avant-garde art world. Turner's "radical center" envisions artists as pan-cultural shamans whose purpose is to dramatize the multiple voices in a culture, bourgeois or otherwise.

Turner's been in the cultural trenches for decades. In 1981, he met with two other poets, Dick Allen and Fred Feirstein, at a corner table at the Minetta Lane Tavern in Greenwich Village. All were disturbed by the political dogmatism that they believed was stifling the poetry world. At that moment, as they saw it, confessional poetry was in; meter, rhyme, and formal verse were out. Poetry about the poets was in; poetry in which poets stepped outside themselves to cast light on the lives of others was out. Anne Sexton was in; Shakespeare was out, and if you didn't agree, you were branded an anti-feminist.

So the poets, two of whom had teaching appointments at universities, drew up a manifesto for a movement they called "Expansive Poetry," to break down these restrictive political barriers. From its roots rose today's New Formalists, poets who believe, as did the Expansive Poets, that adhering to forms can liberate artists, rather than restrict them. In this sense, the poetry movement coincidentally runs parallel to the Realist movement among painters. New Formalism has gained much more institutional acceptance since its first stirrings in the early 1980s, and is now accepted in the academic world as a legitimate movement.

One day in 1994, after a lecture at The Art Students' League in New York, several Realist artists held a meeting to discuss the possibility of staging a protest outside the Whitney. There, poet Feirstein met Realist painter Steven Assael. After listening to the proceedings, Feirstein told Assael that they shared some key beliefs, especially the value of technique and the belief that subject matter should transcend the artist. That meeting began what has become a continuing association between the poets and the painters.

Feirstein knew something about demonstrating, and he and his wife helped Assael organize the Whitney protest. About 40 Realist artists have begun meeting each weekend in Hoboken, New Jersey, to hammer out group goals.

The poets too have been public in their assault on orthodoxy. Last December, for example, Bruce Bawer, a poet and essayist known for his advocacy of family-values gay domesticity, and a leader in the gay-moderate movement, stood before some 40 New York literati, college students, and passers-by in the Chelsea branch of Barnes & Noble. They'd gathered for a reading to celebrate the publication of Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism. Fifty copies of the scarlet book punctuated the shelf behind Bawer, like pop icons in a Warhol painting. Standing at the podium, Bawer said, "When I was in grad school in the early '80s, formal verse wasn't allowed, wasn't done. I kept writing them privately and stashing them away somewhere." His smile betrayed a guilty glee.

In the back of the crowd sat young political analyst and novelist Michael Lind. Late of The New Yorker, Lind personifies why the old distinction between left-wing avant-gardists and right-wing classicists is becoming useless. In his recent book, Up From Conservatism, he describes his political disillusionment with the right and his migration toward the left. But Lind is also a closet narrative poet–Houghton Mifflin published his first epic poem, The Alamo, in March. By writing an epic, Lind challenges the assumption that classicism is a right-wing phenomenon.

In the afterword to The Alamo, Lind writes, "formerly insurgent Modernism had become the intolerant establishment, and a prejudice against not only epic, but any kind of coherent narrative verse, was the orthodoxy in the academy, publishing, and the prestige press." He points out that in recent years, poets like Vikram Seth (whose book-length poem The Golden Gate was a bestseller in England), Frederick Turner, Dana Gioia, Mark Jarman, David Mason, Robert McDowell, and others who form the New Narrative movement, have broken through the publishing barrier.

Lind says that he, like others, mourns what he sees as the contrast between the robustness of American vernacular culture and the preciosity of Atlantic seaboard literati and academics. He considers writing an epic in colloquial language as an attempt to bridge the gap between the intelligentsia and the larger public–in this sense, it is a response to Turner's call-to-arms for the artists of the future.

As a proponent of "national liberalism," Lind is one more example of the movement's political heterogeneity. When pressed about their political views, most of the artists resist affiliating themselves with any group. Lind admires Truman and Johnson; poet Sydney Lea says he is a Southern Democrat, or a conservative uncomfortable with some conservative views. Fred Feirstein bemoans the loss of idealism and optimism of the Kennedy era. Tom Disch was for years a contributor to the left-wing opinion magazine, The Nation. Tom Wolfe has been known to attend neo-conservative fundraisers, but satirizes both North Carolina gay-bashers and news media liberals in his latest novella, Ambush at Fort Bragg. De Kenessey, poet Dana Gioia, and Turner say they see no heroes on the left or the right.

"The right's loony to try and make cultural values policy, but I don't trust the government as much as Mike Lind," says Gioia. He continues, "Politics has become a dreary swamp. The right and left are no longer useful concepts."

De Kenessey says, "Most people in this movement are on some level outside the current mainstream. That's what we have in common politically."

Indeed, these artists' unwillingness to align themselves politically with either the left or the right has left them vulnerable to having both politics and motives imputed to them by those who dismiss their work.

"What movement?!" demands David Ross, director of the Whitney, when asked about the Realists in a telephone interview. "There's no such thing!" When reminded that at least 200 Realist artists demonstrated outside the Whitney less than 18 months earlier, he backtracks. "I've always had respect for the artist's plight," he says of the protest. "We even gave them an electric outlet for their equipment."

Ross expresses great skepticism of the contemporary Realists. "That sort of hackneyed academic painting takes an enormous amount of talent and work," he says. "But to go back to copying Leonardo is not art."

He continues: "I admire them just like I admire people that can sing beautifully. It's a real gift. But that alone doesn't make you a great artist." His voice rises, sounding increasingly agitated. "They're old-fashioned, totally out of touch with the issues of the day. I'm interested in art that's wrestling with the history of ideas, and they fail to deal with it! We've had two major world wars, the worst genocides in world history, and many other events that they ignore."

Ross says he has not seen any of Steven Assael's work, but he tells a reporter in her early 20s, "I used to be just like you when I was your age. I had the same questions about art that you do. Listen, you shouldn't be interested in these people. They're just a bunch of crypto-Nazi conservative bullshitters. They're feeding you a line of bullshit! We just had a great conference with Asian-American artists who were concerned with issues of representation at the Whitney. Do a story on that."

When asked to respond to the contention of many contemporary Realists that the Whitney's brand of avant-garde art lacks spirituality, Ross becomes enraged. "I'm sick of hearing these Realists say their work is `affirming'! It's not affirming, it's sappy! Art isn't about making pretty pictures to put in people's homes," he says. "They're rebelling against the age of cynicism? Well, it's not cynicism! It's smartness! It's lack of naivete!" By this point, Ross's voice is shaking with anger. "They think they're special? Well, they are special. If they get a show of their own, great. I'm eager to see what it is, and then we can have a real dialogue," Ross says. "Let them put on their own show. Then I'll accept that there's a movement."

Over on the aesthetic right, Hilton Kramer, art critic for the New York Observer and editor of The New Criterion, a conservative arts quarterly, is equally skeptical, despite the fact that he too abhors postmodernism. "I have no interest in that group," he says of the disgruntled Realist painters. "They have no solid aesthetic foundation. The Whitney exhibits plenty of representational work. These people are just small potatoes staging publicity stunts."

No solid aesthetic foundation? In 1974, a group of Realist painters staged an exhibition at Yale. What the critic-in-chief of The New York Times wrote of their exhibit was that realism lacks "a persuasive theory," and that to lack that "is to lack something crucial–the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify." The critic was the same Hilton Kramer, who has again cited essentially the same theoretical objections to the art of the Realists that demonstrated outside the Whitney, some of whom were part of the Derriere Guard Festival.

"Aha!" wrote a journalist after he'd stumbled across Kramer's phrase in 1974. To the journalist it was a moment of cultural epiphany. He wrote of the phrase, "the seemingly innocuous obiter dicta, the words in passing, that give the game away." He translated them this way: "In short, frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can't see a painting."

That journalist was Tom Wolfe, who upon reading Kramer's view wrote The Painted Word (1975), Wolfe's famous account of the New York avant-garde, from cubism to abstract expressionism to pop art and beyond, and how it became an establishment in the first place–the very establishment, in fact, that the artists gathered for the Derriere Guard Festival are seeking to challenge.

Twenty years later, Wolfe and Kramer meet again, more or less, on the same turf. This time, however, there is evidence that their old argument about art–what it is and how to see it–is approaching resolution. "Things don't have to happen at the end of centuries," as Wolfe tells his Kitchen audience. "But somehow they do."

"So I made this great prediction," Wolfe is saying, "`Picasso: The Bouguereau of the year 2020.'" But he admits to his audience, a mixed crowd of stylishly dressed uptowners, baseball-capped high schoolers, and women in black leather downtown chic, that "my prediction began to look very bad." Picassos brought fabulous prices at Sotheby's; the "art birds" began showing up at the auctions, "lissome young women with these glossy shanks which they keep crossing and uncrossing."

And then the Picasso books started coming out. "All of them had the same premise," he says: "Here's the greatest artist of the 20th century. The only question is, was he a good man or a bad man? And Arianna Huffington in her book said he was a very bad man. Look at the way he treated women! But even she said: Well, he was the greatest artist of the 20th century. And then there was John Richardson's book…in which he says, Well, you know, for the greatest artist of the 20th century he wasn't such a bad man…."

Then, Wolfe says, he picked up the December 16 issue of The New Yorker and saw "an absolutely fascinating review" by Adam Gopnik of Richardson's second volume about Picasso's life, "in which Gopnik says, Who cares whether he's a good man or a bad man? He's such a bad artist! Look at these images he's famous for: These harlequins. These saltimbanques. These minotaurs. These fat nudes. Bullfighters." Wolfe grins as he continues describing the Gopnik piece: "Gopnik says all these images were stale when he used them, when he started picking them up. And he says: Look at this Blue Period. Why are all these people blue? Because they're sad. He said, boy, talk about originality."

"Anybody can write whatever they want," Wolfe admits, but the point is that Gopnik's very beat is "what the word is in Paris. And the word in Paris right now–and this is what interested me so much about it–is that Picasso is a fraud. That Picasso is as confining as these academic artists–Bouguereau, Meissonier, Gérôme–any of them could ever possibly have been with their emphasis upon technique."

The prices for Picassos haven't dropped yet, but Wolfe allows himself his vision of art's future anyway. "We can expect–those of us who are around to take art history courses in the year 2020–to see the glee with which the professors [present] the Demoiselles d'Avignon." Imagine the reactions, Wolfe tells the audience. "They took it seriously! Look at those women with no hair! Look at those hands that look like duck beaks! Look at those faces with two eyes on the same side of the nose!

"And the classes will snicker, and professors will have the time of their lives."

Kanchan Limaye (krl8@columbia.edu) is a New York writer.