The Academy and the Avant-Garde:
A Relationship of Dependence and Resistance
This essay examines what was called the academization of the North American avant-garde in the 1970s and 1980s, arguing for a material historical understanding of the role that academic institutions played in sustaining avant-garde distribution co-ops, regionalizing exhibition, publishing criticism, providing employment, and developing future generations of artists, critics, and audiences.
This essay argues that the study of film at colleges and universities has been central to the post-1960s North American avant-garde film world.1 Compared to narrative, documentary, or animation, avant-garde film depends on the academy. Since the exponential rise of film studies as a discipline in the mid-1960s, universities have supported avant-garde film production, sustained its distribution co-ops, and served as its primary site of exhibition in North America. Furthermore, because sales and rentals to universities are the primary market for avant-garde film, scholarly criticism—serving a de facto publicity function—has had a decisive impact on the avant-garde film world in a way that is unthinkable for narrative feature-length filmmaking. Yet the avant-garde film world has largely ignored the university's function as its material base, perceiving universities at best with ambivalence and at worst with hostility. This was true especially during the 1970s and 1980s, when there was an outcry against the academization and institutionalization of the avant-garde.
The reticence of avant-garde filmmakers, critics, and supporters, including academics, to address the centrality of the academy in the avant-garde film world2 reflects a larger disavowal of the institutional and economic matrixes that undergird, however meagerly, this marginal sphere of cultural activity. This disregard testifies further to the existence, especially in the 1980s, of a romanticized notion of the avant-garde as an anti-institutional, revolutionary political praxis that constructs the academy as an organ of simple ideological co-optation. A more material—and modest—understanding of avant-garde cinema as a tradition of heterogeneous independent artisanal filmmaking,3 disseminated through university and art school education, might better recognize the salutary and indeed disproportionate impact that avant-garde film has had in expanding film aesthetics, broadening patterns of film spectatorship and reception, and integrating high art and popular culture.4 In light of the present, extraordinarily healthy moment of avant-garde film practice, the [End Page 17] myth of the academy as an innately repressive institution needs to be disentangled from the material reality of the long-term relationship between the university and avant-garde film production, distribution, exhibition, and critical discourses.5
The Critique of Academization and Institutionalization.
The standard narrative for the post–World War II American avant-garde runs something like this. After many years of spirited activism and exhibition by figures like Maya Deren, Frank Stauffacher, and Amos Vogel through the 1950s and early 1960s, the avant-garde reaches its apogee of visibility and vigor as a cultural scene in the mid- to late-1960s, primarily around the activities of Jonas Mekas in New York.6 Mekas organizes packed screenings at the Film-Makers' Cinematheque, inspiring other underground film programming; the Film-Makers' Cooperative (FMC), established in 1962, distributes films to numerous film societies, exhibitors, individuals, and universities and inspires the creation of other co-ops, including Canyon Cinema Cooperative (CCC) and the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC); underground film receives mainstream press in publications such as Popular Photography (1965), Newsweek (1967), and the New York Times (1967). (Pull My Daisy is even satirized in Mad magazine in 1963.) Several books on the avant-garde are published—notably by trade publishers—while Mekas's Film Culture and his "Movie Journal" column (1959–71) in the Village Voice provide weekly publicity.7 The avant-garde, like other late-1960s forms of countercultural expression and social protest, understands itself to be a vibrant alternative cinema, in sharp contrast both to mainstream America and a decaying Hollywood studio system.
With the establishment of Anthology Film Archives in 1970 and the ascendance of "structural film," so named in P. Adams Sitney's influential 1969 Film Culture essay, the narrative of the avant-garde takes a sharp turn from one of exuberant anarchy to institutionalized legitimacy.8 J. Hoberman, writing in 1984, provides a typical description of "the once unruly underground's" submission to "the formalist concerns of the art world . . . within the institutional web of administered culture":
As the chaotic underground was superceded by the "cinema of structure"—a confusing term that forecast the theorizing that would soon dominate avant-garde thinking—few recognized the key structural event of the early 1970s, namely the institutionalization of the avant-garde. Even as an entire issue of Artforum  was devoted to the accomplishments of the New American Cinema, the underground surrendered its popular base to the new phenomenon of midnight movies. Meanwhile, the free-wheeling programming policies of the Film-Makers' Cinematheque were succeeded by the restrictive selections of the Anthology Film Archives. Opening in December 1970, the Anthology reified the avant-garde tradition, creating a fixed pantheon of filmmakers and certified canon of masterpieces, drawing heavily upon the late efflorescence of structural film. Avant-garde cinema left the theaters and entered the classrooms. By the early 1970s, almost all the major filmmakers (and a host of new ones) had come in from the cold—a protected species, like academic poets—to spawn a new generation of university-trained, tenure-seeking filmmakers, film theorists, and film critics.9
This account, echoing numerous others, is marked by some key features on which I will elaborate in this essay.10 The first concerns who owns the style of the avant-garde. [End Page 18] The shift out of 1960s counterculture into the academy foregrounds conflicts over film-world values, dramatized as a conflict between populist, plain-speaking, expressive artists and elitist, professional intellectuals ensconced in institutions.11 The artists' authenticity clashes with the pretentiousness of critics and academics. In this respect, the complaint against academization is directed less against the fact that avant-garde films are taught in universities than at the language of that instruction, especially the rise of "theory" and its specialized terminology in the 1970s and 1980s, which many artists saw as an intimidating barrier to institutional recognition. A contradiction surfaces here in that complaints about being excluded from institutions went hand in hand with condemnations of filmmakers who were embraced by institutions, what filmmaker Bill Brand called the "demoralizing . . . paradox of success as proof of failure."12
My point is not to deny the vigor of the underground or its achievements; nor do I deny the potential for pretension among academics and critics. Rather, my concern is that the oversimplified vilification of the academy and institutions distorts the rich and productive history of academic and institutional affiliations while creating a nostalgic (and inaccurate) horizon of expectation for the avant-garde film world.
The second key feature of Hoberman's account is its focus on canon-formation, which was seen as a force anointing old-guard establishment filmmakers and/or those favored by academic fashion at the expense of young, developing artists (many, ironically, emerging from art schools).13 This conflict was a result of a scarcity of resources in the 1980s—a difficult period for the North American avant-garde—as cutbacks in arts and education led to fewer exhibition sites and little mainstream or academic attention. Notably, the institutionalization and academization of the avant-garde said to occur in the 1970s was not named or critiqued until the mid-1980s, when scarcity of resources exacerbated tension in the avant-garde film world.
The third feature of Hoberman's narrative is that he laments the move from the theater to the classroom. While he is correct in stating that the dominant percentage of rentals switched from nonacademic to academic sites, my own research into FMC records (and published evidence from other co-ops) indicates that academic rentals were a key component of avant-garde exhibition even during the heyday of the 1960s underground.14 While there was certainly a rapid increase in the ratio of academic to nonacademic rentals, the shift in dominant exhibition space was gradual, and not due solely or even primarily to Essential Cinema or the rise of structural film. By 1967, the year that Michael Snow's Wavelength is said to have launched the "cinema of structure," academic rentals already accounted for the majority of FMC rentals (60 percent), reflecting the explosive growth of film studies as a whole. Whether this shift is fairly described as a retreat from the dynamism of the heroic 1960s requires much more historical contextualizing, as well as a sense of the long-term impact of teaching avant-garde film in the university.
In Hoberman's account above, avant-garde film exhibition switches from theaters to classrooms, and filmmakers slink into universities, betraying the revolutionary energies of the 1960s; indeed, like ideology itself, they are said to encourage their own capitulation by spawning the next generation of students. That theaters are presumed to be superior to classrooms as exhibition spaces reflects a nostalgia for [End Page 19] the underground and its moment of fame, sustaining a myth that the avant-garde film community seeks to broaden its impact in popular rather than academic spaces.
It is illuminating that economic and other material historical forces are all but omitted from Hoberman's account, which is couched largely in the passive voice. It is unclear who is submitting to the institutional web, and why. Did avant-garde films "leave the theaters" voluntarily? Or were they pushed out by cultural and economic conditions?
A number of factors need to be considered in relation to the falling popularity of underground film. First, the public profile that avant-garde film enjoyed in the late 1960s was, as one Canyon Cinema worker called it, an "underground fad" that faded when the movement lost the attention of the popular press.15 Second, Hollywood's shift in 1968 from following the Production Code to adhering to the film ratings system relaxed the censorship regulations that applied to feature films, depriving the underground of one of its selling points. Third, the recession of the early 1970s created budgetary restrictions on film societies and alternative exhibitors, and more generally chilled mainstream interest in cultural experimentation. Fourth, and finally, like other forms of 1960s counterculture, underground film declined in visibility in the 1970s.
Most accounts of the shift in the style of the avant-garde film world note that from the 1960s to the 1970s the unruly and chaotic, free and rebellious underground cinema—standing in for the counterculture idealism of the 1960s—was tamed by a formalist, theory-driven, institutional art world and university culture. Implicit here is a vision of a self-generating, organic, and autonomous community composed of free-thinking individuals distinct from an "establishment" high art and intellectual society composed of critics and academics with predetermined, inauthentic values. Rebel artists are supplanted by gray-suited establishment men camouflaged as black-clad SoHo art types and tweed-clad profs. As Patricia Mellencamp asserts, "In its Eighties ensconcement in academia and the art scene, avant-garde is legal tender, taught rather than fought": the militancy of the avant-garde seems lost.16 The underground's critique of bourgeois elitism seems betrayed by the intellectual elitism of the academy and art world. Institutionalization, according to this characterization, is ultimately, as Paul Arthur suggests, a populist reaction against art and university elites.17
The ambivalence of the avant-garde toward the academy's economic sustenance—however marginal and inadequate it is—reflects a larger struggle over the ownership and definition of what constitutes the aspirations, practice, and potential of avant-garde artistic practice in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. Fred Camper's influential 1986 essay, "The End of Avant-Garde Film," portrays the academy as a mainstream institution at odds with the spirit of the 1960s, for which he evinces nostalgia:
The academization and institutionalization of American avant-garde film is an extraordinarily ironic phenomenon. A movement that took a strongly adversarial position toward mainstream America has been, to use a '60s word that has long gone out of fashion, "co-opted" by the culture as a whole, and especially by its dollars.18 [End Page 20]
Camper's complaint is symptomatic of the historically anti-institutional impulses of most avant-garde filmmakers. Whether drawing from theories of the nineteenth-century political avant-garde or the twentieth-century artistic avant-garde, the animating energy of any avant-garde—and the source of its appeal—is its desire to resist mainstream or establishment structures, institutions, and values.19 The key debates in avant-garde theory arise over strategies of resistance, usually voiced as a choice between autonomy from or engagement with established social and artistic institutions. On the one hand, if the films are autonomous forms of individual artistic expression, their "authenticity" and "personal urgency" (in Camper's terms) may be compromised by an academic establishment. The avant-garde's revolutionary energies, embodied in its antibourgeois and/or anti-Hollywood stance, would further be compromised by affiliation with any institutional social apparatuses. On the other hand, as Peter Bürger's theory of the avant-garde suggests, this desire for purity and autonomy might more accurately be seen as a feature of modernism, which needs to be distinguished from an activist political avant-garde's engagement with society, which attempts to break down distinctions between art and life.20
Post–World War II American avant-garde film practice, in its extraordinary heterogeneity and richness, has embraced both autonomy and engagement, but its attachment to the imperative of resistance is clearest in its failure at commodification. This cinema was not embraced by the art market, and no North American avant-garde filmmaker has made a living solely on the basis of film sales and rentals. The view of avant-garde film as both art and commodity sees the avant-garde, on one hand, as idealistically critiquing bourgeois capitalism while seeking to remain separate and autonomous from it, and, on the other hand, as disavowing—or sabotaging—its status as commodity, an exchangeable object or experience imbricated within capitalism. Any success in the mainstream, whether measured in sales or publicity, therefore creates suspicion and the damning charge of selling out.
Writing in 1984, the cultural historian David Ehrenstein made precisely this charge when he compared the academy to a factory run by corporate America:
[Structural] films are grist for the academic and institutional mills that have come to be considered the proper province of all that is best in avant-garde and independent work today. There are papers to be written about them, courses to be taught, lectures to be given. Once a film's importance in that sphere is firmly established, there are museums and university film libraries that may wish to purchase prints. Overseeing the entire process are such commercial concerns as the Chase Manhattan Bank, the Exxon Corporation, Consolidated Edison, the Minolta Corporation, Agfa-Gavaert, et al., all too eager to benefit from the tax advantages and advertising goodwill contributions to this non-profit network provide. . . . It would not be inappropriate to take note of the pimps of Academe, laboring tirelessly at the behest of the maison close of culture.21
For Ehrenstein, any taint of corporate influence (however imaginary) corrupts the avant-garde and leads to a closed culture; although hyperbolic, his statement captures the polemical edge of the wider critique of institutionalization. What is at stake here is the principle of democratic openness established in the 1960s underground: anyone can make an avant-garde film, distribute it through a nondiscriminatory co-op, and show it at an open screening for free. The academy, [End Page 21] because of its entrance requirements for students and hiring protocols for faculty, is by definition a "maison close."
The utopian force of the avant-garde film world was based on the assumption, as film critic Amy Taubin puts it, that "anyone could, and it was thought everyone should, become a filmmaker. Every consumer a producer."22 The nostalgia for the 1960s, when the avant-garde seemed both to incarnate an authentic autonomous sphere and to have a public presence, cannot be underestimated.
The persistence of the avant-garde's antagonism to institutional forces has led to an idealistic but often undermining disavowal of its inevitable institutional intersections and locations. That university classrooms should be the primary economic engine for avant-garde film points to how far removed this sphere of film practice is from the economy of the art market, its plausible home. Unlike certain forms of video art, which, despite sharing the potentially infinite reproducibility of film, retained protocols of scarcity and collectability, North American avant-garde film adopted the economic model of theatrical cinema; that is, distributors rent film prints to exhibitors for public or educational screenings. Even when film prints are sold to individuals or institutions, what is sold is the right to a performance—the right to project the print for an audience—not an object. With some exceptions—usually film installations—few avant-garde filmmakers sell their works as limited editions.23
The Aesthetic Critique of Academic Art.
The academy has existed for the avant-garde in two senses: first, as an imaginary—"Academy"—a term of derision connoting both formulaic and vitiating academicism and co-optation by an "Ideological State Apparatus" (to use Louis Althusser's popular term at play in this period) and, second, as a material reality, an institutional base that hires filmmakers as faculty, screens films for students, and sustains avant-garde history and criticism.
While Camper's critique of academization momentarily raises questions of ideological cooptation, his is an aesthetic critique in which academic avant-garde film (almost an oxymoron) would be akin to academic painting or music. Here, academicism refers to work that is conventional or formulaic, an offense to the avant-garde's commitment to innovation. Camper's essay attacks such academicism for compromising the 1960s avant-garde's particular values of authenticity and personal urgency. "One quality of academic art is that it avoids reflecting the complexities, the contradictions, the violent impulses of a life lived with passion, in favor of the airless repetition of the techniques of part art."24 Camper objects to what he sees as a divorce of technique and subject matter, and the dilution of innovation and artistic energy.
Another critique of academicism derives from its contemporary colloquial derogatory meaning, "of theoretical interest only, with no practical application."25 This resonates with the antitheory stance that many avant-garde critics have articulated against the academy and the perennial desire of the avant-garde to merge art and life, wherein the "impractical" sphere of the academic is seen as distinct from direct, lived aesthetic experience. Here the charge is not just against aesthetic vitiation but also political irrelevance.
Film critic Peter Lehman notes that even academics create a binary between the academic and the political, citing a theorist who "glorifies the political importance [End Page 22] of his work which presumably is not merely academic."26 In this case, the real-world impact demanded by the avant-garde prevails; the avant-garde must act as a direct and practical political tool. This imperative informs the ambivalence maintained by almost all academic commentators on the academization of avant-garde film. To be "academic" is an insult even for academics.
A second major objection to the institutionalizing force of academization is canon-formation, understood to be aligned with exclusionary practices inimical to the style of the 1960s. Hoberman and others identify Anthology Film Archives' Essential Cinema as the foundational canonical list, although Visionary Film (1974) by P. Adams Sitney (an Essential Cinema jury member) is another common target.27 A major, and salutary, critique of the Essential Cinema canon emerged among feminist critics, who noted both the all-male composition of the selection committee and the extremely low percentage of women filmmakers it selected for inclusion (6 percent of the filmmakers were women, and only 4 percent of the films were made by women).28
The question of which films to include in a canon—and the necessarily dynamic and contingent nature of that process of aesthetic differentiation—needs to be separated from the question of a canon's more general institutional utility. As I shall discuss below, evidence suggests that, however problematic an avant-garde canon might be at any particular time, it can also serve an important function in influencing the composition of teaching texts and syllabi.
On average, 75 percent of avant-garde film co-op rentals are to universities. What is curious is that individual filmmakers, distribution co-ops, and other avant-garde institutions have not made a more concerted effort to put pressure on academics to screen more, or different, avant-garde films. Instead, with the exception of the mid-1980s texts cited in this essay, universities are remarkable for their absence from avant-garde film discourse. For example, the 1976 special edition of Film Culture: Guide to Independent Film and Video, which comprehensively maps almost all the major institutions related to avant-garde film and video art, does not include universities in its section on exhibition. Similarly, a survey of FMC newsletters published during its financial crisis between 1988 and 1990 reveals no mention of appealing to universities. Rather, the FMC initiated fund-raising to help exhibit films in museums, even though that market has rarely comprised more than 25 percent of the FMC's rentals since the 1960s. What is astonishing is that most of the members of the board of directors of the FMC during the late 1980s were filmmakers who taught at universities; the mission to popularize the avant-garde consistently ignores one of its greatest resources.
In the few cases in which complaints about the university film canon are voiced, the underlying complaint is with the lack of exhibition spaces. Mike Hoolboom, who worked as the experimental film officer for the CFMDC in the 1980s, summarized that decade's doldrums, noting that lack of "exhibition venues and theatrical screenings remain large problems—avant-garde work is most often shown in classroom settings—where the same small group of works by the same filmmakers (the canon) is shown over and over."29 [End Page 23]
For most filmmakers, the problem with the canon is that it does not allow enough work by new filmmakers to be screened. This is perhaps an underlying complaint about academization: since the classroom is the major site of exhibition, there are a restricted number of screening slots, limited budgets, and defined curriculums. The lack of theaters and festivals becomes another major problem for new artists: theaters and festivals are the only venues over which the filmmaker feels a sense of agency and ownership.30
A major critique of canonization articulated on behalf of excluded filmmakers was staged in 1985 in Spiral, a small-press journal, edited by Terry Cannon in Los Angeles. In the "Point of View" section, readers were invited to respond to the following:
STATEMENT: A significant number of prominent institutions which exhibit avant-garde film, and publications which review avant-garde film, have elevated certain films and filmmakers to the exclusion of a great majority of filmmakers. . . .
- Is the anointing of certain films and filmmakers over others inevitable when the exhibition of film art becomes institutionalized?
- Is there a lack of understanding and appreciation (i.e., the prevalence of a very narrow elitist attitude) of filmic viewpoints which are not derived from formal academic training?
- How accessible are these institutions and publications, which are largely controlled by well-educated whites, to the needs and representation of minority filmmakers?
- Why do certain institutions (the Museum of Modern Art in New York being the most prominent) steadfastly refuse to seriously exhibit the work of Super-8 filmmakers?
- How can curators and programmers at these institutions, and editors of publications, be made accountable?31
While the objections to the lack of minority and Super-8 filmmakers are quite pointed, the worries that "academic training" and institutionalization are narrowing the field of filmmakers who are "elevated" and "anointed" reflect familiar concerns with betraying the ethos of openness and emotional authenticity inherited from the 1960s. Tellingly, while curators, programmers, and editors of publications are to "be made accountable," university instructors and librarians are not mentioned. Attacks on the academy have tended to be ideological rather than strategic, rarely attempting to intervene in the programming of films in the classroom.
One explanation for why the classroom is not seen as a legitimate venue for screening avant-garde film may be the specific conditions of programming, screening, and spectatorship. Kathryn Ramey's recent work on the cultural politics and economy of the American avant-garde suggests that, given the negligible economic capital at stake, the circulation of what Pierre Bourdieu calls cultural capital is what has real currency.32 Within the avant-garde film world, high cultural value accrues via screenings for other filmmakers, especially at avant-garde film festivals, while classroom screenings for students, even though they may result in marginal financial gain, have less cultural value. As Scott MacDonald acknowledges, even as he defends the classroom as a site of transformative discovery, "There's nothing very romantic about the recognition that the primary location where dynamic cinema programming [End Page 24] remains possible is in academe. A vibrant 'underground' in a mysterious corner of a great city is far more intriguing."33
The classroom is, indeed, not a typical theatrical space or occasion. The viewers are students enrolled in a course that generally counts for credit toward a degree. And while students might choose a course based on the attractiveness of the screening list, much like spectators of avant-garde films at a museum, students generally choose a course, not a screening list. Their reasons for choosing a course in avant-garde cinema may have as much to do with scheduling considerations and program requirements as content.
Further, classes are not generally open to the public.34 Rather, the viewers are a captive audience shaped by structures of evaluation: attendance is taken; students are required to respond to the films for course assignments; and there is a grade. The films are not chosen by a programmer or curator who is responsible for screening new artists or broaching new thematic material.
Although instructors formulating syllabi may feel responsible to screen new work, and may attempt to represent a diversity of filmmakers in terms of gender, sexuality, race, or national origin, they are just as likely to feel beholden to curricular requirements. For example, most avant-garde film courses take the form of survey courses (e.g., the avant-garde from 1920s to present), which usually require representing historical scope and limiting the possibility of screening new work.
Pragmatic considerations further limit the film instructor's choices (although these also affect the programmer and curator): budget, print availability, class length, and the ten-to-fourteen-week schedule. Even the physical conditions of viewing are different. Mellencamp is one of the few scholars to describe what is likely the dominant mode of viewing for avant-garde cinema: "most likely sitting in a hard, uncomfortable desk in a bland university classroom."35
Nonetheless, the classroom can also create exemplary conditions for engaged and receptive spectatorship. Films are introduced by instructors (and sometimes by the filmmaker) and are contextualized formally and historically; they can be screened multiple times and be available for close analysis; are seen in relation to other films and historical traditions; and can be discussed in class with the instructor and other students. Rather than replicate the potentially passive mode of theatrical product consumption, the classroom screening offers a potentially critical and collective experience of cinema viewing.
While some attacks on academization as institutionalization in the 1980s targeted a perceived culture of elitism and/or mainstream legitimacy (Ehrenstein and Hoberman), obscure theoretical language (Spiral), or academicism in filmmaking instruction (Camper), most avant-garde filmmakers, co-ops, and other institutions simply ignored the university as a site for consideration.
Deinstitutionalizing the Institution: The Academy as Adaptable Site.
Todd Bayma's sociological study of the avant-garde "art world," undertaken in Chicago in 1991 and published in 1995, is one of the few accounts by an outsider of the American avant-garde film world. His findings suggest that the rhetoric of [End Page 25] cooptation voiced by Camper, Ehrenstein, and Hoberman is overstated insofar as it ignores the ways in which the avant-garde has managed to maintain many of the cultural values of the 1960s: "This art world attaches great importance to technical innovation, personal expression, and active engagement with art, producing an aesthetic that does not shun diversity in style or content or indeterminacy of meaning."36 Bayma sees avant-garde film as resisting the academy's institutional culture and strategically mobilizing the resources of the university to enable avant-garde film production and education:
Affiliation with academic institutions has created sites for the fostering of innovation and interactive participation in local communities, while de-emphasizing the roles of gatekeepers and critics as arbiters of legitimacy and meaning. . . . Academic institutions do not monopolize participation in the art world as a whole, which extends to individuals and institutions making and exhibiting films independent of academia.37
As Spiral indicates, even though most avant-garde film rentals are to academic institutions, the avant-garde film world is much more attentive to the programming of films in nonacademic alternative theaters and museums. Thus, a sort of dichotomy is created in which universities constitute what Hoolboom has called "bread-and-butter" sustenance (for the co-ops if not the filmmakers), while nonacademic institutions, such as festivals and museums, provide prestige and cultural capital.38 Bayma suggests that, unlike some art worlds (e.g., visual art, music) in which he observes more codification and conventionalization, avant-garde film, partly by virtue of its resistance to commodification, is characterized by "innovative" and "interactive" institutionalization: "This relatively unintegrated and inclusive form of institutionalization is driven both by the cultural values associated with experimental film and by such material considerations as the [avant-garde film] art world's small size, unprofitability, and lack of prestige in larger culture markets."39 In the remainder of this essay, I shall outline the material history and conditions of post-1960s North American avant-garde film, especially as it intersects with the academy, in order to sketch the ambivalent, yet crucial, legacy of the avant-garde in universities, and of the university in the avant-garde film.
There Have Always Been Avant-Garde Institutions.
As Camper has argued, "The years from 1966 to the present  might be called the institutional period of American avant-garde film"—but the critique of institutionalization has had more to do with the style of avant-garde institutions than with the existence of these institutions themselves.40 The period before 1966 is characterized by a dizzying constellation of avant-garde institutions—some academic—that were created in the heyday of underground cinema and before. Jan-Christopher Horak's scholarship on pre–World War II avant-garde production, distribution, and exhibition and Lauren Rabinovitz's accounts of the contributions of Maya Deren and Shirley Clarke to the avant-garde film world between the war and the 1960s point to the importance of many of these institutions.41 As Paul Arthur enumerates, prior to 1966, Mekas alone was instrumental in "the New American Cinema Group (1960), Film-Makers' Cooperative (1962), Film Culture Non-Profit Corporation (1963), Film-Makers' [End Page 26] Cinematheque (1964), Film-Makers' Workshop (1964), Film-Maker's Lecture Bureau (1964) [primarily serving universities inviting filmmakers to screen their work], Friends of the New American Cinema (1964), and Film-Makers' Distribution Center (1966)."42
Crucially, as Arthur suggests, it was Mekas's desire to "remain disorganizedly organized"43 that made these institutions noninstitutional in style (at least until Mekas helped establish the Essential Cinema at Anthology Film Archives). Today, avant-garde institutions continue to flourish, albeit ephemerally in most cases, as in the following incomplete list: informal screening spaces, such as the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema at the Collective Unconscious space in Manhattan; David Sherman and Rebecca Barton's touring Total Mobile Home microcinema; and Alex MacKenzie's now-extinguished Blinding Light cinema in Vancouver; production co-ops, such as the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto; small distributors, such as Peripheral Produce and Joanie4Jackie; small-press magazines, such as Buffalo's Squeaky Wheel Collective newsletter, The Squealer; festivals such as Images (Toronto), Views from the Avant-Garde, and Media City (Windsor, Canada); and Web sites, such as Flicker.44 Complaints with institutionalization are with the scale, power, and mainstream connotations that particular institutions such as the academy carry.
Academic Freedom and Artistic Freedom.
It is worthwhile to ask how the academy is different from these independent avant-garde institutions and whether universities are necessarily repressive of radical expression. The university has historically served, at least potentially, as a site of debate and contestation. In Sally Banes's analysis of the grounding of American avant-garde performance in the post-1960s university, she lists several reasons that the avant-garde finds a home in universities, the most "noble" of which is that "the innovative avant-garde telos fits with the research university's mission to create new knowledge, and the avant-garde's critique of the status quo suits the liberal arts college's mandate to foster critical thinking."45 Banes notes the symmetry of "artistic freedom" and "academic freedom," both of which are valued by the avant-garde, which has a long history of combating censorship.46 More cynically, university "administrators uphold the teachers' and students' avant-garde proclivities because it shows they tolerate free expression."47 Also, students, parents, and teachers use the seclusion of the "college experience" as a safe haven for experimentation, however short-lived it might be. In concluding her study, Banes uses language that, appropriately, echoes the underground film ethos of the 1960s:
That the university now provides a protected haven—however random or small-scale—for experiments in performance; that it animates in the next generation of young artists' ideas—however embattled—about innovation and originality; that it literally feeds those who make iconoclastic, deviant, or alternative art; and that it supplies dissident voices within the university system itself; all these aspects are crucial politically as well as culturally—not to mention pedagogically.48
In light of the general cultural post-1960s shift toward consumerism and political conservatism, I concur with Banes that those universities that have embraced avant-garde [End Page 27] artists have afforded a protected site of experimentation, innovation, and dissent, and have allowed for the transmission of those values through education.
The Academy Was There in the 1960s Too.
Hoberman's claim that the avant-garde "left the theatres and entered the classrooms" ignores a much longer history of academic–avant-garde interaction. Film courses entered the academy before 1920. The first post–World War II expansion of American universities in the late 1940s and 1950s accommodated returning servicemen (using funds from the GI Bill), employing filmmakers such as Hans Richter and Sidney Peterson, whose film The Lead Shoes (1949) was produced as a collaborative class project at the California School (now Institute) of Fine Arts.49 The next major expansion occurred in the late 1960s to accommodate the Baby Boom generation, during which film studies enjoyed its greatest growth. Film scholars Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery speculate that between 1965 and 1975 "it is quite possible that cinema studies was the fastest growing academic discipline in American universities."50
Distribution records from both Cinema 16 and FMC indicate that universities rented avant-garde films in the early 1960s (although Hoberman is correct that the volume increased in the late 1960s).51 The intellectual and political ferment of those years helped to motivate radical and experimental artists, including filmmakers, to join university faculties, especially after 1968.52 The beginning of the period that saw the sharpest rise in the number of film studies courses offered in American universities coincides with the period when the avant-garde enjoyed its widest popularity and public exposure, what Don Lloyd of CCC called "the independent film 'boom' of '68–'69."53 Film co-op newsletters, community newspapers, and other documents of the period note that universities provided halls for screenings by independent and campus film societies alike, and the students provided one of the most important audience groups for screenings, whether on or off campus. The academy did not kill the underground; it helped it grow.
By the mid-1960s, the underground cinema movement recognized the academy. Jonas Mekas reports setting up the Film-Makers Lecture Bureau in 1964 (although the first and only catalog was published in 1968–69) "to service the constantly growing requests for personal appearances of independent film-makers at colleges, universities, and film societies."54 In the '68–'69 catalog, ninety-three filmmakers and four critics are listed, several with film lecture topics, filmography, and vitae. Of these, sixteen already seem to have had full-time academic jobs, more list adjunct positions, and most report having given guest lectures at educational institutions. Of this group, forty-five indicate having attended a university (probably more did), and at least twelve more in this group who were not teaching full-time in 1968–69 later found full-time academic employment.
Five Legacies of Academicization.
The teaching of avant-garde film in universities had at least five long-term material consequences for the avant-garde: (1) the maintenance (to the point of dependence) of distribution co-ops, as the classroom became the dominant site of exhibition; (2) regionalization, as centers of avant-garde film activity expanded beyond New York to multiple regional sites; (3) publication [End Page 28] mechanisms for the writing and dissemination of the history, criticism, and theory of the avant-garde; (4) employment for filmmakers as faculty or technical personnel; and (5) development of second- (and third-) generation students becoming filmmakers, critics, teachers, programmers, and archivists. All of these legacies have enhanced awareness of avant-garde film beyond its limited countercultural sphere. Bayma uses Charles Kadushin's term "movement circle"—an art world in which "the culture producers are a major audience for the works"—to describe the habitual hermeticism of the American avant-garde film world, a hermeticism that the academy often challenges.55
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Film-Makers' Cooperative Percentage of Academic Rental Payments
1. Sustaining the co-ops. As stated above, beginning in 1962 with the establishment of the Film-Makers' Cooperative in New York, experimental film was distributed mainly by similar co-ops such as Canyon Cinema in San Francisco and the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in Toronto.56 For these co-ops, rentals for classroom and university film societies have consistently comprised the majority of their overall rentals since the late 1960s, and represented a sizable percentage earlier in the decade. Over this period, academic rentals averaged more than 75 percent of FMC's total rentals, ranging from a low of 60 percent in 1967 to a high of 85 percent in 1974 (see Fig. 1).57
The period 1965–75, the era of "academization" or "institutionalization," exhibited two major trends: first, a rapid rise and fall in overall co-op rentals (reaching its apogee in 1967–69), and, second, a steady increase in the proportion of rentals to academic institutions. Rental income figures for 1964 and 1965 (different from but roughly proportionate to the number of invoices) for FMC indicate 20.1 percent [End Page 29] and 29.5 percent of academic rental totals, respectively, a rise of 10 percent in one year.58 By 1967, the percentage of academic rental invoice payments was roughly 60 percent, and it rose to 81 percent in 1970, after which the percentage fluctuated at 77 percent to 85 percent. But if the proportion of academic co-op rentals rose steadily in this period, there was nevertheless a drop in total rentals from the 1960s into the 1970s. Canyon Cinema reported a similar pattern; 1968–69 is called the "'fad' period for 'underground' films" after which CCC suffered a major drop in rentals that leveled off into the early 1970s, as gross rentals dropped $10,000 from 1971 to 1972, creating what the CCC Board of Directors termed a 'gloomy outlook.'"59
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Film-Makers' Cooperative: Number of Rental Payments (sampled)