restricted access The Avant-Garde and the Aesthetics of Survival (1969)
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The Avant-Garde and the Aesthetics of Survival It takes some sense of history, however vague or dim, just to utter the term avant-garde in relation to the aesthetic and stylistic problems of art. Implicit in the term for me is the handy, if fanciful, image of Zeno's "irreversible arrow of time," and it is generally assumed that the avant-garde either sits on the point of that arrow, penetrating to the next unfolding moment of time, or perhaps even occupies the whole of the arrowhead itself, its sharp cutting edges ending in the point which will tear into the fabric of the future. Before we begin though we are already faced with two irreconcilable paradoxes: first, the shaft of the arrow, though propelling the arrowhead and its point into the future, is itself still in the past and will always remain in some past relative to the position of the arrowhead and its point; and second, the point of the arrow can never, if Zeno is right, reach the future toward which it is presumably traveling , and must therefore remain in a seemingly motionless present, always in transit, never able to reach the future it longs for. Thus every "wave of the future" movement is, at least theoretically, an illusion because the future is always beyond our grasp; nor can it ever be reached except as a new "present ." Every "new" movement in the arts (or culture generally) is attached to its history and the past, no matter how much its initiators and supporters would like to disclaim it; in the instance of that part of today's avant-garde, which actively wishes it could cut itself free from any and all ties with past history, memory, or cultural associations, we see the peculiarly pathetic twentiethcentury phenomenon of the disaffected human spirit trying desperately to dissociate itself from itself and its own works. Whatever part of time's arrow we travel on-shaft, arrowhead, or point-we are in some relation to the other parts, and the awareness of one position affects our awareness of the others. We can see this readily enough in any number of instances chosen at random from Western culture: for example, the cool, underplayed gestures of Claude Debussy cannot be understood except as a reaction to the overblown, supersensuous gestures of Wagner; Monteverdi's assertion of a seconda prattica requires an understanding of the Neo-Platonism of the Florentine Camerata and the prima prattica, reaching back for approximately 150 years, for which Artusi, Monteverdi's reactionary contemporary, was the spokesman; the theory and practice of cubism makes no sense except as viewed in the possible light of Einstein's relativity theory and especially against the long-standing theory and practice of perspective; color field painting, theoretically extending itself in all directions, is a very recent reaction against the much older tradition of the "picture" as an enclosed, graphic projection or representation separated from 225 226 TIlE AESTIlETICS OF SURVNAL everything else around it by the limit of the surface on which it is painted; aleatory or indeterminate structure can only be understood as a principle or aesthetic of artistic behavior against the historical background of determinate structure, whether we are thinking of painting or music; and so on. We take the past with us wherever we go, and only cultural provincialism (which is frequently the lens through which enlargement of the present is exaggerated to mammoth proportions, automatically excluding any glimpse of the past) makes it possible-now as in the past-to claim that only that present is preeminent and valid, only that present has reality for those living in it, and that all other past "presents" have ceased to exist or have meaning. There is no greater provincialism than that special form of sophistication and arrogance which denies the past, and no greater danger to the human spirit than to proclaim value only for its narrow slice of contemporaneity. One last point on the subject is worth mentioning: if the theory of curved space is correct, the irreversible arrow of time, like Halley's comet, must at some point in its trajectory retrace positions in space it has already passed through many times before . The idea of cosmic return, eternal recurrence, so deeply embedded in Oriental thought, may, in the end, find a form of potential proof in this most recent hypothesis of Western astrophysics. And then King Solomon's doleful remark, "There is nothing new under the sun," will...