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AGES OF THE AVANT-GARDE As we move towardthe middle ofthe last decade ofthe twentieth century, a half century since a truly American avant-gardeperformance began to evolve, we thought it might be an opportune time to ask the generations responsible for this remarkableperiod of creativity in the arts, and the rethinkingofarts institutions,how thepassageoftime hasalteredtheirwork and theirperceptions. We decided to contactperformers, writers,directors, andothers whose work help lay thefoundationsofthe experimentaltradition in performance, those whose work has been written about, or who wrote about their own work, or were interviewed, in the pages ofPAJ since we beganpublishingin 1976. We contactedthose who hadturnedfifty or older in the eighteenyears in which PAJ has chronicledthe changing arts and politics ofthe "downtown"scene, centered in the Village and Soho. (continuednext page) 9 Those we contacted created Happenings, Fluxus, the earliest Off-Off-Broadway groups; the new theatre, dance, cinema, and music, and the commentary on them. They also founded alternative spaces, organizations, publications, and ways of producing work for non-mainstream audiences. This independent structure, albeit threatened economically and politically, is still visible today as an alternative to mainstream culture or, more symbolically, as an inspirational model for successive generations. We asked the artists specifically to address the issue of "aging and the avantgarde ." In recent decades not only has the concept of the "avant-garde" been revised in light of popular culture and the increasing commercialization of the arts, but audiences have changed in taste and temperament and cultural politics, and so have critics and historians. Many of the most deeply felt transformations have occurred in the shifting interests of the funding world, and their effects on artists and new work. Our inquiry carried a double theme-the obvious one of time and its implications, biologically, for the performing body, and philosophically, its impact on subject matter and artists' relations to real materials; in a larger sense, there remained the idea of history, within the context of personal history, and the history of an art form or movement, to consider. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the performance activity of the last several decades. The exhibitions and publications on Fluxus is the latest example of this trend. Several books in progress, and some newly published, treat the development of the American avant-garde in the post-war period. New generations of scholars and students are looking to the last half century as a provocative field ofstudy, in part as a response to the modernism/postmodernism debate, and the contemporary inquiry into political and cultural definitions of the body. No less important is the blurring of distinctions between media in individual works, facilitating collaboration of artists in the visual arts, dance, music, and performance worlds. In addition, a number of artists who began their careers in the avant-garde have been absorbed into the university or more mainstream culture, while others, by choice or by style, remain on the margins. We're beginning to see that as artists accumulate a substantial body of work, their achievements becoming part of the critical discourse of a field, or included in the university curriculum, their place in history is rethought. In the last several years a number of restagings, retrospectives, and anniversary celebrations have been presented, all of which generates a wider perspective on a body of work, in relation to its time and its legacy. Now, as the century moves to a close, it is more possible to understand the scope of performance activity in the decades of the fifties and sixties when, in the contemporary sense, the American avant-garde began to define itself, in opposition to European modernism and to post-war American society. The recent death of 10 N PERFORMING ART JOURNAL 46 John Cage, the father of the American avant-garde, and the renewed interest in Gertrude Stein, its well-acknowledged mother, have contributed further to this reflective mood. For the rest of the century we are likely to see the beginnings of a history of American performance ofthe last fifty years, publications of collected writings of artists involved in the making of the American avant-garde, and the recuperation and re-evaluation of artists, movements, and...


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