The Problem with the Avant-Garde

In my last post, I described how the art of composition is a relatively unoriginal practice and yet is continually changing due to the composer's interpretation of the art. I also covered how the Greats focused their efforts into their artistry (their interpretation of the compositional process) rather than technical aspect of the craft. However, the artists of the avant-garde (1945-90's), in an attempt to go against the Greats that preceded them, rejected the idea of artistry and therefore began to focus solely on the technical. Avant-garde music composers, for example, created sheet music that was so incomprehensibly notated and technically challenging that its sound was nothing but a conglomeration of unpleasant noises. In other words, this type of "music" wasn't created for the purpose of listening, but rather for the experimentation of notation; "music for reading" if you will. This rebellion against the past had one sole purpose and that was mainly to obliterate already established artistry and to replace it with highly specialized technical exercises. With that being stated--coupled with the points of my previous post--I can say without shame that the avant-garde--because it doesn't have definitive piece to help explain the style--cannot be considered "real" art.

This is not to say though that the works of the avant-garde artists are just complete and utter trash. Far from it! You see, the artists of the avant-garde were in fact one of the most creative generations ever to exist. They approached the highly elusive goal of greatness in the most unconventional and interesting ways; they tried to create something that was totally original by completely severing themselves from the past. Truth be told, it was a very noble effort... but it was highly unpractical. Try as one might, one can never escape the past. It defines every bit of our culture and our lives. It is because of the past that originality is unattainable. (...You could also say the same of perfection.) You see, the reason why avant-garde continually fails is because it focuses itself on the pursuit of these two unattainable goals (perfection and originality), and thereby reduces itself to an technical exercise and nothing more. For evidence of this claim just look at how very few Greats there in the avant-garde genre. Since there has been no definitive form or depiction of the avant-garde that the public willingly recognizes and accepts, it has failed to flourish as a genre. Because of its blatant disregard for artistry, the avant-garde doomed itself to an endless cycle of criticism. (If you do any research on the composer John Cage you will begin to understand the full scope of that statement.) Without incorporating artistry into one's work, the "art" of composition becomes a boring and repetitive process, ultimately reducing itself to a mathematical algorithm that produces haphazard and uninspiring products called "art". (Sound familiar music industry?) This then begs the question, "is this really composition?"

You see, the whole appeal of composition is the fact that it is so vague and undefinable; that there is no definitive way to create a “good” piece of art. Therefore, it can be inferred that each one of a composer's works can be viewed as their attempt at defining art. By continually trying to find "new" and "original" ways in which to organize their talents, composers continually manage to nurture their hope of creating/sustaining a higher form of art; they continue to nurture that hope of becoming great. This process of taking Order out of Chaos is what we as human beings strive to do--just watching a child at play will alone reveal that truth--but by intentionally calling random and unorganized chaos "art," one is going against our intrinsic human nature. I believe G. K. Chesterton said it best when he wrote, "the rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull, because in chaos [a] train might indeed go anywhere, but every time a train comes into its station, it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and man has once again won a battle against chaos.  No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a timetable, with tears of pride."

For us, Order may be one of the hardest targets to hit, but by combining our child-like creativity with our mature and adult understanding, we will always be able to hit that mark with a sure-fire aim. By drawing Order out of Chaos, we will always be able to supply the world with the manifestation of our creativity: our Art.

If there ever were to be a thesis for this essay--or better yet, a definite purpose--it would have to be this; by ultimately rejecting the principles of order, the avant-garde rejected the very principles of art. Until one can accept that Art is Order, one cannot create true art.

Let this be a lesson to the composers of the future.

-Brendan Moir