Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

In a post today at the Harriet group blog of the Poetry Foundation, Reginald Shepherd raises the spirit of the historical avant-garde.

Citing German art theorist Peter Bürger’s book Theory of The Avant-Garde, Shepherd summarizes, “The historical avant-garde (in his view comprised of Dada, Surrealism, and Russian constructivism), which Bürger sees as a failed project that is now finished, sought to destroy the institution of art in order to merge art and the praxis of life.”

It occurred to me that the graffiti artists of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and after have been the only true avant-garde by this definition: The only artists who succeeded in evading the institution of art while merging art with the praxis of life.

They did not destroy the institution of art, but they made no bones about trying. They went one better: They ignored it. Those artists who talked about destroying institutional art ended up getting absorbed into it: Duchamp, Arp, Breton, and the rest -- even the Fascist Futurist Marinetti, in most ways a precursor to the rest of them, with his polemic about destroying the museums.

By making their art all-but-un-collectible, by mostly succeeding in staying anonymous and therefore unmarketable, the graffiti artists have, for the most part, succeeded in failing to be absorbed into art history. Of course, we have no idea whether most of them would care either way. (Some of them went on to have professional art careers.)

The indigestibility of graffiti art points up the corruption of art history. In our era, only what is marketable and sale-able is a candidate for history.

The institution of art is adaptable, though. All it will take is for a marketable polemicist (of which I am not, though not for lack of trying!) to shame the art institutions into including graffiti art in the grand sweep of art history. The institutions may blanch at the lack of Great Names to which to attach the narrative, but I would be willing to bet that they’ll get there eventually.

Graffiti art belongs in the history of poetry too. The picture illustrating this post is an evocative one-word visual-poem, “Don’t.” Visual poetry is a recognized genre in the history of poetry. As I wrote back in September 2004, graffiti artists “unite virtuoso visual design with often cryptically allusive verbal flair.” The historians of visual poetry -- particularly those with an interest in Bürger’s notion of the avant-garde -- would do well to take note. Graffiti artists and visual poets have been the truest avant-gardists, in Bürger’s terms, in history.

-- Photo copyright 1996 by Chase T, of a work by Shred DC5 on a live CTA train, Chicago.

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