Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Pratt Fall Of The Avant-Garde

Avant-garde, the vanguard, became a cliche the minute the phrase was coined in art, literature, fashion and society. All after was mere conformity to the actual vanguard. It has been so since. In my studies of art in college and in NYC, professors spoke of the future of avant-garde through history while calling any artist that depicted a penis as so avant-garde. Students, then clutching their wine and cigarette, yearned to be part of the avant garde. Once members they felt they could man the barricades of social change and shout into the wind. It was really boring.

For painters, foto-realism was in, which meant I was out. To me foto-realism was a more expensive paint-by-numbers methodology that I had conquered as a child. I still remember the paint-by-numbers boast, "Every Man A Rembrandt". I also remember the kits cost less than the college course. My practice of painting from life was considered passe.

I moved on to photography because as a foto-realist, I felt merely a middleman between a photograph and a painting. Once again, artists of the vanguard came into play. I had no desire to lug an 8 X 10 Deardorff camera out to "capture" landscapes nor did I want to take the time to learn the Zone System (I did). I wanted to use the camera for what I thought it did best which was to capture a moment. Wrong again. I still have portfolios of images of leaves, trees and organic landscapes. I found it especially ironic in NYC to sit in lofts rhapsodizing over landscapes of nature as I thought of trudging home through the landscapes of man.

Politics, thankfully, played in the background though if behind in output a picture of someone down trodden could buy some time and possibly bump in grade. Civil Rights, as a movement had passed as an in vogue moment, but a pissed off indian was still a pretty good, but hard to find image in Times Square.

I worked out the physics of angle and light that would allow me to photograph without the necessity of the viewfinder and I liked what I produced. I savaged the Zone System and went into the clubs and bars and captured images that I liked complete with halos, swirls and deep blacks that created inhuman shapes within the frame. I sought out photographers whose work I had seen in undistinguished galleries. To go to Hell's Kitchen or deep into ravaged Harlem was a new voyage for me. When I arrived with my puppy eyes asking to learn or "rap" about art from those artists I was treated as I should've been, an interloper, because I wasn't there with my shiny Leica to document pain. I was still fifteen minutes behind avant garde, but it was kicking my butt. My real photography stayed in my apartment. In the closet.

What did I learn from all this? Simple. Avant-garde is a hoax as touted. It is a political platform to sift the wheat from the chaff in the art world by the elite. I didn't and don't care because along the way I met some incredible artists that taught me the most important art lesson of all. Do it. Do it because you love it. Do it because it's in your blood. The best work I ever saw was from an old woman on West 121st Street. She had bought a $5 Brownie and when she could afford to she'd buy film in junk stores. She would never sell me a print because then she'd have to make another copy which she didn't want to do except for relatives. She was the Lartique of Harlem.

In all the art schools, where one meets the finer people, avant-garde is painfully entering its third (or is fourth?) generation of being out front. It is difficult to watch such a spectacle when it is obvious the oldster just wants to die. It can't because art schools and the elite still don't know what avant-garde means. Too many Pratt Falls, but I'll bet that somewhere they have Duchamp's Urinal on a hall poster. Maybe some student will once more tape the poster over a real urinal, take a photograph, and feel avant-garde.