251D: Discussion 7

This week's readings add a few refinements to an umbrella concept of the avant-garde. Paul Wood's article on Jackson Pollock in Dawtry addresses the intent of Abstract Expressionism and its differences from representational art. It also addresses the problem of unfamiliarity that all experimental contains: " There is a fundamental point about attitude at stake here. We should not be asking 'How can I squeeze this (unfamiliar) thing into my preexisting categories?' but rather, 'Is it possible that this unfamiliar thing is challenging me to revise my ideas?' (P.110).

Implicit is tha notion that the new observation we make is already part of us, just waiting to be discovered. Wood uses examples like Summertime from 1948 to point out that there are no familiar signs on the work, and it was not painted on an easel; therefore, perception of the painting produces different visual effects.

Pollock's Preconditions:

1. A shift from the representation of the external world to expressing the "artist's subjective or emotional responses to an experience of the world" (P.114).
2. "Shapes and colours in a painting make take precedence over visual fidelity to the objects those shapes and colours represent" (P.115).
3. Finally, the idea that a painting can do without any refence entirely.

The main arguments, explaining this style involve the " existentialist account" (Rosenberg) which uses contemporary themes of individualism and alienation, and the "formalist account" (Greenberg)implying the artist separated from the wider culture: we then study solely the visual effects. In any event, the work is freed of narrative and we are free to obtain mening from the interaction of colors in then own space. Extrapolating to avant-garde precepts, in general, the implication is that works of this sort must be taken on their own terms, since they are often defined on their own terms.

Another important point that Wood makes is that this kind of art demands a more informed audience: "Akbstract art was historically more difficult to achieve, and it required more effortof its spectators than traditional figurative art." (P.116). Wood's last point is revealed in the obervation that Abstract Expressionism was a combination of several earlier and dissimilar avant-garde styles: automatism (from Surrealism), expressive form (from Cubism), and abstraction, itself.

Chapter 6 of Hal Foster's Compulsive Beauty deals with an even more specific style trait:the notion of outmoded space in Surrealism. The objects fro the past become emblematic of their time and achieve a static symbolism separated from the actual time. This particular trait shows "the situation of the middle class at the moment it shows its first signs of decline." (P. 162), a general characteristic of avant-garde art (the revolution against status quo middle class values). With specific reference to Dali's "Post Mechanical" industrial materials as ideosyncratic designs (PP. 182-183) we are given a good template for the use of familiar objects from the past as impossible symbols (like Duchamp's chocolate grinders).

In "The Avant-Garde and the Aesthetics of Survival," George Rochberg's diatribe from 1972 against Serialism, the then reigning experimental style (not really avant-garde), he tries to make a case for the unnaturalness of the unfamiliar. In this sense his arguments are a contradiction to those of Wood with reference to Pollock. In Section II Rochberg asks whether art can be an agent of change. He sees the avant-garde as a victim of pressures to change for its own sake. He mentions Susan Sontag's observation that a ne and different relationship between the mind and the senses is created in new works: the mission of the avant-garde is therapeutic- to open up sensibilities, awareness, perception.

Rochberg's conclusion is that nothing can be changed because there cannotr be an upset of the natural order or the mind. Using Von Neumann's definitions of intelligence Rochberg leads in the direction that repetition, variation...the conscious perception of a structural unfolding is necessary to appreciate art. This perception is not possible in serialism or aleatory (the other bugaboo style), because the listener cannot focus in any one direction.

In VII Rochberg hypothesizes a NEW art music that would have serial/parallel, memory functions, and logical relations whjich are goal oriented. In aiming at specific avant-garde styles, Rochberg misses the larger point that the doubt and confusion are part of the avant-garde experience. You must alter perception and muddy the waters in order to expand our artistic universe. He confuses the goals of "masterpieces" with those of the high fliers of the avant-garde. His call for a new balance is merely a call for traditional values in traditional ways; and, for the most part, mainline artworks, produced at a time of retrenchment, have this feature. If the language of music needs periodicity, then it also needs aperiodicity in order to expand our perception of the whole.

For further analysis of Abstract Expressionism see: The Transformation of the Avant-Garde, by Diana Crane, (University of Chicago Press, 1987).

David Long's examples follow:

Stockhausen's "Piano Pieces" are stylistically similar. According to the criteria of our class, the music would qualify as modernist, but any avant-garde aspects would be questionable. "Piano Piece 11" is the one exception. Its use of open form brings it into the realm of the avant-garde. The process in itself is avant-garde. Does it translate as powerfully into the actual musical result/experience? It is arguable that a random first-time listener of Stockhausen's "Piano Piece 2", for example, and "Piano Piece 11" may not be able to discern that the latter utilizes open form. And yet, although a listener may or may not have his/her perception of structure challenged, the performer certainly will. This phenomenon provides some challenges to our class's tenets of the avant-garde. First, it brings into consideration the strength of the avant-garde experience as communicated from composer to performer, and how that may be different from the avant-garde experience as communicated from composer to audience. Second, it begs some further qualification of the informed audience as primarily having a certain "mind-set". Perhaps a higher level of sophistication in how one listens to a piece of music, or a more educated knowledge of musical context, is at times necessary to detect the avant-garde in some works.

Is the process of open form necessary for Stockhausen's "Piano Piece 11"? Would it succeed musically if it had been fully notated? The more educated and sophisticated listener might claim that it would not succeed in the same way. The difficulty in hearing this difference may be in the mono-chromatic timbre of the piano. In Earle Brown's "Available Forms 1", which uses an varied instrumental ensemble with open form, the unpredictability of events is much more apparent.

The peculiar nature of works utilizing open form is such that their structures will always be different upon successive hearings, repeatedly challenging the listener's perception. This ever-changing structure is most certainly an avant-garde aspect. Does that mean that all open form pieces are inherently avant-garde? This question may not have an easy answer. Has the approach been processed by culture? If yes, at what point in time did that happen? Is consideration of chronological order necessary (the first ones to use open form were avant-garde, all others afterward were just "jumping on the bandwagon")? Perhaps open form in later works becomes more of an avant-garde "aspect", and needs to rely on additional musical criteria to be considered part of the "permanent" avant-garde.

As with open form, new kinds of notations were an inevitable outgrowth of investigations into indeterminacy. Feldman's "Projection 4" was one of the very first successful ventures with graphic notation, and reveals how closely the process is tied with the musical result. It is a strong example of how that "symbiosis" works. Brown's "December 1952" was one of the first truly pictorial notations that also utilized a sense of open form. Because of it's place in musical history, its revolutionary aspect securely marks it as avant-garde. Regardless of the historical context, however, will the work continue to evoke complex reactions? The degree to which it challenges the perception of the informed, modern-day audience may be questionable and depends largely upon the breadth and variety of their listening experience. For the performers, however, the avant-garde experience will most likely continue to be strong.

Cage's "Concert for Piano and Orchestra", selected as representative of works with open notation that followed the earlier established ventures, may not be so avant-garde in respect to its effect on the informed audience (which previously has been questioned as a somewhat ambiguous concept). Due to the highly varied kinds of graphic notations, and the open form aspect, the work bears the stamp of an avant-garde experience regarding the performers. Such is also the case with Herbert Brun's "Mutatis Mutandis". In this work the performer is ultimately transformed into the role of composer, tenuously led by the "traces" left behind by a suggested process. With the last two works mentioned, the score is elevated to a new level that often crosses over into the visual artistic realm, which may or may not be avant-garde.