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What's Avant-Garde Now? Social Innovation

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,

What qualifies as true avant-garde? Degrowth qualifies--and very little else.

In the 20th century, avant-garde was a term primarily reserved for the arts: fine arts, music, performance and literature. Avant garde--literally fore-guard or vanguard-- challenges the conventions of Status Quo measures of beauty and departs from traditional forms and conceptions of value.

In many cases, the departure is designed to shock traditionalists by flaunting accepted norms; by traditional standards, avant-garde art is ugly or disturbing, avant-garde music is atonal and unmelodic, avant-garde theatre flouts conventional narrative structure and avant-garde social movements upend traditional morals and values.

Virtually all design and art fields have been continually disrupted by avant-garde movements, to the point that the conventional consumerist economy now depends on avant-garde (or perhaps quasi-avant-garde) to create "the new" that can be sold at a profit to differentiate the in-crowd from those (sigh--how sad) left behind.

Many forms of avant-garde disrupt "high-brow" conventions of art, music, fashion, interior design, etc. by infusing the medium with low-brow influences. Roy Lichtenstein's appropriation of comic-book art is one example. In effect, "low-brow" becomes hip until it is adopted by the mainstream, at which point high-brow is re-introduced to offer a consumerist means to separate wealthy sophisticates from the lumpen-proletariat and petite-bourgeois masses.

I suspect that this century-long cycle of outraging the conventional has reached marginal returns, and this spells the end of avant-garde in the 20th century modernist sense. Now that every convention has been flouted, there is nothing left to disrupt or shock; "the new" is now simply re-hashed "old."

Since consumerism is based on the insecurity of bourgeois aspirations (i.e. the desire to be identified as belonging to the in-crowd), there must always be something "new" to separate elites from aspirants and aspirants from the masses.

This role is filled by simulacra of avant-garde (i.e. presenting the appearance of "the new" to sell more goods). Fake avant-garde is the ultimate co-option of true innovation, as this quasi-avant-garde serves an entirely conventional purpose: reaping profits from selling consumerist sizzle.

Experience has been commoditized by the tourism industry, and as a result travel only signifies membership in the in-crowd if it is self-directed and leisurely, i.e. a form of consumption that cannot be attained by conventional workers with two weeks vacation.

The only form of travel that separates the in-crowd from the low-brow aspirational masses desperate to put foreign travel on their resume and brag about it on Facebook is travel to exotic locales well off the already-commoditized tourist paths (Oh dahling, Kathmandu is so over-run and boring. Siberia is the place to be.)

These 20th century formulas--breaking the traditional modes to be avant-garde, and using the avant-garde to market new products and experiences--have run out of oxygen. As a result, the arts, music and literature are no longer the source of avant-garde--what is truly disruptive are social innovations that disrupt the consumerist model of constantly marketing faux avant-garde as "the new."

I think this excerpt from the article Information-Commodification offers a succinct summary of how social innovation is the true avant-garde:

"Avant-gardes, on the other hand, are always interesting, but they are not really about art, whatever some silly art school textbooks might say. Avant-gardes are about media, about social relations, about property-forms, but they are only ever incidentally or tactically concerned with art. The most interesting ones around at the moment might be about pharmacology or horticulture or even ‘business models’."

What qualifies as true avant-garde? Degrowth qualifies--the rejection of consumption as a measure of growth, prosperity and advancement. The model of access not ownership is avant-garde, as is the no-middleman movement I have described in the blog.

Degrowth, Anti-Consumerism and Peak Consumption (May 9, 2013)

When Conventional Success Is No Longer Possible, Degrowth and the Black Market Beckon (February 7, 2014)

Degrowth Solutions: Half-Farmer, Half-X (July 19, 2014)

And the Next Big Thing Is ... Degrowth? (April 7, 2014)

Any movement that serves to market "the new" in conventional consumerism (and collecting fine art is the ultimate high-brow consumerism) is not avant-garde. The real avant-garde disrupts the consumption and ownership as identity model of aspirational capitalism.

Anything that doesn't disrupt the consumption and ownership as identity model of aspirational capitalism is just another marketing campaign exploiting faux avant-garde.

For more on the photos accompanying this essay, please read Global Bellwether: Japan's Social Depression (September 25, 2014).