The Derriere Garde

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Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso. Photo via WikipediaCropped.

Pages From the Past: In 1998, this Utne Reader article weighed in on the art world’s struggle between avant-garde and classical influences and imagined how it might look once the dust had settled in 2020.

In an art world long dominated by postmodern theory, a classical revival that threatens to the bury the avante-garde is gaining momentum. This “regime shift,” as writer Tom Wolfe calls the current trend toward classicism, promises to add fuel to the highly charged battle over culture and the arts.

“Suddenly, the rules are changed,” Wolfe tells Reason (July 1997). “And when that happens, suddenly a lot of assets are lost, chaos results.”

At the forefront of the “natural classicism” movement is the Derriere Guard, a group of painters, poets, and composers based in New York City. The group’s founder, composer Stefania de Kenessey, argues that the avant-garde is no longer revolutionary, and is now the ruling orthodoxy. “A new generation of artists are actively reengaging,” she says. “They neither regress to the distant past nor yearn for a now-vanished world; instead, they strike out in an altogether different direction.”

The direction they’re headed is toward achieving greater fidelity to nature and real life, not only by rediscovering traditional styles, such as realism and classicism, but also by ascribing to the principle that subject matter should transcend the artist. Among the artists who de Kenessey claims adhere to these values are composer Philip Glass, performance artist Laurie Anderson, singer/songwriter David Byrne, sculptor Frederick Hart, and the dance troupe Sankai Juku.

“During the 20th century, the artist was commonly perceived as a denunciatory prophet, whose main goal was to expose the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie,” writes Kanchan Limaye in Reason. Today, he adds, artists attempting to “shift this cultural regime” envision themselves as “pancultural shamans whose purpose is to dramatize the multiple voices in a culture, bourgeois or otherwise.” By doing so, Limaye notes, “they represent the emergence of a third front in the nation’s long-waged culture wars—one that its adherents hope will render the rigidly polarized debate between right-wing conservatives and left-wing avant-gardists defunct.”

Some critics doubt whether this so-called third front is a viable movement. David Ross, director of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, dismisses the natural classicists as being out of touch with contemporary issues and naïve. “I’m interested in art that’s wrestling with the history of ideas,” he says, “and they fail to deal with it.”

Are contemporary artists beginning to outgrow the cynicism so fundamental to the avant-garde sensibility? Or is the art world, as the left fears, now returning to colonialism and bigotry, favoring Western culture over multiculturalism and white male hierarchy over gender, class, and racial equality? Some observers argue that this movement to affirm and reclaim history of the arts in America—not to the mention control of its future—is nothing more than a cyclical phenomenon. Others says it may even be biological. This theory springs from research conducted by University of Texas professor Frederick Turner and neuropsychologist Ernst Poppel that suggests humans may be biologically hardwired to appreciate the classical genre of art.

But there are more than aesthetic or biological forces at work here. Tim Porges, writing in New Art Examiner (July/August 1997), argues that the widespread decline in the number of alternative art galleries (caused by cutbacks in arts funding at all levels) has threatened the avant-garde as much as any counterrevolutionary art movement has. “There is no place in the world where any avant-garde arts entity has survived for long without a reliable base of permanent public funding,” he writes.

Still, in contemplating the demise of the avant-garde, it’s hard to overlook the influence of cultural forces. What once was radical and progressive now is hopelessly conventional. The traditional three R’s—realism, rhyme, and representation—have returned, and though Wolfe freely admits that the price of Picassos isn’t exactly falling through the floor, the avant-garde will never be the same. “We can expect—those of us who are around to take art history courses in the year 2020—to see the glee with which professors present Demoiselles d’Avignon,” he says, referring to Picasso’s avant-garde icon. “The classes will snicker, and professors will have the time of their lives.”

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