The Changing of the Avant-Garde by Marc Stegeman


The king is dead. Long live the king.


Art in the 20th century is gasping its last feeble breaths, choked by the greed and myopic vision of the profit-mongers and charlatans who have infested the art world and turned it into an investment industry. Crushed by the recent economic downturn, and facing not only the end of the century but also that of the millennium, these money-minded posers are finally on the way out. But after their parasitic reign, can art itself still survive? How can the true artist today touch a society that has come to think of artists as crackpots and snake-oil vendors?


Just as the renaissance placed humanity, rather than God, in the center of the universe, today it is the individual who is in that spot. It is an age where everyone writes an autobiography, everyone grabs their fifteen minutes of fame, where the hero is not an Olympian champion but the Average Joe, where everybody has an opinion and nobody has a clue. The babel of four billion private languages drowns out the lone voice trying to speak out in the wil­derness.


As the new century dawns, we face the dilemma of the expanding individual in a shrinking world. Our freedom, viewed today as a personal right rather than a collective one, is steadily being eroded by the unforgiving ecological needs of a planet overrun with our society's waste. In the battle that lies ahead, we find ourselves alone, severed from one another and even abandoned by the gods. We are lost and must find our answers deep within ourselves. In this quest, the true artist may well be the last hope.


The great thinkers of the late 19th century, among them Nietzsche, quite astutely forecast the godless materialistic age that would become the 20th century. It was a period where all the rules were

systematically set up to be broken. God's Law was eclipsed by the scientific method, which in turn was made subservient to the profit motive. In the arts, it is easy to see how the previous centuries' gradual progression from sacred to profane would lead to the 20th century's ultimate profanities. In the rapacious hands of certain self­serving and self-obsessed hustlers, often with small talent but always with large mouths, everything of meaning was systematically put to death. It was the century of reductio ad absurdum. True, the pranksters' jokes were often funny, but in the end the last laugh was on them as the audience grew bored. There was nothing shocking about being shocking anymore. If the artist could urinate on a cruci­fix, the public could always go him one better: it could flush.


In painting, the breaking up of the image - at first done rather inno­cently by the impressionists, then more boldly by the cubist move­ment and later with self-destructive fervor by the abstract expressio­nists - inevitably led to the breaking down of the plastic arts them­selves. Like Jackson Pollock, painting itself committed suicide. Pollock's helter-skelter lines would be killed by Barnett Newman's cold lone stripe; soon, even that would be knocked off, leaving only the blank canvas, and then no canvas at all. The can of Campbell soup would become a can of artist's fecal matter, until finally conceptual art canned the whole thing. One didn't need the can, the artist, or the shit. The concept itself was the sole survivor.


But a concept can stand alone only if it is unique, and it is concep­tual art's push to always be unique and new that inevitably leads to its superficiality. Only on the surface are we unique as individuals. What is most profound in us is shared by all humanity. And it is at that level that art must find its place.


If we continue to read Shakespeare today, or listen to Bach, it is because their works somehow transcend any unique aspects of their particular age and personal vision. They speak to us in a language that is common to the human experience. They touch us in the dee­pest realms of the collective unconscious. Great art must do that. Everything else is merely subject to the whims of fashion. And the world will always tire of fashion. For modern art to once again speak to us, it must find back a common language that reunites the irrational and rational, the spiritual and material, the Dionysian and Apollonian elements that are at the heart of our common humanity. Only then will the phoenix rise from its ashes.


Only then will the coronation bells ring.

Marc Stegeman

Licencié en Philosophie et Littérature anglaise, Compositeur, A écrit de nombreux articles sur l'Art pour le "Wall Street journal"