Mainstream Avant-Garde?
By Frank Moore
December 28, 1996

I suppose this is a review of sorts. Two things evoke this review. First Martha Wilson of Franklin Furnace asked me to comment on the Furnace's plans. The second event was our going to a Karen Finley reading (which cost $3 as opposed to $30 for a Finley performance ... .which I could not afford).
I have to start by saying I consider both Wilson and Finley powerful voices of the avant-garde. When other performance galleries were making artists create "acts" that would fit into "avant-garde" cabarets ... fit in terms of both time and fashionable subject matter ... Wilson at the Furnace was giving both artists and the art absolute freedom to perform magic ... until THEY shut the Furnace down for "fire violations." Karen and I were among the artists who enjoyed this freedom.
In other reviews, I have likened Karen's poetry to Ginsberg's, and her performances to Lenny Bruce's in their intensity and laser commentary on the social injustices. Her poetry makes me cry. Her passions within her performances have transported me into very deep states of reality.
So it is always tragic to see figures like these get sucked, seduced, absorbed, tricked, bribed into "the mainstream." It is tragic not only in personal terms for the individual artists, but in terms of the big picture. When an artist sets herself up as being an artist who goes beyond the normal frame, who tells the hard truths, who explores the unknown ... not to be hip, or controversial, or to be interesting ... but because that is how our tribal human being evolves, so it has to be done ... when that kind of artist then goes after money, personal fame, and/or glamour while still claiming to be doing avant-garde art, it is denying society the real evolutionary function of the real avant-garde. It tells people, audiences and artists alike, that the avant-garde is just a branch of the entertainment complex with the same rules, goals, reality as television, rock music, Hollywood, and sports. This is like telling people a can of Slim Fast is a balanced meal of real food. It is a lie. And the scary dangerous thing is artists are buying/selling this lie.
Why am I on this rant? About a year or two ago, Wilson sent out a mass mailing in which she defended art (maybe to funders) as a profitable industry which pulls money, people, and jobs into cities. (True ... if you want to make a lot of money, buy property where artists live/create now to sell to the yuppies when they discover the area!) This logic is a very steep, slippery slope indeed. The first glaring danger of this commercialized logic is art, according to this logic, which is not profitable or sellable is not and can not be successful worthwhile art! (Hey, ain't that the American way?) I am sure Wilson does not believe this.
Although another mass mailing I received from her in November (I have been mulling it over until now) makes me wonder if she has fallen down that slope into believing the lie. Avant-garde art is art that tells the truth, explores the taboos, pushes the limits. Obviously this kind of art, if it is honest, can not be focused outwardly. Historically, often "The People" (who are not the same thing as "the mainstream") have identified with the avant-garde because it was telling the truth about their lives. The focus of the avant-garde should always be on telling the truth, not on popularity polls and bottom lines. The focus of the avant-garde has been, and should be, on doing art that is as "pure" as possible ... not on mass media entertainment of reaching as many people as possible by shaping "the product" to that goal.
In her letter, Martha refers to the avant-garde art as "once unpopular work ... formerly at the non-profit fringe" ... art that Franklin Furnace, according to the letter, has groomed for 20 years to get it ready for the mainstream ... and now "Franklin Furnace is in a position to lead the avant-garde into the mainstream ... " This hurts my head and heart. It is as if Martha does not see her own historical contribution of giving daring art a home. Instead, she tries to take credit for gravity and decay. The mainstream entertainment, by it sheer mass, has always sucked artists out of the fringe, the underground. That is just gravity. In reality, it takes a lot to enter, and to stay in, the underground. The underground is where the real freedom and the real ability to change society are to be found. This is why artists CHOOSE the underground instead of the mainstream. This is also why, when an artist is pulled into the mainstream, this freedom and ability decay. In my own career, I have worked very hard to stay in the underground ... this work has been hard precisely because some of the pieces have turned out to be "popular" (whatever that means!) ... attracting the mainstream sharks.
The mainstream has always tried to create a fake avant-garde with fake controversies, fake taboos, fake "hipness," etc. to give the marks a controlled fun-ride through a Disneyland to keep them away from the real edge of life. This is because the powers-that-be can not control or exploit what is in the real avant-garde.
All of this is business as usual ... and doesn't scare me.
What does scare me is that someone like Martha bought into it and is becoming a producer of it! Her letter read like a bad Saturday Night Live skit. She is selling Franklin Furnace to get money to match a $100,000 n.e.a. challenge grant. With this money, and by teaming up with the corporate and media America, Franklin Furnace will be a "content provider for new media" that sniffs out "emerging alternative artists." (Emerging from where to where? Alternative to what?) These artists and their art must be suitable to be packaged as "alternative comedy (a.k.a. performance art.)" The letter tells us this new alternative comedy will be "funny, yet provocative." There will be a half-hour t.v. show of this. Plus they will produce short pieces to be aired "through" Saturday Night Live (as if that show has been cutting edge, or even funny, in the past 15 years) and MTV (with its history of censorship!) Moreover they are seeking other ways of giving "audiences a glimpse of the avant-garde world" (whatever the hell that is!) "in an entertaining and easily consumable fashion" ... like avant-garde artist trading cards ... funded by Philip Morris Companies!
The marketing phrase "alternative comedy (a.k.a. performance art)" is very damaging to performance art because it trivializes art. In fact it avoids "art" all together, selling "alternative comedy" as a weird, consumable form of entertainment which will give you a laugh for your buck. This is not what performance art is. Performance art is the performing/doing/experiencing the act of art. It is going on a physical journey into the unlimited realm of art. Sometimes this journey may be funny or entertaining. But these are not the true goals or rewards. The suggestion (promotion) that these are the rewards of art results in denying people, including the artists, the real full freeing experience of art.
All of this is selling the art, the artists, and the audience way short. I am not questioning Martha's personal commitment to the real avant-garde art. But realistically such art can not exist in such an environment that she is envisioning. Moreover it is misunderstanding the new media such as the internet and zines. In these media, artists can relate to their audiences directly without middlemen, without compromises, without limiting concepts such as "mainstream" ... all for very little money ... so why sell out?
But this concept of "alternative comedy" is disturbing. I guess the Karen Finley reading was an example of alternative comedy. She read from her parody of Martha Stewart (why bother?) which she obviously wrote just to fulfill a book deal. The reading was empty schtick, a passionless exercise in cleverness with no content or message. The audience responded with reflex laughter, like a laugh track. The problem was Karen was trying to be an entertainer, a comedian. Karen is not a comedian or entertainer. That is not her function. Her function is to inspire, confront, transmute ... to tell the truth with passion. That is why people come to her. When she does not do that, the people are not fulfilled. When she ended her act, the people just sat there numb. Then I asked Karen to read her very deep, very moving poem "Black Sheep"* ... I just happened to have a copy of it with me. As she read it, magic, life, and power started flowing through her body and out into the audience, uplifting them. When she finished reading, people stood up and clapped ... because this was why they came.
Oh, by the way, do you consider yourself mainstream? Do you want to be?

*Go to Karen Finley's "Black Sheep"

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