What happened to our magnetic north? on the decline of the avant garde

Magnet Phil Sheridan offers a new point of view on the music industry. He rehearses the things the music press has always said about the music industry; that it is tone-def, greedy, payola ridden, crass, manipulative, and exploitative. 

And then he offers this stunning change of heart:

we owe the vile and disgusting record industry a lot more than it’s popular to admit.  …  [T]here is a certain value in having a structure in place that more or less served to discover and develop talented music artists. 

I guess this was foreseeable.  In an era of plenitude and the long tail, of a music scene with literally hundreds of musical forms and millions of musical producers, the very structure of "music world" has changed.  Where once there were the studios who played bank and gatekeeper (supplying capital in exchange for the right to choose) now we live in a world with millions of acts and tracks.  In this windstorm of creative possibility, the old regime looks a little less draconian.  And the practical question rises: could there be talents on the order of Dylan, Morrissey, Morrison, Hendrix, Johnson, or Rogers Nelson who will never find the light of day.  In this context, the likes of Ahmet Ertgun and Seymour Stein look less than robber barons and more like talent dowsers we can no longer live without.

This doesn’t take anything away from the imagination and daring Sheridan exhibits when he writes such a piece.  The alternative music press has it’s orthodoxies and this was one of them, no sympathy for the devil.  Commerce corrupts.  Business is bad.  F*ck the man. 

But what is really striking about the piece is the second half.  Sheridan reviews an interesting case: The Clash v. CBS Records.  The argument is intricate but the upshot is clear: The Clash would never have written Complete Control has CBS not tinkered with Remote Control.  Sheridan summons comparable evidence from the careers of the Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Wilco and the Wrens.

Rock ‘n’ roll needed something to rebel against,  Whether that was a stifling ’50s mainstream culture, a disastrous war in Vietnam or the record industry itself was immaterial.  Without an evil, oppressive establishment, rebellion is just so much jerking off.

This goes to a deeper, culture problem.  A lot of creativity and cultural innovation in our world was predicated on a contest between the center and the margin, mainstream and avant garde, middle class and artist class,  age and youth, privilege and risk, tedium and imagination, orthodoxy and departure. 

But things have changed.   (How much it has changed and precisely why and where this change has taken place I leave to more contemplative circumstances (and bloggers).)  Generalizing a little, we can say that the center now has some of the creativity and risk taking capability of the margin, the middle class sometimes is an artist class, and that increasingly the culture of capitalism beats the drum of innovation so insistently that privilege, tedium and orthodoxy have gone to the margin and all of us must hew to the cause of risk, imagination and departure. 

The anthropological problem is simple: what differences does this difference make to our culture?  If creativity no longer comes from an avant garde, one of the great tectonic structures of our culture has changed. 

Maybe this is one of those differences that doesnt make a difference.  I mean, really, does it matter where creativity comes from.  Does it have to come from a contradiction between insiders and outsiders?  Isn’t cultural innovation innovation whatever its origins?  Who cares if the location of creativity has changed.

I think it does make a difference, and we can see everywhere in our culture.   Sheridan is raising the issue for the world of music.  He is right to ask  "Without a them, who is us?"  Certain fundamentals of the musical identity are now at issue. 

There was something clarifying about outsider status.  The avant garde represented a fairly simple operator, to use the language of James Boon.  When all other inspiration and orientation failed her, the artist could say at least, "I am not what the insider is."  Now that this "true north" of the avant garde compass has failed us all, certain matters of cultural orientation are not clear. 

Take the case of Stephen Soderbergh.  He now alternates between mainstream movies (the Oceans franchise) and arthouse picture (Che).  Here’s a guy who once had to choose between alternatives.  Now he is free to mix and match.  I wish I knew his work better, but it seems as if each new project is either one or the other.  In a more perfect world, the two impulses would comingle in the same film. 

Take the case of poor Thomas Frank who with each new book continues to thrash about in search of his oppositional opportunity.  The outsider status is no longer filled with that bracing certainty that made alienation a point of principle, a badge of pride.  It’s as if that gravitational field that once held the alternative at an appropriate distance from the mainstream, close enough to mock and cavil, far enough show its difference, has let go.  The Thomas Frank capsule tumbles into space. 

Take the case of Millennials.  Everyone insists that this is a quiescent generation.  (I haven’t any reliable ethnographic data so I can’t speak from the anthropological record.)  We might actually say that it is the death of the old polarity that makes this so.  Youth culture no longer needs to set itself in opposition to an adult culture to mark its difference, to win for itself a platform from which to make its own decisions.  Every individual millennial is free to make his or her own departure.

The cultural standing of African Americans is changing at light speed.  This might be the last generation that can claim to speak with an outsider’s advantage and authority. And what happens then? 

We think about how much of our culture has come from film makers, intellectuals, the next youth generation, the African American community.  What happens when the cause and the very grammar for this creativity falls silent?  What will we do without a magnetic north?


Sheridan, Phil. 2008.  Sympathy for the Devil.  Magnet.  No. 79.  Summer.  p. 128. 

4 thoughts on “What happened to our magnetic north? on the decline of the avant garde

  1. srp

    Personally, I always found the avant-garde pose irritating and stupid. The best innovative artists didn’t use rebellion to fuel their art. Rather, it was their aesthetic vision that placed them in opposition and forced them to be “rebels.”. Andy Warhol wanted to be a businessman, not a rebel, but soup cans and Marilyn Monroe kind of pissed off the establishment. Mick Jagger was far too cold-blooded about success and too hot-blooded about grabbing everything in front of him to truly be the rebel posited in Satisfaction.

    I guess there were plenty of rock artists whose sensibility really focused on the thrill of transgression and flipping off various authority figures (nagging girlfriends, parents, teachers, etc.), but I can think of a zillion great, innovative rock songs that had little to do with that stuff. And even some of the good music that trafficked in rebellion is not listened to today because of that avant-garde pretension.

  2. Tom

    “Certain fundamentals of the musical identity are now at issue.”

    I think this brush sweeps too broadly. Certain fundamentals of the ROCK musical identity (and pop, to some extent) are now at issue. And even there it’s not “musical identity,” really. It’s cultural.

    There’s nothing in the creative process — in the ground-level, nuts-and-bolts process of generating art — that is endemically anti-establishment. There’s no intrinsic insider-outsider dichotomy to the act of conjuring a melody and placing it over chords and a rhythm. Music exists not because certain cavemen felt alienated from their group and needed a way to express their discontent; music exists because human beings like sounds.

    There’s a lot more to all this than the half-century since Elvis Presley walked into a recording studio.

    So to answer your question, “Does (creativity) have to come from a contradiction between insiders and outsiders?”: No, it doesn’t.

  3. JT

    Tom, I disagree: Although the ‘rebel’ stance may not be endemic to artistic endeavors, the artisan class–painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, blah-blah–always remained distinct, if not diametrically opposed to, the others. As these class barriers erode, so does the status of a class dedicated to making art. We are becoming both producers and consumers.

  4. Anthrodiva

    Aren’t millenials no more than 13 years old, max? I’m pretty sure my seven year old is a millenial…I doubt we can make any assumptions about them till about 2015…

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