– Spring/Summer 2004

Desperate Dreams

Thomas Lawson

Tags: Joan Jonas

I find I have been thinking a lot recently about the early twentieth-century avant-garde.1 This probably has something to do with my long-standing nostalgia for the idea of standing apart from mainstream culture. I have always valued most highly art that rejects easy assimilation, one that chooses the path of difficulty over popularity.

The refusal to flatter conventional taste, the desire to confound connoisseurship; these are traits I admire. The work of that moment of rupture/rapture in European culture, when nothing seemed possible, and as a result anything was, appears to offer a perfect fit. This is obviously a romantic, and to some degree absurd, position to take. But over the course of much of the twentieth century it was often the correct position, the one most likely to generate productive ideas and challenging art. But as a result of this undeniable success, anti-formalist dissent has become the mode of the establishment, and we seem stuck in an odd cycle of repetitions whose rhetorical clamour seems increasingly hollow. Thus does it seem urgent to reconsider the contributions of the early avant-garde again, to discover what we can still learn that may be of use.

The great dream of the avant-garde was to make art anew in such a way that it would cause people to be somehow jolted out of their everyday prejudices and forced to reconsider the various conventions shaping their lives. It was a dream of emancipation, a breaking away from the various tyrannies of culture

  1. I have been thinking about this in part because I have been teaching a class on the topic this semester, and I'd like to thank my students at CalArts for both their patience and their insights as I have struggled with this essay.

  2. Hugo Ball and John Elderfield, Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary (Documents of Twentieth Century Art), New York: Viking, 1974, p.57

  3. Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984

  4. H. Ball, op. cit., p.58

  5. Ibid., p.221

  6. Lucy Lippard, 'The Dematerialisation of Art', reprinted in Changing, Essays in Art Criticism, New York: Dutton, 1971, p.255

  7. 'Joan Jonas: Five Works', curated by Valerie Smith for Queens Museum of Art, December 2003; 'Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961-2001', curated by Hendel Teicher for The New Museum of Contemporary Art, December 2003

  8. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and other essays, New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1961

  9. William Rubin (ed.), Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p.298

  10. Guillaume Apollinaire, Apollinaire on Art, (Documents of Twentieth Century Art), New York: Viking, 1972, p.452

  11. H. Ball, op. cit., p.53

  12. Jason Brown (ed.), NTNTNT, Los Angeles: CalArts School of Art, 2003, p.xlvii