What is Avant-Garde?

Now that I’m on twitter i can’t always keep track of where I hear things from, but the happy outcome is that I’m getting in contact with lots of stuff I like. Yesterday I watched a bunch of videos from The Avant-Garde Diaries. These are one of the products of an arts foundation run by Mike D of The Beastie Boys.

They are very short videos with artists and others who are working in spaces beyond what is acceptable for their fields. There are lots of artists, but also a skateboarder, snowboarder, two fashion designers, a boldly green Taiwanese product designer, chefs (of molecular gastronomy and food truck cuisine). Many of the videos start out interviewing one person who ends up saying “well I’m not really so avant-garde, you’ve got to meet this person. S/he’s avant-garde.”

The videos are encouraging. Well except for the one by Sage Vaughn, who says, “Well the avant-garde are the first ones off the boat. They get killed.” Yeah, that’s why it’s scary. Ralf Schmerberg is a bit more democratic about the whole thing saying that avant-garde is the moment in life when you break out, it could be anyone anytime. It’s not something that’s inside of some people and not others. But it’s just as scary no matter.

It was a phrase I hadn’t really thought about much until yesterday. Sometimes concepts really be freeing, and I think that’s part of what Mike D is up to with this project. I realized that I’ve always been a little ahead, ever since I shocked my 8th grade world by taking up black leather pants. Six months later I was out of town and my mom called me up “Guess what’s in the window of Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue — harley davidson motorcycles and black leather.” It’s been more of a burden than a blessing because I’ve gone through life feeling crazy, backing off timidly when people tell me so, and apologizing for my outlandish insistences.

I realize that in any situation, I am immediately (and unconsciously) drawn to the edge of what’s going on, to the part of the rhetoric yet unfulfilled. This really does not make you popular.

The other day I was, as usual, hemming and hawing about buying apples. Because the most sustainable of the apples at the market are marked “minimal spray”. I like the lady who sells them, and I’m furious at the defensiveness of all other sellers who just haven’t bothered to learn about organic production methods yet so insist it’s “impossible”. I don’t want to patronize people who aren’t bothering to offer me a product with integrity, but I want apples, so I’m struggling with myself. As I’m standing there I overhear a conversation between three 20-something hipsters. They are saying, loud enough for the vendor to hear, “What’s this minimal spray shit? I don’t want partially organic, or sort of organic. I want organic.” There I was feeling like “I’m so difficult, why do I put myself through this?” And here came this wonderful community and growing culture to tell me that in this moment I’m not crazy after all. The edge is lonely, and it’s nice to have some company.

The idea of avant-garde also helps me understand why it is that my friends get uncomfortable. I’m plowing along saying and doing the only things that make sense to me, and my friends are feeling like I’m being borderline offensive, or aggressive, or um, shall we say, unrefined. Definitely unprofessional. Generally “too serious”.

The interviewees in the Diaries keep saying that it takes a lot of confidence to keep going in these circumstances, not to back off. I describe the backing off experience as “getting small”. I’ve done it far too much, only to see my crazy ideas get very big, and other people get invited to the party.

My new way of apologizing is going to be “Sorry, I’m avant-garde.”

My latest crazy idea is growing here.