The Avant-Garde and Sarah Sze

At this point we may well wonder if any original things have actually arisen.

Rimbaud was not known for neologisms—though he did compose one of the first free verse poems. Duchamp did not construct any items that had never before existed—but he did make a medium of artistic authority.

Is such proof for or against novelty? Can anything new arise if there are no values to give birth to them? To accept or reject them? What allows for the detection of strangeness? Can it assist in the process of creating values by leading its participants to utter aporias? Does art affect change in society?

Or is it power-less?

Does it lose its ability to be art when it is trying to be a tool of social change? Does art, as Marcuse argues, have the capacity to affect change only when it is free for itself?

—Doing its own thing, as it were.

It would seem that the latter argument might be rhetorical smoke and mirrors. While we may be tempted to reduce this question of art’s role and agency to a graspable or quantifiable answer, we should, I think, do our best to leave it open and a little ambiguous as long as we can—the fruit of such prolonged thinking tends to be hardier.

We do know that today’s painters, poets, and other creators see themselves—that is, understand their vocation—quite differently than those working during earlier periods of history.

—And perhaps so too for the future?

The meaning of the creator’s vocation, I think, has been drawn out by history and allowed to thin and mingle amongst the everyday (—from artisan to artist-creator to dilettante to all manner of multiplicitous understandings of self).

But have we even yet surpassed—escaped—Duchamp?

Still a practical question has eluded us:

If, as Bürger puts forward, the avant-garde should not be understood in terms of “style,” then how should we note their possible influence upon the institution of art? Upon society and culture?

If we are not using style—which would seem a necessary manifestation of any aesthetic whether a work was highly conceptual or not—to distinguish avant-garde work from mainstream fine art, or even one artist’s work from another, then how would we think about them? How would we be provoked by them?

We obviously experience them—thus they must, in some sense, “have style…” just not easily recognizable ones; that is, they have a style or a methodology with few antecedents (—perhaps in this way it is an almost prophetic innovation).

If there is some connection to a Nietzschean “going beyond good and evil”—the questioning and creating of new values—then possibly there is always a mode or style of presentation or performance in the work of the avant-garde that is on one hand yet to come, but also something present in the work’s suggestions or pronouncements.

Of course now most artists—minus those politically and socially active—try to shy away from blatant references or messages. How then do we read their work? How do we discern mainstream fine art from avant-garde work? (—If there is now still a distinction.)

And, if we could, how would we be able to read it? To understand its message? Especially when the artist behind it often does not truly understand it (—or understands it in a manner contrary to critics).

In any case, a helpful tool here might be the think back to understanding the avant-garde as responding to alienation, as an “instrument of art’s self criticism.”

Were we to acknowledge the technological changes since the late nineteenth century, the shifts towards globalization, coordinated economies, increased social mobility, enhanced communication and so forth (—and we are here not making any judgments about such phenomena), could we not note that the aims of artists would also change? That their criticism—their message—would, like their world, expand and consolidate?

—The work of the avant-garde has always been a unique voice and vision embodying what is, while simultaneously pointing at what is to come (—or, at least, it has endeavored to be and to do so).

The avant-garde, the “advance guard,” is a force meant to traverse the foreign and the familiar—they work between now and the not yet. They do not create new values (—worth, I would argue, can only be acceded to, not created), rather they question old values, and prepare the way for shifts in values and worldviews just over the horizon.

—Sans fire from heaven and the condemnation of Herod, they are much like prophets.

—Does this illuminate the work and role of the avant-garde over what has already been said of them? Let us try to unpack it a bit more:

Aristotle pointed out that we take pleasure in beholding things possessing a natural likeness, which if true would explain a fairly ubiquitous appreciation for life-like renderings and naturalistic representations.

Much later, however, Harold Rosenberg in discussing the avante-garde would note that we (late moderns) live in an “Age of Queer Things,” which, if true, seems to signal one of three possibilities: a negation of that which we “naturally” take pleasure in, that we now take pleasure in strange things, or pleasure has little to do with avant-garde art.

Due to the degree of challenge present in most early avant-garde works, it would be most reasonable to assume the third possibility. Rosenberg goes on to say that avant-garde art is not for anyone, that it has no actual audience (—quite contrary to Hegel’s views on art). It’s odd and strange—a new for which we are ill prepared.

This is of course derives from the idea that the avant-garde operates as art’s self criticism—whereby the public was more a victim of crossfire than an intended audience—as such whatever might have allowed us entry into the work, some understanding of the work, is often times missing.

Consider how many artists, if we take them at face value, often express disinterest at being accepted, in having their work shown—sensibilities expressing a powerful feeling of separation. Their work manifests this separation and thus stands away from us, resists us, it does not want to be truly known by us.

Is such the undeniable nature of the new?

Yet if it were true that there is novelty and that it stands away from us, what do we do with Rosalind Krauss’ often touted critique that all that ever really happens is a “rediscovery of the grid”? The grid being that two- or three-dimensional space wherein art is conceived and produced—a sort of reduction and schematization of space that reveals how we discern balance, asymmetry, depth, proportions, and so on.

Originality of concept or method, in this way, is for Kraus merely variegated repetitions. Even when one “breaks free” of the grid the only reason they or we know that they are breaking free of the grid is due to the existing prevalence of the grid (—much like Nietzsche and the death of God: it is only meaningful when the concept of God is meaningful).

—Is all originality then a fiction? Even when space for novelty is created through misreading or violence, is all that really emerges there some cobbled-together vicissitudes of existing forms, ideas, and emotions? Old rants or moods or insights dissembled?

We ought here to make a firm distinction hinted at above: To be avant-garde is not to be singular or original in a strict sense, rather to prepare and surprise us for looming cultural and societal changes.

To embody the values and fears and hopes of a culture, yet to hint at and anticipate that which is just out of reach—both concretely and in parousiatic fashion (—the here and ever yet to come). It seems to me that we do not have the capacity—nor perhaps the ethical inclination—to fully experience or comprehend true otherness, strangeness—the utterly new. We would not even know what to call such art, nor would we, perhaps, even recognize it as art.

We can, however, discern radical departures from normative values.

Again, not that this makes the departure “good” or “bad,” only different—and it is this difference that is of use to us. That which shocks and surprises us in a comprehensible way, prepares us for what is to come.

Here I would like to offer an artist whose work seems to me to embody much of what has been discussed, much of what has been questioned: Sarah Sze.

Sze works with common materials—paper, paperclips, books, rulers, cups, glue, lights, rocks, wires, and all manner of odds and ends that anyone might find around his or her house. —And such is not new. Duchamp already worked with found objects, yet Sze does something different—she uses them in compositions in ways as yet not truly experienced.

Rauschenberg? Pfaff? Stockholder? Rhoades?

—They and many others have worked common items into constructions and environments quite successfully, but again: Sze seems to be doing something different.

When we study a Duchamp readymade it is all about the object being called art. When we see a collage or assemblage by Rauschenberg, while masterfully worked into handsome pieces, the blanket or the goat or the clock or the famous photo, still retain their identity as such.

And while Pfaff and Stockholder seem to have moved in the direction towards which I am intimating, they fell somewhat short: Pfaff’s installations are too overworked, too whimsical and garish, and Stockholder’s seem too autobiographical and too contingent upon the gallery space in which they sit.

—Not Sze’s.

In “Proportioned to the Groove” (2005), her installation imposes a three dimensional grid upon the museum space through extended stings and wires. She then moves freely about that grid, distorting it, playing upon it, making pocket realities in and outside it. And it is all done with spools, notebooks, tape, glasses—yet nothing mundane remains of the items: they have been incorporated into a work of art in such a way that they have been freed of their normal function (Duchamp) and rendered into something absorbable by everyone (Rimbaud).

Again: The usual disenfranchisement an uninitiated gallery-goer might experience upon encountering challenging work is not present—Sze’s work accomplishes that ever-so-rare combination of critical success and popular appeal.

My own thinking is that her work is not fully understood. —I am unsure whether or not it can be. It does impossible things: It levitates, encompasses, posits fractals against Euclid, it seems the work of a hundred laborers and planners: It is transcendent—still, it is immanently ephemeral and made of what is most common.

If one were inclined to see art as going wrong with Duchamp (—which is not my position), and the history and movements of art since as possessing little nobility or beauty (—again, not my position), then they may very much welcome the art of Sarah Sze.

She operates within all the modes and sensibilities of contemporary art, yet she goes further. Her work leads us to question, to question the real, the everyday—it interrogates us and provokes us to translate ourselves in order to truly see it…

“Hidden Relief” (2001), like so many of her pieces arises from a corner and spreads out as a universe growing out of one reality into another—from one set of given laws into another where the laws are not yet known. And there are no “new” materials, no “novel” extensions of use—everything has been done before.

—But no one has constructed what she has constructed. As Arthur Danto noted:

“It is a body of work unlike any other. Its originality may perhaps be implied by the suggestion that had she not created these works, nothing like them would have existed. They are not so much hers, but her.”

I would correct Danto by saying that “They are not so much hers, but ours.” By this I am recalling both Hegel’s and Rimbaud’s sense of otherness co-present with the self and discernable in works of art: I do not believe that the work of Sarah Sze is an extension of her psyche—rather an externalization of the world as she has experienced it, which is always unique, but rarely expressible.

To most squarely address our questions: I do not think Rimbaud, Duchamp, or Sze offered anything new or original in the sense we might have hoped for. I do think, however, that Duchamp was successful in decoupling art from its traditional use and place in art history and in the world.

And after Duchamp there arose a new choice: to play the game of art without well-defined rules, to accept an artist’s authority to call what she will art—or not.

Perhaps the hardest part of it all was the move away from beauty (—subjective as the term often is, it is difficult to deny balance, symmetry, health).

But then we find Sarah Sze.

She is not a new media artist—she employs no cutting edge technologies or mediums: she simply and profoundly transforms everyday things into transcendent worlds. In this way, I believe, in the tradition of the avant-garde, she prepares us for what is up ahead: a world in need of beauty—not a negation of ugliness, oddness, or otherness, rather a way of seeing and constructing that renovates reality.

—A union of Rimbaud and Duchamp, Hegel and Nietzsche.

Her work anticipates a generation that rejects both naive optimism and cynical nihilism in favor of creatively using what is at hand to work through and respond to whatever life presents us.


—Andy Amato, PhD
Andy Amato is an artist, writer and teacher

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