May 5th, 2010 / 12:56 pm
Craft Notes

the “cute” avant-garde

I have this thing against cuteness. Cuteness is dismissable, cast to the side as irrelevant. And I suppose, to be fair, what was the last cute thing you actually took seriously? There seems to be something inherent to cuteness that begs to be cuddled and pet, smooshed and distorted. Taken seriously, though, nah. Nope.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been described as “cute.” And I admit, I have something to do with it. I’m short, compact, I have a collection second-hand t-shirts, brightly colored with some kiddie design on it. When I’m nervous—and I’m always nervous—I fold, make myself smaller, and my voice goes higher, “cuter.” And yet, I’ve tried to balance this with being an “adult.” I’ve changed my wardrobe. These days, instead of emerald green short skirts, I wear drab slacks. Instead of bright blue t-shirts, I wear black or grey. I’ve learned that as a woman—a young woman, an Othered woman, a “cute” woman—in order to be taken seriously, I have to dress the part. Being a writer certainly doesn’t help. If anything, it makes other people see me as more quirky, more “cute.”

And as if being a writer wasn’t enough, when asked what kind of writing I do, the word “novel” is never an adequate answer, and so I have to explain words like “conceptual,” “hybrid,” “experimentalism,” “avant-garde.” I explain while squirming, because again, I’m nervous, AND, and I hate these words, almost as much as I dislike the word “cute,” so naturally, when I came across an article titled “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” I was compelled to read it.

Sianne Ngai’s article is brilliant. She makes the argument that there is a violence to cuteness, which I totally dig. She draws heavily on art, citing example after example of cute art turned violent. But then, she uses Stein’s Tender Buttons as an example of both literary cuteness and avant-garde:

In fact, all the poetic explorations of cuteness above [Stein’s Tender Buttons and Ponge’s poetry], arrayed across the twentieth century, can be read as a way of acknowledging but also critically addressing oft-made observations about the literary avant-garde’s social powerlessness, its practical ineffectualness or lack of agency within the “overadministered world” it nonetheless persists in imagining as other than what it is. While the cute is an aesthetic of the small, the vulnerable, and the deformed, the avant-garde’s lack of political consequence is typically attributed to the short or limited range of its actual address, often taken as a sign of its elitism as a mode of “restricted production” (Bourdieu); its susceptibility to becoming routinized, in spite of its dynamism and commitment to change, and thus to being absorbed and recuperated by the cultural institutions it initially opposes. (837)

After reading this article, I re-read Tender Buttons. I’m not sure if I could, in all good conscience, call it “cute,” but sure, Stein uses words that could be seen as “cute”: muncher munchers, a dirty bird, the little, trimming, sweet, etc. But there is nothing cute about a passage like this:

Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.

Even though I have issue with Ngai’s example of Stein as cute, I found myself agreeing with her argument as a whole. The literary avant-garde is powerless, then as it is now. It’s easy for us at our desks with our laptops, trolling blogs like HTML Giant etc., to focus on our own relevance—because to the marginal readers of blogs like HTML Giant, we ARE relevant—but let’s be honest, out in the real world, who cares? I mean, what is the “range of our address,” if we’re to follow Amy’s post about art v. politics? Are we chasing our own “elite” tails? (Here, I ought to clarify that Ngai argues that there’s a relationship between “elitism” and “restricted production,” which is one of the markers for indie press.) Furthermore, if routinization leads to absorption, what’s the end goal? I mean it: what’s the end goal?

[Note: Sorry this post is so disorganized. I have a lot of thoughts on these matters and can’t seem to keep them straight.]

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88 Comments

  1. stephen

      re: “violence,” “politicization” of avant-garde:

      “If there is to be any peace it will come through being, not having.”
      —Henry Miller

      Also, my childhood was not dark and awful.

  2. darby

      am i wrong about that? i’d love to see avant-garde have a definition that involves passivity.

  3. stephen

      i don’t see how definitions are in the spirit of avant-garde. i don’t agree and i am passive re: whether anyone agrees with me. that makes me ___________?

  4. stephen

      i think the revolution is within.

  5. darby

      im not being avant-garde when i define it, obviously. thats like saying i dont think its avant-garde to pay for parking at the avant-garde museum.

  6. stephen
  7. stephen

      not the same as that, darby. can’t one talk the talk as well as walk the walk? in this case, that would mean much less talking.

  8. stephen

      that is, if avant-garde is a progression, isn’t the next progression towards no definitions, no politics, freedom and love, as well as art and life intermixed and harmonious? or instead of “no politics” you could say “politics no politics.”

      In plain language: The avant-garde needn’t be agreed upon, not even for convenience’s sake, not for any reason; forward-thinking art is free and part of life.

  9. darby

      no, there’s a separation there. it’s the difference between considering the avant-gardity of a work and then avant-gardely considering your consideration of the work. You’re moving the “spirit” away from the art and into the deconstruction.

  10. stephen

      you just used “avant-gardity” in a sentence.

  11. djfhkf

      I don’t think I’ll ever be taken seriously then. Boo.

  12. stephen

      my point is there’s no point. why can’t one surrender? why does one need to be “right” about anything or define anything? such things are illusions. “All art is quite useless.”

  13. darby

      things need to be defined at some point. avant-garde is an art philospohy, its not a general thought philosophy. you dont walk backwards to the grocery store and buy eggs and then stuff them up your ass or something.

  14. Ken Baumann

      I want to push back.

  15. Amber

      Sorry–I wasn’t very clear there. When I say “progress,” I don’t mean it here in terms of artistic vision or purpose, but rather that the very nature of what the avant garde does is push the envelope, break down barriers, etc.. By its nature I think it can’t help but be on the side of progress, even if that’s not the artist’s intent.

      And you’re right–I forgot about the Futurists. There are definitely exceptions.

  16. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      You don’t think that even the happiest childhood has elements of terror or trauma?

      I don’t really get what he being-having distinction means in this context. Maybe I’m not smart enough.

      I am very interested in recovering things like cuteness and melodrama to the extent that those sensibilities still resonate w/ and interest me as part of what’s “vulnerable and honest” for me, to grab your language from above (“true” and “right” are words that make me a little bit twitchier)… I’m not personally as interested in the part of the conversation that’s abt the avant garde and what it is or isn’t. That shit makes my head hurt.

  17. stephen

      wouldn’t it be Absurd or Surreal if i did walk backwards and stuff eggs up my ass? seems related.

      how does “avant-garde” art gain anything by being defined? are you uncomfortable with it not being defined or not defined by you?

      “avant-garde” and “philosophy” and “thought” are just words, yes?

      maybe “avant-garde” “has” to be defined, given some context/goals, but wouldn’t it be more “avant-gardier” of you to not bother defining it and just be an artist?

  18. darby

      i think its more reactionary for me. i see it has having a definition that implies purpose and meaning and i dont want it to have purpose and meaning, because i dont attribute that to it. so im interested if other people experience it similarly.

  19. stephen

      gotcha.

      re: the henry miller quote, i see it as saying, in this context, “yall are talking, here and in the ‘nipples, nice discussion’ posts, about getting equal rights, getting equal representation, getting the avant-garde to be better this way or that way, etc., and all I have to say is, peace, which is what i think most people want, ultimately, is not to be had by having, by getting, it is being, pure being, awareness, consciousness, it has no having no getting it is.”

  20. voorface

      Sidestepping the cute part (briefly), I’m not entirely sure that the avant-garde does lack political consequence. If we assume for a moment that the avant-garde has historically been, in general, a left-wing project and then look for a parallel project on the right it would be the think tank. Think tanks involve a small group of people doing vanguard work to disseminate right-wing political ideas into the general conciousness. They aren’t “relevant” in the sense of market saturation, but their ideas do permiate society. One of the most successful ideas that came out of right wing think tanks is the idea that all that matters is the self, the individual. This idea has really taken hold in society, to the point where people don’t even concider that being apolitcal ~is~ a political position.

      I think Gertrude Stein is better understood in the context of modernism, rather than the avant-garde. It’s true that these terms are often conflated, but I think this is wrong. The avant-guard should be understood as iconoclastic, as questioning everything, as anti-art. It is quite obviously political in nature. Modernism was a project that sought to put art into the 20th century, a project that at its foundation believed in the idea of progress. With Stein, her use of “cute”, sometimes babyish, language makes most sense when contrasted to standard “objective”, “cold” (not to mention “male”) modernism. Stein wanted to make 20th century poetry and so used idiomatic and “simple” language to create very complex works. She was in many way iconoclastic an questioning, but she believed in art, she believed in progress.

      Note: of course there are exceptions and an arguement to be had against the idea of the avant-garde being left-wing, but I am simplifying to stop this comment turning into an essay.

  21. Amber

      Think tanks are on the left as well as the right: Brookings, EPI, Center for American Progress, etc. But you’re right that there’re still more powerful and still more traditionally associated with the right.

      And you’re right in that the avant garde is politically powerful and absolutely associated with the left, because it’s about progress and is the opposite of conservative thinking. Hitler hated nothing like the avant-garde. Conservatives screamed about Mappelthorpe in the 80s, about Piss Christ getting NEA funding. It’s why most artists are lefties and most conservatives dislike modern art. Jesus, look at the Velvet Revolution. There you go.

  22. Janey Smith

      make it cute

  23. voorface

      Thanks for pointing that out. I would say that those institutions are more centrist than left-wing, but yes, not all think tanks are agressively right-wing. I don’t see any think tanks that are as revolutionary in the way that many think tanks are counter-revolutionary, however. That no doubt has a lot to do with funding.

      You’re right to bring up the Nazis’ attitude towards the avant-garde and modernism, but that always has to be tempered with a reminder of Marinetti’s alliance with Mussolini. However, I think this has more to do with the ideological flexibility of fascism than with where on the political spectrum do we place the avant-garde.

      “because it’s about progress”
      I have to disagree with you on this. I think the avant-garde is against bourgeois assumptions like the idea of progress, the concept of art etc.

  24. djfhkf

      I don’t think I’ll ever be taken seriously then. Boo.

  25. Ken Baumann

      I want to push back.

  26. Amber

      Sorry–I wasn’t very clear there. When I say “progress,” I don’t mean it here in terms of artistic vision or purpose, but rather that the very nature of what the avant garde does is push the envelope, break down barriers, etc.. By its nature I think it can’t help but be on the side of progress, even if that’s not the artist’s intent.

      And you’re right–I forgot about the Futurists. There are definitely exceptions.

  27. steven

      Ngai’s book, Ugly Feelings is worth reading as well.

  28. steven

      Ngai’s book, Ugly Feelings is worth reading as well.

  29. mimi

      “……. think that even the happiest childhood has elements of terror or trauma?”

      This seems like the perfect question to pose as an HTML GIANT post.

  30. mimi

      To celebrate cute or to subvert cute?
      Or to just play with it?
      I am having a very hard time deciding.

  31. mimi

      “……. think that even the happiest childhood has elements of terror or trauma?”

      This seems like the perfect question to pose as an HTML GIANT post.

  32. mimi

      To celebrate cute or to subvert cute?
      Or to just play with it?
      I am having a very hard time deciding.

  33. drew kalbach

      thanks for the link

  34. drew kalbach

      thanks for the link

  35. isaac estep

      can i has cheeseburger?

  36. isaac estep

      can i has cheeseburger?

  37. mimi

      “Next time, push her off,” Sybil said.
      “Push who off?”
      “Sharon Lipschutz.”

  38. mimi

      “Next time, push her off,” Sybil said.
      “Push who off?”
      “Sharon Lipschutz.”