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What qualifies as true avant-garde? Degrowth qualifies–and very little else

What qualifies as true avant-garde? Degrowth qualifies–and very little else thumbnail

What qualifies as true avant-garde? Degrowth qualifies–and very little else.

In the 20th century, avant-garde was a term primarily reserved for the arts: fine arts, music, performance and literature. Avant garde–literally fore-guard or vanguard— challenges the conventions of Status Quo measures of beauty and departs from traditional forms and conceptions of value.

In many cases, the departure is designed to shock traditionalists by flaunting accepted norms; by traditional standards, avant-garde art is ugly or disturbing, avant-garde music is atonal and unmelodic, avant-garde theatre flouts conventional narrative structure and avant-garde social movements upend traditional morals and values.

Virtually all design and art fields have been continually disrupted by avant-garde movements, to the point that the conventional consumerist economy now depends on avant-garde (or perhaps quasi-avant-garde) to create “the new” that can be sold at a profit to differentiate the in-crowd from those (sigh–how sad) left behind.

Many forms of avant-garde disrupt “high-brow” conventions of art, music, fashion, interior design, etc. by infusing the medium with low-brow influences. Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriation of comic-book art is one example. In effect, “low-brow” becomes hip until it is adopted by the mainstream, at which point high-brow is re-introduced to offer a consumerist means to separate wealthy sophisticates from the lumpen-proletariat and petite-bourgeois masses.

I suspect that this century-long cycle of outraging the conventional has reached marginal returns, and this spells the end of avant-garde in the 20th century modernist sense. Now that every convention has been flouted, there is nothing left to disrupt or shock; “the new” is now simply re-hashed “old.”

Since consumerism is based on the insecurity of bourgeois aspirations (i.e. the desire to be identified as belonging to the in-crowd), there must always be something “new” to separate elites from aspirants and aspirants from the masses.

This role is filled by simulacra of avant-garde (i.e. presenting the appearance of “the new” to sell more goods). Fake avant-garde is the ultimate co-option of true innovation, as this quasi-avant-garde serves an entirely conventional purpose: reaping profits from selling consumerist sizzle.

Experience has been commoditized by the tourism industry, and as a result travel only signifies membership in the in-crowd if it is self-directed and leisurely, i.e. a form of consumption that cannot be attained by conventional workers with two weeks vacation.

The only form of travel that separates the in-crowd from the low-brow aspirational masses desperate to put foreign travel on their resume and brag about it on Facebook is travel to exotic locales well off the already-commoditized tourist paths (Oh dahling, Kathmandu is so over-run and boring. Siberia is the place to be.)

These 20th century formulas–breaking the traditional modes to be avant-garde, and using the avant-garde to market new products and experiences–have run out of oxygen. As a result, the arts, music and literature are no longer the source of avant-garde–what is truly disruptive are social innovations that disrupt the consumerist model of constantly marketing faux avant-garde as “the new.”

I think this excerpt from the article Information-Commodification offers a succinct summary of how social innovation is the true avant-garde:

“Avant-gardes, on the other hand, are always interesting, but they are not really about art, whatever some silly art school textbooks might say. Avant-gardes are about media, about social relations, about property-forms, but they are only ever incidentally or tactically concerned with art. The most interesting ones around at the moment might be about pharmacology or horticulture or even ‘business models’.”

What qualifies as true avant-garde? Degrowth qualifies–the rejection of consumption as a measure of growth, prosperity and advancement. The model of access not ownership is avant-garde, as is the no-middleman movement I have described in the blog.

Degrowth, Anti-Consumerism and Peak Consumption (May 9, 2013)

When Conventional Success Is No Longer Possible, Degrowth and the Black Market Beckon (February 7, 2014)

Degrowth Solutions: Half-Farmer, Half-X (July 19, 2014)

And the Next Big Thing Is … Degrowth? (April 7, 2014)

Any movement that serves to market “the new” in conventional consumerism (and collecting fine art is the ultimate high-brow consumerism) is not avant-garde. The real avant-garde disrupts the consumption and ownership as identity model of aspirational capitalism.

Anything that doesn’t disrupt the consumption and ownership as identity model of aspirational capitalism is just another marketing campaign exploiting faux avant-garde.

For more on the photos accompanying this essay, please read Global Bellwether: Japan’s Social Depression (September 25, 2014).


Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog

27 Comments on "What qualifies as true avant-garde? Degrowth qualifies–and very little else"

  1. MSN Fanboy on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 6:45 pm 

    Japan has a rich cultural heritige ruined by western values, now find themselves in limbo between despair and nothingness.

    The west really did destroy just as much as it created, espically with its holier than thou superlative nonsence. Collapse may do the japanese good. They certainly would be happier.

  2. Makati1 on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 9:33 pm 

    MSN, your observations coincide with mine in this area. But, it appears that they are going for ‘all or nothing’ as the old, never dead, warrior Japan is re-emerging. They are planning to re-write their constitution that will allow them to build up an offensive military and go to war once again. How they believe they can do this is beyond belief to me, but…

    How ever, nukes are are high on their agenda. And they have materials to make hundreds of them in the next few years. I am watching my northern neighbor closely. The world has enough psychopathic leaders at the moment.

  3. Northwest Resident on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 11:22 pm 

    MSN — Absolutely, the Japanese will return to the Samurai way of life — peasants, nobles, warrior class. And bushido — they have to embrace their past code of honor to return to happiness and prosperity. Japanese feudal law will be reinstated. A shogunate shall rise from the ashes and return Japan to its former glory! Beheadings, seppuku, burnings at the stake, women forced into prostitution and legal child sex abuse shall become the norm once again. YEAH, we Westerners really messed up a good thing for the Japanese.

  4. FriedrichKling on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 12:50 am 


    I just want to be sure that you see my comment, which I write in response to a stupid comment made be some troll named leu on a previous thread.

    I and many others greatly admire your intelligent and thought-provoking posts. Please do not allow ONE loser to dissuade you!!!!!

    Keep-up the great work!!!!!!!

  5. Northwest Resident on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 2:04 am 

    Hello FriedrichKling — Don’t worry, trolls are to me like fleas to an elephant’s ass. I appreciate your sentiments and your encouragement!

    We are living during the greatest human drama ever to unfold on planet earth, it is playing out right now. No way are trolls going to keep me from flapping my jaws and expressing my opinions on the subject!

    Reality, facts and logic are my guiding principles. And hope. There IS hope. But only for those who recognize and deal with the realities, and prepare.

    Thanks again.

  6. Davy on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 7:44 am 

    It is those of us that are dooming and prepping that have discovered our true human nature. Has it not been the case through our human history that we have always been a C-hair away from doom? It has only been the recent 200 years of FF that has enabled us to push this envelope through technology, markets, and the accumulation of knowledge. We are now at the inflection point of limits of growth and diminishing returns of a complex system. We as doomers and preppers are the true avant-garde. We are rejecting MSM cornucopian doctrine and proving time and again this doctrine has no future and in effect is false. We are acknowledging the finite nature of our ecosystem. We are acknowledging the cyclical nature of life. Doom and prep are leading the way in the paradigm shift of descent introducing traditional skills and knowledge. Doom and prep does not reject modern it innovates the new and the old. Our criteria is whether it has a future or is a dead end. We do not reject the cornucopian’s achievements we just reject the life span of these achievements. We also remind the corns of the consequences and unintended consequences of unbridled growth. The cornucopian mentality has trashed the earth. Doom and prep offers a rebirth. Doom and prep has no illusions of grandeur but rather the stoicism that ugly awaits us with pain, suffering, and loss. Our primary preaching point is honesty and reality. Our preaching starts with mental health. The beginning of mental health is acceptance not denial. Where are you at in your mental health?

  7. Makati1 on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 7:55 am 

    This is the first time in all history where man has the ability and, yes, the insanity to kill all life on earth in a few hours. Or will we just doom our species and a few million others and let a world of chaos from our pollution evolve into another ecology in a few million years? Too bad we will not likely see the result of our existence here in this ball of dirt and rock. Can the creation of a world without humans be considered avant-garde?

  8. Mark on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 11:02 am 

    If anything, I would say Transhumanism is the only true avant-garde movement today. What the author is nothing more than a depressed luddite who hates the modern world. I am not saying the current system is sustainable either, but it will be replaced by something better than the return to a Medieval way of life, which really sucked for people. I think as automation takes over, capitalism will have to be replaced by a new order because work will gradually be decoupled from productivity. That was the complaint of the original luddites, but rather than destroying the new machines, we need to create a world where everyone will benefit from them, not just the elites.

  9. Mark on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 11:06 am 

    “The only form of travel that separates the in-crowd from the low-brow aspirational masses desperate to put foreign travel on their resume and brag about it on Facebook is travel to exotic locales well off the already-commoditized tourist paths (Oh dahling, Kathmandu is so over-run and boring. Siberia is the place to be.)”
    One more thing-trekking to Everest requires more than two weeks vacation. If you go to Nepal you really need to spend at least a month there, and most Americans still don’t go to Nepal. They go on a cruise or to Hawaii, perhaps Cancun. If they really want to be exotic, they may even go to Europe or even Greece.

  10. Davy on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 12:00 pm 

    Mark, where do you draw your conclusion mideviel life really sucked? There is nothing I have seen to indicate these people were necessarily unhappy. I feel they had a mental stability we could only dream of. As for your critique of American travel sorry poor generalization. What you described is typical of the global masses in general but not indicative of the more educated and creative who search for something more.

  11. Mark on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 1:44 pm 

    I don’t even know where to start. First, most people were not knights in shining armor or beautiful maidens, etc. Most people were peasants who were ruled by serfs who were basically thugs. Think gangs and mafia. Were are currently ruled by elitist intellectual upper class snobs, but at least we have civil government.
    Second, people were also oppressed by religion. If you didn’t agree with the clergy you could be executed in the most horrendous ways, they would laugh at our idea of banning cruel and unusual punishment-to them that was the whole idea of punishment. Think of being ruled by a bunch of religious fanatics like ISIS.
    Third, death and disease was rampant. They not only lacked modern medicine and antibiotics, they had no means of basic sanitation, no bleach, no disinfectants, no real way to keep things clean in the modern sense. And they had no idea cleanliness was linked to germs. Conditions were filthy with lack of sewers and basic sanitation. This lead to the rampant spread of deadly diseases like the plague. In the medieval world Ebola would become the next “black death”. Still, you were more likely to die of a simple cut acquired plowing your field than some exotic disease like ebola.
    Fourth, you would probably not be able to read or write, and you would have no concept of what the world was like beyond your simple village because you will have never travel that far. In all likelyhood you would have been a peasant living in a mud hut with your family and animals, and spend your days working the fields and hoping there would be enough food to feed your family after giving a good chunk of it over to the local extortionist thugs, uh, I mean the lord of the estate. then you would most likely die sometime in your 30’s. either form disease, famine, or because a competing feudal lord decided it would be fun to plunder and kill the peasants of your lord. Fun life to lead, huh?

  12. Davy on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 2:31 pm 

    Mark, if you look around today what is different except for a small minority of well-to-doers. You picture of the past has been conditioned by your understanding of the past in relation to the present. The conditions of that period varied considerable. Many areas had very stable conditions for extended periods. Periods that I imgine were happy times. What we have today they did not have is uncertainty. We also are in a period of massive overshoot from population and resource use. IOW we live on the knife edge of total collapse in a codependency with a deflating global. Mark you are obviously a corn and I a doom so our world views diverge considerably with what has been and what is coming. I respect your world view but I would not bet money on it.

  13. MSN Fanboy on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 4:56 pm 

    You know what i meant nr

  14. Northwest Resident on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 5:20 pm 

    MSN — To be honest, I really didn’t give much thought to what you meant. My post immediately following yours was more directed at our American-hating master of all things EVIL about America — yes, the one and only Makati1. But now that I re-read your post, I agree with one of your sentiments — and I’ll expand on it a little. Collapse will be good for the Japanese, and it will be good for the world. Not short term of course, but at some point the rat and vermin infested shanty town has to be burned to the ground and a new town built on top of it. There is hope and promise and renewal in starting over. But the transition is very, very painful. That’s my thoughts on the subject, since you bring it up again.

  15. JuanP on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 5:35 pm 

    Mark “then you would most likely die sometime in your 30’s.”
    I have read this ignorant crap so many times it annoys me. When you read about average life expectancy being in the thirties in a more primitive society, this does NOT mean that the average person lived till there thirties. Research has proven that many people in those societies died before the age of five, usually from disease and starvation. Most of the people that survived their infancy lived to grow old. The thing is infant mortality was so high, it brings down life expectancy significantly. If half the population dies at 5 and half at 65. The average life expectancy is 35.
    There are also natural antibiotics and antiseptics that can be used, and even modern antibiotics are becoming increasingly ineffective.
    And for every bad thing we had in the past, we have two bad things today. And those people were a lot less living in a world full of resources.
    We will be lucky if we end up living as they did. Not in my lifetime during collapse, that’s for sure.

  16. Davy on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 6:02 pm 

    Very true Juan, I have a large library of books on the Osage Indians. There diet was many times healthier than ours. Their lifestyle minus the male warrior cult was superior in physical health related activity. Their mental health was a magnitude higher than ours with the tribe in a harmony of place time mentally. To be sure hard times would hit but their society was far more advanced in a humaness we have left behind. It was not until the advent of the whites that their society began the 200 year erosion. The advent of the horse and the pressure of the removal of the eastern tribes disrupted the power balances. The cash economy, whiskey, disease, and white encroachment finished them off.

  17. Makati1 on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 8:44 pm 

    NWR, to not support something is not necessarily to hate it. Disappointment and frustrations in what it is becoming, is just that. I get tired of the ‘sit at home’ flag wavers that try to defend the Empire’s plunder and murder all over the world. They allow it to continue because … they know, deep down, that they too benefit from that plunder and murder. Even to the point of giving the lives of their own kids in unnecessary ‘wars’. So, call me what you want. You are still on the losing side…

  18. Makati1 on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 8:46 pm 

    BTW: I am taking the day off to get a personal tour of one of the Philippine’s Navy ships with my friend and his Navy captain brother. I will not be here to “hate” the US, so enjoy.

  19. Northwest Resident on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 9:02 pm 

    Makati1 — I never met a single person who even remotely came close to being a sit at home flag waver, much less anybody who ever tried (or would try) to “defend the Empire’s plunder and murder all over the world.”

    You’re one of a kind, Makati1.

  20. Mark on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 11:50 pm 

    I have been away all day so I haven’t responded. yes, my worldview is dramatically different than most here, that I will agree with. a couple of things, i got to visit a hunter-gatherer tribe in Africa several years ago-the Hadzabe in Tanzania. And in short-I would not trade my lifestyle for theirs.
    But we were not talking about hunter gatherers anyway, we were talking about feudal societies. someone mentioned they thought feudal Japan was better off than now, that was my comparison. Anyone who thinks we could revert back to hunting and gathering is delusional. If society does collapse it will more likely revert to a agrarian subsistance society much like Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Even pre medieval civilizations were not fun for most people. most were despotisms where you would have little or no rights. Even in the so-called democracy of Athens and Republican Rome, chances are 99% you would have been a slave and had no rights. And women in the past had it even worse-most pre-enlightment societies treated them as property.
    Then there are the everyday things we take for granted. Back then if you got a headache you couldn’t just pop a Tylenol or aspirin. If you had a toothache you couldn’t just go to the dentist and get it fixed while on pain killers. If you had athletes foot there was no tinactin for it, and so on.
    And you were more likely to die young, it is obvious without modern medicine even adults would succumb to many more things than today. they still had diseases like measles and smallpox, etc. Also people were a lot shorter back then because of bad nutrition.

  21. Mark on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 11:59 pm 

    Oh and one more thing I was thinking about-even if the low life expectancy is averaged out for people who die in childhood, would you really want to live in a world where most of your children are going to die? I think it would be awful if just my one child died, I cannot imaging having 10 children and have more than half of them die on me.

  22. Makati1 on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 2:11 am 

    NWR, thank you. I don’t like being a sheeple in the crowd. I’m me and no one else.

    There are a lot of armchair flag wavers in the US. In fact, most of the sheeple fit that pattern.

    “My country, right or wrong”.

    “We might be the devil but I cannot do anything about it.”

    “I voted for the other guy”.

    And on and on with excuses and BS. When I see them in the streets, hanging the politicians and billionaires from the lamp posts, THEN I will believe they want change. When they are ready to defend their freedom with their lives, like East Ukrainians, Thais, etc., THEN I will believe they are true patriots.

    All they are now are sheeple feeding at the trough of plunder, supporting the current murderous government. When that government turns on them, it will be too late.

  23. Davy on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 7:01 am 

    Oh Mak, defending your rotten heart now are you. You would do better just to ignore NR like you do me. Mak, you are a despicable person who wallows in hate and death wishes. Your comments here have only one purpose and that is your day in day out unending dispensing of vile on the US and the west. You are from the dark side as C.L. Lewis said “lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.” I truly loath you because on a daily basis you try to destroy with words my family, tribe, community, and nation. You do this in a hypocritical and ideologue fashion. You complain about consumption in the west and glorify it in the east. You bash the US war mongering but glorify the east. You have no worries about Asia’s gross overpopulation but slam the wests consumption on a per capita basis. This goes on and on and on. You are so nauseatingly redundant with your negativity and harassment. You are delusional about your health and your age. You are 70 and think you are just going to venture out into the jungle and live a hard subsistence life into your 90’s. You have no family in the Philippians so who is going to wipe your ass when you are disabled? What about your dementia that seems to have started already? Your adopted clan of poverty will have no time nor resources to support a crazy old man. You will be left to die in your feces and vomit where you belong. Mak, you disgust me every time I see your name on this board. I have come to peace with your postings. I got tired of fighting you. So I just jab you on occasion and hope you jab me because I know I touched your evil heart. It is my hope that one day your post will disappear from this board. I can say this about no other on this board not even the goofy Noob that we all know is not right. You are dangerous because you are mentally not right in an effective way. It is your type that will ensure the world embraces blame and collapses into war and conflict.

  24. Davy on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 7:27 am 

    Mark, just imagine where we were and where we are likely going. Is it not dangerous to have come from a degree of sustainability and resilience with the old technology and knowledge of a 10,000 years of a modern human development and departing to a hyper complexity? This departure that is casting off as unneeded baggage age old skills. . The modern human of the past 10,000 years even being a longer term mistake from the harmonious hunter gather. We are two degrees up from what is truly human. We have come to a complexity that will likely never be achieve again from the one on harvest of a vast energy source found in FF. Where we are going to is a return to what we left 200 years ago without the skills, quality resources, and in gross over population. This over population is a factor of 10 at least in overshoot to our carrying capacity. If you look at it in this context then it is a one way joy ride to doom like Thelma and Louise. I would argue differently on the medieval times, pre white Native American, and other pre white hunter gathers. First they are conditioned to their surrounding and situations. Second in a great many cases these peoples lived relatively stable and harmonious lives. Maybe their lives were shorter and had more pain. Death was more common but it was part of life. There were periods of mass death and disruption. We just delayed this and delude ourselves it will not happen again. I see death becoming far more common for us as we breach our envelope of sustainability. These people had a slow and stable growth in knowledge and technology we are going to have a quick and dangerous drop in complexity. You believe in exceptionalism, knowledge, technology markets, and complexity. These aspects of modern life come at a price and are very ephemeral. The maintenance of these conditions of modern life need constant growth and the constant battle with entropic decay. Entropic decay has always won. If degrowth does not get us 4 degrees will. Mark, I do not deny the wonders we have now. I am living them and have lived them. As an ex-1%er I have done some amazing things. I still live well in fact better than my days of being rich. I am spiritually rich now with a nice nest egg. Mark, you are from the group that is in denial and will ensure the collapse. The titanic is the best example. Instead of slowing down and looking for the danger we have speed up in hubris. The passengers party at the bar with gin fizzes and caviar. Maybe you have a point in “gathering ye rosebuds while ye may”. I am just philosophic and enjoy opining on doom and prep living. I have little illusion my prepping is going to save me if things get really bad. Yet, I have embraced the stages of death already and I am well past denial.

  25. JuanP on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 10:11 am 

    Mark, I had A Vasectomy and no children, therefore it is not possible for my non existent children to die.
    People lived their lives differently back then. People didn’t invest themselves emotionally in infants like we do. Children started being more important to their parents and relatives after reaching five years of age. This was so until about 100 years ago. If you don’t know these things, you obviously haven’t researched the subject as deeply as I have.

  26. JuanP on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 10:25 am 

    Mark, I don’t romanticize the past or primitive lifesyles. I have studied history all my life and have personal experience of living in the homes of and working with multiple primitive tribes from different primitive cultures in the Americas, including Paraguayan Guaranis, Quechua Incas, Mayas, Uros on Lake Titicaca and others in my youth when I hitchhiked across South America for a few years. I have always dug other cultures.
    You are an optimist and believe in human progress, and that is OK. I envy that, as a matter of fact, I never could be one.

  27. JuanP on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 10:32 am 

    Of course, the mayans I met on a separate trip when I flew to Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to spend a month building water pumps on indian villages with a volunteer group. By this time I was already living in the US as an international student, and I went there with an American student group. Those people were practicing survival agriculture based on corn.

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