Skip to main content

Does 'abstract' or 'experimental' really mean 'elitist'?

Charles Olson (1910-1970)

an interview with Michael Donaghy by Andy Brown, 1998

Yes. Not that there's anything especially wrong with that. But look at those sexy words used all too frequently to describe contemporary art and literature, 'experimental' and 'revolutionary'. The first is a metaphor filched from science - experimental art doesn't have a control group, doesn't collate and publish its findings. And 'revolutionary' properly describes a brick thrown at a police cordon, not a poem in Parataxis. Among the most cherished illusions of the avant-garde is the idea that bourgeois art consoles, pleases and mollifies with received notions of beauty, whereas avant-garde art shocks and challenges and doesn't seek to please. I'm always dismayed by this kind of self-delusion. The audience for avant-garde art is a middle-class audience that pays to be shocked, bored or insulted, much in the same way that Mistress Wanda's clients pay to be horsewhipped. It's an audience that knows what it wants and is comfortable with its rituals and cliches. Whether it's a urinal on a pedestal in 1910 or a poem composed entirely of semi-colons in 1997 ('everything changes but the avant-garde', said Auden), the audience expects to retreat from a direct and complex experience of the craftsmanship, to ideas about art.

The most common of these ideas can be phrased as 'Justify your instinctive reaction that this is not a work of art.' In other words, the burden of proof is placed with the audience, where in former ages it belonged to the artist. Whatever the quality of your work, if it strikes the critical powers-that-be as 'anti-poetic', it is de facto worth talking about. Fine. I enjoy avant-garde work from Duchamp to Damien Hirst, to poets like Clark Coolidge, but let's not delude ourselves with the naive and sentimental notion that such art is 'progressive'. I'm angry about that pretence. Capitalism long ago defeated the avant-garde by accepting it as another style. Yet artists continue to present themselves as an offence to the establishment even as they accept fat cheques from the Saatchi Gallery or attend academic conferences on 'oppositional' poetries.

I feel very strongly that we have to be vigilant about naked emperors, otherwise mediocrities become cultural referents. Any random shape, crash of noise or verbal incomprehensibility can become comfortingly familiar - the perfect representation of itself - by answering its own echo or after-image in our unconscious. Say your dog pees on the carpet. Every day we see the stain and eventually we get used to it. Put that stain on a wall, track lit, in a gallery, run a debate on its merits in the Sunday supplements, refer to it archly in advertising - sooner or later it will become iconic. It will have cultural importance, because we all recognise it. It becomes a cultural referent and will provide all those bourgeois satisfactions that the avant-garde professes to despise. And all because no one stood up and said it was piss.

interview excerpt from The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions,
a collection of prose by the late Michael Donaghy.


Mark Granier said…
Wonderful. And no comments. Tch.

Popular posts from this blog

The Trouble with Poetry: Billy Collins's Aimless Love - review

Dubbed the “most popular poet in America” by the New York Times, Billy Collins has won countless admirers for his chatty, witty, wholly dependable poetry. At pains to welcome the reader with avuncular charm, he writes lines that are more serious than they seem, though by how much, you’d be hard pressed to say. Wry and self-mocking, his favoured territory is the suburban everyday – a pop song stuck in your head; people-watching on public transport; a “perfect” spring day – though he is most at home striking a knowing and self-referential pose, “looking every inch the writer / right down to the little writer’s frown on my face”. ‘If This Were a Job I’d be Fired’, quips the title of one poem, its narrator swanning off having penned the most inconsequential of verses. Philip Larkin would have surely labelled him the “shit in the shuttered chateau”. But while some critics have called Collins a philistine, there is a productive quirkiness to his poems, finding surprise and profundity in unp…

Way More Than Luck (Seren Books, 2018)

From the thumping heartbeat of the distance runner to the roar of football terraces across the decades, Ben Wilkinson’s debut confronts the struggles and passions that come to shape a life. Beginning with an interrogation of experiences of clinical depression and the redemptive power of art and running, the collection centres on a series of vivid character portraits, giving life to some of football's legends. By turns frank, comic, sinister and meditative – ‘the trouble with you, son, is that all your brains are in your head’ – these poems uncover the beautiful game’s magic and absurdity, hopes and disappointments, as striking metaphors for our everyday dramas. Elsewhere there are tender love poems, political satire and strange dream worlds, in an urgently lyrical book of poems that take many forms and modes of address: pantoum, sonnet, sestina; epistle, confession, dramatic monologue. All are united by a desire to speak with searching clarity about matters of the heart. Way More …

Poetry in Motion

Why one Reds supporter is committing his love for Liverpool FC to verse

Liverpool FC and poetry have a lot of previous – from John Toshack’s Gosh It’s Tosh collection in the late 70s, to the verse of Dave Kirby and Peter Etherington in the fanzine Red All Over the Land, to the lines written by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, a University of Liverpool graduate, in the aftermath of 2012’s Hillsborough findings. Now there’s Ben Wilkinson, Reds fan and book critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement, who’s compiling a series of poems commemorating the club’s legends. “Football is part of the fabric of life, and anything that’s important to people finds its way into poetry,” he says. “Wilfred Owen’s poem 'Disabled' describes a soldier who loses the use of his legs, meaning he can never play football again. Philip Larkin’s 'MCMXIV' compares boys queuing to join the army to fans outside Villa Park. These poems have stood the test of time because t…