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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.