Charles Shere - CRITICS CIRCLE
April 3, 1968
[transcription of unscripted remarks]
I would like to talk about the PBL [Public Broadcast Laboratory] broadcast of last Sunday night because for the first time PBL give its two hours over entirely to a cultural program — and it gave those two hours to the avant-garde — which is very much, of course, in controversy these days, being only some thirty or forty years old. PBL's program was called Who's Afraid Of The Avant-Garde?: an excessively coy title which I think established PBL's stance toward the subject of its program.
It was never quite sure what its stance was going to be. Television can either act as a recorder, the kind of television that says "let's pretend you're at the Buffalo museum or let's pretend you're at the ball game and we will take you electronically there and you can carry it from there,” or television can act as a participant — and PBL attempted this a couple of times in Sunday night's broadcast.
When it did make this attempt, and when it succeeded, it came up with the most exciting things that it did the entire evening. I'm thinking, for example, of their coverage of Cecil Taylor's jazz group. I'm thinking also of the first coverage of Merce Cunningham's Dance Company, when the television entered and participated in Cunningham's dance and did considerably more than taking you out of your living room and putting you down in the auditorium.
By and large, however, PBL's attitude toward the avant-garde was very much conditioned by what I guess it feared was a recalcitrant audience nationwide; and perhaps that audience is more recalcitrant than we would think, living as we do in the San Francisco Bay Area, an area which is by no means representative of the country as a whole. For example, there were frequent statements on the part of the narrator that the difference between the avant-garde art and normal art was that avant-garde art does not care at all about any kind of representationalism. Taylor's music, for example, it was stressed, had no beat and no recognizable melody. When some underground films were shown, specifically Jonas Mekas’s film Circus, the narrator made a great point of saying that underground.films share the avant-garde prejudice against heroes, against plots, against stories, just as the avant-garde paintings and sculpture is non-representatlonal. It seems to me that there is a reason for this and that this is symptomatic, rather than the end result, of an attitude of the avant-garde artist. I was looking at a copy of a new book which came out recently published by Walker and Company, a book about the French sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon, who died in 1918, and in looking through this book it struck me that his career sums up the difficult time in western art which took place at the turn of the nineteenth century. It was a critical turning point, I think, in European history, certainly in the history of European civilization.
It was the transition between the teleological representational attitude of art until then and the new art which is the art of the 20th Century, representing homo ludens, man who plays games, man who is more concerned with the experience and with the integrity of what he is doing, of his activity, than he is with the pre-conceived concept of what kind of goal he is going to find at the end of his activity. In other words, where the nineteenth century and earlier thought of art as being a search with a goal at the end of the search, today's artists like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jonas Mekas, all of the people who were touched upon by PBL, are not concerned with what they are going to find at the end of their search… if you can call it a search. They seem to be considerably more concerned with what it is they’re doing while they’re filling the time ….
And I think that there is probably a lesson for all of us in this. I think that civilization gets the art that it gets because it is the civilization that it is. I think that our avant-garde art partakes of this quality partly because today the artist and intellectual, when he realizes it, is a little bit tired of the civilization which is founded upon things, upon works of art which have commercial value, upon having as late a model of car as your neighbor, and this whole sort of thing.
It's still very difficult to talk about avant-garde art and about Dada, its progenitor, because like PBL we tend to lump all of this activity into one bag. To think, for example, of Buckminister Fuller as being avant-garde, to think of Mary Quant, the fashion designer in England of being avant-garde, the same way as John Cage and Merce Cunningham are avant-garde. Of course this is perfectly absurd. There is a great difference between an industrial architect and an avantgarde fashion designer on the one hand and a painter and a musician on the other. And as John Calder says in his introduction to a new book about English happeners, talking about surrealism. "It will quickly lose its sense of identity as an art movement and become a technique to be used to a greater or a lesser extent by dramatists and artists of the future.”
I think this is true of the avant-garde and it’s true of Dada, and I think that programs like last Sunday's PBL, excellent in places and pedestrian in others, will help to accelerate this feeling, will help to accelerate the possibility of all of these phenomena, with the avant-garde being assimilated not only by the artists themselves but also by we the audience, the people whom the artists serve, the people who in the last analysis feed upon and, in turn, nourish the artistic activity itself.
Well, all of this said, I went out to Mills College Sunday night to see what was supposed to be an evening of Dada and about the only Dada on the evening's program were two films, a marvelous film by Hans Richter called Ghosts Before Breakfast, a film made in 1927, and Ferdinand Leger's Ballet Mechanique, a film made in 1924. I think that its greatly to television's credit that things like PBL are doing programs like that of the avant-garde. Certainly television should be reviving these early films, early experimental films and the recent experimental films as well. Television is the perfect medium of making these films an accepted part of our inheritance, just as the Mona Lisa is, for example, or September Morn was fifty years ago. And until this has become a common part of the culture, the importance and vitality of Dada and the avant-garde will be lost on most of us.
At Mills College there were also some musical performances, notably of the Three Miniatures for violin and piano by Krzysztof Penderecki and, before that, the Four Pieces for violin and piano by Anton Webern. These were very sensitively played by Nathan Rubin who was accompanied by Naomi Sparrow (who played, incidentally, the best I've heard her yet). The Webern could not he heard too well because of a marvelous crotchety woman who was in the audience banging her cane on the floor and barking like a dog from time to time. She was, I suppose, the most Dada of them all at Mills College.