Making the Urban Scene: The Arts

We will always need an artistic avant garde. No other group in our communities has the self-confidence to challenge that accept canons of taste and revitalize the production of expressive objects and performances. The avant garde was first identified as early as 1825 by Olinde Rodrigues who called upon the artists to “serve as [the people’s] avant-garde”, insisting that “the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and fastest way” to social, political and economic reform [Matei Calinescu, 1987. The Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Duke University Press]. The last two hundred years has shown that technology is a much more effective reformer than art. Think about the differing impacts of the airplane, the birth control pill, or the computer, compared to the works of Martha Graham, Antonine Artaud, or Andy Warhol. It pains me to say so, but social, political and economic reform is an over-reach for the avant garde. So much of it’s energy must go to constantly reinventing itself that little is left over for sustained social change. Evolving standards of taste, the focus on form over context, and the development of new media for expression are the avant garde’s sweet spot.

With very few exceptions, the avant garde is located in cities, often in a bohemian district specifically designated to contain it’s more rebellious elements. Just as the scene challenges aesthetic tastes, it also unhinges other social mores around pleasure-seeking, relationship-building, and body practices. The avant garde is never isolated. It is accessible and welcoming, even though it’s environs are considered slightly dangerous by visitors. That is part of its charm. While mainstream arts outlets are located in safe business districts, city folk in search of the next new thing must hazard the avant garde’s dangers.

It is a fabulous bonus of our lives as city dwellers that we have this luscious, challenging, expressive resource at our doorsteps. It is any wonder that some of us invest our time and treasure in the offbeat galleries and theatres where the avant garde hold court? For our efforts, we are rewarded with conversational topics that set us apart from our more staid neighbours as someone who has both the courage and the stamina to walk on the wild side of urban life. And when we encounter fellow veterans of the arts scene, we can enjoy discovering that shared history of gallery shows and performances that only the brave among us could witness.

In my previous posts in this series, I’ve cited Eric Hobsbawm on the need for the members of the urban middle class to seek out histories for itself. It started me wondering what other candidates have evolved in our shared lives as urbanites to help us identify each other as part of the same local experience. What other attractions in our communities require us to invest money in them and offer a common language of class experience in return?
What scenes have I missed? Leave a comment if you have identified another one.

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