On Mark Greif's "Avant-Garde & Progressive" Part 2

I read somewhere recently—thank god this is a blog and not an academic paper—that Ezra Pound was incensed at the bullshit he saw being published as “free verse” after he and Eliot had initiated the movement because the poets in question were tin-eared idiots, completely untrained in and ignorant of metered verse, so they wrote clumsy garbage free verse instead of worthy poetry. 

This raises an important point that must be made as loudly as possible: that it’s only possible to make solid “progressive art” by being well educated in the perennial tradition and well informed by the avant-garde. 

Without a mastery of the former and a comprehensive understanding of the latter, you risk creating a middle-of-the-road “arthouse film” or a show-offy Hollywood flick that rips off more ambitious work. The same logic can be applied to any medium. 

The best rule-breakers are fully capable of obeying the rules. There are certainly exceptions, but they are few and have limited longevity as artists. 

This is why B.S. Johnson is a genius and Jonathan Safran Foer is a dilettante. It’s not about simply co-opting the superficialities of technique, but getting inside of them and justifying their execution.  

Sometimes the same artists succeed or fail at this in the course of their careers. The thrust of David Foster Wallace’s career attests to the dogged attempt at making progressive art long after it was fashionable. but he occasionally fell into a “look at me” performance. This is why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is Michel Gondry’s best work: he has the Meliesian pyrotechnics down pat, but hasn’t found a story contain them well . 

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The visual arts, those relegated to galleries and museums, in Greif’s and my own opinion, are ferociously addicted to the avant-garde.

When everyone promises to overthrow everything else, you find that none of the individuals can rationally believe they’ll overthrow anything, and so visual art develops an odd weightlessness and comes to look more like ornament or anecdote. 

It’s within this idiom that we’ll be poking around for elements ripe for pillaging, or at least bits and pieces that can provoke our own instincts in writing. (See The Five Obstructions, Holy Motors, and oh-so-many others)

Greif redirects his taxonomy toward fiction, I assume specifically literary fiction, though here he makes no distinction. That he didn’t allow the Thomas Kinkades of the world to throw his focus in discussing art, it’s safe to assume he’s not thinking of Twilight or Fifty Shades of Gray. 

And rightly he assesses that fiction is more often than not straight perennial (see Jonathan Franzen or Jeffrey Eugenides) or perennial gussied up by flashy nods to progressive or avant-garde practices (see David Foster Wallace or Mark Z. Danielewski). 

In fiction you have all three levels, perhaps, but really mostly a bottom level—the perennial—which kids itself it is also doing the job of the top two, which are weak and demoralized.

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It is upsetting that Greif put no effort into needling out examples of what he thinks effective “progressive literature” looks like, though I can see such a qualitative assessment to be setting itself up for a pummeling. He does seem to think that lit hasn’t gotten much beyond where modernism put us, though he takes jabs at Hemingway (which I can understand) and Faulkner (which I just don’t understand). His assessment is accurate in its pessimism of literary progressivism, but I literary fiction is still more than a few steps ahead of narrative film. 

There are a number of reasons, but the key one being it takes a lot less money to put out a book than it does to make a movie. This is no surprise to anyone. I feel stupid having said it. But it’s exactly why producers and frustrated writers cling to people like Robert McKee, Syd Field, or John Truby. 

This is also where any kind of creative problem-solving in fiction or screenwriting is quelled, by relying on prior practices and analyses of what has worked and not bothering with truly inventive solutions. 

This is why I think a great way to start at the very beginning of the writing process is to set yourself up for a truly impossible thing to write. Then you write it. 

How Not to Write An Exciting Screenwriting Project: Start with a logline that you endlessly tweak until it shows you in a brief flash the entire movie. This is a guaranteed method for rewriting someone else’s movie and doing nothing for the artform as a whole. But what does “progressive art” actually do for the artform as a whole? And what does that even matter? Where does it get us?

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The progressive arts quite deliberately aim at moving targets, as opposed to perennial arts which shoot for stationary things that are already identified; or the sorts of avant-gardes that just get interested in their own guns or bows and arrows and don’t shoot at anything, at least not to hit it.

This symptomatic practice of art puts together the progressive impulse to describe things better with the avant-garde impulse to fashion new techniques for the absolutely new.

To take those things that make victims or demigods of us all, and yet are unarticulable [sic] by us, and to figure out how to picture them truly, or put them into new words, would be an art worth the trouble.