One thing worries me about the state of the avant-garde, as an artistic mode.
The avant-garde, as a rule, attempts to push boundaries and change social norms, usually through shocking methods. Dada is still the epitome of this in many respects, with its constant trolling of the art world and negation of every artistic convention of the time, setting the standards for later groups to measure themselves against.
But this method, while it may have worked in the past is going to suffer from declining returns. These are some of the reasons why:
Desensitisation. Certain limits have already been broken. Blasphemy and the like may cause "controversy", in a staid, media sense of the term, but they don't cause the sort of shock avant-garde artists seem to seek anymore. Equally, "anti-art" methods are nearly a hundred years old - the artistic establishment now positively fawns over warmed-over neo-Dada works. The Tate Modern, for example, is about as subversive and threatening to the artistic order as the latest "readymade" pop starlet. Gratuitous sex and violence are easily available in our every day media and web downloads. People aren't as easily shocked as they were a hundred years ago, and while some people still operate on a mostly symbolic level in how they interpret their lives, those symbols are rarely state, church and family anymore. Recycled garbage from the New Left doesn't cut it.
Art is a ghetto. Let's face it, apart from "entertainment" reporting, art recieves virtually no attention anymore. Once upon a time, artists had patrons and were the darlings of high society - now they recieve grants and have their work appear gallery shows for the nouveau-riche, who usually want to show how broad-minded and novel they are by "appreciating" or even buying pieces. Attempts to break out of the artistic ghetto rarely engage people, instead putting a greater divide between performer and audience (Improv Everywhere, for example).
The Shock doesn't last. Even if a shock is created by a piece of art, it is quickly submerged by the dullness of routine and everyday life. It becomes a brief diversion, an amusement, something to fill up the empty gaps in an otherwise full day. As a limited exposure, it can only do so much without being followed up on.
There are of course ways to compensate for this. Art can become even more shocking, for example, moving into quasi-terroristic areas (Don DeLillo suggests that this has already happened, but in reverse. Terrorists are, according to him, the epitome of novelists and artists). By selecting contentious targets and manipulating the media, they can create effects that last much longer, and perhaps effect some of the change they want to create.
But these don't seem all that viable in the long run, do they? As methods, they run up against limits, be they legal, or narrative (the media gets bored of your attention-grabbing antics) or otherwise. You can only press so many buttons, target so many hot issues in so many ways, before people bore of the act again.
So what happens next? Where does this leave the avant-garde? Obviously there are always going to be certain taboos to be broken, but these continue to be less and less over time.
Riffing on the terrorism theme, John Robb suggests conventional terrorist groups suffer from similar problems, and that the best thing they can do to avoid this is to switch to systems attacks, designed to cause economic damage and dislocation. But can that translate over to the avant-garde? And if so, how? Would that involve...oh, I don't know, the invention of certain techniques and methods designed to disrupt the normal workings of the human mind, not based in symbolic artistry, but more subtle and perhaps scientifically grounded methods? I admit I am totally speculating here. How else could the avante-garde overcome these problems? Perhaps by creating new values to later undermine?
I'm open to suggestions.