When Did the Avant-Garde Become Black?
These are introductory comments I gave at the Bill (T. Jones) Chat of the same name, March 23 2014, New York Live Arts. Other panelists: Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, Dianne McIntyre, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Adrienne Edwards, and Charmaine Warren–hosted of course by Bill T. If anyone wants to quote anything, please feel free, just CREDIT ME ACCORDINGLY:
The question posed for this conversation – namely, when did it become acceptable for a person who defines her/himself as black to also say “I’m avant-garde”—opens up a web of complexities. I believe I know full well what Bill T. is getting at, but bear with me while I trouble the waters a bit and take a wide-angle perspective. He’s addressing the avant-garde as a SCENE; I want to address it as a PRINCIPLE.Yes: at a moment in late-20th century history, certain black dancers could acknowledge belonging to the dominant culture’s DEFINITION of avant-garde, but it behooves us to also acknowledge the avant-garde history embedded in and integral to AFRICANIST traditions, of which many of us may or may not be aware.
I might UPDATE the question to ask when black dancers felt EMPOWERED enough to own up to the Africanist avant-garde in their work: the surrealist, the abstract-expressionist, the minimalist elements that consciously or subconsciously informed how they presented dance to the downtown audience. I’ll stay with the term, “avant-garde,” but be aware that it’s an OUTSIDER term, in the same sense that Cubism was NOT Picasso’s or Braque’s moniker for a certain style of visual art, but a conceit dreamed up by an art critic. All this to say that the so-called avant-garde is an ongoing thread in Africanist [i.e. AFRICAN AND AFRICAN AMERICAN] genres of visual art, music, and dance—part of the disjunctive dissonances; the high-affect juxtapositions; the aesthetics of HOT-AND-COOL; the chromatic scales of African American blues and field hollers; the abstract nature of rhythm tap dance; the DOWN grassroots poetry of signifyin’ and the dozens—and, ironically, these are elements that Europeanist cultures appropriated in the service of infusing and injecting new blood, new life, into the dominant culture. And then, in typical recursive fashion, Europeanist appropriation circled back into counter-appropriation. In other words, even though INVISIBILIZED, what was characterized as avant-garde is, IN PART, an Africanist thread TEASED OUT AND REPURPOSED to fit the needs of the dominant culture.
Not to beat my own drum, but I discussed these issues in my first book, [SHOW], Digging the Africanist Presence in American Culture, Dance and Other Contexts, published during the culture wars of the 1990s, particularly in the chapter titled “Barefoot & Hot, Sneakered & Cool: Africanist subtexts in Modern and Postmodern Dance,” and in the previous chapter titled, “Don’t Take Away My Picasso: Cultural Borrowing and the Afro-Euro-American Triangle.” There I cited John Cage’s debt to Southern Black gut-bucket musics in the following passage(s): [QUOTE FROM DIGGING: pp.30- four penultimate lines through 31, four top lines, & ENDNOTE #10 p.43]
Thus, it points us back to Bill T.’s question and the fact that it can only be “THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE”—namely , systemic racism—that invisibilized information like this and made it controversial for a black dancer to claim avant-garde status.
I’ll leave off with an interesting statement by Paloma McGregor, choreographer/researcher in residency at NYU’s Hemispheric Institute: “Black has always felt connected to the edges in my experience, if the avant-garde operates at the edges. Of course, what we are really talking about is avant [garde] being defined as largely white artistic production that is almost always operating much at the center of this structure—even much of the radical work. I hope there is some talking about what is meant by avant-garde and who decides who is and isn’t ‘included’ in that group.” (email communication, March 13, 2014)