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The heroic age of American avant-garde art

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Abstract

A major contribution of Pierre Bourdieu to the study of art was his analysis of the autonomization of modern art fields. His model of autonomy and legitimacy in modern art was based on a study of the genesis of an avant-garde in French art in the late nineteenth century. I argue that a similar autonomization of art occurred in the mid-twentieth century in the United States. I present studies in music and film to demonstrate the genesis of an American avant-garde during this period. This general process of autonomization until now has been neglected in the work of sociologists and historians on American art. My analysis shows that the genesis of principles of autonomy in the United States, unlike France, developed in what were considered the high and popular arts. These case studies reveal a failure in Bourdieu’s model to account for the role of culture industries and popular artists in the autonomization of modern art fields. I show how the American art field generated a subfield of autonomous art that included both avant-garde high art and independent popular art. This permanent subfield of avant-garde and independent art became central to future struggles over autonomy and innovation in American art.

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Notes

  1. In this article, assume Bourdieu’s key arguments are in both these works unless otherwise cited.

  2. The New Deal WPA in the 1930s acted as an important incubator for post-war avant-garde American artists with the Federal Arts Project, Federal Music Project, and Federal Theater Project. See McDonald (1969) and Bindas (1996).

  3. Minimalism and rock can be viewed as next generation expressions of the earlier genres of experimental music and rock ‘n’ roll discussed in this essay (Ennis 1992; Gillett 1983; Hitchcock 1988).

  4. Folk music was another genre in the social space of autonomous music. But unlike experimental music, modern jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll, this genre community collected and performed “traditional” folk music. In the 1960s, when songwriters like Bob Dylan took center stage in the folk music revival, this community still resisted new forms of performance. Dylan discovered this orthodoxy with the disastrous reception of his “electric” set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. See Cantwell (1996), Eyerman and Barretta (1996), and Garofalo (1997) on the folk music genre.

  5. Both Ennis (1992) and Roy (2004) point to African American and southern white music becoming distinct industry genres in the 1920s. They remained distinct genres into the 1950s, although their names changed overtime: “race” to “rhythm and blues” and “hillbilly” to “country-western” to “country.”

  6. Capital became a major label by the end of the 1940s.

  7. The Art Cinema movement had roots in early cinema. Art film institutions emerged as early as the 1920s. The Modern Museum of Art in New York City, for example, established a Film Archive in 1935. MOMA played a role in exposing American audiences to the Art Cinema Movement in the 1950s and 1960s (Thompson and Bordwell 2003).

  8. The erosion of the Production Code in the 1950s, with its final elimination in 1966, was also a major factor in the broadening of content and style found in the exploitation and auteur film genres (Thompson and Bordwell 2003).

  9. Pauline Kael wrote reviews of Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Easy Rider.

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Lopes, P. The heroic age of American avant-garde art. Theor Soc 44, 219–249 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-015-9244-9

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Keywords

  • Avant-garde art
  • Autonomy
  • Classification
  • Popular Art
  • High Art
  • Subcultures