Prem Chandavarkar on Tue, 10 Jan 2012 11:32:54 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Death of the Avant-garde in the Attention Economy

These are some speculations that have been bouncing around in my head
for some time, particularly with reference to architecture - the
discipline I practice - but perhaps having wider implications: Ever
since the early stages of the modernist movement (since the second
half of the 19th century) artistic innovation has been underpinned by
the idea of the avant-garde.

The avant-garde are (to use a term from Thomas Kuhn) paradigm
shifters. Their work consists of two facets that operate
simultaneously . One is a deep critique of current paradigms of
cultural production. And the other is production of artistic work
that demonstrates a new paradigm and a new set of possibilities. One
cannot privilege either of these facets saying it is primary, and
the other derives from it - the relationship between the two is far
more complex. However the two always go together. Gradually the works
of the avant-garde become accepted and are mainstreamed. But this
mainstreaming is subject to displacement by the next generation of the
avant-garde. This continuous thread of displacement forms modernism's
alignment with progress and history.

As has been pointed out by Goldhaber, Davenport and others, we are
now in an attention economy. If we are in the information age, the
one thing that information consumes is attention, and consequently
attention becomes a scarce resource. As an economy is substantively
affected by those resources that are scarce and important, our lives
are now being affected by the quest for attention.

The scarcity of attention is exacerbated by the changing nature
of alienation (as defined by Baudrillard). Alienation was earlier
characterized by distance - a separation from the normal routines of
life. But it is now characterized by an overwhelming proximity to
everything. The construction of sheltered spaces for reflection, which
were provided by the regular routines of life, are now difficult to
come by, and require substantive and sustained effort that few are
willing to devote effort to in an attention starved world. Deprived of
space for reflection, we face the challenge of being "reduced to pure
screen: a switching centre for the networks of influence".

The twin problems of attention and alienation have created a rupture
in the avant-garde. The facet of critique, which requires rigorous
attention, does not now receive sufficient consideration. The facet of
artistic production receives far greater attention, but tends to be
read superficially, focusing on the work's apparent visuality.

Two major modes of capturing attention are scale and novelty.

Scale involves achieving a size that is difficult to ignore. It is
seen in the increasing scale of real estate projects, the wave of
corporate consolidation through mergers and acquisitions, and the
leveraging of technology to achieve self-referential size (as seen in
the global financial services sector).

The impulse to novelty centres on displacing us from the anesthetizing
influence of habit, and making us see and notice things.

The avant-garde are now recast as a resource to be mined for the
production of novelty. Their work is taken, detached from its critical
foundations, and presented for its apparent visual novelty. So one
sees architects such as Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid, whose statements
early in their careers aligned with an avant-garde identity of
iconoclastic rebels, and whose work is now being utilized as vehicles
of mainstream branding.

It could be argued that this detachment from critical foundations is
a normal process of mainstreaming the avant-garde. However the speed
with which it now occurs is significant. In an earlier generation, the
first step in mainstreaming the avant-garde occurred through a set
of "enlightened" patrons, whose idealism could be aligned with the
cultural critique of the avant-garde. For example, if Jawaharlal Nehru
hired Le Corbusier to design the new Indian city of Chandigarh, it was
because Nehru's vision of modernism for his newly independent nation
could be aligned to Corbusier's critique of traditional urbanism and
the potential he saw in new city forms.

But it is rare to find patrons with this idealism today. The patron
of today tends to have motives that are largely commercial rather
than idealistic, whose primary request to the artist is "make me
noticeable on the global stage". The resultant quest for novelty makes
the disruption between the critique and production of the avant-garde
occur with a speed and vehemence that threatens the very status of the

In an earlier era, the engagement of an iconic star avant-garde artist
was substantively affected by an ideological alignment with the
artist's ideology. But now the iconic status of the artist, together
with the novelty of the work, have become ends in themselves. We are
reminded of Daniel Boorstin's prescient definition that the celebrity
in this world of pure image making is to be "a person well known for
his well-knownness".

The impulse to novelty has rapidly diminishing returns, and one
struggles to keep balance on an accelerating treadmill of visual

Modernist art has centralized the notions of creativity and
innovation because it seeks to align with history. Without seeking to
either diminish or sideline creativity and innovation, we now must
simultaneously seek to align art with timelessness through a quest for


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