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The Phoney Avant-Garde. . .

ANYTHING ART CAN DO, LIFE can do better. A journalist describes the sense of complete reality of driving a static racing car in an ambiance consisting solely of a colour film, which responded to every touch of the steering and acceleration as though he were really speeding round a race track. Even the sensations of a 120 mph smash could be simulated (Daily Express, 18/1/66) Expo '67, the Holy City of science fiction, boasts a three-million-buck 'Gyrotron' designed "to lift its passengers into a facsimile of outer space and then dunk them in a fiery volcano. . . . We orbit up an invisible track. Glowing around us are spinning planets, comets, galaxies . . . man-made satellites, Telstars, moon rockets . . . vooming in our cars are electronic undulations, deep beeps and astral snores." Finally, the 'participants' are plunged down a "red incinerator, surrounded by simulated lava, steam and demonic shrieks" (Life, 15/5/67) Reinforced by the sort of conditioning made possible by the discoveries of the kinetic artists, such techniques could ensure an unprecedented measure of control. Sutavision, an abstract form of colour TV, already mass-marketed, offers to provide "wonderful relaxation possibilities" giving "a wide series of phantasies" and functioning as "part of a normal home or business office." "Radiant colours moving in an almost hypnotic rhythm across the screen . . . wherein one can see any number of intriguing spectacles." Box three, a further refinement of TV, can manipulate basic mood changes through the rhythms and the frequency of the light patterns employed (Observer Magazine, 23/10/66) Still more sinister is the combination of total kinetic environments and a stiff dose of acid. "We try to vaporise the mind," says a psychedelic artist, "by bombing the senses." The Us Company [a commune of painters, poets, film-makers, teachers and weavers that lived and worked together in an abandoned church in Garneville, New York] artists call their congenial wrap-around a "be-in" because the spectator is to exist in the show, rather than look at it. The audience becomes disorientated from their normal time sense and preoccupations. . . . The spectator feels he is being transported to mystical heights." And this "is invading not only museums and colleges, but cultural festivals, discotheques, movie houses and fashion shows" (Life, 3/10/66) To date, Leary is the only person to have attempted to pull all this together. Having reduced everyone to a state of hyper-impressionable plasticity, he incorporated a backwoods myth of the modern scientific-truth-underlying-all-world-religions, a cretin's catechism broadcast persuasively at the same time as it was expressed by the integral manipulation of sense data. Leary's personal vulgarity should not blind anyone to the possibilities implicit in this. A crass manipulation of subjective experience accepted ecstatically as a mystical revelation.

"ALL THIS ART IS FINISHED. . . . SQUARES on the wall. Shapes on the floor. Emptiness. Empty rooms." (Warhol to a reporter from Vogue). Nihilism is the second most widespread form of contemporary 'avant-garde' culture; the morass stretches from playwrights like Ionesco and film-makers like Antonioni, through novelists like Robbe-Grillet and Burroughs, to the paintings and sculpture of the pop, destructive and auto-destructive artists. All re-enact a Dadaist revulsion from contemporary life -- but their revolt, such as it is, is purely passive, theatrical and aesthetic, shorn of any of the passionate fury, horror or desperation which would lead to a really destructive praxis. Neo-Dada, whatever its formal similarities to Dada, is re-animated by a spirit diametrically opposed to that of the original Dadaist groups. "The only truly disgusting things," said Picabia, "are Art and Anti-Art. Wherever Art rears its head, life disappears." Neo-Dada, far from being a terrified outcry at the almost complete disappearance of life, is, on the contrary, an attempt to confer a purely aesthetic value on its absence and on the schizophrenic incoherence of its surrogates. It invites us to contemplate the wreckage, ruin and confusion surrounding us, and not to take up arms in the gaiety of the world's subversion, pillage and total overthrow. Their culture of the absurd reveals only the absurdity of their culture.


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