Grade School Avant Garde

Art that is odd for the sake of the odd is often neither. Sometimes it is both. Meet the Lettrists.

Greil Marcus, in his essential history book, “Lipstick Traces,” describes a particular type of artist:

There is a figure who appears in this book again and again. His instincts are basically cruel; his manner is intransigent. He trades in hysteria but is immune to it. He is beyond temptation, because despite his utopian rhetoric satisfaction is the last thing on his mind. He is unutterably seductive, yet he trails bitter comrades behind him like Hansel his breadcrumbs … He is a moralist and a rationalist, but he presents himself as a sociopath … No matter how violent his mark on history, he is doomed to obscurity, which he cultivates as a sign of profundity.

Marcus’ book places the punk rock movement of the late ’70s in a “secret history” of western culture beginning in the 17th Century but he finds his greatest excitement in recounting the stories of the Dadaists, the Lettrists, and the Situationist International.

Often, it is the same story, though: Revolutionary thinker(s) who create art via revolutionary thought that (sometimes angrily or destructively) confronts the norms of the era are largely ignored by the culture at large except by a few who incorporate the new art in more popular forms. Something that was created with great energy, occupied 100% of its creator’s brain, becomes a tiny part, sometimes less than 1%, of a larger movement and a footnote in history.

The Lettrists are an example. Some of them are still going, 70 years after Isidore Isou came up with the idea. What was the idea? That the alphabet is a random bit of socially acceptable ordering of language, yet we make many more sounds than are indicated by our 26 letters. Sneezes should have a place in an alphabet, because, well, they communicate.

Here is Orson Welles interviewing Maurice Lemaître and Isou, who is the poet in the center who can not seem to stop grinning:

The dedication to the fantasy of a new language is powerful to witness, but I am not a fan of other people’s fantasies. There is little different between Tolkien and Isou in that they both invented unique alphabets; for me, Isou’s attempts at expanding our way of describing life here on earth is more interesting. But interesting is all that it is. It is seductive in its lack of seductiveness.

Give me Lettrism over “Lord of the Rings” and give me the Sex Pistols over either.

Further, the so-called “flash mobs” that have been invading retail spaces over the last decade or so are the offspring of the Situationists of the late 1960s, except the Situationists wrote long manifestos and conducted public debates about things like the idea of society, and flash mob participants consider the fact of a group making a group statement to be the statement, period. And now flash mobs are a part of any media campaign’s advertising budget.

Yes, I am a cranky “get off my lawn” old man in my punk tastes. This is because I am a cranky old man, deep down, deeper than any punk can reach. (Or this makes me very punk, but no one can declare themselves that.) In the late ’70s one of my schoolmates was an import from London named Dan, and he already had terrible teeth (we were 10 or 11), a gaudy accent, and wore torn t-shirts and played music whose major point was its loudness. (Or so it seemed to my ears.) I wish I could write that in 1978-’79 I was friends with a London kid who introduced me to the Sex Pistols and The Clash, but I can not. I detested the noise. I was also introduced to rap music around then or even earlier: another elementary school classmate was rapping like Gil Scott-Heron in 1976, but we were 8 and what little rap that I remember was about his birthday party.

In the 1990s, I fell in love with what was by then ancient punk rock and started to absorb it; around this same time Johnny Rotten/John Lydon started to become a beloved cultural figure in Great Britain, which he remains.

The energy of anger, the cultural energy of anger, the dedication to anarchy (which brooks no dedication), rarely appealed to me and more frequently scared me. Any anarchists in my circle brought out my inner parent, which is probably why I hated them all the more. (Hate? Wait a second. I do not hate …)

The violence of change indicates a world of absolutes, of either-ors; a world that includes shades of gray and a third way presents yet another either-or, however: Either we live in a universe of absolutes or we do not. The revolutionaries live in the hyphen between the either and the or and like the hyphen, life there is brief. Every culture has an avant garde, and every culture defeats it by ignoring and then absorbing it.

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Image at the top found at: Ideological Art.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 15 asks, “From your musical tastes to your political views, were you ever way ahead of the rest of us, adopting the new and the emerging before everyone else?”

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2 comments

  1. Leigh W. Smith · October 19, 2014

    Fascinating. I’d never heard of the Lettrists. I can dig when Wittgenstein writes, basically, [that idea of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which I had to look up to jog my limited memory!] that language shapes and limits our world. If we allow more ‘language’ to come into a particular alphabet, would, then the sky be the limit to our world? Again, your posts are so philosophical, I feel as if I’m sitting at the Lyceum. And to dash punk music in there … wow, what writing dexterity, Batman!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rose Red · October 23, 2014

    When I watched that Orson Welles interview recently my first thought was that it was some sort of a ruse or hoax along the lines of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals during JFK’s era. It made me grin and that was it.

    I tend to be more open-minded than my friends because I am one of those poets that loves to thumb my nose at the rules, but odd for the sake of odd is not the same as communicating. I am not a good judge of where that line is.

    Thanks for the history lesson. I suspect I am cranky of the same generation you are from but you spoke of a few things I had not heard of so I have some homework to do today.

    Liked by 1 person

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