In The Weak Universalism Boris Groys gives a compelling definition of “avant garde” — one that is the opposite of “making it new,” since novelty is the status quo of consumer culture. It aspires to be “weak” in the sense of not being contingent. Instead avant-garde artists try to reduce art to its transcendent, essential core. Because avant-garde work, in his view, is committed to timeless purity, it can garner none of the popularity of mass art, which is rooted in the novel.
Avant-garde art today remains unpopular by default, even when exhibited in major museums. Paradoxically, it is generally seen as a non-democratic, elitist art not because it is perceived as a strong art, but because it is perceived as a weak art. Which is to say that the avant-garde is rejected—or, rather, overlooked—by wider, democratic audiences precisely for being a democratic art; the avant-garde is not popular because it is democratic. And if the avant-garde were popular, it would be non-democratic. Indeed, the avant-garde opens a way for an average person to understand himself or herself as an artist—to enter the field of art as a producer of weak, poor, only partially visible images. But an average person is by definition not popular—only stars, celebrities, and exceptional and famous personalities can be popular. Popular art is made for a population consisting of spectators. Avant-garde art is made for a population consisting of artists.
I am interested in this as it relates to virality and vicariousness. If Groys is right, avant-garde art is at once universal and only relevant to small local communities; if it were popular, it would become part of a historical zeitgeist and become doomed to be dated. This seems to me analogous to a certain fantasy about the purity of local music scenes as opposed to the supposed fleeting insubstantiality of hyped superstars and corporate pop. Think of a million amateur bands playing the same elemental garage music in a million basements, and that is Groys’s avant garde. It’s not in anyway original and doesn’t aspire to be; it instead reiterates the timeless gesture of wanting to make music.
But at the same time, the garage bands are inspired not merely by the impulse to make music but by the vicarious desire to become like the popular musicians they admire. Amateur garage bands wanted to be like the Beatles or, later, like the Ramones or Sex Pistols. They wanted vicarious participation in the notoriety of their idols. In their emulation of “popular art” they remain spectators, despite the way in which they contribute to, in Groys’s sense, rendering that art “avant-garde” — they clumsily make it simple, generic, crudely timeless.
So it may be that popular, zeitgeisty art is necessary as a sort of timeless inspiration for the trickled-down creative impulse that yields basic, transcendent gestures of art making. If it didn’t exist, we would have to collectively create it through a spontaneous coordination of attention to make what someone is doing appear to be the model for garnering social recognition, to make emulating it worth attempting. The spectator needs an impetus to become an artist capable of consuming/creating avant-garde art as Groys defines it. Groys suggests that “participatory practice” — starting your own garage band, or your own mosh pit at least — “means that one can become a spectator only when one has already become an artist.” One might go further and say we are born artists and find it boring, childish, regressive, and long for exposure to the kind of work that will turn us into spectators.
Social media, as Groys suggests is “avant-garde” to the degree that users try to use it to be “creative” in the sense of longing to express themselves i the most generic of ways. Groys argues:
This repetitive and at the same time futile gesture [of making reductive avant-garde art] opens a space that seems to me to be one of the most mysterious spaces of our contemporary democracy—social networks like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Second Life, and Twitter, which offer global populations the opportunity to post their photos, videos, and texts in a way that cannot be distinguished from any other conceptualist or post-conceptualist artwork. In a sense, then, this is a space that was initially opened by the radical, neo-avant-garde, conceptual art of the 1960–1970s. Without the artistic reductions effectuated by these artists, the emergence of the aesthetics of these social networks would be impossible, and they could not be opened to a mass democratic public to the same degree.
That seems preposterous. I’ve been willing to argue that self-construction on social media is a kind of democratized performance art, but to claim that Facebook users couldn’t do what they do if it weren’t for actual late 20th century conceptual artists seems absurd. Only some infinitesimal percentage of social media users would have had any exposure to such work, and even this small group may not have found the encounter particularly emboldening. And Facebook’s engineers weren’t sitting down with Lucy Lippard’s Six Years before coding new features for the site. The aesthetics of Facebook, Instagram, etc., have much more to do with what is built into the interfaces to generate circulation and interaction; these enticements don’t seem to be necessarily influenced by conceptual art. If anything, it’s more that both conceptual art and interface design owe something to cybernetics, network analysis, and postwar computer science.
What I think Groys is talking about is the democratization of the expressive gesture that social media affords in its generic, preformatted fashion. Every instance of social-media sharing is a potential repetition of Groys’s “avant garde” “weak gesture.” He offers the dubious analysis that too many people are sharing too many things and no one could possibly consume it all. (False: That’s what algorithms are for!)
But the content of this sharing is not always “weak” — it is not all timeless mundanity (photos of domesticity, pictures of meals, etc.). Much of it is an attempt to seem timely, to mark one’s participation in successive waves of hype. It’s writing about very specific things, like, say, House of Cards (to the intense irritation of those who aren’t watching). Often social-media sharing is an attempt to belong to one’s time and show how one is willing to change with it, not transcend it. We may know that everything that becomes popular is just a trend — that it is ready to disappear, as Groys says — but that can make it more, not less, urgent and exciting to participate in it.
This is what pursuing virality as a feeling is about. Groys is right that “the facticity of seeing and reading” a particular piece of content “becomes irrelevant” but that is because it’s circulation and metastasis is being so carefully tracked. Virality is an aesthetics for ubiquitous surveillance. One wants to put something out there that develops momentum, that has a life span, that offers a vicarious gateway to the vitality of collective culture, which our solitary interfaces and devices tend to curtail phenomenologically. We try to get stuff (whatever stuff, it doesn’t matter) to go viral to participate in that shared social enthusiasm that surges and dissipates.
The popular is an expression the pre-individual, in Simondon’s sense — a cultural matrix out of which our individuality emerges, its precondition. The avant-garde is the denial of that origin, embracing the mundane inevitability of individuation as some unique personal triumph.
Groys argues that once upon a time we were “expected to compete for public attention.” That seems backward. Once we took for granted a certain recognition of our place, and worked to transcend that, to dissolve into something anonymous, urban, genuinely “mass” — the level at which dreams of cosmopolitanism and universal legibility are conceivable. People wanted to escape local attention and vicariously enjoy fame — imagine the fantasy without surrendering identity the way genuinely famous people must, usually to their psychic destruction.
We want vicarious participation in the popular because it feels less lonely than reclaiming one’s inherent potentiality as a solitary, transcendent avant-garde artist. If everyone can be an artist, no one needs to be congratulated or recognized for being one. Instead, one needs to be recognized for the rarer skill of appreciation, of being able to sympathize with others and unite with them in feeling.