Thursday, February 11, 2010

Avant-Garde and Story

(See this post for a little context. )

I actually owe my earliest interest in the avant-garde to Frank O'Hara and the New York School of Poets. I was turned on to them by a marvelous book called The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, by David Lehman. It's a dense, fascinating read, equal parts social history and literary analysis. It educated me on modern art, specifically Abstract Expressionism, and loosened me up a great deal about how to approach a work of art as a viewer, a reader, an audience member.

Then I went to grad school in dramatic writing. And I got story shoved down my damn throat for two years. I don't regret that education, but it has had its positive and negative implications on how I read and go to the theater. I probably spent the first two years out of school analyzing the structure of every play and movie I sat in. Obvious flaws meant the work was suspect; an attempt to flout the rules was deemed immature or pretentious. Thank goodness I got over all that.

Interestingly enough, in the context of all this newfound insistence on craft, I always had a great deal of patience, interest, and curiosity about the avant-garde, in theater and elsewhere. And that's precisely because Lehman's book taught me an openness when engaging with this work -- work that typically is disinterested in the rules you're so keen to critique it for willfully breaking or ignoring altogether.

Of course the avant-garde and story aren't mutually exclusive. Frankly, of the work I've seen lately that would be considered avant-garde (Wooster Group, Big Art Group, Charles Mee (although I don't know that I would've lumped him in this category, but never mind), none of them lacked story. Not even Colin's example, The Black Rider, lacked story. It was full of it, in fact, as are all of the above works. Big Art Group is crazy with story; Wooster takes classic stories and either interrogates them or smashes them into other famous stories and tells them at the same time.

As for Mee, one of the things I admire about his writing is how he sneaks conventional story into seemingly wild territory. bobrauschenbergamerica certainly retains elements of collage, but it also depicts lovers meeting, fighting, breaking up, and making up. If that's not story I don't know what is. And it combines simple love stories with stories of ambition, terror, murder, and pop culture to tell a larger story about our nation. It's an ambitious play and it deserves serious consideration.

Whether or not these approaches to story are effective is debatable, I suppose, but an attempt to innovate in storytelling does not equal an absence of storytelling. Maybe it's because we live in Hollywood, but I feel like when people talk about story, they're talking about a very specific thing with very rigid parameters (quite possibly to be found in books by Syd Field and Robert McKee), and while I'll always admire a well-crafted execution of that very specific thing, it doesn't mean that someone going about it a different way should automatically be deemed unsuccessful.

1 comment:

brian said...

Great post! I'd also recommend Maggie Nelson's "Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions". It's an important addition to the O'Hara/Ab-Ex text you reference above, and focuses on feminist/queer aesthetics (and by extension, politics) from the 50's - 70's.