Shadows (1959), John Cassavetes’s first film, had a key influence on the experimental filmmakers who would coalesce as “the New American Cinema.”

A frame capture from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le gai savoir (1968), a crucial mid-career work of this experimental auteur.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), an important member of the European “poetic avant-garde” during the interwar period.

Perhaps the most famous image of the New American Cinema: Maya Deren in Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).

Marie Menken (1909-1970), a pioneering experimentalist and early member of the New American Cinema.

A frame capture from Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), often credited as one of the earliest and most significant structural films.

A frame capture from Zorns Lemma (1970), Hollis Frampton’s important structural film.

Jonas Mekas, filmmaker and pioneer of cooperative distribution.

Bruce Nauman’s 2001 video installation “MAPPING THE STUDIO II with color shift, flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage).

The cover of Scott MacDonald’s book on Canyon Cinema, an important early cooperative specializing in experimental films and located in San Francisco.

DIY spaces are often ad hoc, multi-use spaces: the Opportunity Shop in Chicago before a 2009 screening of 16mm experimental films. [Photo by David Andrews]

Andrea Grover’s Aurora Picture Show, a microcinema in Houston, was originally housed in a converted church building that also housed Grover and her family. [Image courtesy of the Aurora Picture Show.]

Four movies by Ivan Ross at the Opportunity Shop: a do-it-yourself screening in Chicago, 2009. [Photo by David Andrews]

“The Two Avant-Gardes”

by David Andrews

In 1975, Peter Wollen published his article “The Two Avant-Gardes” in Studio International.[1][open endnotes in new window] There he proposed that two experimental cinemas were at work in Europe, with one centered around a coop movement of avant-garde filmmakers like Peter Gidal, Malcolm Le Grice, and Birgit Hein and the other around experimental auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard and the team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, all of whom worked in a more commercial, feature-length format that typically relied on narrative. Wollen argued that the New American Cinema was the model for the first European avant-garde but that the United States lacked the second type. Though this last observation seemed to neglect classic experimental U.S. auteurs both major (e.g., John Cassavetes) and minor (Susan Sontag), Wollen’s piece is a good one whose virtues have continued to make it useful today, judging from how well-cited it has remained.

But so much has changed since 1975 that Wollen’s essay is ripe for an update. In pursuing this goal, however, we should revise Wollen’s methods as well as his coverage. For it is not obvious that his avant-gardes were ever really comparable at the ontological level. This is not to disparage Wollen, whose public-intellectual purposes were adapted to a different time and weren’t academic in the same sense as mine. But since it is academics who cite “The Two Avant-Gardes,” we should consider the epistemological implications of its method. Wollen compared a large, inclusive, and institutional avant-garde tradition that was defined by its alternative distribution to a more limited, exclusive, art-historical tradition that was defined by its auteurs, critics, and viewers. This isn’t to deny that this second tradition had a reality as a concept; indeed, there is evidence that this concept has expanded since 1975 such that it may currently cover even more experimental auteurs in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and elsewhere. But this second tradition is mainly critical, evaluative, and art-historical.

By contrast, Wollen’s first avant-garde has, by dint of its alternative distribution scheme, an inarguable institutional reality of its own; this has allowed it to develop clear internal traditions. In the United States, these developments have made it possible to see this avant-garde as now loosely divided into two fluidly interconnected coop communities: the grassroots communities that have gathered around DIY spaces, microcinemas, Internet lounges, and “hipster” scenes and the more institutionalized (or “university-made”) avant-gardes that have operated through colleges, museums, and the major media arts centers, all of which have relied to an extent on government subsidies.[2] Of course, these avant-gardes cannot be fully differentiated. Often, the more established institutions have DIY roots, and individual participants can simultaneously play roles in both spheres. Still, in U.S. experimental cinema, there is a definite perception that a schism separates these spheres; this perception has in turn played an outsize role in the signature discourses that have shaped avant-garde cinema.

Thus, in the final sections of this article, I theorize this second set of avant-gardes, paying heed to how they differ from the avant-gardes as framed by Wollen. To make this theory concrete, I analyze recent scholarship on the subject, including Kathryn Ramey’s article “Between Art, Industry and Academia” (2002) and Michael Zryd’s article “The Academy and the Avant-Garde” (2006). These valuable pieces, which apply ethnographic (Ramey) and film-historical (Zryd) methods to their research questions, have helped me generate a new understanding of the coop movement. This understanding is grounded in the avant-garde’s anti-institutional logic, which creates an “authenticity problematic” that dogs experimentalists (as well as their promoters, whose interests subtly differ from those of the artists themselves) as they circulate through institutions, eking out careers. But this authenticity problematic has not been a challenge for avant-garde communities alone. It has also been a challenge for the many institutions that support the avant-garde, including the academy. Though the first problematic cannot be helped—it is, after all, an effect of the avant-garde’s purist, always marginal cultural position—the second can be untangled and retired on a case-by-case basis as individual avant-gardists reconcile themselves to the values of their supporting institutions. This can be understood in more particular ways by looking at the avant-garde’s relationship to the academy.

Assumptions, definitions, and history

My first assumption is that in classifying art, we should recognize whether we are deploying objective or subjective definitions—and we should strive to be as objective as possible. Of course, in the annals of art and aesthetics, there have been many different kinds of “objective” and “subjective” definition. In this article, an objective definition is one that construes art inclusively and neutrally as an institution devoted to the production, distribution, and reception of human artworks, artifactual or conceptual. Such definitions make room for the lowest forms of art as well as the highest; they also make room for the most commercial forms of art as well as the least. The reason art-making is so diverse is that it is deeply ingrained in human nature such that it is as universal to the species as language itself.

Objective definitions that accommodate all this diversity divide art into art worlds, schools, movements, genres, periods, and institutions, each of which may be defined through practical indices like mode of production, distribution apparatus, target audience, and commercial purpose. An objective definition is capable of reflecting that different art worlds, art institutions, and artists engage in cultural competition, attempting to claim art’s “authenticity” for themselves. But objective definitions must recognize the reality of these competitions without crediting their values. For in this sort of definition, every work of human art is “authentic,” from the child’s earliest crayon scribblings to the Renaissance master’s finest chiaroscuro flourishes.

Obviously, the story is different vis-à-vis the subjective definition. Subjective definitions of art regularly define art exclusively, limiting this label to preferred institutions, privileged art worlds, and politically correct artworks; consequently, these definitions have often had evaluative connotations, such that the term “art” is a sign of a value or status in a “higher” field of artistic endeavor, not a classification that covers a spectrum of art practices.

For much of modern history, subjective definitions of art have prevailed in our culture. This has in effect made art theory and art history an adjunct of art criticism. But since the 1950s, new theories have come to dominate Anglo-American aesthetics. These include the open-concept approach to art, the institutional theory of art, the historical (or “narrative”) approach to art, and others. Innovative ideas have also been forwarded by genre theorists using historical methods, like Rick Altman, and by cultural theorists using sociological methods, like Pierre Bourdieu.[3] These theorists have managed to frame art’s subjective indices within objective ones. In my study of art cinema, I have furthered these trends by theorizing art cinema as a multi-generic high art within the larger artistic field of the cinema as a whole.

The reason it is difficult to define a high-art genre like art cinema through an inclusive, objective definition is that the genre seems to define itself through exclusive, subjective means. But theorists should simply build this emphasis on exclusion and value into their definitions. Thus, my definition of art cinema construes the genre in terms of its institutional emphases on exclusiveness, authenticity, and intrinsic value. But at the same time, this definition is diverse and inclusive in its recognition of all the different means and all the different subcultures through which art cinema has made its claims to authenticity and value. As a result, my definition of the genre covers not only traditional art films but also mainstream art movies and cult art movies—as well as their institutions, which overlap, just like the forms themselves. Obviously, this definition of art cinema must also encompass avant-garde cinema, which is often designated as art cinema’s purest art, that is, as art cinema’s own art cinema.

Thus, I define avant-garde cinema as an offshoot of art cinema with a relatively separate place in the genre due to its non-commercial modes of distribution.[4] Clearly, this anti-commercial character is most evident in the coop avant-gardes, which is why those experimental cinemas were after the 1960s easy to distinguish from more commercial art cinemas. Quite the opposite has been true of the crossover experimental art cinemas of filmmakers like Godard and Straub-Huillet, whose best-known works have come through a feature-length art-film format distributed through major festivals and more commercial means.[5] Still, even in the coop avant-garde, “semi-autonomy” is a matter of subcultural distinction, not a true divide, for all art cinema aspires to the same anti-commercial ideal. It is just that the coop cinemas have managed to objectify this ideal through an alternative distribution scheme that clearly resists commodity capitalism.

Before reviewing the history of avant-garde cinema, we should say more about the terms most often applied to it, including “avant-garde” and “experimental” as well as “alternative,” “underground,” and “independent.” To be in full accord with the militant implications of “avant-garde,” any cinema that it names should be at the forefront of an artistic tradition that is politically and artistically transgressive; it should also imply an active or activist connection to social experience. These expectations form what Jeffrey Skoller has called

“the recurring refrain of the twentieth-century historical avant-garde: the problem of integrating social engagement and innovative aesthetic practice.”[6]

Still, we should admit that avant-garde filmmakers have not always had to live up to these standards. If we survey the history of the field, the idea that avant-gardists must be in the vanguard of real political change, or that they must be going somewhere radically new in the sense of form and content, makes little sense. U.S. avant-garde cinema has been marked by a diversity of individual purposes and artisanal methods. So while its overall resistance to commodity-based media has generally been obvious, its use of experiment as a way of spurring Situationist revolt or as a tool for stirring civil-rights consciousness has been sketchier. Even the idea that the field is always stylistically experimental does not necessarily make sense once we realize that avant-gardists are often simply pushing forward well-worn, albeit non-commercial, art traditions.

These difficulties are not that strange, though, for genre designations rarely make perfect sense. And figuring out what sense they do make is often a question of gaining a wide enough perspective. We know at this point that avant-garde practice in U.S. art cinema has been at its most diverse since 1960. During that span, many terms have been applied to this sector, with “avant-garde” and “experimental” having for some time been used almost interchangeably.[7] This usage is fine, I believe; in fact, that is how I use the terms myself. While it does help to remember that “avant-garde” has more historical specificity than “experimental,” it does not help to get too hung up on the authenticity of our terms. On the other hand, some labels cannot isolate this cinema; these terms include “independent,” “alternative,” and “underground.” Though these labels can describe the avant-garde, each is too broad in its references to distinguish this art cinema,[8] for each may be applied to cinemas that benefit from far more commercial distributions. Ergo, only the terms “avant-garde” and “experimental” serve as fairly reliable labels in this context—with the caveat that a label can isolate a field of art even if that field has never really lived up to the expectations implicit to the label.

The link between avant-garde cinema and art cinema is also historical, rooted in the traditional classification of high-profile avant-garde films of the 1920s and 1930s as “art films” or “art cinema.”[9] But neither the idea of the traditional art film as a feature-length narrative form nor the idea of it as a new-wave phenomenon coalesced until after the Second World War. It was at that point that today’s more specific distinctions took shape.[10] This suggests that the history of experimental cinema is split. The first phase was a prewar period in which European directors were the leaders, theorists, and innovators. According to film historian A.L. Rees, this first phase may be subdivided between a “poetic avant-garde,” comprised of artists working in an art-world capacity on more-or-less abstract films, and a “narrative avant-garde,” comprised of auteurs more closely involved with commercial industries and more likely to rely on some narrative and some realism in their experimental works.[11] In films such as Le Retour à la raison (Man Ray, 1923), Symphonie diagonale (Viking Eggeling, 1924), Ballet mécanique (Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy, 1924), and Anémic cinema (Marcel Duchamp, 1926), the artists of the poetic avant-garde constructed a playful, non-commercial cinema that dissolved realistic illusion in montage, abstraction, and surrealistic whimsy.

The narrative avant-garde included the German Expressionists and “the Soviet school of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Kuleshov and Shub, the French ‘Impressionists’ such as Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein and Germaine Dulac, the Japanese director Kinugasa, and independent directors such as Gance, Murnau and Dreyer.”[12] This second phase of the avant-garde was more political and plot-oriented than the first, as shown by its equivocal relations with photographic realism and with classical narrative. This period also witnessed the birth of important U.S. cinemas in both experimental categories, like the one that emerged from the Stieglitz circle and included “city symphonies” such as Manhatta (Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, 1921). These prewar avant-gardes fell apart for two major reasons: the coming of sound cinema and broader political currents. After 1927, the coming of sound—which avant-gardists first resisted on aesthetic grounds, though that resistance spoke to a simple economic necessity—contributed to the belief that Hollywood was both technically and economically superior.[13] But the most obvious problem facing the avant-garde during the 1930s was the coming war, which sent the European filmmakers into exodus, relocating much of the movement and its influence to the United States.[14]  

Recently, David James, Paul Arthur, and Chuck Kleinhans have added fleshed to this historical narrative, with James adding insights on the “minor cinemas” around Los Angeles as early as the 1920s.[15][16] But the second phase of avant-garde cinema—which was contemporary with the rise of auteurism and with the consecration of the commercial art cinema—was clearly North American in character. During this crucial phase, the most influential movement was labeled “the New American Cinema” by Jonas Mekas and his many collaborators.[17] This avant-garde was influenced by the European poetic avant-garde, taking from films like Jean Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un poète (1932) the belief that cinema was an artist’s medium no less than painting.[18] Its most famous image derived from Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a neo-surrealist work produced by the European-born, American-raised filmmaker Maya Deren and her Czech-exile husband, Alexander Hammid. Deren and colleagues like Stan Brakhage formed the “visionary” phase of this avant-garde, which fused the sexual “psychodrama” of Cocteau to the lyrical modernism of U.S. painting and poetry. Along with Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Shirley Clarke, Marie Menken, Jordan Belson, Chick Strand, Bruce Baillie, and many others, Deren and Brakhage pioneered an U.S. underground that was, until the emergence of hardcore, as notorious for its opposition to mainstream sexual culture—and its avid endorsement of the counterculture—as for its opposition to mainstream movie culture. Experimentalists like Anger and Smith had cult followings, and both fought to keep their films out of court.[19] Later on, through the intercession of crucial innovators like Andy Warhol, the trance films of the visionary era gave way to structural films like Wavelength (1967), by Canadian Michael Snow, and Zorns Lemma (1970), by American Hollis Frampton. It was under the cool, disinterested aegis of the structural film that the New American Cinema would make its surest entry into the “pantheon” of high art.

Just as crucial, I think, was Mekas’ collaborative formation in the early 1960s of cooperative distribution. In some ways, this new form of distribution resembled an older system established by the Museum of Modern Art’s circulating film library in 1935. Like the later system, the museum’s library also encouraged the growth of film societies and art cinema as a whole.[20] Moreover, neither system was designed for profit, so they were, in that sense, in keeping with the anti-commercial rhetoric of high art. That said, after its first burst of success, major changes occurred in the U.S. avant-garde. Until the late 1960s and early 1970s, avant-garde movies had been shown almost entirely in theatrical spaces. Whether exhibited in museums or classrooms, coop cinema offered a theater-type experience that the viewer was meant to experience from start to finish. But by the late 1960s, avant-garde movies began to proliferate in art galleries as part of art installations. Throughout the 1970s, these installations increasingly embraced the video artworks of non-theatrical artists such as Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, William Wegman, Bill Viola, and many others, a transition away from film technology that was more gradual within the theatrical avant-garde. Though they share common roots, these cinematic high arts have diverged since then, with video artists now often unaware of their historical links to the filmmakers of the New American Cinema.[21] Though high-profile crossover artists, including Michael Snow, David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, Chantal Akerman, Matthew Barney, Chris Marker, Isaac Julien, and Miranda July, have over the past decades managed to straddle these and other divides, many moving-image artists now choose to focus on a single area. Another major change that has been noted by scholars is the institutionalization of the field after 1970, the year the Anthology Film Archives was founded.

The institutionalization of experimental cinema has impacted every segment of the field. Video artists have, for example, found opportunities for funding and exhibition through art schools, museums, galleries, and private foundations. But what intrigues me most is the institutionalization of important theatrical segments of U.S. experimental cinema. Since the 1960s, artists in this area have found jobs in film schools, film-studies departments, media arts centers, and museums and have distributed their works through coops like New York’s Film-Makers’ Cooperative and San Francisco’s Canyon Cinema. They have also exhibited films at festivals like Ann Arbor and MadCat; in microcinemas, including David Sherman and Rebecca Barten’s Total Mobile Home Microcinema in San Francisco and Andrea Grover’s Aurora Picture Show in Houston; and through museum theaters, repertory theaters, college classrooms, university theaters, and a multitude of makeshift, DIY spaces.[22] This process of institutionalization, ad hoc though it often is, has led James to highlight divisions in experimental cinema between “the student film and the faculty film.”[23] But much more telling divisions exist, I believe, between student artists and faculty artists or, better yet, between both classes of academic and what Ramey has called the “homegrown” experimentalist.[24] These divisions, along with the many institutional conflicts they have fomented, have developed in part through the historical avant-garde’s anti-institutional traditions, which have been extensively detailed by theorists like Peter Bürger and Pierre Bourdieu.[25] Such divisions are not problems for filmmakers alone but for academics, too, which is to say they have over the past decades become issues within academic disciplines like film studies.

By the time that Wollen published his article in 1975, many of these institutional factors were also influencing the European avant-garde cinemas, particularly those that were organized by coops. But though Wollen refers to some of these factors in passing, as when he mentions the “hornet’s nest” of video,[26] his primary focus is on political and aesthetic questions. To understand the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach, we should turn now to his classic essay, “The Two Avant-Gardes.”

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