copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Revisiting “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.”

Wollen’s mixed fruit

One of the most obvious strengths of Wollen’s article is its simplified schema, which splits the European scene into two understandable tribes. It is to his credit that Wollen never pretends that all experimentalists fit neatly into these groups. Indeed, if his methods have any value, it comes from the comparative way that he deploys them to follow these avant-gardes through time and space, charting them as cultural positions. As a result, Wollen shows his readers not only what has divided these two avant-gardes but what has united them. For instance, in the avant-garde perspective that Wollen clearly shares, the commercial Hollywood film is equivalent to the commercial art film of the “Antonioni or Fellini or Truffaut” variety, which aspires to the “narrative fiction 35mm film-making” that is Hollywood’s specialty.[27] Hence, Wollen traces the developments of the cinematic avant-garde primarily through the developments of the painters, poets, and musicians who had previously pushed for anti-commercial innovations, both political and aesthetic, within the confines of the art world. And Wollen notes the conflicts that always arose from the political bearing of the avant-garde, whose art-world context also included its spiritual opposite within modernism, art for art’s sake.[28]

To me, the strongest aspect of Wollen’s article is the way that it depicts European avant-gardists as specific cultural agents who are inevitably stuck between one position and another. For instance, the militant, Godard-type avant-gardist—who, in Wollen’s view, emerged through the example of Sergei Eisenstein—tends to differentiate himself or herself from the coop avant-gardist by presenting the latter as a “mere” formalist, which is to say, as an artist whose interest in stylistic experiment resembles that of the aesthete artist, who would never deign to inspire the masses. But the Godard-type artist must also guard against “vulgar” Marxists (who depict all formal innovation as “mere” formalism) by claiming the Maoist justification of “scientific experiment.”[29] For such an auteur, revolutionary form must not be merely political at the level of theme and story; it must also represent a radical “break with bourgeois norms of diegesis.”[30] But, as Wollen rightly notes, the problem with this Brechtian position is that

“unless it is thought through carefully or stopped arbitrarily at some safe point, [it] leads inevitably straight into the positions of the other avant-garde.”

For cooperative avant-gardists also consider themselves political. The difference is that they often place a much greater stress on formal experiment than auteurs of the Godard-type, so they must reconcile themselves to their “minority status” and the public alienation it yields.

But Wollen’s essay leaves its reader with questions and contradictions. The author notes in closing that, if he went further, he would discuss

“the institutional and economic framework in which filmmakers find themselves.”[31]

Indeed, had he delved these topics, Wollen might have discussed the price that auteurs like Godard had to pay to take part “in the commercial system,” with its stars and budgets—and its isolation from art collectives and their sense of community.[32] The coop system’s “artisanal production” could yield formalism, but its egalitarian collaboration could yield solidarity, too. If these filmmakers lost touch with the masses, they had grassroots communities to fall back on. Viewed from this perspective, it is difficult to believe that a cinema made in the hierarchical auteur system of the commercial art cinema could ever be revolutionary. Wouldn’t this cinema have to “dilute” its themes and its forms to make itself accessible to broader audiences, trading revolutionary effects for populist appeal, somewhat in the manner of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part indie film Che (2008)?

Or is it the other way around—would this cinema have do those things in order to have revolutionary populist effects, meaning that Godard was occupying the right cultural position but making the wrong bets in ratcheting up his experimentation in mid-career works like Le gai savoir (1968)? On the other hand, could a grassroots community that disavowed popular distribution ever hope to be truly revolutionary? Granted, it would have the freedom to take many risks or none at all. But could it ever reach, let alone inspire, a mass audience if distributed non-commercially? Quandaries like these cannot be resolved. But if Wollen had posed them in this manner—rather than spending time on the formal and political minutiae—he might have been able to frame his avant-gardes more clearly as cultural fields.

This thought leads to my major concern. Assuming that they occupy the same systems of production and distribution,[33] could the Godardian auteur really be objectively distinguished from the ostensibly less experimental Antonioni-type? Wollen pretends that this distinction is clear-cut, but I think this idea of the avant-garde comes down to notions of value and authenticity. By contrast, Wollen frames the coop avant-gardes by way of distribution alone. This means that coop avant-gardists did not have to qualify as avant-garde through evaluative or art-historical means. Rather, they submitted a film to a coop and followed its policies, which were egalitarian and inclusive. (They could also qualify as avant-garde in this sense, I believe, even if they did not use the coops—so long as they used the other networks of distribution and exhibition also favored by coop filmmakers, especially the grassroots spaces and media arts centers of urban centers like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle.)

The disparities between these approaches should be clear. For one thing, the institutional method legitimates more avant-gardists. Whereas Wollen can offer only a few examples of the Godard-type, he notes that in 1975 the coop field already included many practitioners in Britain alone. Because the Godardian auteur occupies an avant-garde extreme of the art-film field, the critic must decide which art-film auteurs don’t make the cut, basing that decision on form and politics—a practice that leads to a subjective method that looks elitist, regardless of its justifications. Hence, from Wollen’s perspective, not many art-film auteurs deserve the avant-garde label; he even excludes Michelangelo Antonioni, who arguably had all the right credentials. Today, after the cinema has encountered many similar experimental auteurs—including Godard, Straub-Huillet, Marker, Sontag, Cassavetes, Greenaway, Lynch, Alain Resnais, Joyce Wieland, Andrei Tarkovsky, Akerman, Derek Jarman, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Wollen himself (along with his co-director, Laura Mulvey), to cite only a few—it is still difficult to know which experimentalists “deserve” the label.

Must these artists have shared Godard’s Brechtian methods and Mao-inflected consciousness? Must they, in other words, have made intellectual think pieces that scorned the social realisms of their time and the bourgeois values that they appeared to uphold? Or must they simply have made exceptionally experimental art films in any of a number of art-historical categories—films like Resnais’s L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961), Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975), Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986), Greenaway’s 8 ½ Women (1999), or even Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006)?

Wollen complains in his article about the scant attention given this second avant-garde relative to all the notice paid the coop avant-garde. But I think this disparity just reflects the fact that his second avant-garde was a subjective tradition, an art-historical tradition, not an institutional reality like the coop avant-garde. His comparison of those fields seems to have been a critical intervention that lent his chosen style of filmmaking greater traction as he prepared to make that kind of experimental film along with Mulvey. But even though the Brechtian products of their collaboration, including Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), have left their mark on experimental communities,[34] their status in those fields does not mean that this school of experimental filmmaking can be held up as truly comparable to a full-blown institution like coop cinema. In the end, Wollen’s two avant-gardes seem even less comparable than apples and oranges.

Reconceptualizing U.S. avant-garde cinema

Though we should probably dispense with Wollen’s mixed approach to the avant-garde, we should not necessarily dispense with his idea of seeing this cinema through its division. Indeed, such divisions have existed within the U.S. coop cinemas since the 1960s. How might we go about theorizing these internal splits? First, we must learn from the best scholars available. We must also apply what we have learned from Wollen: that it is imperative that we divide the avant-garde into comparable areas. Finally, we must draw on cultural theorists like Bourdieu, who combines an understanding of art history with a broad understanding of sociology and ethnography.

When it comes to describing the field’s institutional splits, the scholars I think of most readily are Ramey and Zryd. In “Between Art, Industry and Academia: The Fragile Balancing Act of the Avant-Garde Film Community,” Ramey approaches coop cinema along an ethnographic path. Like Wollen, Ramey is an avant-garde filmmaker; however, this vocation does not impair her objectivity. Instead, she manipulates her insider status to academic benefit, using other “[a]vant-garde filmmakers” as her “primary informants,” as supplemented by interviews with curators, technicians, and professors.[35] She begins by describing the intentions of individual participants in this field (“to critique, subvert and provide an alternative to dominant, mainstream media production”), by tracing its history as a field, and by analyzing how its idea of “the avant-garde artisan” has been produced and reproduced.[36] Ramey then outlines the institutional structure of this experimental cinema by positioning individual participants within, between, and across subcultures and industries. She neither analyzes any avant-garde films nor evaluates them; instead, she observes how avant-garde subgroups make value claims based on forms, politics, and subcultural positions. Through terms such as these, Ramey differentiates “homegrown” experimentalists from “university-made” artisans.[37] And throughout her essay, she shows avant-gardists struggling

“with institutionalization and legitimization by the dominant film, art and university industries.”[38]

Ramey concludes her article by arguing that avant-garde

“communities are supported by the art, film and university industries but are also threatened by their efforts to standardize and legitimate them.”[39]

Zryd’s essay “The Academy and the Avant-Garde: A Relationship of Dependence and Resistance” focuses on one part of Ramey’s institutional triad, i.e., the academy. But as its title indicates, the article’s premise is similar to Ramey’s conclusion: the U.S. avant-garde has long been conflicted, often resisting its own supporting institutions. What distinguishes Zryd is his use of historical methods to trace and contextualize the avant-garde’s flimsy anti-institutional rhetoric—all as a prelude to collapsing that rhetoric by presenting contrary evidence in sections like “There Have Always Been Avant-Garde Institutions” and “The Academy Was There in the 1960s Too.”[40] Zryd is making an economic argument that updates Ramey’s account of a conflicted field.[41] He wants to argue that the avant-garde’s conflicted state has, at the level of the field, been a virtual smoke screen that has never interfered with its growth, which has been steady, sustained by a university system with which it shares interests, like the commitment to freedom of expression. The avant-garde’s dependency has, then, culminated in a field of production more stable than its individual poor-mouthing suggests.[42] 

These arguments can be framed usefully if we look at the way in which Bourdieu talks about the avant-garde in The Rules of Art (1996). Though Bourdieu wrote this book mainly in reference to developments in nineteenth-century French literature, he intended it to have larger application and even in one passage implies its relevance to “‘experimental’ cinema.”[43] As in his other books, Bourdieu construes the avant-garde as occupying the pure-art sector of the field of cultural production. By that he means that the avant-garde is defined by its small-scale production and its low economic capital, the compensation for which is its relatively rich cultural and symbolic capital. Bourdieu also defines the avant-garde as a field of art that is stridently opposed to the “banalization” of art despite the fact that its own processes seem to accelerate that outcome.[44] As producers, avant-gardists judge each other through their ability to impart an authentic sense of “rupture” in “the best informed consumers,” namely themselves, their competitors, and critics who are savvy to what has been accomplished through the history of their field. Ergo, in this milieu, artists struggle to resist “the social signs of consecration—decoration, prizes, academies and all kinds of honours”—because these signs of institutional status seem to indicate that their works of art have aged, socially speaking, “through diffusion . . . in the process of canonization among a more and more extended clientele,” with the result that those works of art can at most create a sense of rupture only in “simple lay people.”[45]

If we put Ramey and Zryd together with Bourdieu, we can create a conceptual model that makes sense of the U.S. avant-garde as an anti-institutional institution. Historically, coop cinema has had a marginal presence in cultural institutions like the art world and the academy. Though this marginalization has been an ecomomic burden, it is in accord with the larger history of the avant-garde, which has been defined in terms of a purist rhetoric that has had anti-commercial, anti-institutional, and egalitarian inflections. Marginalization has thus been crucial to the identity and symbolic capital of this field—in part because, as Bourdieu has indicated, broader recognition signifies banalization in the avant-garde. At first, the movement lived up to this sense of dispossession, for its early practitioners, including Brakhage, Deren, and Gregory Markopoulos, were impoverished, homegrown filmmakers without much formal training.[46] But as this avant-garde gained more adherents and ironic visibility as an “underground,” it became far more organized.

Its key innovation was a coop system that distributed works without violating its own purist values—though, predictably, its “purest” adherents rebelled even against this self-consciously scruffy, egalitarian, grassroots institution. In the end, the cooperatives helped circulate art movies and also served as a kind of anchor that encouraged the formation of new communities that flaunted their DIY sensibilities. Though their use has changed over the years—according to Ramey, coops are now “agents of history” that serve mainly as archives for older filmmakers, with younger filmmakers opting to self-distribute works on DVD—coops still have a stablilizing centrality in this sector, holding it together by preserving its history.[47]  After all, the field’s history must be knowable if new generations of artist are to “surpass” that history in Bourdieu’s sense.[48]

But even before the first successes of this purist movement, major institutions like the academy and the art world had shown an interest in it, serving as intermediaries that lent it publicity and that helped legitimate some of its practitioners. These ties to cultural institutions were controversial within this cinema, for they seemed to betray its grassroots ethos—and again, institutional status might indicate the banalization of a filmmaker’s art. Nevertheless, because its practitioners had needs like anyone else—and because it is even more difficult to make movies without institutional resources than it is to make poems or paintings without them—more and more of those practitioners began to secure funding through these institutions, with the academy the most reliable option in this regard (just as it was, in the 1960s, already the leading consumer of coop rentals).[49] As time passed, increasing numbers of these artists secured not only their publicity, funding, equipment, and employment through the university but also their training—for more and more film schools and art schools offered courses in experimental film production and scholarship. Consequently, as the movement reached its maturity, it contained

These distinctions were, of course, loose and pointedly relative, with mobility visible across all of these sectors. Furthermore, it is worth wondering how closely the homegrown filmmakers of the later periods truly resembled the earlier avant-gardists, since unlike their antecedents, the later artists had the benefit of looking back on more established traditions and benefited in many indirect ways from resources circulated by the academy and the art world, even if they were never personally part of either. That said, even if these divisions are, as constructions, too brittle to contain the full complexity and fluidity of this field, they are nevertheless divisions that have profoundly shaped the thinking and activity of experimentalists within the field.

Indeed, the perception of these divisions has activated a dynamic that is prevalent in many indie cinemas but that is particularly striking in coop cinemas. At the subcultural level, the coop avant-garde reserves much of its sanction for the least institutionalized artists and scenes, no matter how much cultural authority an individual or an institution seems to wield in the field. Thus, in Bourdieu’s terms, we might say that “authenticity” or “integrity” is in the avant-garde a symbolic form of subcultural capital that increases as a participant’s economic and cultural capital decreases. Trading it for distribution or for institutional funding can, then, leave its artists open to authenticity-based critiques (or to charges of socioaesthetic conservatism) within their original art-making subcultures.[50]

The least institutionalized, most homegrown experimentalists seem to contrive this purely symbolic form of subcultural capital from thin air as a perverse form of compensation for their nonexistent economic capital and their equally nonexistent cultural capital. Thus, in the avant-garde, to have one’s subcultural status recognized is to jeopardize it, especially if that recognition is articulated in a more mainstream field. This indie dynamic makes avant-garde cinema open and inclusive, lending force to the egalitarian rhetorics wielded by its practitioners. Yet the anti-canonical ideology that results from these processes may also be linked to the purist snobbery that Bourdieu notes in The Rules of Art, which is a form condescension that assumes that any experimental work consecrated at the cultural level is passé, déclassé, and no longer capable of inspiring an authentic sense of “rupture” in the best-informed consumers.[51] In this indie dynamic, the avant-garde seems both open and closed, at once purely populist and purely elitist.

Thus we have two fluidly interconnected avant-gardes, one of which is fairly non-institutional and one of which is relatively institutional, as supplemented by a fully hybrid third category whose members may identify with either of the two other poles, depending on their needs and circumstances. These two fully relative sectors have the same sort of reality, given that they are both defined by the heterogeneous movie forms that circulate through alternative distribution schemes. Clearly, these avant-gardes cannot be defined through given styles or given themes. The coop ethos that has united them has been too inclusive to sustain any form-based notion of authenticity, and the wider ethos of novelty-for-novelty’s sake has also made such notions patently unworkable. In theory, everything is permitted there, from narrative, animation, and politically motivated documentary to the widest range of abstraction. This is why, as Kleinhans notes, the art-historical model first circulated by P. Adams Sitney in Visionary Film (1974) was a crucial intervention that helped establish U.S. avant-garde cinema as a “serious” art, but it was also a theory that could never offer the final word on coop cinema.[52]

Making virtues of necessity

At this point, I want to backtrack to provide some of the historical details left out of the cultural model provided above. Once we have established those details, we will be better situated to understand the problems that are associated with this model (problems that I discuss in the second half of this section). The first major detail is the fact that the economic rhetoric of the avant-garde was codified in the New American Cinema’s most crucial documents, which tended to corroborate its sense of dispossession. For example, in his letters, Brakhage often made aesthetic virtues of the economic necessities thrust on his filmmaking by his chronically impoverished state; thus, he framed poverty as a path to pure cinema. Brakhage was so adept at this mythmaking that he even transformed the theft of his 16mm camera, which he could not afford to replace, into myth by depicting it as the necessary break to get back to basics, that is, to 8mm filmmaking.[53] Later, when Brakhage explained his use of hand-scratched title- and credit-sequences, he linked the inexpensiveness of this technique to the modernist goal of prodding the audience into an encounter with the sensuous surface of the medium.[54]

Using similar cues, Sitney’s book Visionary Film (which, as I have noted, helped consecrate the leading filmmakers of the New American Cinema at the cultural level) presented Brakhage as the U.S. avant-garde’s most crucial innovator.[55] It turned the pathos of this maverick artist, whose avant-garde tactics were often just clever responses to economic austerities, into myths that seem to verify the aesthetic value of Brakhage’s improvisations.[56] Sitney then proceeded to assign these myths to other filmmakers, other cinemas.

This romanticization of economic constraint was also apparent in the founding documents of the most important avant-garde institutions. “The First Statement By the New American Cinema Group” (1962), the manifesto of the New York Film-makers’ Coop (FMC), asserts,

“The low budget is not a purely commercial consideration. It goes with our ethical and esthetic beliefs, directly connected with the things we want to say, and the way we want to say them.”[57]

For experimentalists like Mekas, having a low budget was not simply the economic consequence of working in a milieu devoted to free experiment; it was also a virtue that conferred pure autonomy, which had moral-aesthetic value. This anti-commercial rhetoric did not change much as avant-garde cinema became more institutionalized. It had a regular presence in Mekas’s journal Film Culture, which championed avant-garde films from 1954 on, as well as in the regular columns that he began writing for The Village Voice in 1958. And this rhetoric was just as often recycled to justify other institutions, such as the Millennium Film Workshop (and its journal) or the Anthology Film Archives (and its essential cinema list). Today, second-generation avant-gardists have continued this strategic rhetoric, making more virtues of necessity. Consider how Craig Baldwin (of Tribulation 99 [1991] and Sonic Outlaws [1995] fame) has endorsed Bruce Conner’s “cinema povera” tradition.

But the anti-institutional embrace of avant-garde institutions created problems from the start. U.S. experimentalists like Baldwin have elevated themselves through their hostility to what James calls “the commodity culture of bourgeois society,” and this avant-garde posture has “almost axiomatically” entailed hostility to the mainstream.[58] Yet, as James points out, “the relations between avant-garde film and its own institutions have hardly been more amicable or stable” than the relations between avant-garde film and mainstream institutions.[59] Thus, even grass-roots institutions like the FMC have been susceptible to anti-institutional attacks from artists who have disagreed in principle with their centralization of policy and power. Mekas knew the best way to outflank critics of the FMC was to adopt an egalitarian policy as well as a professional style that seemed disorganized or “non-institutional.”[60] But the New York FMC had so much subcultural success that it could not avoid all criticism. Indeed, many recognized figures, including luminaries like Brakhage and Jack Smith, railed against the coop system, regardless of its anti-institutional stylings. According to Arthur, Brakhage and Smith deemed the FMC a “parody” of Hollywood industrial filmmaking, with Smith characterizing the coop as too rigid, too commercialized, and insufficiently anarchic.[61]

As suggested above, part of what made the FMC a success despite such criticism was its egalitarian policy. Perhaps the signal event in the development of this policy was the moment in 1962 when Mekas decided not to work with Cinema 16, the New York film society that exhibited and distributed alternative movies from 1947 to 1963.[62] Mekas disliked this non-profit because its programming scheme in effect made its founder, Amos Vogel, “the sole arbiter of which avant-garde films were available and the primary arbiter of how they were presented.”[63] Not only did the FMC cooperative model opt against selection criteria, distributing any film that followed its policies, it returned a higher percentage of fees to artists, thus ensuring its competitiveness. Within a few years, Vogel had transitioned in other directions, becoming affiliated with the New York Film Festival and selling his Cinema 16 catalogue to Barney Rosset at Grove Press; and soon thereafter, other distributors such as San Francisco’s Canyon Cinema and Toronto’s Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Center had adopted the coop paradigm, whose policy of inclusiveness remained standard across the board. This egalitarianism still makes it possible for the most anti-institutional experimentalists to accept the coop as “authentic.” Thus, even homegrown avant-gardists like Seattle filmmaker Jon Behrens, whose work is distributed by Canyon, make distinctions between coop institutions and more centralized forums like museums, which receive “city or state money.”[64]

Indeed, in a useful article, Todd Bayma has argued that the coops, in tandem with the “the small size of audiences, lack of wider recognition, and low financial return,” have served “to discourage individuals and organizations from setting themselves up as evaluative gatekeepers.”[65] This has in turn encouraged the insider view that Bayma quotes, namely, that this avant-garde cinema is exceptionally open and deserves its indie reputation, for it is

“‘nothing like art, where you have a big, establishment art structure . . . In film, anyone can blast their way into the area if they try hard enough, to some extent.’”[66]

Fed over time by the growing availability of quality video equipment, this inclusivist, communitarian spirit has given hope to students and graduates of film schools as well as to homegrown artists like Behrens without formal training to speak of.[67]

But in the end, this egalitarian spirit could not dispel the avant-garde’s most basic quandaries and shortcomings. Because the avant-garde’s egalitarian logic, codified by its coop policies, seems to endorse an anti-hierarchical position, it is in continual state of revolt against institutions that would use any hierarchical canons—even the smallest, most rudimentary ones—as the basis for its programming choices.[68] Indeed, as Ramey has noted, the selection of first-generation avant-gardists like Shirley Clarke and Ernie Gehr as canonized faculty members

“did not bring harmony to the avant-garde film community. Younger filmmakers became critical of their elders, accusing them of empire building, censorship and stagnation.”[69]

Thus, Zryd has documented that in 1981 San Francisco Art Institute film students protested a screening of works by newly “official” artists like Gehr, Paul Sharits, and George Landow at the San Francisco Cinematheque, charging the Cinematheque with

“‘deliberate and systematic lack of responsibility in representing the current work of local filmmakers in [its] programming.’”[70]

The problem for the avant-garde establishment was clear. The air of permanent, collective revolt that animates the avant-garde—which is enshrined by its coop policies, and which is a major factor in its continuing appeal to student filmmakers and to homegrown artisans—was part of the coop ethos sanctioned by that establishment. This ethos was in turn related to the broader avant-garde ethos that Bourdieu discusses, the one that considers banalization a natural outcome of canonization insofar as canonization entailed the distribution of a work or a style along more mainstream pathways.[71] U.S. avant-garde cinema was caught in a sticky, albeit predictable, authenticity problematic: as its more consecrated members tried to benefit from their various successes, its least institutionalized members could criticize them as “sell outs” untrue to core values.[72]

What cannot be escaped in all this is the fact that the avant-garde has championed the most abstract, difficult forms. Many of these forms fall outside normative capacities for human enjoyment,[73] meaning their appreciation can require a great deal of education or even “re-education.” Ergo, even the avant-garde’s most secure institutions have faced scarce funds that have created limited opportunities for exhibition. (Coop policies may be commendable in their egalitarianism, but they offer no guarantee that anyone will screen the movies.) That the avant-garde has found it difficult to accept the realities of scarcity is indicated by the fact that small-press journals like Spiral have continued to asked naïve questions like the one cited by Zryd:

“‘Is the anointing of certain films and filmmakers over others inevitable when the exhibition of film art becomes institutionalized?’”[74]

The answer to this question should go beyond just “yes.” It should also include the fact that institutions cannot be blamed for these basic realities. Programmers in these institutions must anoint one filmmaker over another; unlike the coops, they haven’t the luxury of taking everyone. Indeed, programmers have had to choose among so many artists for such a limited number of screening opportunities that they have quite naturally tied their programming choices to their own institutional priorities.

Consider the situation of the microcinemas. The microcinema movement began in 1993 through Sherman and Barten’s Total Mobile Home Microcinema and grew over the next two decades through start-ups that were typically part of the founder’s home, like Grover’s Aurora Picture Show. By 2000, there were by some estimates over a hundred of these exhibition sites.[75] Self-described descendants of the early-twentieth-century film clubs and the grassroots viewing spaces of the New American Cinema, microcinemas have hosted traditional avant-garde films as well as the more interactive, multimedia experiences associated with expanded cinema. (There is also room in the microcinema world for the eclecticism of the cult nexus; see, for instance, Baldwin’s Other Cinema in San Francisco.)[76] Though the microcinemas have maintained their anti-institutional bearing over the years,[77] they have attracted institutional funding and have encouraged fierce competition for the few but fairly prestigious theatrical screenings (as opposed to less prestigious classroom screenings), stimulating grassroots hierarchies among local artists. But microcinemas have had no option but to balance conflicting interests when selecting which artists and which works they will program. Though they range from refined affairs to strategically ad hoc ones, they are all devoted to the artists, for whom some microcinemas have even arranged funding.[78] But today microcinemas are often dependent for this kind of funding on private granting agencies such as the Warhol Foundation or on government granting agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts. As Grover has indicated, these different kinds of sponsors have different kinds of requirements that must be met as a condition of sponsorship. By no means autonomous, the microcinemas walk a fine line in their programming.[79]

A very different set of dilemmas is created when avant-gardists bring their anti-institutional sensibility to the academy, hoping to benefit from academic largesse without sacrificing subcultural authenticity in the bargain. We shouldn’t look on this issue as a one-sided moral affair, of course, for the academy has sought to exploit experimental artists, too. Especially when film-studies was coalescing in the 1960s and 1970s, film departments hired experimental filmmakers because they brought the prestige and allure of a popular new sector of film culture. According to Zryd, hiring them

“made fiscal sense as they commanded lower salaries and could usually bridge university cultures in the humanities and fine arts . . .”[80]

These trends have led to difficult professional lives. As Ramey has noted,

“Many avant-garde filmmakers are forced throughout their careers to piece together a living on adjunct teaching salaries.”[81]

Still, we should see that the exploitation is mutual and, on the avant-gardist’s side, strategic. The adjunct life allows artists to access some of the legitimacy, money, equipment, and opportunity offered by the academy while still holding this institution at arm’s length, allowing them to avoid the appearance of cooptation in their art-making subcultures—and allowing them to avoid the restrictions on creativity enacted by tenure pressures. Clearly, what is most important in this field is maintaining direct control over one’s art without any threat of institutional compromise or banalization. Though the size of adjunct pay constrains the art of those who live on it, the fact that those adjuncts keep making avant-garde art seems to confirm the authenticity of their vision, however constrained it is at the practical level. Indeed, filmmakers across experimental cinema who support themselves in similar ways, whether through construction jobs, by waiting tables, etc., in effect preserve their ability to “make virtues of necessity” when promoting their art.

But inside the academy itself, the downside of this strategic posture is that avant-gardists are in effect prevented from honing their skills as scholars. From an academic point of view, this is disappointing, for it stands to reason that avant-gardists-cum-scholars would find themselves in perfect position to explain the avant-garde critically, historically, and theoretically. But the avant-garde’s anti-institutional ethos is just one cause of this problem; another is the way that the academy often rewards avant-gardists as artists first and scholars second (if at all). Thus, as Ramey has informed me, avant-gardists in fine-art tenure-track positions often chase the most conservative forms of artistic recognition in order to satisfy their promotion committees, which in effect hinders their credibility as artists in more authentic, i.e., less institutionalized, art-making subcultures even as it stunts them as scholars.[82] At times, avant-gardists-cum-scholars have made decisive contributions despite the many obstacles in their path. This has been true in the case of Ramey and that of Arthur, who was a critic and participant in the U.S. avant-garde for over three decades. Regrettably, though, the accomplishments of these insider figures seem to be exceptions to the rule.

One of the areas in which “insider scholarship” can be most valuable is in figuring out which “neglected figures” warrant study. In avant-garde scholarship, the problem of the neglected figure is particularly daunting, for it is complicated by the fact that even well loved artists are neglected by mainstream standards. This problem is now improving under the influence of YouTube, streaming rentals, and various online archives,[83] but the fact remains that only the smallest portion of the U.S. experimental tradition is available for mainstream consumption outside the coops. When this fact is combined with the multiculturalism of the humanities, which encourages the study of individuals from historically neglected traditions, the justification problem becomes knottier. Not only are avant-gardists understudied as a group, due in part to their own anti-institutional intransigence and the realities of human scarcity, but a large number of them have also been subject to the same exclusionary dynamics that have suppressed the role of women and minorities throughout the history of U.S. cinema.

Recent studies have begun to focus squarely on the experimental cinemas made by female and black artists as well as on those who identify themselves as queer artists. To cite two but examples, Robin Blaetz has compiled a volume of essays called Women’s Experimental Cinema (2007), which supplements an earlier volume called Women and Experimental Filmmaking (2005), which was edited by Jean Petrolle and Virginia Wright Wexman. Furthermore, both Arthur’s A Line of Sight and James’s book The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (2005), among other studies, contain sections on black experimental cinema.[84] These studies provide rationales for studying female experimentalists such as Clarke, Wieland, and Barbara Hammer and black experimentalists such as Marlon Riggs, Cheryle Dunye, and Haile Gerima. But these studies do not always clearly elucidate the central problem of studying neglected minorities within avant-garde cinema: to what extent is their neglect due to institutional factors that work against people in historically disempowered groups, and to what extent is it due to the anti-institutional ethos of their field? It stands to reason that the scholars best equipped to tease apart these factors are those with insider knowledge. But because avant-gardists with dual roles in the academy have had incentives to avoid assimilating academic values and to avoid doing scholarship at all, they’ve rarely framed these questions in this way, let alone answered them credibly.

Nevertheless, some of the best analysts in this insider category, including Ramey and Arthur, have managed to isolate these questions so as to tackle them head on. For example, after noting that the “avant-garde canon has frequently been chided by feminists and postmodernists as constituting a fringe bastion of conservative, idealist discourse,” Arthur contends that, by respecting its own “identitarian impulses,” the coop avant-garde has evolved into a multicultural area with greater appeal to black experimentalists.[85] By approaching the topic rigorously, Arthur helps his readers discern why black cinema was considered separate from avant-garde cinema, how these cinemas have merged in the interim, and why black experimentalists like Riggs, Greaves, and Cheryl Dunye deserve more recognition in the context of the avant-garde tradition.

All of which is to recognize that academic attention is finite. If it is unreasonable to expect exhibitors to dole out screenings to avant-gardists in egalitarian ways, it is also unreasonable to expect academics to study all of them, or all of their minority figures, just because their field has long been neglected. Nor is it reasonable to expect academics to pay attention to particular experimentalists on the basis of their politics or aesthetics alone. Like the avant-garde, the academy is a competitive field with its own standards of truth and value. Generally, analytic claims that are authoritatively contextualized, laying out how specific experiments and specific experimentalists have managed to embody avant-garde notions of value in culturally significant ways at subculturally significant stages of the avant-garde tradition, have the greatest chance of acceptance. In my view, insiders who can internalize academic values and apply them to their insider knowledge of the coop movement have the best chance of creating authoritative academic rationales for privileging certain avant-garde figures over others.  

The U.S. coop avant-garde has had the least commercial distribution of any U.S. art cinema. As a consequence, this purist tradition has a firmer claim on the avant-garde label than other experimental art cinemas because it occupies the marginal cultural position historically designated as “avant-garde.” Furthermore, within this oddly stable cultural position, this coop cinema has generated its own institutions and cultivated its own peculiar ties to prestigious cultural institutions, like the art world and the academy. For me, it is imperative that we focus on this tradition when analyzing the avant-garde as a cinematic movement because other kinds of experimental tradition, like the Godardian tradition discussed by Wollen, lack an objective institutional reality. This is significant, for the coop avant-garde’s institutional reality is what makes it possible to understand the values that underlie the field’s prodigious creativity and heterogeneous forms—which, in turn, makes it possible to understand this avant-garde’s peculiar internal divisions and its idiosyncratic external relationships. Of course, there are many reasons for pursuing these understandings. But as scholars, we should take special note, I think, of what they tell us about the history and present constitution of film studies.  


Thanks to the friends who offered their help as I wrote this article. These friends include three filmmakers, Robert Zverina, Jon Behrens, and Charissa King-O’Brien, as well as the founder of the Aurora Picture Show, Andrea Grover. They also include three colleagues, Michael Zryd, Kathryn Ramey, and Amy Beste. I am particularly grateful to Chuck Kleinhans, whose insights and correctives have guided me throughout. As always, I should also thank my wife, Christine Andrews, for her sharp proofreading and sharper comments.

1. Peter Wollen, "The Two Avant-Gardes," Studio International vol. 190, no. 978 (November/December 1975), pp. 171–175. [return to text]

2. For a description of one set of hipster scenes, see David James, “L.A.’s Hipster Cinema,” Film Quarterly 63.1 (Fall 2009), pp. 56-67.  The term “university made” is Kathryn Ramey’s. See Kathryn Ramey, “Between Art, Industry and Academia: The Fragile Balancing Act of the Avant-Garde Film Community,” Visual Anthropology Review 18.1-2 (2002), p. 26.

3. To understand the progressions glossed here, see Morris Weitz, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics” (1956),  in Morris Weitz (ed.), Problems in Aesthetics (1959; New York: Macmillan, 1963),  pp. 145-156; George Dickie, The Art Circle (1984; Evanston: Chicago Spectrum Press, 1997);  Noël Carroll, Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction (London: Routledge, 1999); Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: British Film Institute, 1999); and Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979), trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).

4. See, for example, Paul Arthur, A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), pp. xv, 153.

5. Wollen, “The Two Avant-Gardes,” p. 171.

6. Jeffrey Skoller, Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 93.

7. See Robin Blaetz, “Introduction: Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks,” Women’s Experimental Cinema, ed. Robin Blaetz (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 1. Commentators like Jonas Mekas and Michael Zryd have claimed that in the United States the term “experimental” was more apt than “avant-garde” until 1970, when critics familiar with European traditions began referring to it in that way. Still, if we credit Peter Bürger, whose Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974) defines the avant-garde in terms of its resistance to institutions, the pre-1970 period was the period when U.S. experimental cinema had the most authenticity as an avant-garde. See Jonas Mekas, “Independence for independents,” in Chris Holmlund and Justin Wyatt (eds.), Contemporary American Independent Film: From the Margins to the Mainstream (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 35-36; Michael Zryd, “Experimental Film and the Development of Film Study in America,” in Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson (eds.), Inventing Film Studies (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), pp. 182-185.

8. This comes with a significant caveat, though: terms like “underground” have at times referred to popular avant-garde cults, such as the New York Underground of the 1960s.

9. A.L. Rees, A History of Experimental Film and Video: From the Canonical Avant-Garde to Contemporary British Practice  (London: BFI, 1999),pp. 30-31, 33. To see recent examples of crossover critics who refer to both avant-garde film and video art as forms of “art cinema,” see Paul Young and Paul Duncan (eds.), Art Cinema (Cologne: Taschen, 2009), pp. 9-10.

10. For a thorough review of this topic, see Steve Neale, “Art Cinema as Institution,” Screen  22.1 (Spring 1981), pp.  11-39; and Barbara Wilinsky, Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. 33-40.

11. Rees, History of Experimental Film and Video, p. 8.

12. Rees, History of Experimental Film and Video, p.  31.

13. Rees, History of Experimental Film and Video, p. 51.

14. Still, even before these necessities emerged, the impetus toward political content had forced much of the narrative avant-garde in more “normative directions,” as Rees puts it. Rees, History of Experimental Film and Video, p. 51.

15. David James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 20-38.

16. In an unpublished work-in-progress that draws on the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu, Chuck Kleinhans refers to the largely forgotten U.S. experimental films made between 1921 and 1947 that film historian Lewis Jacobs cited in “Experimental Cinema in America: 1921-1947” (1947). These films include some fifteen films that Jacobs claimed were directly influenced by Dziga Vertov. Chuck Kleinhans, “Producing the Field of Experimental Film/Video, 2.7,” unpublished work-in-progress, pp. 4-5. Kleinhans wishes to acknowledge the contributions of B. Ruby Rich to an earlier formulation of this piece, which was presented as “Avant Garde and Radical Political Film in the U.S.” at the Society for Cinema Studies conference in March 1980 and subsequently published in the French journal Cinémaction. Chuck Kleinhans and B. Ruby Rich,“Le Cinéma d'avant-garde et ses rapports avec le cinéma militant,” trans. Katerina Thomadeki,  Cinémaction, no. 10-11 (Spring/Summer 1980), pp. 55-68.

17. Mekas, “Independence,” p. 35.

18. See Pauline Kael, “Movies, the Desperate Art” (1956), in Daniel Talbot (ed.), Film: An Anthology (1959; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 70.

19. See Arthur, Line of Sight, p. xv.

20. See Haidee Wasson, Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) as well as the MOMA’s informational pages at

21. Though this interconnected history is increasingly covered by institutional histories such as Film and Video Art, ed. Stuart Comer (New York: Tate, 2009).

22. For more on this subject, see Scott MacDonald, Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

23. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde, p. 205.

24. Kathryn Ramey, “Between Art, Industry and Academia,” pp. 26-27.

25. See, e.g., Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); the avant-garde’s anti-institutional bearing is central to this book. Bourdieu explains this resistance as a desire “at any price to avoid assimilation to bourgeois and the effect of social ageing it determines,” which leads in turn to the refusal of “the social signs of consecration—decoration, prizes, academies and all kinds of honours.” Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1992), trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 123.

26. Wollen, “The Two Avant-Gardes,” p. 171.

27. Ibid., p. 172.

28. Ibid., pp. 172-173.

29. Ibid., p. 173.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid., p. 175.

32. Ibid.

33. Of course, context makes a difference, since Godard films were not always shown in the same venues as Antonioni films. For example, in France, the films that Godard made between 1968 and 1972 were shown in relatively “funky” art-and-essay theaters, while Antonioni films of the same period were shown in the boulevard movie theaters. My gratitude to Chuck Kleinhans for pointing this out.

34. For evidence of this influence, see the Frameworks archive at
It includes a number of references to Riddles of the Sphinx, including threads like this one:
Accessed January 3, 2010.

35. Ramey, “Between Art, Industry and Academia,” p. 22.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.,” pp. 26-27.

38. Ibid.,” p. 23.

39. Ibid.,” p. 35.

40. See Michael Zryd, “The Academy and the Avant-Garde: A Relationship of Dependence and Resistance,”
Cinema Journal 45.2 (Winter 2006), pp. 26-27, 28.

41. I don’t mean that Zryd is intentionally updating Ramey; after all, he cites a different piece by Ramey, and only just once. Zryd, “The Academy and the Avant-Garde,” p. 24. And besides that, there is no necessary disjunction between these two essays. Ramey stresses the motivations and status games of individuals in experimental cinema while also theorizing the larger field. By contrast, Zryd concentrates on that larger field while simultaneously taking a more jaundiced view of the naïve and uncompromising avant-garde rhetoric articulated at the individual level. To me, it is no surprise when a cultural field seems neurotic in that it is culturally and economically secure as a whole, as Zryd demonstrates, even as its individual members live in a continual state of professional insecurity, as Ramey demonstrates. After all, much the same can be said of many families, some businesses, even entire countries.

42. Ibid., pp. 27-28.

43. Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, p. 251.

44. Ibid., p. 253.

45. Ibid., pp. 123, 254.

46. This is not to suggest that these filmmakers didn’t often utilize the training and skill of others in their works; a perfect example is Deren’s collaboration with Hammid, who was an experienced photographer and filmmaker in Czechoslovakia before immigrating to the United States in 1938.

47. Kathryn Ramey, “Re: experimental cinema,” personal e-mail to the author (December 26, 2009), p. 2.

48. Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, p. 242-243. As Bourdieu notes here, the “reason the field has a directed and cumulative history is because the very intention of surpassing which properly defines the avant-garde is itself the result of a whole history, and because it is inevitably situated in relation to what it aims to surpass, that is, in relation to all the activities of surpassing which have occurred in the very structure of the field and in the space of possibles it imposes on new entrants.” Bourdieu’s italics.

49. Zryd, 'The Academy and the Avant-Garde,' pp. 28-29.

50. Avant-garde authenticity works at two subcultural levels, i.e., in the avant-garde as a whole and in the world of high art (including art cinema), which are the only two subcultures in which the claims to such authenticity are likely to be recognized and understood. But though this kind of status claim is legitimate (i.e., supported by a range of accredited institutions), it does not have a broader cultural power, as more traditional art cinemas do, for it is rarely understood by wider audiences. This is why avant-garde fads, like cult fads, are often labeled “undergrounds”: though one cinema is legitimate and the other illegitimate, these distinctions are seldom obvious to mainstream audiences. Hence, avant-garde cinema often requires an expert from a more broadly understood quarter, like the academy, the art world, or the festival circuit, to corroborate that it has legitimacy and value in high-culture subcultures.

51. Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, pp. 253-254.

52. Kleinhans, “Producing the Field,” p. 3. For the way in which Sitney created the “dominant model” for looking at the New American Cinema—one that “is essentially an internal art history approach to the avant-garde”—see ibid., pp. 3-4.

53. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (1974; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 209. For more of this mythmaking in action, see the extended Brakhage homage, Stan Brakhage: Correspondences, that dominates a special double issue of The Chicago Review 47.4 and 48.1 (Winter 2001/Spring 2002).

54. Colin Still, dir., “Brakhage on Brakhage I” (1996), documentary extra, By Brakhage: An Anthology, Disc 1 (Criterion Collection, 2004). Brakhage frequently ties his poverty to his purity and artistic focus in the four documentary segments included with this anthology of his works.

55. Sitney, Visionary Film, p. 155.

56. Sitney, Visionary Film, pp. 174, 209.

57. See Jonas Mekas, “The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group,” September 30, 1962, Film-Makers’ Coop webpage.
Accessed April 26, 2009. 

58. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde, p. 203.

59. Ibid.

60. Zryd, “The Academy and the Avant-Garde,” p. 27. See also the “Let’s Remain Disorganizedly Organized” section of the first chapter of Paul Arthur’s A Line of Sight, pp. 6-16.

61. See Arthur, A Line of Sight, pp. 14-16.

62. See Scott MacDonald, “Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society,” Wide Angle 19.1 (January 1997), pp. 28-30. See also Arthur, A Line of Sight, pp. 6-16, and Ramey, “Between Art, Industry, and Academia,” p. 25.

63. MacDonald, “Cinema 16,” p. 28.

64. Jon Behrens, “Re: experimental cinema,” personal e-mail to the author (December 14, 2009), p. 1.

65. Todd Bayma, "Art World Culture and Institutional Choices: The Case of Experimental Film," The Sociological Quarterly 36.1 (December 1995), p. 84.

66. Quoted in ibid.

67. Jon Behrens, “Re: experimental cinema,” personal e-mail to the author (December 15, 2009), p. 1. See also Ramey, “Between Art, Industry, and Academia,” pp. 26-27. 

68. I have heard experimentalists express similar sentiments on many occasions, one example of which I have in writing (though its author wishes to remain anonymous). Anonymous, “Re: experimental cinema,” personal e-mail to the author (April 25, 2009), p. 1. Somewhat less often, I have come across evidence of various gatekeepers reacting against the peculiar venom that often greets their decisions in this field. (See, e.g., the thread on this subject in the Frameworks archive at
dated June 11, 2009 and accessed January 3, 2010.)

69. Ramey, “Between Art, Industry and Academia,” p. 25.

70. Quoted in Zryd, “The Academy and the Avant-Garde,” p. 36, n. 13.

71. Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, p. 254.

72. For more, see Ramey, “Between Art, Industry, and Academia,” pp. 25-26, 30-31, and Bayma, “Art World Culture and Institutional Choices,” pp. 79-95. See also Bourdieu, Rules of the Game, pp. 122-123.

73. Denis Dutton speculates that a broad, random group of adult human beings cannot accept modern art in its avant-garde phases (which, in his terms, means its abstract or conceptual phases) no matter how institutionalized it has managed to become. As a population, people don’t have the built-in capacities for such forms, which deviate too far from the tastes and tolerances of human nature. Instead, the taste for avant-garde art varies according to non-heritable factors like education. This taste has to be re-learned with each new generation, rather than being passed on through reproduction. See Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), pp. 36-38.

74. Quoted in Zryd, “The Academy and the Avant-Garde,” p. 24.  For details of Spiral’s brief existence in the Los Angeles of the 1980s, see James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde, p. 247.

75. See, for example, Craig Fischer, “Experimental Film: The Contemporary Scene,” accessed April 13, 2009.
See also Arthur, A Line of Sight, pp. 158-59.

76. See Arthur, A Line of Sight, pp. 156-160; p. 158.

77. This anti-institutional posture can have different outcomes, as a brief glance at the websites of Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema (http://www.othercinema.com/)
and Andrea Grover’s Aurora Picture Show demonstrate.

78. For example, in a telephone interview conducted on April 22, 2009, Andrea Grover of the Aurora Picture Show noted that her microcinema is devoted first to the artists, whom it has supported financially and around whom it has built a community, complete with outreach programs. She also indicated her intent to foment an anti-institutional atmosphere. Nevertheless, despite its user-friendliness and artist-friendliness, Aurora has been carefully programmed, complete with guest curation and in-house curation and an awards night that has honored high-profile experimentalists like William Wegman, Isaac Julien, Miranda July, and Steina and Woody Vasulka. For more, see the Aurora website, available at <http://www.aurorapictureshow.org>.
See also Ramey, “Between Art, Industry, and Academia,” p. 29.

79. As Grover explains, private foundations have fewer mandates have thus “represented Aurora's largest contributors to date”; by contrast, for “government funding, there are incentives to meet audience numbers in terms of diversity, tourists, seniors, and youth served, which means some programming has to have wide appeal.” Government funding has also raised censorship concerns for Aurora.  Andrea Grover, “Re: images and permission,” personal e-mail to the author (January 1, 2010), p. 1.

80. Zryd, “Experimental Film and the Development of Film Study in America,” p. 200.

81. Ramey, “Between Art, Industry, and Academia,” p. 31.

82. Ramey has noted that experimental filmmakers in fine-art positions can be forced by tenure pressures into making their art more conservative so as to win the particular institutional validations (e.g., at festivals “of a certain caliber”) required by their tenure committees—a pressure that is only reinforced when their committees refuse to consider a candidate’s scholarship, however penetrating it may be. Kathryn Ramey, “Re: experimental cinema,” personal e-mail to the author (December 21, 2009), p. 2. That said, if the avant-gardist’s insider status is based on a critical role (as in the case of Sitney or Arthur) rather than an artistic role (see Ramey), such obstacles might be easier to circumvent. That said, we should not underestimate the subtle difficulties that critic-scholars face when assimilating academic values.

83. See Danny Birchall, “The Avant-Garde Archive Online,” Film Quarterly 63.1 (Fall 2009), pp. 12-14. Of course, there have always been commercial distributors who have tried to circulate avant-garde films on a broader scale—e.g., see Freude Bartlett’s Serious Business Company, which expired in 1983 after twelve years of specializing in avant-garde films, feminist films, and animation—but the Internet seems to have opened the avant-garde to a new and more commercial range of viewers in a more permanent way than has ever seemed possible before. For more on Bartlett, see John Hess and Chuck Kleinhans, “Doing Serious Business,” Freud Bartlett inter., Jump Cut 31 (March 1986), pp. 30-34.

84. See Arthur, A Line of Sight, pp. 111-131, and James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde, pp. 320-336.

85. Arthur, A Line of Sight, p. 113.

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