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Adieu to the Avant-Garde

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Adieu to the Avant-Garde

Adieu to the Avant-Garde is an old, old essay in Reason that is still worth reading.
"Exactly a hundred years ago," Wolfe is saying, "there was a survey taken by a French newspaper–they used to love to take this kind of survey–in which they asked leading French art dealers, critics, curators: Who would be the French artists of the 19th century who would still be the giants of art in the year 1997? By the standards of that day, it was a huge survey. And the results were, number one, Adolphe William Bouguereau; second, Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier; and, third, Léon Gérôme. They were looked upon as the giants."
Who? Wait, there's more. "Even after the era of Andy Warhol, who left an estate of $510 million, we cannot begin to comprehend the scale on which these artists–Bouguereau, Meissonier, Gérôme–lived." Wolfe sketches in some detail. "Two- and three-story-high studios. Belgian hangings on all the walls. There were always Persian rugs strewn wherever you could strew one: on top of the piano, on top of the balcony railing, on the bed, everywhere, even on the floor." 
"By 1920, all these people were forgotten. They had become, overnight in terms of the passage of history, zeros, grand zeros in art history." Why that happened–the coming of the various movements of modernism, from the Berlin Secession to Cubism–is not Wolfe's subject. Regime shifting is.
"The `Regime Shift,'" says Wolfe, "is a term that I'm borrowing from economics. It refers to a situation in which suddenly the rules are changed. And when that happens, suddenly a lot of assets are lost, chaos results….Well, such things oddly enough can happen in art. Not quite as rapidly, but they have happened extremely rapidly."
I'm not entirely sure that this is true, but the really interesting question is, why isn't it true in music? The great names in composition around 1919, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, are just as big today.

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