So says Suzanne Moore:
Reed’s death has hit my generation because his presence anchored us into a time and a place when the avant garde was still meaningful. He was a touchstone of what it means to be modern, a significant and uncompromising artist whose works challenge social and artistic values. The Velvet Underground could have been formed at any time since 1966. They still sound utterly new. His death made us remember the music that made us want to leave our small towns and our small lives, a time when transgression was not simply a marketing technique.
He did not need to explain himself in interviews, the work is there, already divided into the listenable/hits and the unlistenable/difficult. But here was a man whose cultural value far exceeded his commercial value. There is not much of this any more. Marketing is now part of what artists do. They “play” with the market; their lifestyles and rebellions key into the corporate world. Art about art, art about money and value is now familiar. It was easy enough to walk around Damien Hirst’s big retrospective and see precisely the point at which the money becomes both subject and object.
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Lou Reed was avant garde precisely because he came out of modernism, because he changes for ever how things look and how they sound. A lodestar. His loss resonates because we can vaguely recall a time when not everything had been subsumed by the market.
I get what Moore is driving at, and maybe art is more commercial now than it was in the past. It certainly seems that way. But as I said in Prufrock this morning:
The music of Reed aside, this has all been said before. Part of the problem is that the term “avant-garde” doesn’t mean anything anymore (nor did it mean much fifty years ago). It is used to refer to any work that is “innovative” or “shocking” in which the artist has (or affects) a certain art-for-art’s-sake attitude.
Also so-called “avant-garde” art was about money before Reed was even born, which is not to say that it wasn’t about art, too! In fact, it seems to me that the whole paradigm of pure art as opposed to impure art with the motive to make money as the invisible defining line is rather useless.
Let me also add that the term “postmodernism” is mostly useless, too. Jean-François Lyotard defined it as an attack on “metanarratives.” Frederic Jameson called it an “aesthetic populism.” And Jürgen Habermas suggested that it was anti-modern–opposed to “objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art, according to their inner logic.”
Of course, views regarding truth and morality have changed (though maybe not as uniformly as we might think), and terms like “postmodernism” can be a helpful short-hand sometimes, but as a term to categorize works of art, postmodernism is often unhelpful, even misleading.
It doesn’t work at all for Rock music. Nor does it work for literature. In American poetry, for example, it is often used to refer to works created mostly after WWII. So Wallace Stevens was modern, not postmodern? Really? He held tightly to “metanarratives,” “universal morality” and had no touch of populism in his work, even in poems like “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”? What about Lorine Niedecker? Or Whitman and Dickinson for that matter? I don’t see a lot of dogmatic “metanarrative” in Dickinson, nor do I see much anti-populism in Whitman. Then, of course, there are all those poets who wrote (and are writing) after WWII whose work is in no way “postmodern.”
So let’s stop with the “avant-garde” this, “postmodern” that, “post-avant” this or “post-postmodern” that. I have never gotten into Lou Reed. He was of another generation. But I can appreciate that he was a smart, interesting musician who managed to get at something of what it means to be human in his music. Let’s start with that.