In the 1980s art scene, the fine arts were divided into camps. In one camp there was the dominating, self-proclaimed avant-garde, and in the other, smaller camps were the Surrealists, the expressionists, the pop artists, the hyper-realists, and the traditionalists. I tended to pitch my tent with the expressionists and, with some reservations, the Surrealists and the pop artists as well. While I never gave much credence at all to the hyper-realists or the traditionalists who bored me to tears then (now I simply have succumbed to impatient avoidance and dismissal of that unimaginative, fundamentalist lot), I also have kept the self-proclaimed avant-garde at bay, possibly because I suspect, like the Dadaists and Surrealists suspected, that the avant-garde tends towards overt, dull academia and/or superficiality.
A few years ago I read a review of a Ken Russell film (unfortunately, I did not have the foresight to document the source); the critic essentially took Russell to task for being a failed avant-gardist who straddled the road between populist art and the avant-garde. While the critic had some validity in his assessments of Russell’s work, I felt he missed the mark. Russell was never a member of the avant-garde. Rather, he was a hard school Surrealist whose work has been passionately uneven. Surrealism, of course, has as its vital focal point ordinary expressions, that are then blurred by dreams and imagination. The imaginative dream realm would not exist without the warm-blooded center of reality. Of course, bad Surrealism (or poor imitation of Surrealism) tends to look like the academia of the avante-garde when it loses that vital core, and perhaps that is why the “naïve surrealists” have been so rightly celebrated.
The avant-garde, on the other hand, has always promoted art for art sake. It is an atheistic aesthetic of pure abstraction, and while it first produced a startling movement in many mediums, its tendency towards superficiality quickly took hold. In painting, abstract expressionism became decorative works for the business office; in film, such experiments soon became tedious efforts which jettisoned any and all connections with humanity; and in music, post-Webern electronic experimentation became so disassociated that it made all-too valid Arnold Schoenberg’s question, “but, are they making music with it?” ((Schoenberg was the father of the twelve-tone method. His pupil, Anton Webern, became a favorite influence among the disciples. Towards the end of his life Schoenberg was asked if he realized young musicians were copying his twelve tone method, to which he replied with the question above)).
Of course, this is an over simplified and somewhat idiosyncratic distinction, and to do it justice is beyond the scope or goal of this review, but this description can temporarily suffice. Part of the problem in associating Ken Russell with the avant-garde is Russell’s impetuous giddiness, his desire to be the eternal bad boy, which is filtered through consummate craftsmanship and even occasional sophistication underneath that rebel persona. Russell’s work, while often deeply flawed, is seldom dull. The vitality of his Surrealist oeuvre (at least his strongest works) can be found in an idiosyncratic vision of a journey through dramatic, personal, human experience.
Recently, I came across Indiana filmmaker’s Adam Cooley’s 2010 feature, Currently Untitled,