by Carl Halling
Perhaps it was Percy Bysshe Shelley who first gave expression to an avant garde...
1) The March of the Modern
Perhaps it was the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who first gave expression to the concept of an avant garde of artists on the cutting edge of innovation by asserting that “Poets are the unaknowledged legislators of the world”, although it is likely that the first use of the term in an artistic rather than military sense, was made by the French socialist philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon in 1825 in his “Opinions Litteraires, Philosophiques et Industrielles”.
Thence in the Paris of the early 1830s, in the wake of the July Revolution, there arose what could be termed a seminal artistic avant garde in the shape of the Jeunes-France, a band of turbulent young Romantic litterateurs, allegedly dubbed the Bousingos by the press, following a night of riotous boozing on the part of some of their number, whose leading figures included a fiery Theophile Gautier long before he became a bona fide classic of French literature, and who cultivated dandified and eccentric personas intended to shock the bourgeoisie, or conventional middle class, while inclining to radicalism, but that does not imply that avant gardism has to of necessity be politically radical, although it very often has been in the course of its history of defiance of "bourgeois" tradition.
Needless to say perchance, The prototypal avant gardists of 1830s Paris owed an incalculable debt to the earlier English and German Romantic movements, which did so much to promote the myth of the artist as tormented genius existent on the fringes of respectable society, if not as bohemian then as dandy, struggling to produce works of revolutionary genius often in the most dismal conditions, known as the vie de Boheme, the Bohemian lifestyle, and eternally pitted against bourgeois respectability.
The Bohemian was so named in consequence of being perceived as a gypsy, not a true Romany of course, but an artistic or spiritual gypsy existent in a state of picturesque poverty, Romanies having once been considered by the French to have originated from the former central European nation of Bohemia, while it is widely accepted today that the Romany people have their ancestral roots in India. The two great Parisian Bohemias of the 19th Century were the Left Bank of the Seine as a whole, including the Quartier Latin, and Montparnasse, and Montmartre, which exploded on an international scale towards the century’s end, while the first literary work to celebrate the Bohemian way of life was the celebrated "Scenes de la Vie de Boheme", published in 1845 and which its author Henri Murger based on the Bohemia he experienced first hand in the Paris of his day. It went on to form the basis of Puccini’s opera “La Boheme”, and the contemporary musical comedy "Rent". Later Bohemias included London’s Chelsea, and New York’s Greenwich Village.
The first wave of Bohemia ultimately produced the Decadents, and the great Symbolist movement in the arts, both of which came into being about 1880 although they had many predecessors, before the spirit of the avant garde could be said to have triumphed as never before in the shape of the massively influential and truly international artistic and cultural phenomenon known as Modernism, which existed at its point of maximum intensity from about 1890 to 1930, birthing such earth-shaking works as Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" (1913), T.S Eliot's "The Waste Land" (1922) and James Joyce's "Ulysses" (1922), as well as movements as diverse as Expressionism, Cubism and Dada. Whenever Modernism is discussed, in addition to the arts, parallel iconoclastic developments in philosophy, psychology, science, and so on which fuelled the Modernist agenda must necessarily be taken into consideration, this agenda being significantly inimical to those Christian components of the fabric of Western civilisation according to certain authorities, and there is substance to their argument.
Other critics have seen Modernism as actually predating the avant garde rather than arising out of it, that is as a spirit rather than a movement as such, possessing its roots in the so-called Enlightenment which initiated towards the end of the 17th Century and lasted until about 1789, the year of the French Revolution, producing great rebellion on behalf of lofty Reason against Christianity, others still go even further back into the depths of Western history, to the Renaissance and its revival of Classical Antiquity.
Modernism and the avant garde underwent a falling away in terms of intensity in the years leading up to the Second World War, while the immediate post-war age brought renewed activity on the part of such movements as the Beats of New York, San Francisco and elsewhere, and the Lettrists of Paris.
One of the keynotes of late Modernism as I see it (and I am not alone in doing so) has been the progressive mass acceptance of iconoclastic beliefs once seen as the preserve of the avant garde, especially with regard to traditional Christian morality, process which could be said to have accelerated around 1955-‘56, when both the Beat Movement and the new popular music of Rock ’n’ Roll, forged of Rythym and Blues, Rockabilly, and other simple folk genres, were starting to make strong inroads into the mainstream. Some ten years thereafter, this process could reasonably be said to have underwent a further quickening, with Pop starting to lose its initial sheen of innoxiousness, and so perhaps evolve into Rock, a more versatile music which went on to run the gamut from the most infantile hit parade ditties, to musically and lyrically complex compositions owing a considerable debt to Classical music, as well as Jazz and other non-popular music forms. It could plausibly be suggested that Rock became an international language in the mid sixties, and one that went on to disseminate values traditionally seen as morally unconventional as no other artistic movement before it, to spirit the message of the new permissive society around the world, and so contribute to the refashioning of Western society, with the most powerful Rock artists attaining through popular consumer culture a degree of influence that previous generations of innovative artists operating within high culture could only dream of. That said, Rock was just one of many elements of which the social revolution, the spirit of the sixties and beyond was constituted.
2) The Spirit of the Sixties Reborn
Had things not turned out the way they did in 1993, I might have wholly immersed myself in the Bohemian culture of the recently dawned final decade of the 20th Century, because I'd already become entranced by it a year or so earlier, Hippie Bohemianism being in the ascendant again in my suburban eyes, although in truth it had never gone away, merely kept a relatively low profile since the early seventies, going on to inspirit various noncomformist movements which exist to this day.
The hip counterculture which had risen to prominence in the UK in the late 1960s lost much of its once infamous influence throughout the succeedent decade to the extent that "Hippie" became a term of derision among the Punks of its latter years. By the early 1990s, however, it appeared to me to be back with a vengeance, and by about '92 I’d fallen for it with it with all the passion of one who had had a surfeit of the flashy eighties.
I was ready to take my attitude of extreme revolt to a further stage of development, and the climate of the times as the century’s end loomed seemed to me to be perfect for doing so, and yet had I succeeded, I may have lost not just my life but my eternal soul, leaving a trail of unholy mayhem behind me. Thankfully, God had other plans for me.
3) Last Flight from Bohemia
I became a born again Christian towards the end of January 1993, and immediately set about divesting myself of the elements of which my pre-Christian existence had been characterised. From the outset, I began dispensing of books I deemed to be of a negative spiritual influence, while others I salvaged, either to be jettisoned at a later date, or kept indefinitely. At times over the course of the years I took things too far, with the consequence that there were books, or music albums, presenting little if any spiritual threat to me as I see it today which I unceremoniously discarded nonetheless, even going so far as to subsequently repurchase some of these. It took me years to get the balance right.
In addition to books and albums, I set about pruning the writings I’d collected, mainly short stories and projected novels. Again in this, I went too far at times, dumping irreplacable writings, when portions of them at least could have been preserved and recycled.
I continued writing after becoming a Christian, but from about the middle of the nineties, found it increasingly arduous to do so, and so started destroying most of what I wrote, believing at the time that through my writing I was glorifying the darkness of my pre-Christian past rather than God. By about 1998, I had almost altogether ceased writing, and didn’t seriously take up the pen again, give or take the odd literary scrap that survived my regular Savonarolan purges, until the winter of 2006 when I started contributing articles to the Blogster.com website.
I also destroyed hours and hours of diary-like recordings that I had committed to cassette tape since the early 1980s or earlier and which teemed with gross narcissism and decadent sensuality, as well as occasional bitter outbursts of a startling vehemence, so that I no longer recognised them as proceeding from the person of Carl Halling, as well as innumerous musings committed to paper which I deemed ungodly and more often than not with good reason. Were I to have died, I didn’t wish to leave anything behind that was of an overtly evil nature.
My efforts were not in vain. By the mid 1990s, Christians of my aquaintance could not have been blamed for being of the belief that what I seemed to be was what I had always been, especially given that what I appeared to be, namely a quiet individual erring a little too enthusiastically on the side of earnest self-denial, was not too far from what I was in actuality, my former gift for deception having largely failed me, not that I wanted to be deceptive, far from it, nor to do anything liable to wound the Saviour to whom I owed so much. Of course, I feared God, but I also honoured Him, and so wanted to do good things for Him.
If I have given the impression over the course of this piece that I no longer see myself as an artist, then I have done so purely by accident. What I resolutely don’t do however, is subscribe to the theory of the automatically tormented nature of the creative artist. Could God, the Creator of the universe, possibly condone such a role, which has legendarily entailed a variety of tragic conditions deemed to be characteristic of the “tortured artist” including addiction, depression, mental instability? Perish the thought. God wants artists to work for Him, the supreme Artist, to seek refuge in His love and care, where the sensitivity that is so often their undoing can be a blessing rather than a blight to them.
I cannot deny that I am still deeply drawn to the creative genius of artists, but not in the way I used to be, which is to say, from the position of one who worshipped them at their most turbulent and self-destructive, and thence sought passionately to emulate them, but from a distance, still appreciating them, but having a heart for them at the same time. I especially feel for those artists whose sufferings have resulted in their lives being wrecked by alcohol, my own one-time near-nemesis.
I’d like to think that there were those, whether artists or not, who in consequence of reading my writings, come to the realisation that escape from alcohol addiction is possible through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Notwithstanding the occasional brief relapse, I have been sober now for nearly fourteen years, and I am convinced of the miraculous nature of this, given that there is evidence that after even as little as four years most recovering alcoholics have resumed drinking, and that among those who haven’t, deep depression and other mental conditions are common, and understandably so perhaps, given the devastating effect long-term alcohol dependency has on the neurotransmitters.
I’m not saying that my walk with God has been free of suffering, nor that I haven’t paid for my past in a worldly sense, but I’m moving on with Him, as well as creating, writing, composing, singing, hopefully all according to His will, and have everything to remain on this earth for, and all because of Jesus.