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This item is taken from PN Review 122, Volume 24 Number 6, July - August 1998.

Letter from George Watson
The Death of the Avant-Garde


I should have been abundantly grateful for your editorial (May-June 1998) on my article 'The Death of the Avant-Garde' in Seawanee Review (Fall 1997), were it not for the repeated charge of complacency. As a radical, I am puzzled. My contention was that in its heyday the avant-garde in its very nature was conservative and backwardlooking, since fashions take years to drift downwards towards the critical minds waiting to receive them. Remember how readily the 1960s convinced itself that 1840s Marxism was the latest thing, or that pre-1914 structuralism in the style of Peirce and Saussure was new. As the late John Wain used to say in his maturer years, the thing that changes least is the avant-garde. It is the last to know.

Now is perhaps a good moment to question some familiar monopolistic claims: that the Left monopolizes social reform, that religion monopolizes spirituality, that the avant-garde monopolizes all prospect of advance in the arts. Such highly conservative assumptions have nothing to do with how matters look today. As you say, I have championed the cause of objective truth in morality and the arts in The Certainty of Literature, and continue to do so. That is because I am a radical. Objectivism is radical because all purposive change depends on a claim to know how things are, and to know how they could be bettered. subjectivism favours conservatism, by contrast, in the simple sense of seeking to keep things as they are. That critical theorists a generation and more ago failed to see all that is one of the abiding wonders of the age that is ending.


This item is taken from PN Review 122, Volume 24 Number 6, July - August 1998.

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