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This review is taken from PN Review 26, Volume 8 Number 6, July - August 1982.

ENGLISHMAN'S AVANT-GARDE Christopher Butler, After the Wake: An essay on the contemporary avant-garde (Oxford) £7.95 (illustrated)

It is instructive to compare After the Wake with Blake Morrison's The Movement. Morrison's reasoned, expository style perfectly suits his theme; we may ask how far Christopher Butler's theme is diluted by his style, which is similarly reasoned and expository. As Butler points out, avant-garde art has been closely bound up with polemic, and has tended to provoke polemical critical response-either enthusiastic endorsement (Gabriel Josipovici) or forthright denunciation (David Holbrook). Butler prefers a neutral tone.

Beneath this, however, is a quiet commitment to the view that postmodernism is not decadent modernism, or the terminal phase of humanism, but a distinctive period of real achievement. This is admirable. In our troubled, violent world, we subscribe too easily to myths of decline. Butler affirms, without fuss, the vigour of the contemporary avant-garde. This is not to deny continued vigour in the nostalgic modes; but they are defined against, and often incorporate, avant-garde practices and perceptions (see John Fowles).

Though Butler, quite rightly, does not aim at comprehensiveness, he covers a good deal of ground, both in specific examples and general formulations. Looking at music, the visual arts, and literature in the period from 1945 onwards, he sees the post-modernist spectrum stretching from, at one extreme, theory-dominated, rule-bound works to, at the other, radically contingent productions. He points out that the former type of work, such as Boulez's Structures la, in fact gives a chaotic impression much like that of the latter, for example John Cage's Imaginary Landscapes, ...


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