David Smooke gave a wonderful composition seminar here last week as a prelude to a performance of his 21 Miles to Coolville by Dark in the Song.

Then I found his latest newmusicbox post asking whither the avant garde.  I put my two cents into a comment box and got a viciously blistering response from one of the other posters – a fellow who has viciously blistered me before.

It all got me thinking about my relationship with the avant garde, of which I was a proud member in my student days.  I remembered an undergraduate class I took on Greek mythology with Professor George Evica, who I later found out was under close watch by the FBI for his outspoken radicalism.  (Of course, that was back in the days when outspoken radicalism was something I expected from college professors.)

Evica described for us two complementary approaches to leadership, which he called masculine and feminine.  The masculine approach was to head off into the wilderness and challenge everyone to follow.  In this model, the ultimate praise is recognition for originality, acclaim for doing things first.

The other approach was to lead from the center, to lead by making as many connections as possible.  This approach, which he called feminine, prized relevance over originality.

This was quite a while ago, back in the early heyday of feminist theory.  I don’t feel comfortable with labeling these complementary models as masculine and feminine now, because it seems like there is a short step between those labels and derogatory statements about people not being masculine or feminine enough.

But the idea of these two kinds of leadership still intrigues me.

The notion of the avant garde falls clearly in the first category: the front troops that boldly venture into the unknown.

It strikes me that our current president falls rather neatly into the second category:  someone who wants to lead by forging connections.

To be honest, the image of a bunch of Neanderthals racing off in different directions saying, “ME FIRST, ME FIRST” has stuck with me.  I think, over time, I felt less and less comfortable with that approach to leadership, and more and more inclined to search for connections.

Most leaders use some kind of combination of these two approaches.  The truth is, both kinds of leadership are necessary for a healthy society.  We don’t get anywhere without those people who are driven to try the untried.

And, of course, we aren’t a society if we have no center.

3 Responses to “The Gender of the Avant Garde”
  1. Smooke says:

    First, thanks for the shoutout. Also, I think that this is a fascinating issue. I’ve seen studies on literary criticism and even on recommendation letters where the adjectives utilized in discussing the works by men and women are vastly different. And some of the most coveted terms (genius and powerful, for example) are reserved almost exclusively for men.
    - David

  2. Lawrence,

    Excellent post, as always.

    David gave a terrific composer talk here at Westminster Choir College this past Spring as well. More schools should invite him – he’s an excellent presenter and his music consistently fascinates.

  3. Mike Wakeford says:

    Really interesting post, Lawrence. I’m sending it to my students in both of my current classes–an elective called ‘American Manhood’ (in which we’ve been studying the historical construction of these confounding masculine/feminine distinctions) and in Foundations of Western Thought (where one of the last things we read was Horkheimer and Adorno on ‘the culture industry’–whither the avant garde, indeed?!). I agree w/ you about the gendered terms seeming outdated today, but the distinction between these two teaching styles is surely a real one.

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