My own research and study into the quote-unquote avant-garde has revealed two distinct poles. There’s the avant-garde of privilege, the avant-garde that primarily emphasizes quote-unquote art for art’s sake aesthetics above everything else. Then there’s what I would call the populist or the radical avant-garde. In America, I think those two kind of poles happened during the late ’50s, and through the ’60s and early ’70s. I think the privileged avant-garde really wanted to create this wall between social activism, political radicalism, and aesthetic radicalism, whereas there was no distinction, say, between members of the Black Arts Movement and the Black Liberation Movement. The Panthers brought Sun Ra to be a guest faculty member at the University of California in Berkeley. There was a kind of recognition that the politically and artistically radical were two heads of the same coin. I’ve always identified myself with these movements; expanding humanism requires new forms. It requires new expressions and new vehicles to express those ideas and those feelings. To me, the quote-unquote utilitarian value of the arts of any discipline really is about expanding and deepening human feeling, the human soul, and the human imagination. And that imagination is critical to any progressive political or social movement. I often say that our responsibility is to make politics a creative and artistic process, and to make the arts politically committed. So I’ve never seen a separation between the role of experimentation and the vanguard role of politics. All those things are inextricably interrelated and mutually necessary.
Nice distinction, and a refreshing change (as Frank was prompting him to make) from the kind of Cardew-style antithesis of populism versus the avant-garde. I’ve interviewed Fred, and praised his wonderful music, and he can be impossible to deal with, but I like the way he thinks. I once published, in the Voice, a long interview with African-American composer/violinist Leroy Jenkins, in advance of the premiere of Jenkins’s oratorio The Negro Burial Ground. At Jenkins’s performance I ran into Ho, and apologized that I was going to have to miss a performance he had coming up. He shook his head and sighed, “New music is a white man’s game.” Well, maybe, but I appreciate the changes Ho is trying to bring about.