The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist looks at the avant-garde through a primarily psychoanalytic perspective. It splits avant-garde art into the avant-garde, or modern, and the neo-avant-garde, or postmodern. Kuspit posits that avant-garde or modern art has a therapeutic intention for both its audience and the artist. While narcissistic, Kuspit argues that modern art attempts to investigate and challenge “humanness” and finally affirm the “substance” of life. Postmodern art, however, is almost purely narcissistic. The negation of avant-garde or modern art as a form, an argument, or a concept, postmodern art cultivates a “nothingness” and “decadence” that ultimately covets celebrity and denies the possibility of therapeutic change.
In Kuspit’s chapter 5, Andy Warhol is the epitome of the denial of art as therapeutic change. He considers Warhol the first postmodernist. Celebrity is the cure-all for Warhol’s narcissistic decadence and feelings of nothingness. By producing “copies” as art, Warhol attempts to annihilate both humanness and the power of the image. Warhol’s work is about the production of celebrity, rather than the production of meaningful images. His work is the “non-image.” It is the production of non-meaningful images, or the dis-empowering of the image. Thus, for Warhol, the artist is a machine whose work is reducible to formula.
The famous are an apt subject for Warhol, because, Kuspit points out, celebrities are appropriated through their appearance. In essence, they are “an original copy” or a copy with no original, since they exist primarily as an exaggerated reflection in the public eye. The substance of celebrity is elusive.
Kuspit goes on to differentiate “fame” from “celebrity.” Where fame is an avant-garde aspiration, it is grounded in the narcissistic but understandable need for recognition (to negate the death wish) for “expanding the horizon of reality.” Fame is based on the premise of depth and meaning in reality as affirmed in the public eye. Celebrity on the other hand, argues Kuspit, vaunts the theatricality of “the self” and of reality so that “there seems to be no reality to test for” (72). In this way, celebrity annihilates life and therapeutic change in favor of the presentation of a “false self” which is “theatrical” (71). The tension between the “false self” and the “true self” produces what Kuspit calls “celebrity psychotics” who are aneastheisized to their true undeveloped sense of self (81).
Kuspit’s argument places art in a precarious position in the context of media. Firstly, Kuspit seems to understand the “avant-garde” as an artistic technique prevalent in a period in history best illustrated by Picasso’s work. The neo-avant-garde is the epoch that follows the avant-garde, and ultimately only serves to reaffirm the avant-garde. The neo-avant-garde speaks to the ambitions of expression and politics of the avant-garde by negating those ambitions, and in fact, negating all possibility for human improvement or suggestion or affect through artistic means. Kuspit seems to consider this an abysmal chronological decline that indicates art is headed toward a downward spiral of increased narcissism, ultimately denying individual potential through art in the future unless there is a change.