Avant-garde

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Avant-garde (French pronunciation: [avɑ̃ɡaʁd]) means "advance guard" or "vanguard".[1] The adjective form is used in English, to refer to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics.

Avant-garde represents a pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm. The notion of the existence of the avant-garde is considered by some to be a hallmark of modernism, as distinct from postmodernism. Many artists have aligned themselves with the avant-garde movement and still continue to do so, tracing a history from Dada through the Situationists to postmodern artists such as the Language poets in the 1980s.[2]

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Working definition

The term was originally used to describe the foremost part of an army advancing into battle (also called the vanguard) and now applied to any group, particularly of artists, that considers itself innovative and ahead of the majority.[3]

The vanguard, a small troop of highly skilled soldiers, explores the terrain ahead of a large advancing army and plots a course for the army to follow. This concept is applied to the work done by small collectives of intellectuals and artists as they open pathways through new cultural or political terrain for society to follow.

The origin of the application of this French term to art is still debated. Some fix it on May 17, 1863, the opening of the Salon des Refusés in Paris, organized by painters whose work was rejected for the annual Paris Salon of officially sanctioned academic art. Salons des Refusés were held in 1863, 1874, 1875, and 1886.

The term also refers to the promotion of radical social reforms. It was this meaning that was evoked by the Saint Simonian Olinde Rodrigues in his essay, "L'artiste, le savant et l'industriel," (“The artist, the scientist and the industrialist”, 1825) which contains the first recorded use of "avant-garde" in its now-customary sense: there, Rodrigues calls on artists to "serve as [the people's] avant-garde," insisting that "the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and fastest way" to social, political, and economic reform.[4] Over time, avant-garde became associated with movements concerned with "art for art's sake", focusing primarily on expanding the frontiers of aesthetic experience, rather than with wider social reform.

Theorizing the avant-garde

Several writers have attempted to map the parameters of avant-garde activity with limited success. One of the most useful and respected analyses of vanguardism as a cultural phenomenon remains the Italian essayist Renato Poggioli's 1962 book Teoria dell'arte d'avanguardia (The Theory of the Avant-Garde). Surveying the historical, social, psychological and philosophical aspects of vanguardism, Poggioli reaches beyond individual instances of art, poetry and music to show that vanguardists may be seen as sharing certain ideals or values which are manifested in the non-conformist lifestyles they adopted, vanguard culture being shown to be a variety or subcategory of Bohemianism.[5]

Other authors have attempted to both clarify and extend Poggioli's study. The German literary critic Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974) looks at the Establishment's embrace of socially critical works of art and suggests that in complicity with capitalism, "art as an institution neutralizes the political content of the individual work."[6]

Bürger's essay also greatly influenced the work of contemporary American art historians such as Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, while older critics like Bürger continue to view the postwar neo-avant-garde as the empty recycling of forms and strategies from the first two decades of the twentieth century, others like Clement Greenberg view it, more positively, as a new articulation of the specific conditions of cultural production in the postwar period. Buchloh, in the collection of essays Neo-avantgarde and Culture Industry (2000) critically argues for a dialectical approach to these positions.[7]

Avant-garde and mainstream society

The concept of avant-garde refers exclusively to marginalised artists, writers, composers and thinkers whose work is not only opposed to mainstream commercial values, but often has an abrasive social or political edge. Many writers, critics and theorists made assertions about vanguard culture during the formative years of modernism, although the initial definitive statement on the avant-garde was the essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch [8] As the essay’s title suggests, Clement Greenberg conclusively showed not only that vanguard culture has historically been opposed to ‘high’ or ‘mainstream culture’, but that it also has rejected the artificially synthesized mass culture that has been produced by industrialization. Each of these media is a direct product of Capitalism – they are all now substantial industries – and as such they are driven by the same profit-fixated motives of other sectors of manufacturing, not the ideals of true art. For Greenberg, these forms were therefore kitsch: they were phony, faked or mechanical culture, which often pretended to be more than they were by using formal devices stolen from advanced or vanguard culture. For instance, during the 1930s the advertising industry was quick to take visual mannerisms from surrealism, but this does not mean that 1930s advertising photographs are truly surreal. It was a matter of style without substance. In this sense Greenberg was at pains to distance true avant-garde creativity from the market-driven fashion change and superficial stylistic innovation that are sometimes used to claim privileged status for these manufactured forms of the new consumer culture.

A similar view was likewise argued by assorted members of the Frankfurt School, including Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass-Deception (1944), and also Walter Benjamin in his highly influential The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproduction (1936). [9] Where Greenberg used the German word kitsch to describe the antithesis of avant-garde culture, members of the Frankfurt School coined the term mass culture to indicate that this bogus culture is constantly being manufactured by a newly emerged Culture industry (comprising commercial publishing houses, the movie industry, the record industry, the electronic media). They also pointed out that the rise of this industry meant that artistic excellence was displaced by sales figures as a measure of worth: a novel, for example, was judged meritorious solely on whether it was a best-seller, music succumbed to ratings charts and the blunt commercial logic of the Gold disc. In this way the autonomous artistic merit so dear to the vanguardist was abandoned and sales increasingly became the measure, and justification, of everything. Consumer culture now ruled.

Despite the central arguments of Greenberg, Adorno and others, "avant-garde" has been appropriated and misapplied by various sectors of the culture industry since the 1960s, chiefly as a marketing tool to publicise popular music and commercial cinema. It is now common to describe successful rock musicians and celebrated film-makers as avant-garde, the very word having been stripped of its proper meaning. Noting this important conceptual shift, major contemporary theorists such as Matei Calinescu in Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (1987), and Hans Bertens in The Idea of the Postmodern: A History (1995), have suggested that this is a sign our culture has entered a new post-modern age, when the former modernist ways of thinking and behaving have been rendered redundant.

Nevertheless the most incisive critique of the vanguardism against the views of mainstream society was offered by the New York critic Harold Rosenberg in the late 1960s.[10] Trying to strike a balance between the insights of Renato Poggioli and the claims of Clement Greenberg, Rosenberg suggested that from the mid-1960s onward progressive culture ceased to fulfill its former adversarial role. Since then it has been flanked by what he called 'avant-garde ghosts' to the one side, and a changing mass culture on the other, both of which it interacts with to varying degrees. This has seen culture become, in his words, ‘a profession one of whose aspects is the pretense of overthrowing it.’