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Avant-garde - Working definition


Avant-garde (pronounced v g d ) in French means "front guard", "advance guard", or "vanguard".[1] The term is commonly used in French, English, and German 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. Postmodernism posits that the age of the constant pushing of boundaries is no longer with us and that avant-garde has little to no applicability in 545g621f the age of Postmodern art

Working definition

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, the aims of its various movements presented in public declarations called manifestos. It was this meaning 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.[2] 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.

Avant-garde jazz is a more recent application of the term, dating back to the late 1950s.

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz

For instance, whereas Marcel Duchamp's fountain (a urinal), which he declared a piece of art, may have been avant-garde at the time but is no longer given the title today as the body of work has already been created; it is no longer innovative. Avant-garde is therefore temporal and relates to the process of art's unfolding in time. Duchamp's work retains its distinction as avant-garde even today, because it marks a historical point in the advancement of the conception of art, relative to the period in which it surfaced. Similarly, "avant-garde" can be applied to the forerunners of any new movements.

[edit] 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 analysis 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.[3]

Reflecting on Charles Baudelaire's complaint that 'the man of letters is the enemy of the world' and Stéphane Mallarmé's distress over the isolation of the creator in "this society that will not let him live", Poggioli identifies that beyond their non-conformist postures. Avant-gardes have historically existed in a state of mutual antagonism towards both the public and tradition. As pioneers, avant-gardes have shunned popularity, seeing those who are popular as producing complacent or compromised work. This is also why avant-gardists have abhorred fashion, judging it to deal in stereotypes, falsehoods and insincere sentiments. Their iconoclasm has witnessed avant-gardes take positions against current trends; but as pioneers they will also adopt a strong 'down-with-the-past' attitude. Vanguardists are committed new ideals, seeing traditions, institutions and orthodoxies as outmoded prisons of convention.

Taken together, these traits mean that avant-gardes are often estranged from society. This has taken several forms, as some creators were socially alienated. It has been common for avant-gardes to declare their opposition to the bourgeoisie class in particular. Their antagonism towards accepted values and approaches has also meant that historically their audience has tended to be the intelligentsia. Poggioli further tries to classify avant-gardes according to four conceptual dispositions: Nihilism, Agonism, Futurism, and Decadence.

Other authors have attempted to both clarify and rxtend 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 polotical content of the individual work."[4] While the title of Bürger's essay is an explicit reference to Poggioli's, he makes several useful additions to the latter's groundbreaking study, such as the distinction between "historical" (Futurism, Dada, Surrealism) and "neo" avant-garde (Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus, etc.).

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 (2001) critically argues for a dialectical approach to these positions.[5] In the postmodern period, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Griselda Pollock[6] have re-articulated the Avant-Garde in art.

[edit] 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 [7] 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 - the pervasive commercial culture of popular music, Soap Opera dramas, pulp fiction, magazine-illustration, and B movies. 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.

Max Horkheimer (front left), Theodor Adorno (front right), and Jürgen Habermas in the background, right, in 1965 at Heidelberg, Germany

Max Horkheimer (front left), Theodor Adorno (front right), and Jürgen Habermas in the background, right, in 1965 at Heidelberg, Germany

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) [8]. 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, the term '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.[9] 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.'

[edit] Examples

Avant-garde in music refers to an extreme form of musical improvisation in which little or no regard is given by soloists to any underlying chord structure or rhythm, such as free jazz and some forms of noise music. It can often refer to any form of experimental music, even those working within the traditional structures. An extreme example here is 4'33" by John Cage, in which no instrument is played in the traditional sense, yet the audience still leaves with the tangible experience that something happened within a performance. Since the experience of this particular work is unique to every audience, it might be argued that this piece is perennially avant-garde.

By some assessments, avant-garde art includes street art, for example graffiti and any other movement which pushes forward the accepted boundaries. It has even moved into building construction projects, one example of which is the proposed Museum Plaza project in Louisville, Kentucky. Featuring a radical design overlooking the Ohio River, this three-tower project will include a diagonal elevator and a 22nd floor public park.

Musique Concrète (meaning concrete music in French), is a style of avant-garde music that relies on natural environmental sounds and other non-inherently-musical noises to create music. Pieces that have used Musique concrète include Étude aux chemins de fer (1948) by Pierre Schaeffer, Revolution 9 by The Beatles (1968) and Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict by Pink Floyd (1969) and was most popular in the late Sixties and early Seventies, but has been used since.

[edit] Avant-garde art movements

  • Abstract expressionism
  • Angry Penguins (Australian modernists)
  • Asemic writing
  • Avant Garde Metal
  • Bauhaus
  • Cinema pur
  • Conceptual art
  • Constructivism
  • Cubism
  • Dada
  • De Stijl
  • Dogme 95
  • Electronic art music
  • Epic Theatre
  • Expressionism
  • Fauvism
  • Fluxus
  • Free Jazz
  • Futurism
  • Impressionism
  • Incoherents
  • Lettrisme
  • Lyrical Abstraction
  • Mail art
  • Minimal Art (Minimalism)
  • Musique Concrète
  • Neo-Dada
  • Neoism
  • Neoteroi
  • Neue Slowenische Kunst
  • Noise Music
  • No Wave
  • Pop art
  • Postminimalism
  • Primitivism
  • Progressive Rock
  • Situationist International
  • Social realism
  • Space music
  • Suprematism
  • Surrealism
  • Symbolism
  • Theatre of Cruelty


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