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What was the avant-garde?

Patrick Zapien

Platypus Review 118 | July-August 2019

THE AVANT-GARDE WAS A MODERN THING. It came in the middle of the nineteenth century, circa 1848, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, as the proletariat multiplied and the democratic spirit became enamored of the absolutist state under the bewitching spell of the antagonism of capital and labor. As the art critic Clement Greenberg noted in his classic essay, “Avant Garde and Kitsch”:

One and the same civilization produces simultaneously such different things as a poem by T.S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover. All four are on the order of culture, and ostensibly, parts of the same culture and products of the same society. Here, however, their connection seems to end. [...] Does the fact that a disparity such as this exists within the frame of a single cultural tradition, which is and has been taken for granted—does this fact indicate that the disparity is a part of the natural order of things? Or is it something entirely new, and particular to our age?

In visual art, the avant-garde came with the exhaustion of Classicism and Romanticism in the middle of the nineteenth century as the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies of art burst from the antiquarian constraints of Classical and Romantic art and found better expression in the exigencies of commodity production, in its highly ordered processes and its correspondingly deep, recurring crises. Not only was work revolutionized in the march of industry but the whole earth transformed in cosmic order. Where Dante stood righteously at the gates of Hell, now Baudelaire was to sing his verses from the garrets of the modern town devouring the country and its people: “Monstrosities flowering like a flower.” The avant-garde arose when the direction of art, even its very purpose — its right to exist, became self-evidently unclear, when the late Romantic heroism of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People gave way to the black open grave of Courbet’s Burial at Ornans, and when the metaphysical severity of the Spanish school (of Zurbaran and Ribera) called more persuasively than the sensuous delicacy of Rubens channeled by Delacroix, let alone the bright, clear order of Poussin idealized in the academic school of painting led by Ingres. Greenberg continues:

A society, as it becomes less and less able, in the course of its development, to justify the inevitability of its particular forms, breaks up the accepted notions upon which artists and writers depend in large part for communication with their audiences. It becomes difficult to assume anything. All the verities involved by religion, authority, tradition, style, are thrown into question, and the writer or artist is no longer able to estimate the response of his audience to the symbols and references with which he works.

Burial at Ornans, Gustave Courbet (1849-50)
Burial at Ornans, Gustave Courbet (1849-50)

The crisis of social reality, the irresolvable antagonism of capital and labor in industrial production, reverberates in the impulses of an avant-garde whose first attempts took form as a demand for Realism and Naturalism in hopes of a way out from the impasse of neoclassicism that might also avoid the pitfalls of a Romantic sentimentality already drowned “in the icy water of egotistical calculation.”[1] As Courbet himself put it, “the basis of realism [was] the negation of the ideal.” This was not, however it may sound, an argument against the ideal in art, but simply a recognition, an admission, of the crisis of art, of the crisis of society. It was not Realism but reality itself that was the negation of the ideal. It was the real negation of art’s place in society that formed the basis for the Realism of art. Such Realism was embodied not merely in the technique of representation, but in the very form of the activity of pictorial representation, in the painting of painting, or, as Greenberg put it, in “the imitation of imitating.” “The retrogression of society,” — and thus of art’s place within it — turned art inwardly, towards the pursuit of a self-consciousness of art as such, of the unfortunate but irrevocable autonomy of art, of what is only and uniquely art’s to give. The avant-garde thus recounted in its works the history of the freedom of art in order to find the means by which art might survive on the basis of its negation. This project led in many directions over the course of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, from the Impressionists who painted not directly from life but from an attention to their perception of life to what was known as “non-objective” art and whose goal was to represent itself and nothing more. But as Adorno, looking back from 1969, noted in Aesthetic Theory:

The sea of the formerly inconceivable, on which around 1910 revolutionary art movements set out, did not bestow the promised happiness of adventure. Instead, the process that was unleashed consumed the categories in the name of that for which it was undertaken. More was constantly pulled into the vortex of the newly taboo; everywhere artists rejoiced less over the newly won realm of freedom than that they immediately sought once again after ostensible yet scarcely adequate order. For absolute freedom in art, always limited to a particular, comes into contradiction with the perennial unfreedom of the whole.

This, I think, takes us into the 20th century proper and the motivation for Towards a Newer Avant-Garde. The history of 20th century art is the history of the triumph of Contemporary Art: “Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rear-guard.” The genesis of Contemporary Art can be traced, I think, to the advent of Conceptual Art and Institutional Critique in the 1960s coinciding in art with the rise of the New Left in politics. They represent the two main tendencies by which artists abandoned the problem of art’s autonomy. Conceptual Art, for example, reacted to the realism of art by seeking the dissolution of the artwork into its mere notion, the avant-garde task of producing something new and different from the crisis of the old and same was forsaken for the more probable communication of ready-made concepts, the procedure of transmission substituting for the experience of aesthetic form. In a related way, Institutional Critique rejected the autonomy of art by its implication in the status quo, “the umbilical cord of gold” on which autonomous art relies. Both tendencies suffered from the irreality of art, lamenting the loss of social import, and attempted a Romantic retrieval of the unity of art and life. What has resulted in the triumph of Contemporary Art is not a greater understanding of the social situation of art, but an avoidance of the contradiction art’s situation expresses. Returning to Adorno, he writes: “Artworks detach themselves from the empirical world and bring forth another world, one opposed to the empirical as if this other world too were on autonomous entity.” The avant-garde expresses the need to change the world; the rear-guard simply tries to conserve it.

Towards a Newer Avant-Garde[2] came out of a dissatisfaction among young artists that the Contemporary Art education they received did not allow them to think about the meaning of art and the meaning of making art beyond the narrow concerns of more or less effective communication or the moral/ethical rectitude of a given idea. Artworks are overdetermined in the mind of Contemporary Art, but that the desire to make art persists is something it cannot conscience. | P

[1] Marx, The Communist Manifesto

[2] See: <\>