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Ubu Roi (King Ubu) is a play developed by Alfred Jarry premiered on December 10 1896, and is widely acknowledged as a theatrical precursor to the Absurdist, Dada and Surrealist art movements.
Ubu Roi (King Ubu) is a play developed by Alfred Jarry premiered on December 10 1896, and is widely acknowledged as a theatrical precursor to the Absurdist, Dada and Surrealist art movements.
Negroes Fighting in a Tunnel at Night (1882) by Paul Bilhaud, here shown in the 1887 version appropriated by Alphonse Allais as published in Album primo-avrilesque (April fool-ish Album)
Negroes Fighting in a Tunnel at Night (1882) by Paul Bilhaud, here shown in the 1887 version appropriated by Alphonse Allais as published in Album primo-avrilesque (April fool-ish Album)

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
European avant-garde

Avant-garde is a French phrase used to refer to people or actions that are novel or experimental, particularly with respect to the arts and culture. Avant-garde in French was first used in the military sense from the 15th until the 18th century, meaning front guard, advance guard, or vanguard. In the 1910s and the 1920s the term came into its current meaning, meaning pioneers or innovators in an artistic sense. Since the 1960s the term avant-garde has gradually been replaced by experimental, which lacks the political connotations of the term it replaces.

Avant-garde pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm within definitions of art/culture/reality. An avant-garde mentality believes things arise only from the leading edge of reality.

The term avant-garde in an art context was first attested in France in 1825 and the first avant-garde art movement was Realism led by the painter Courbet. From the 1850s until the late 1950s the term avant-garde carried revolutionary connotations, in the sense that its goal was societal change. It was a politically resistant art. Gustave Courbet (1819-77) and other "realists" in the 1840s like Honore Daumier (1808-79) and Jean Francois Millet (1814-75) were some of the earliest advocates of the idea that art could play an emancipatory role in society.

The history of avant-garde avant la lettre starts with the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, was a literary and artistic quarrel that heated up in the early 1690s and shook the Académie française. It opposed the Ancients (Anciens), who supported the merits of the ancient writers and contended that a writer could do no better than imitate the great examples that had been fixed for all time and the Moderns (Modernes), who supported the merits of contemporary authors.

Contrast with philistinism and kitsch.


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 bands of intellectuals and artists as they open pathways through new cultural or political terrain for society to follow. Due to implied meanings stemming from the military terminology, some people feel the avant-garde implies elitism, especially when used to describe cultural movements. This term also disagrees with the thoughts of many people.

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, organised 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 refer 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" (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. 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.

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 if someone created it again today it would not be avant-garde, because it has already been done. 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.

The sculpture also can be understood purely in formal terms. It's all white color and sensual curves are apparent. The material is vitreous, smooth, uniform. The curvature of the surface is gentle. The artist specified the orientation at which the object is to be displayed -- rotated 90 degrees from the orientation in which it would normally be encountered. The new orientation places the object's center of gravity lower to the ground. In this new orientation the curvature of the defining edges form a teardrop shape, from the vantage point of the viewer. This new orientation of the object is a choice and an innovation of the artist. While it is a found object, it is not just any found object. The artist's will and the artist's choices are reflected in this sculpture. The choice of this particular object as opposed to some other found object is a reflection of the volition of the artist. The aesthetics of the object, even on their most superficial level, cannot be ruled out as conscious and willful choices made by the artist.

Theorising the avant-garde

Several writers have attempted to map the parameters of avant-garde activity with limited success, although one of the most useful and respected analysis of vanguardism as a cultural phenomenon remains the Italian essayist Renato Poggioli's book Teoria dell'arte d'avanguardia of 1962 (released in English as 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.

Reflecting on Baudelaire’s complaint that ‘the man of letters is the enemy of the world’ and 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-gardists 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. So, on the one hand, their iconoclasm has witnessed vanguardists take positions against current trends; but as pioneers they will also adopt a strong ‘down-with-the-past’ attitude. Vanguardists are committed to the New, seeing traditions, institutions and orthodoxies as outmoded prisons of convention.

Taken together, these traits mean that vanguardists are necessarily estranged from society. This has taken several forms: some creators were socially alienated, others felt culturally alienated, others still experienced a form of what Poggioli terms 'stylistic or aesthetic alienation'. It has been common for vanguardists to declare their opposition to the bourgeoisie, in particular, on any or all of these grounds. The vanguard’s antangonism towards accepted values and approaches has also meant that historically their audience has tended to be the Intelligentsia. Poggioli further tries to classify vanguardists according to four conceptual dispositions: Nihilism, Futurism, Decadence.

Other authors have tried to both clarify and push further Poggioli's study, such as the German litterary critic Peter Bürger who published "Theorie der Avantgarde" (released in English as "Theory of the Avant-Garde", translation by Michael Shaw, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984). 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.).

Peter Bürger's essay also greatly influenced the work of contemporary American art historians such as Benjamin H. D. Buchloh: while older critics like Bürger (or the Italian architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri) 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" critically argues for a dialectical approach to these positions.

Avant-garde vs. mass culture

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 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 respected 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). 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 versus mass culture view was offered by the New York critic Harold Rosenberg in the late 1960s. 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.’


Avant-garde in music may refer 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. However, it may refer to any form of experimental music, even those working within many of the traditional structures.

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.


Proponents of the avant-garde argue it is relevant to art because without these movements art itself would stagnate and become dormant and merely craft, repeating the same style over and over. The term is most commonly applied to the visual arts, fashion, film, and literature, but

Other examples of avant-garde

Avant-garde artists

Avant-garde art movements

See also


Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Avant-garde" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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