Death of the avant-garde  

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"Though one often hears about “the death of the avant-garde, - usually from publicists with cemeteries to defend, it is not the purpose of this book to engage in an argument I take to be irrelevant at best." --A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (1993) by Richard Kostelanetz

 The death of the avant-garde coincides with the death of modernism. Charles Jencks noted that "Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm when the infamous Pruitt–Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite."
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The death of the avant-garde coincides with the death of modernism. Charles Jencks noted that "Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm when the infamous Pruitt–Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite."

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Since the 1960s, many cultural critics and historians have declared the avant-garde dead. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Roland Barthes, Robert Hughes and Eric Hobsbawm are some of the scholars and critics who have relegated the avant-garde to the past. The most frequently cited cause of this evolution is the unexpected mainstream success of avant-garde art which led to its co-optation.

The first publication dedicated specifically to the death of the avant-garde, was Enzensberger's The Aporias of the Avant-Garde (1962). A useful summary chapter, "The Crisis of Avant-Garde's Concept in the 1960s" is provided in Five Faces of Modernity (1977) by Matei Călinescu.

In defense of the avant-garde, some contemporary critics argue that the avant-garde is not dead, offering that there will always be transgressive artists ahead of their time producing art with 'shock value' and causing succès de scandale, art that succeeds in épater la bourgeoisie.


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Roland Barthes

In the essay "À l'avant-garde de quel théâtre?" (1956), Roland Barthes "is one of the first to speak of the death of the avant-garde" (Calinescu 1977).

Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Most frequently cited perhaps is The Aporias of the Avant-Garde (1962), an extended essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in which he said that "the avant of the avant-garde contains its own contradiction: it can be marked out only a posteriori."

Amos Vogel

The death of the avant-garde has also been noted in cinema. In a typically seventies 'revolutionary' discourse Amos Vogel in Film as a Subversive Art (1974), Vogel states that:

"After I Am Curious Yellow (1967), Last Tango in Paris (1972), A Clockwork Orange, (1971) or Straw Dogs (1971), it is becoming increasingly difficult to shock the bourgeoisie, who now accept all insults with a benign smile, secure in the knowledge that their pockets are not being picked simultaneously."

Tom Wolfe

In the The Painted Word (1975), Tom Wolfe did not actually mention the "death of the avant-garde", but was severely critical of he called the devolution to modern art.

Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New:

"Where did this new academy begin? At its origins the avant-garde myth had held the artist to be a precursor; the significant work is the one that prepares the future. The cult of the precursor ended by cluttering the landscape with absurd prophetic claims. The idea of a cultural avant-garde was unimaginable before 1800. It was fostered by the rise of liberalism. Where the taste of religious or secular courts determined patronage, "subversive" innovation was not esteemed as a sign of artistic quality. Nor was the artist's autonomy, that would come with the Romantics."

Eric Hobsbawm

In the chapter “The Avant-garde Dies” in his 1995 book The Age of Extremes, historian Eric Hobsbawm argued that at one point "the smell of impending death rose from these avant-gardes."

Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia proclaimed the avant-garde dead in the 1990s. Her argument is stated in a 1999 salon.com response to a reader's question:

"It's a central thesis of my work that in the 20th century (which I call the Age of Hollywood) pagan popular culture overtook and vanquished the high arts. Thanks to advances in technology, pop became a universal language, as catholic in its reach as the medieval church. Once pop art embraced commercial iconography, the avant-garde was dead."

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