Beginning in the nineteenth century, the term avant-garde has been applied to a wide range of social activities, from military to political to artistic. Since the early twentieth century, however, it has most commonly been used to designate those artists who, in making works of art, knowingly transgress aesthetic and social norms, seeking thus to scandalize, to disrupt established canons of taste, and to criticize the limits of society and project utopian alternatives.
In the common viewer or reader, avant-garde art often provokes indignation, uproar, outrage, puzzlement, or even violent rejection. Still, these audience responses, which have accompanied the artistic avant-garde throughout its history, do not lead back to a common set of stylistic and attitudinal traits that would allow for a clear, exhaustive conceptual analysis of avant-gardism. As an art-criticism term, avant-garde has been applied equally to the extremist subjectivism of the expressionists and the geometrical rationalism of Russian suprematism and constructivism; in music, to the serialism of Karlheinz Stockhausen (b. 1928) and the chance-operational compositions of John Cage (1912–1992); in literature, to the "transrational" pure-sound poetry of the Russian futurists, the densely allusive modernist epic of Ezra Pound (1885–1972), and the graphic and grammatical minimalism of concrete poets; in film, to the lush romanticism of Stan Brakhage's (1933–2003) handmade films and to the self-reflexive, analytical bent of Malcolm Le Grice (b. 1940); in architecture, to the exuberant utopianism of El Lissitzky (1890–1941) and the icy rationality of Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969); and in performance, to the minimalist, disciplined stage images of Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) and the Dionysian spontaneity of the Living Theater. Similarly, the political affiliations of the avant-garde offer no unitary picture: ranging from the tormented anarchism of the early expressionists to the studied political indifference of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), from the fascist partisanship of Italian futurism to the communist and Trotskyite engagements of the surrealists, from John Cage's playful antiauthoritarianism to the more regimented left-wing politics of many American artists of the later 1960s and the 1970s.
The term's conceptual blurriness, however, has hardly hampered its successful career in the arts. On the contrary, its indeterminate content and constantly shifting, constantly expanding application points to essential features of "avant-garde" dynamics in the art world. Less a coherent concept than a highly effective ideological metaphor, the term and the ideas surrounding it have proven a convenient vehicle for unsettling artistic conventions and canons of value, for proliferating technical innovations from one medium to another, and for communicating new aesthetic ideas across disciplinary as well as national borders.
Avant-Garde as Ideological Metaphor
The ideological components of avant-garde as a metaphor can be grouped under three headings: political, formal, and temporal-historical. The avant-garde artist, often a self-conscious member of a sectarian group or movement, creates artworks that at once lay claim to formal innovativeness and to their effective quality as social criticism. "Avant-garde" connotes precisely this implication of social criticism in acts of formal innovation and the artist's corollary struggle to find new artistic expressions—new figures and forms—to probe imaginatively beyond the strictures of a given social order. But this conflation of form and political meaning carries only two dimensions of avant-garde as metaphor. A further, temporal dimension gives that ideology its peculiar depth. "Avant-garde" also suggests an historical measure that lies in the future, a goal toward which artists are leading, while others merely follow. Through its artistic practice and products, the avant-garde adumbrates this end toward which the whole of a society is—or at least should be —heading. Where the avant-garde was, it is implied, there the social mainstream must inevitably find itself.
At first glance, the ideology is patently absurd. How could an abstract painting, a dadaist collage, an aleatory musical composition, or a film composed of mere patches of light and color be an anticipation of a new social norm, when it cannot even appeal to the present taste or understanding of a majority of citizens? At this point, however, the political and formal dimensions of the metaphor come to the ideological rescue of the avant-garde artist, by investing this estrangement of the artist from the audience with a paradoxical surplus value. The interpretative gap between the artist and his or her audience is taken by the artist (or by his or her critical champions) to represent the difference between the transfigured future, which the artist anticipates figurally, and the unredeemed present, which the audience literally embodies and from which the artist must break free. The audience's lack of understanding with respect to the avant-garde work thus in no way discredits or devalues the work in the artist's eyes. On the contrary, from the perspective of the avant-garde, this incomprehension indicates that the artist has authentically broken with the present and now stands in secret league with the future. The audience must be directed, perhaps even forced to catch up over time, to that which the artist has already discovered freely, through acts of artistic intuition and creation. But of course by that time the artist will have already moved on to new terrain, in perpetual revolt even against those utopian orders that presently can hardly be imagined.
Theories and Historiographies of the Avant-Garde
Theories and historiographies of the avant-garde have tended to emphasize one of the three dimensions of this basic ideological metaphor—political, formal, and temporal-historical—while downplaying or even excluding the others.
Examples of important formally-based theories and histories include the work of the art critic Clement Greenberg, who conceived of avant-gardism as the intensified focus of artworks on the essential properties of their media and attacked prominent avant-garde multimedial experimentation (such as minimalist sculpture) as leading to a bad theatricality akin to kitsch; Umberto Eco, who in his study The Open Work discussed the avant-garde's construction of works that require participatory completion by performers and audience; Julia Kristeva, who in Revolution in Poetic Language, sought to show how avant-garde poets such as Rimbaud and Mallarmé disrupted the grammatical means by which language functions as a vehicle of normal communication and ideology; and Marjorie Perloff, who traced out in a series of books the landmarks of a "poetics of indeterminacy," a futurist legacy, and a Wittgensteinian poetics.
Theorists of particular importance for the illumination of the political dimension of the avant-garde include Peter Bürger, whose Theory of the Avant-Garde focuses on the institutional status of art as autonomous from social life and the avant-garde's attempt to break down that autonomy and return art to its effective place in society; the urban historian Manfredo Tafuri, who considers the unanticipated role that avant-garde radicalism played in subordinating modern architecture and urbanism to big business, socialist planning, or the capitalist state; Fredric Jameson, who views the avant-garde as an intense site in which the contradictions of late capitalism were given aesthetic and experiential form; and the poststructuralist philosophers Jean-François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze, who interpret avant-garde art as postconceptual models of embodied thinking in which mind, body, and technology merge in novel, free ways.
Theories focused on the temporal and historiographic dimension of the avant-garde are rarer than the other two, more dominant orientations, but these include the writings of the Frankfurt school philosopher Theodor Adorno, especially in his studies of modern music; the poet Octavio Paz's Harvard lectures, Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde ; Peter Osborne's The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde ; and Fredric Jameson's A Singular Modernity.
In the early years of the twenty-first century, however, a theory that accounts holistically for the interactions of all three dimensions of the avant-garde's basic metaphor—its constitutive identification of the formal with the political and the temporal-historical—had yet to appear.
See also Arts: Overview ; Avant-Garde: Militancy ; Dada .
Adorno, Theodor W. Philosophy of Modern Music. Translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster. New York: Continuum, 2003.
Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Translated by Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Eco, Umberto. The Open Work. Translated by Anna Cancogni. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Greenberg, Clement. "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." Partisan Review 6, no. 5 (1939): 34–49.
———. "Toward a Newer Laocoon." Partisan Review 7, no. 4 (1940): 296–310.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.
———. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. London and New York: Verso, 2002.
Lyotard, Jean-François. Duchamp's Trans/formers. Translated by Ian MacLeod. Venice, Calif.: Lapis, 1990.
Osborne, Peter. The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde. London and New York: Verso, 1995.
Paz, Octavio. Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde. Translated by Rachel Phillips. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.
———. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.
———. Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Tafuri, Manfredo. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. Translated by Barbara Luigia La Penta. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1976.
———. The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s. Translated by Pellegrino d'Acierno and Robert Connolly. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987.