Is the Avant-Garde Still Avant-Garde?

So many contradictions exist in the definition of avant-garde, its purpose and use. Nonetheless, what comes to our mind with the term is experimental, progressive, innovative and out of the box, which does justice to what it, in principle, advocates for. But going back to the foundations of the movement and the way it has been permeated by a culture of consumerism leaves many wondering whether the movement still exists, and if so, what shape it takes today.

The love affair with extravagance, going the extra mile and celebrities have caught everyone’s attention since the era of paparazzi and social media. This has been powered by a culture of consumerism and mass production, which gravitates towards the realm of the average with a twist of unusual. According to Clement Greenberg in his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” published in 1939, kitsch and avant-garde come to define the approach to aesthetics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, epitomising the break from Napoleon’s authoritarian government in France to global industrialisation, a period of pre-modernity and reinvention. As avant-garde arose as a force of rediscovery, encouraging artists to act as political means to realise social change, kitsch too gained potency in the following years, with an increasing offer of “popular, cheap and marketable” art formats—as a way to resist change, Greenberg argues.

But was the commodification of art really a way to resist change, a form of submission, slipping into an eternal dream of conformity? Or was there a gatekeeping the masses from accessing art?

After Napoleon’s empire was over, Paris became the undisputed centre of European art, as French ideals of a new society were based on the knowledge of scientists, artists and writers who challenged cultural conformity and the values of the bourgeois society. By 1910, Paris was home to approximately 3,000 would-be insurgent artists and various art circles outside of the established the École des Beaux Arts. Between the post-Napoleon and world wars periods, Paris was vibrant, exquisite and intellectual, a catalyst for many art movements that sprout around the globe.

But how could anyone who wasn’t part of those circles understand what avant-garde art stood for? Marcel Duchamp’s art piece ‘Fountain’ was an ordinary piece of plumbing—a urinal—and John Cage’s music compositions explored “the absence of intended sounds.” To the trained eye, interpretation and validity belong in the avant-garde. But to workers and middle-class people, the abstract, obscure and complex essence of avant-garde seemed like a pile of amorphous pieces devoid of meaning.

Ironically, although avant-garde was bound up with the birth of the socialist movement, intended to promote radical change and embrace the nation’s spirit of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, art experimentation was a topic of the elite, who had leisure time to dive into the unspoken meanings of these artworks. For instance, Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ asked the viewer to consider the urinal an art piece, while simultaneously questioning the conservative definition of what constitutes art, and Cage’s triggered reactions in the audience were part of his compositions, an unconventional story of controlling the uncontrollable.

Kitsch, on the other hand, allowed masses to find beauty in emotionally and intellectually accessible images, which Greenberg defined as the illustration of the conscious, or the imitation of the effect of art, while avant-garde, on the other hand, was the attempt to illustrate the unconscious, or the imitation of the process of art.

In other words, if avant-garde is purposeful beauty, kitsch is accidental beauty. And that leads me to the addressing the initial question: is the avant-garde still avant-garde? The label “avant-garde” is widely used today—for haircuts, makeup and interior design, among many others—as a way to speak of edgy, daring or unusual aesthetics. Even more, celebrity events and fashion shows have become an epicentre of popularly-discussed avant-garde looks, with the example of Lady Gaga and most recently Doja Cat.

But stepping away from our celebrity fandom and the popular belief that avant-garde equals excess of self-consciousness and sensationalism, avant-garde continues to exist and reach a small audience, existing on its own without associating to the ideology, with innovative ways of pushing the boundaries of artistic expression and freedom—even though such innovative ways are liable to tomorrow’s orthodoxy.

*Header image ©Chema Madoz