by Johannes Goransson on Jun.24, 2011
In a comment to my previous post about the avant-garde, Adam Jameson said, “it always irks me when people use terms like ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’ to refer to later, derivative work done in established traditions […] someone making scratchy hand-painted films in 1999 [isn’t] necessarily an experimental filmmaker.” The comment nicely illustrates a very common sentiment: if you repeat someone else’s experiment, is it still an experiment, and how can it be avant-garde? Marjorie Perloff offers an interesting answer for this conundrum in her latest book, Unoriginal Genius, which recently sparked a lively debate here about kitsch, Surrealism, and the meaning of the avant-garde. I’d like to bring up one particular concept from the book that I found very useful – the arrière-garde. Perloff’s exposition is very succinct, so I’ll take the liberty to quote much of it directly:
In military terms, the rear guard of the army is the part that protects and consolidates the troop movement in question; often the army’s best generals are placed there. When an avant-garde movement is no longer a novelty, it is the role of the arrière-garde to complete its mission, to ensure its success. The term arrière-garde, then, is synonymous neither with reaction nor with nostalgia for a lost and more desirable artistic era…
The proposed dialectic is a useful corrective, I think, to the usual conceptions of the avant-garde, either as one-time rupture with the bourgeois art market […] or as a series of ruptures, each one breaking decisively with the one before, as in textbook accounts of avant-gardes from Futurism to Dada to Surrealism to Fluxus to Minimalism, Conceptualism, and so on. 
(Perloff traces the origins of the concept to William Marx, Antoine Compagnon, and ultimately something Roland Barthes once said. It’s apparently all in an edited volume [by Marx] titled Les arrière-gardes au xxe siècle from 2004.)
Elsewhere, Perloff suggests that much of the avant-garde experiments have never been integrated into the mainstream. They continue to be marginal, which I suppose is partly what gives some of the rear-end artists the license to call themselves avant-garde. Critics object that such work is no longer avant-garde, because it now operates within a tradition and congeals into a recognizable genre. They charge that calling it avant-garde is pretentious or elitist. They have a point, it’s not properly avant-garde – it’s arrière-garde.
This of course invites a different kind or reading. Instead of wondering, “How is this new?” we may ask ourselves, “How does repeating the same procedure give different results in this other work?” We’re back to the nuanced ways of reading to which we resort when faced with similar works or works in the same genre.
Let me close with something Danielle Pafunda said in a recent comment:
There seems to be little room for avant-garde to circle back on itself or to move in any way other than forward/progressive. Spatially, our front lines as writers/artists are constantly shifting, and the avant-garde that takes on only noble battles (the war imagery being endlessly troublesome) is just one sort of glory-seeking enterprise. What about the less glamorous front lines? The artistic strategies that go out of vogue, become gauche, tasteless, boring, done to death? Don’t they then become, by virtue of abandonment, front lines?
I think this speaks directly to our collective desire to revisit old frontiers, to repeat the experiment, to consolidate the gains. The engine of the Trans-Siberian may have long arrived in Vladivostok and fallen off the dead-end track into the sea, but its cars are scattered all over Siberia and the caboose never left the Moscow suburbs. Party in the dining car, everyone! As for me, I’ll be watching the Omsk Avangard battle the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv for the Gagarin Cup.