The Avant-Garde’s Rear End: More on Perloff and the Experimental Tradition Conundrum

by 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. [53]

(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.

23 comments for this entry:
  1. Danielle Pafunda

    Oh, this is very helpful and refreshingly sensible, Josef!

    & it’s like Marjorie Perloff and I were having a party in the dining car in your brain. Freak out! (Marjorie Perloff was in the audience when I played St. Augustine in Susan Wheeler’s play/adaptation of Stein’s Four Saints, so I just wanted to brag about grabbing my crotch a lot and pretending to pick knits out of my hair in such fine company!)

    I suppose I’d imagine the difference between revisiting the same territory (experiment) as arriere- or avant- garde would have to do with how much time passed in between the visit and the original avant-garde claim on that territory. I.e. are you ensuring the success of the experiment, or has the experiment been so long deteriorating that you have to reanimate it?

    Guess I better order that Perloff title!

  2. Danielle Pafunda

    I mean nits. Hee, hee, picking knits out of my hair!

  3. Johannes

    I actually think Perloff’s rear-guard model reinforces the linearity idea of the avant-garde: it’s still about getting everyone caught up so to speak. It’s still about progress toward some avant-garde horizon. I prefer Joyelle’s unhealthy influences, Jack Smith’s exotic trash glamor, Aase Berg’s deformation zones ( Or Laibach’s anachronistic use of rear-guardism. One interesting thing about Perloff’s chapter on rearguardism is that it features Oyvind Fahlstrom, whose work is incredibly kitschy, and full of self-infantilizing erotics and corny humor (I played one of his sound collages for my mom and her sister and they laughed heartily) that don’t fit in very well with MP’s model of the avant-guard. Maybe there’s a more interesting way of reading the avant-garde… Actually, Joyelle wrote a defense of Charles Bernstein a while back that I thinks uses the avant-garde in a more daring, anachronistic way: .

  4. A D Jameson

    This is interesting, Josef, but I still think the avant-garde is a pretty silly concept. Again, my basic concern is: what on earth does it mean to be ahead of the culture? When people say “avant-garde” they usually mean “an artist who influenced other people,” and I don’t see why we just don’t say that. Sure, it uses many words, but it’s cleaner and clearer.

    Consider George Crumb. For those who don’t know his work, he’s an American composer (b. 1924) who’s worked primarily between the 1950s and the present. And while it’s difficult to summarize the career of any artist, one might argue Crumb has focused on a few distinct areas:
    . overt theatricality;
    . alternative notation;
    . extended instrument ranges (he works a lot with prepared instruments), which includes a deep exploration of altered timbre.

    Obviously Crumb inherited a lot of these interests from John Cage and his cohorts, who explored similar ideas very rigorously throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Without Cage, Babbitt, Wolff, Stockhausen, others, it’s hard to imagine what Crumb’s career would have looked like. I don’t say this to disparage Crumb: I think he’s a brilliant composer, and I adore much of his music.

    Is Crumb avant-garde, arrière-garde, something else? I don’t know how productive a question that is. Has he had the influence that John Cage had? Certainly not. Has he had some influence on the broader culture, later generations of musicians? Certainly yes.

    All artists, with the possible (possible) exception of outsider artists, work in traditions. Those traditions may be long ones, short ones, new ones, old ones. Artists may combine aspects of different traditions. Meanwhile, at any given time, any given tradition may be more or less in vogue (and that ranking may change over time). That brief description seems to me a clearer picture of what the culture is like, and how artistic progress operates, than the standard avant-garde model (“someone is ahead, everyone else eventually catches up”).

    Consider another example. Who is the most avant-garde black metal guitarist of the past ten years? Do you know? Do you even care? I assure you that someone somewhere cares—several black metal enthusiasts care. Will the majority of the culture ever care? Who knows? (Who could have predicted, twenty years ago, that the singing saw and theremin would make such a comeback?)

    Rather than worry so much about who is avant-garde and who is not (again, as always, I ask: “to what end?”), I think critics can more productively spend their time tracing out artistic lineages. Which are long and splendid things sorely in need of excavation.


  5. Johannes

    I agree with a lot of what you say adam but check out the link to joyelles bernstein piece


  6. A D Jameson

    Another way of looking at it: worrying about who or what the avant-garde is now strikes me as a Wittgensteinian language game of the purest kind. We have here a word that was invented in one arena (the military), was adopted by Socialists to mean something entirely different, was then re-adopted by the Impressionists and their followers to mean something again entirely different, then allowed to live for 100+ years while many different people used it to essentially become a synonym for “cool.” Meanwhile, who’s to say the Socialists of 1830s Paris were even correct in their metaphor? Or that society and culture are similar enough today, nearly 200 years later, for the concept to even apply?

    But, again, I rarely if ever see contemporary critics addressing these very pertinent questions. Rather, I see them adopting the concept wholesale, then tweaking the list of qualifications for someone or something to be avant-garde. And then people argue for a while whether Lady Gaga is avant-garde or not, until everyone drops it for a while.

    Two critics, A and B, are assembling a canon. A wants to include four types of artists: “avant-gardists,” “pillars,” “commercial types” and “geniuses.” B has to pass along the artists as A calls out she needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words “avant-garde,” “pillar,” “commercial type,” and “genius” …


  7. A D Jameson

    I just read it, Johannes, thanks. My comprehension is somewhat limited by not knowing the Bernstein piece in question. I mean, I’ve heard of it, and a friend described it to me once, but I haven’t actually read it.

    BUT while reading Joyelle’s post I had a thought about an artist who might be arrière-garde. We are all familiar with those who live entirely in the past: say an artist who is using the I Ching to compose mesostics today (usually because they just learned about it some class or other). (I myself was this artist for a long time.) I suppose if they’re doing nothing new with the work, and are mired in the past regarding it—they go around trying to convince folks that it’s the new hotness—then they are arguably arrière-garde. They could wear a T-shirt or something.

    Another thought: what if I tried to join the Surrealists? Meaning, I would try to actually join the original Surrealist movement? Petition them for membership, make works Breton would approve of, and so forth. I suppose that would be arrière-garde. But then we see the problem of Pierre Menard. So I propose we revise this term “arrière-garde” to “Pierre Menard-garde” (or “PMG” for short).

    (You may laugh, but this is precisely what we see happening to the Oulipo today. Or two years ago, when it suddenly became hip to like the Oulipo, and some new folks joined. I think they even admitted a Woman!)


  8. Josef Horáček


    You may be right about Perloff and linear narratives, but I think we can use the concept and apply it in a non-linear way. Hence the quote from Danielle and my image of the stalled, scattered Trans-Siberian Choochoo.


    If you look at my previous post about the avant-garde, you’ll see that I say nothing about being ahead of culture or influence. Everything you say makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t speak to what I’ve said about the avant-garde on this blog.

  9. James Pate


    I’ve been reading your comments on the avant-garde the past few days and have been enjoying them immensely…you trace the historical mutations of the term lucidly and I agree that it is a “silly” concept….

    For me, the problem is partially that it’s an empty concept: to put it in terms of inductive logic:

    1) All avant-gardes that have been studied in the past century share X.
    2) Therefore, all avant-gardes can be defined as sharing X.

    Now, what could possibly be that X factor which would be the essential hallmark of all avant-gardes? What links the Impressionists to the Dadaists to the Surrealists to the Situationists to the Language poets to the punk movement (to name only a handful of supposedly “avant-garde” groups)? I would argue nothing…outside of the fact that they could all be loosely labeled “movements”…which of course gets us nowhere in terms of fleshing out an actual attribute of the “avant-garde.”

    The term leads only to meaningless simplifications, as far as I can tell…


  10. Natallia Stelmak

    James, It could be that the X is something like “a desire or intention to do something that has not been done before” or “an intention to break with/disrupt the tradition.” Even so, does this provide us with a valuable criteria for evaluating art?

    I think, though, that this notion of the avant-garde is distinct from the “Poundian ‘new'” that Josef mentioned in a reply on his earlier post on avant-garde, because Pound clearly does not believe that what has come before is necessarily bad (or maybe even “old” in his sense). This “new” is not a rejection of the past, but of what is stale and false and old in the sense of lacking vitality. So his troubadors and ancient Chinese and Homer are indeed all still “new,” because they all have vitality, are still fresh, still kindle a flame in the reader, still make us see the world from a new perspective. His command to “make it new” is not about necessarily breaking with or discarding tradition, but about using whatever is available to you to create art that makes the audience see the world anew. Judging by Pound’s own example and tastes, that can come from within or without a tradition. This makes his “new” more valuable for evaluating art than any notion of avant-garde, because it defines the important relationship as between the individual work of art and the audience, rather than between a work of art and an existing tradition or artistic movement.

  11. Spread, spread, spread that death butter « mortal steaks

    […] no longer possible. The linear idea of progress and new-ness is, on this day and age, backwards. Arriere-garde, however, is relevant. Or derriere-garde, I like to think. Lucas calls the lyric poet as the power […]

  12. James Pate

    Great points, Natallia…

  13. James Pate

    I very much like the idea that Josef mentions of repeating an experiment (since you can never repeat the same experiment twice): this is one of the reasons why I enjoy Guy Maddin so much—he is trying to resurrect various filmmaking techniques and conventions that have long fallen into disuse…Jack Smith of course is similar in this regard…and this very resurrection has an uncanny quality about it, and really fucks up our sense of linear time…

    And Josef, I think you have some fascinating ideas in this post…but to me, the avant frame you place them in (which, I would argue, has linearity in its DNA so to speak) seems to be confusing some of the issues…


  14. Josef Horáček

    So many people seem hung up on the idea of linear progress in connection with the avant-garde. I realize I must keep that in mind when mentioning the dirty word and perhaps better explain what I mean.

    The word also seems to have a cool stigma. The hipster axiom, if you will: you can’t be a hipster if you call yourself one – the hip thing is to complain about hipsters.

    I’m not attaching any value judgment to any of this, just noticing trends in the conversation.

  15. Josef Horáček

    In all truthfulness, what draws me to the arrière-garde is how well it lends itself to punning. Perloff suggests “Bringing Up the Rear,” but I’m sure we can do better than that once the mics are off! I’ve been waxing poetic about “the avant-garde’s rear end,” but so far Chelsey Minnis’ “derriere-guard” is the, ahem, front-runner.

  16. James Pate

    Interesting comments, Josef…for me, there is a strange paradox in what I think of as the linear aspect of the avant-garde.

    For example, Cubism was seen for many years as a style that represents a spatial way of thinking/seeing that is so contemporary it becomes futuristic, like that device in one of Don Delillo’s novels where the character can see seconds into the future…

    But over time, Cubism becomes more and more of a nostalgic style…no one would make a Cubist painting today and say that it is avant-garde (unless several layers of irony were applied)…today, with the Internet, etc., the worldview of the Cubists seems almost quaint.

    This is what has happened to the Impressionists too, though with them even more so (that it, their world picture is seen with even greater nostalgia, hence why their shows make so much money)…

    I’m not saying this as a criticism of Cubism (or the Impressionists). I’m saying this to illustrate why the linear aspect of avant-garde theories (and it’s hard for me to imagine an avant critical theory that doesn’t owe a great deal to the linear, though I’m interested in what you have to say about this) is so oddly self-defeating…I should also add I’m not against “nostalgia”…one of my favorite filmmakers, Wong Kar-Wai, has been described as someone who makes movies that have a “nostalgia for the present moment” (what a phrase!)…

    Even Conceptualism will be looked back on with a kind of nostalgia…It isn’t the future of writing, but a dream of the future, and akin to sci-fi in this manner, though I suspect critics like Perloff would not be happy with that comparison. Sci-fi is open about its fictionality in a way avant critical theory isn’t…

  17. Hugh Behm-Steinberg

    What makes an avant-garde an avant-garde isn’t so much its content, practices, styles, acts, etc, so much as a way of insisting upon the existence of a border or frontier. It’s why there’s always a conversation about “marginality”, a conversation about membership/ authenticity (who’s in/out or real/fake) and always a conversation about “tradition” (often as a very linear and exclusive series of begats, followed by a ruthless excision of various 8th cousins and adopted step-grandchildren) when things are framed in this way. It’s all hierarchical, linear and binary, even if a particular avant-garde is rejecting everything hierarchical, linear and binary.

    Can we think of new or changing practices and their relationship to communities/cultures in a more multi-dimensional way?

  18. Nate Hoks

    Many great points here already–Josef is animating great discussions. I especially agree with Hugh’s comment that this pesky idea of the avant-garde tends to create more hierarchies, lineages, and boundaries than are helpful. The military metaphorics are clearly part of the problem—but they inform the kind of historicizing that all but kills the energies and forces in interesting zones of creativity. I find so telling the ridiculous idea of a “rear-end-garde” and the fabulous, uncannily accurate pun that Josef points to, the derrière-garde! Ha ha! This language suggests a kind of militarized fear – but what are we “guarding”? What is the rear-end guard, some kind of anal chastity belt? Is the avant-garde, for all its proclaimed progressivism, afraid of penetration, mutation, contagion, contamination? Is the avant-garde obsessed with its own purity (of spirit, of form, of experiment)? Rather than the linear club of exclusivity, another, more useful & inspiring notion of the avant-garde takes shape for me: I see it as a constantly mutating blob, some monstrous multi-headed beast simultaneously tearing itself apart and swelling as it absorbs whatever flows through its boundaries, which, rather than conceived as lined of generals guarding the front, rear, and wings, should be seen permeable membranes full of film and tissues that overlay each other, severe, expand, and leave an unwashable mucous on all who dare come near. That’s my avant-garde.

  19. A D Jameson

    I want to add, Johan (and all), that I really appreciate these posts, and the conversation they’re engendering. As well as the chance to comment here.

    I tend to play devil’s advocate in regards to the a-g not only due to my personal thoughts on the subject, but because it’s a concept that is routinely invoked in a rather uncritical fashion. But I certainly think there’s much value in debating/defining the concept.


  20. A D Jameson


    > If you look at my previous post about the avant-
    > garde, you’ll see that I say nothing about being
    > ahead of culture or influence. Everything you say
    > makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t speak to what
    > I’ve said about the avant-garde on this blog.

    That’s true, except for the fact that, you know, you’re using the term “avant-garde.” Which literally means “the advance group in any field” ( Is there any way to use that term without meaning that? What would be the value in doing so? Seems (potentially) confusing to me. (Which is a big part of why I’m not such a fan of the term!)

    Regarding the features you listed in your previous post:

    1. engages heavily in formal innovation; so-called experimental art;
    2. takes from everywhere, making no distinctions between high and low forms of art and culture;
    3. makes a radical break with tradition;
    4. seeks to change society and challenge the boundaries and role of art;
    5. subverts canonical forms of Modernism;
    6. is a collective and collaborative practice.

    …Surely there are artists out there behaving like this. But why don’t we just call them “experimental artists”? I don’t see why the avant-garde has to enter into it.


    Thanks! And long time no see! I understand that you’re no longer at UIC? (I start there in August.)

    I share your suspicion that the X-Factor linking so many disparate avant-garde movements is non-existent. I’m reminded of the lists that avant-pop critics often make, attempting to define “what is avant-pop”; see, for example, this one:

    Every time I read one, I come away with the conclusion, “Ah, so avant-pop is the stuff you think is cool.”

    I think also, now that I look more clearly at your comments, James, that you’ve been saying some of the things I say in the first half of this comment. Sorry for the redundancy…


  21. A D Jameson

    Ugh! I meant “Josef,” not “Johan” (in both of my last two comments). Very sorry about that, Josef. It’s too late for me to be commenting… Adam

  22. James Pate


    I’m actually no longer in Chicago, which is why we haven’t run into each other recently. (I think the last time was at Kate’s reading, right?) Really glad to hear you’re going to UIC. I still have some friends there, like Scott McFarland…I’ll let them know you’ll be starting.