What is the Avant-Garde?

by on Jun.22, 2011

What is it? The term is much used and is quite central to a lot of literary and art criticism, but people respond to it differently. One recent pretty skeptical debate transpired at Big Other. I’d like to reopen the debate, hopefully in a more constructive manner.

We cannot know what the avant-garde is – we can only know what it has been (and obviously, we can vigorously disagree on that). To some degree at least, we can make the avant-garde whatever we want it to be. Peter Bürger wants it to be dead. Jean-François Lyotard wants to call it postmodernism. Marjorie Perloff wants it to be a continuous practice extending into the present. All three make valuable observations, but I’m primarily concerned with tracing continuities from the historical avant-garde to the present day. I’ve put together a tentative list of characteristics, which may eventually amount to some sort of systematic description. Sorry if it’s a mess right now.

The avant-garde:
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.

Ad 1:
Art that tends toward abstraction, conceptualism, or non-referentiality; art that combines or reworks existing genres and art forms.

Ad 3:
What does this mean and how is it possible? Marinetti rejected all tradition vociferously and then he went to St. Petersburg and was told that his parole in libertà are old hat to the Russian Futurians like Khlebnikov, who himself drew heavily on the folk tradition of spells, among other things. Duchamp made radically new art by thematizing and otherwise reinscribing elements of tradition like Cartesian perspective and the female nude.

Also, experimental art now has a tradition, which some people view as somewhat of a paradox and wonder what that does to the concept of the avant-garde (that’s what prompted the discussion on Big Other).

Ad 4:
I put these two things together, as they tend to be uttered in one breath, but maybe they need to be separated. Bürger wants them together, so maybe we should split them apart and see how that could change our perspective.

Is the avant-garde exclusively an artistic practice? Or is it something that is later recognized as art?

We also should keep in mind that there might be a difference between a particular movement’s stated political agendas and how those actually manifest in the work.

Ad 5:
Little has been said about this, crucial as it may be for our understanding of the avant-garde. High Modernism and the avant-garde may indeed run at cross-purposes.

With regard to some of the more inclusive and pluralistic definitions of modernism, the avant-garde is either a distinct practice or may be a branch of lower-case modernisms.

Ad 6:
In ways that, say, Romanticism isn’t, and not just because the Romantics couldn’t take photos at their meetings.

Looking over the list, my impression is that none of these conditions is necessary and also that no single condition is sufficient. In other words, any art that we usually consider avant-garde would most likely satisfy some combination these conditions.

Now, in proper avant-garde fashion, I should boisterously declare that this be the new and official gate-keeping formula for all things avant-garde, but instead I’ll restate what I said above, which is that the avant-garde is a moving target and new, unexpected contributions to the field may cause us to rethink the term altogether.

What’s the use of all this, you may ask? Well, for one, there seems to be plenty of folks who are dissatisfied with Bürger’s classic theory of the avant-garde (designed to fail), but to my knowledge no one has offered a competing definition. Correct me if I’m wrong. Much good work emerged in the past decade or two rethinking and pluralizing modernism(s), and perhaps some of that work encapsulates certain aspects of the avant-gardes (I’m going to use the term in the plural more often).

Secondly, a framework like this could help us look at certain art differently or make interesting connections. Take lowbrow art, also known pop surrealism, as an example. It has been said on this blog that the genre lacks its own critical discourse, which is a shame. Is it an avant-garde? Does it relate in any way to pop art or surrealism, as its name may suggest? What is its take on Utopia? You get the idea.

This is a preliminary and open-ended investigation. Comments are welcome (not that I needed to say that).

15 comments for this entry:
  1. Christopher Higgs

    Hi, Josef.

    Thanks for the great post. Glad this topic is up for discussion.

    I’ll add an idea here, based on an article I’m trying to write, that attempts to address your question “What is the Avant-Garde.”

    So I’ve recently been mesmerized by Ortega y Gasset’s essay on the avant-garde, “The Dehumanization of Art.”

    Part of his argument revolves around his claim that “preoccupation with the human content of artwork is in principle incompatible with aesthetic enjoyment proper.” In other words, what degrades art is the human element.

    Makes me wonder, is there a link between the avant-garde impulse and a desire to distance oneself from humanity? This might connect to your idea about High Modernism and the avant-garde running at cross-purposes, if we conceive of High Modernism as Jesse Matz does: as a form of new realism, i.e. a more authentic engagement with human experience.

    It seems to me that on one level, the distinction Greenberg makes between A-G and kitsch is a distinction between two kinds of humans: the originators and the counterfeiters, between what Ortega similarly identifies as “the illustrious and the vulgar.” As if an inherent attribute of the A-G is a willful desire to separate oneself from the masses, to purposefully become unlike them. But if “they” represent humanity, then humanity is no longer desirable. Therefore, the distinction isn’t really between two kinds of humans but instead between the human and the inhuman, or unhuman. A desire to become other than human, zombie or vampire: neither alive nor dead, undead.

  2. A D Jameson

    Hi Josef,

    Thanks for posting this, and I look forward to the discussion. My primary question, though, is: do we really have to keep this term, “avant-garde”? Why don’t we use a new term? (Of course there would be problems with doing that.) Or are we going to divorce “avant-garde” from its myriad historical uses and meanings? i.e., what do we do with all of those?

    This is an interesting question:

    Is the avant-garde exclusively an artistic practice? Or is it something that is later recognized as art?

    It points out some of the reasons why addressing those historical questions are important. Not to mention: what do we mean by art? I can think of dozens of different meanings of that term. (Here’s one, and only one, that I posted at Big Other.)

    I’m not trying to be too evasive; I just think these are important questions to address if we’re to define what “avant-garde” means here and now. Too often these debates devolve into “defending whatever I want it to mean without any regard for the term’s winding and often contradictory historical usage,” which doesn’t, I’d argue, benefit anyone.

    One last comment/question: it’s interesting to separate the avant-garde from Modernism, and I’d like to read more about that. But isn’t the whole notion of the avant-garde usually a rather elitist notion? I mean, why assume that there’s some avant-garde in the first place? Personally, I think it works differently than that, and that the usual “avant-garde” model is too simplistic; it assumes too simple a model of progress in the arts.

    (Although I mostly like the conditions you set out above, and generally agree with them, if one is set on having such a concept.)

    Many cheers,

  3. A D Jameson

    Actually, upon reconsideration, I’m not sure I agree with #3 above: “makes a radical break with tradition”. Avant-garde movements often are heavily indebted to traditions—but usually different traditions than others are engaging with, around them.

    I’d reword it to something more like, “differs from the dominant traditions of a given time and place.” Although even that doesn’t really do the thought justice…because an A-G may in many ways still be subservient to particular dominant trends. Hence all those photographs of A-G groups 100 years ago: photography was in vogue. Simmilarly, today’s “avant-garde” artists probably use Facebook, Twitter, email, cell phones, you name it. (If they don’t, they’re probably outsider artists—and here’s a hint at how outsider art is often reactionary.)


  4. Kent Johnson

    Josef, very interesting, printing out to read over again later. And Chris, your project sounds fascinating. Ortega y Gasset is great, not read enough by Yanks, that’s for sure.

    Josef, just one thing: I think this is a bit off as characterization:

    >Peter Bürger wants it to be dead.

    Burger indeed marks the death of the avant-garde, but it’s more in sense of mourning its failure to carry through the deeper, originary impulse. It’s not really that he “wants” it to remain dead!

    You can imagine what he would say about something like Conceptualism. By the way, one of the most fascinating aspects of Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde is his taking to task of Adorno, this something worth exploring.

  5. Josef Horáček


    Of course, how could I have forgotten? This definitely belongs to the list. The concept of the inhuman in art goes back to an essay by Apollinaire. Lyotard wrote about it, too. It’s been a while since I read Lyotard, but from what I remember, he gets kind of crotchety about technology, which, to me, undermines his thesis. I wasn’t aware of the Ortega y Gasset essay and will check it out. I like your twist on it.

    The idea of the inhuman can indeed help us articulate the avant-garde’s opposition to High Modernism. There’s a difference in how each responds to modernity, “the technological wonders, the social disorder, the psychological mysteries, the pattern of change” in modern societies (the quote is also from Jesse Matz – I just now lifted it from your blog – thanks!). It’s not just about the speed with which they respond to changes. Something more structural is in play, and I think it has to do with decentering the human concerns and experience. Let me take a stab at it: Modernism assimilates the momentous upheaval brought about by modernity, humanizes it, and ultimately helps the public make sense of it and cope with it. In contrast, the avant-garde embraces the upheaval without attempting to resolve it for the benefit of humanity. In fact, it may even contribute to it. (This is much drier than your take, but I think we’re in agreement.)

    There is danger and value in both. But anyway, can anyone point us to sources that take up this subject?

  6. Josef Horáček


    Yes, the term has a history and has been used variably. For example, as was mentioned on Big Other, there is a genre called “avant-garde music,” and that’s a whole different use of the term that distracts from what we’re trying to do here. As an example, if all you do is play indie rock covers, you’re still playing indie rock. If all you do is play Laurie Anderson covers, you’re playing avant-garde music as a genre, but whether or not you are in fact avant-garde in the broader sense depends on a whole range of other factors. Frankly, I get tired of people wanting to do away with terms because they’re too hard to pin down, like this cultural anthropologist I talked to once who said he wrote a book consciously avoiding the word “culture.”

    The very reason I’m grappling with the concept of the avant-garde is because I find it tremendously useful. For one, it allows me and others to enter existing debates that use the term. Also, I think it’s useful to have this distinction between the avant-garde and High Modernism, or even other modernisms. There are other reasons I gave in my post.

    Your post on the meaning of art seems intriguing and I’ll definitely check it out when I have a moment. From what I see, my thinking goes along similar lines.

    About elitism: Part of the reason why I’m looking for ways to describe the avant-garde is to get away from the charge of elitism. It doesn’t hold. Even if some avant-gardes could be called elitist, I don’t think it’s a defining or even significant characteristic. It would be a good idea to have a discussion at some point about what it means for art to be democratic. I don’t agree that democratic art must be accessible – that’s the old socialist-realism fallacy. In my opinion, it has more to do with the high/low divide and on drawing on all manner of influences that are out there. It may have to do with reflecting a particular worldview in your art, but I haven’t formed on opinion about that.

    I share your misgivings about tradition, but you’re conflating tradition with “what’s in vogue.” It’s actually very characteristic of the avant-garde to embrace latest technologies, like photography, which was hardly even considered an art form at that point.

  7. Josef Horáček


    You’re right about Burger, he doesn’t celebrate the death of the avant-garde but rather mourns it. The way I phrased it may have mischacterized his project. Much of what he says has tremendous value for our understanding of the term.

  8. A D Jameson

    Hi Josef,

    I well understand the difference re: actual experimentation vs. tradition; I was the one who wrote about that at Big Other! See this post, for instance. (This post is also probably relevant.) For the record, it always irks me when people use terms like “experimental” and “avant-garde” to refer to later, derivative work done in established traditions. I remember having an argument with Fred Camper on the FRAMEWORKS mailing list, well over ten years ago, about which filmmakers were worthy of mention on said list; my argument was that someone making scratchy hand-painted films in 1999 wasn’t necessarily an experimental filmmaker; Fred disagreed. (The Frameworks mailing list, despite its occasional claims otherwise, was really a forum for discussion of a particular established tradition of experimental filmmaking.)

    And I don’t want to do away with terms, not necessarily. Terms will always be needed. But terms have histories that can’t be ignored, and above all I favor clarity. My position is this: Why do we want the term “avant-garde”? Who wants it? Who will it benefit from its usage? 99% of the time I see people using it, I think their motivation can be summarized as follows: “I’m trying to look cool, and screw the term’s history.” Obviously you’re engaged in something different, which I support. But we still need to answer those questions. Words have lives, and sometimes they get so convoluted it’s best to start over. (What the hell does “postmodern” mean any more?)

    > I think it’s useful to have this distinction
    > between the avant-garde and High Modernism, or
    > even other modernisms.

    I’d like to hear more about this. Realize, though, that you’re speaking with someone who isn’t convinced that Modernism ever even existed, let alone High Modernism. (I believe they exist in the present, as ways of reading past history, and I might be convinced that they exist as distinct phases in economic/infrastructural development, but I don’t really believe they existed as culture-wide, dominant aesthetic movements. I imagine that’s not clear at all, but we can argue that another time.)

    As far as elitism goes, I understand what you’re saying, but I think it all has to do with the context in which “avant-garde” is used. Historically, it’s a rather elitist term. It assumes a very linear model of cultural progress, and that some folks are ahead of the rest of the culture, innovating artistic tech that will then trickle down to the masses. (Actually, the original argument, as I’m sure you know, was that a-g artists were the harbingers of socialist revolution. That’s sure been forgotten!)

    My position, very briefly, is that culture doesn’t work that way, not at all. For one thing, cultural progress isn’t linear; it’s recursive and recombinant. For another, there isn’t one culture, not any more (if there ever was)—there are many different cultures at any given time (subcultures, if you will), some big, some small, some influential, some virtually unknown. An avant-garde is one thing in 1860 Paris, when there’s a Salon and there’s the Salon of the Refused and there’s the street, and that’s pretty much it. (I guess there’s also various guilds and craft scenes.) It means quite another thing in the US in 2011, when there’s nowhere near as much homogeneity. Something I rarely see addressed is that the origin of the term “avant-garde” predates mass media. Doesn’t that seem like something that would need to be accounted for? (One might argue that it’s the mass-media that’s the avant-garde these days; it certainly leads most of the culture.)

    As for “conflating tradition with ‘what’s in vogue,'” I don’t think I am. My point (which wasn’t very clear, apologies) is less about embracing new technologies, and more about how most artists at any given time/place are all subject to roughly the same infrastructure. Color me Marxist (I don’t mind because I am, of the Frankfurt hue), but I tend to think that those economic and infrastructural distinctions do a great deal in determining what art people are making at any particular time. The 1920s, for instance, saw lots of people making movies, some of them very conventionally, some of them very innovatively—but they were all making films, and were all limited by pretty similar cultural institutions and forces (equipment availability, distribution channels, screening venues). Discussion of the avant-garde often overlooks this very material aspect of art-making, preferring instead to posit some pie-in-the-sky fantasy that some artists—a select few!—are living in the future, not the present, and are therefore not subject to the same everyday pressures that the most conventional, mainstream artist is subject to. I’d rather announce my own culpability first and foremost.

    Thanks once again for giving me a lot to think about today! I am slowly and mentally drafting a response post at the BO; it may come together…


  9. A D Jameson

    One more thought: why is embracing the latest technology an avant-garde thing to do? My uncle embraces the latest technology, is always buying the newest camera and cell phone and laptop. That hardly seems progressive anymore; it seems an everyday symptom of contemporary capitalism! (I groan inwardly, even slightly audibly, every time I attend a reading only to find out that it’s going to be some Skype affair, with some poet in Venezuela reading the contents of their spam folder, &c. &c. All very “avant-garde,” mind you.)

    Technology doesn’t always progress in a linear fashion, either, although its makers will claim otherwise. Sure, some things progress in a clear lines—processor speed doubles, then doubles again, &c.—but that’s not the whole story. Is Windows 7 a definite improvement on Windows XP? I’d say no. Is video, which is steadily replacing film, an improvement on film? Many would argue otherwise. (Just see the FRAMEWORKS mailing list!) Technologies are always disappearing, and what’s more, the entire infrastructure is transforming all around us. As David Bordwell has observed many times: the reason why filmmakers don’t make 1970s films any more is because they can’t—that kind of filmmaking required a massive array of companies and labs and studios and artisanal know-how that simply no longer exist.

    All artists are subject to these pressures, the avant-garde and the mainstream alike. Perhaps it’s more avant-garde these days to turn Luddite and reject contemporary technology? (The idea that artistic progress is necessarily married to technological progress is an artificial idea—and a pretty Modernist one, if I’m not mistaken.)

    Cheers again,

  10. Johannes

    Some quick thoughts: I don’t find it particularly useful to imagine a transhistorical avant-garde – the concept has changed throughout time and place (and even within one place). There is a basic metaphor – that of the fore-running troops. OK. But how that is put to use is very different. For example, “the avantgarde” has become an academic field.

    Rather than transhistorical, essentializing taxonomies, I’d be interested in someone tracing when the term comes back into usage in contemporary US poetry; it seems to have died in the 1960s but then come back in with the institutionalization of language poetry.

    I’m largely in agreement with Adam – especially the Brakhage example.


  11. Josef Horáček

    Good job, folks. I’m aware of many of the pitfalls. I don’t think I’m essentializing, that should be clear from the original post. Am I looking for a trans-historical avant-garde? I don’t think so. As I said, I’m interested in what the term means in the present and in tracing connections to the past.

    I like your Marxist take on the avant-garde, Adam. I find Marxism tremendously useful as a critical tool, even with the revolutionary impulse all but gone (in fact, Marxism seems much less dogmatic without it).

    I think there’s a difference between experimentation and the idea of linear progress, or progress as such. Yes, the very name suggests being ahead and going forward, but as Johannes said, its been put to use variably. Besides, going where? Does the Poundian “new” always mean better, more evolved, more advanced? I don’t necessarily think so. I think often that’s just us applying the lens of the Enlightenment-style idea of human progress. Some sort of Utopian impulse is sometimes an important feature, but possibly less so the further we get from the original avant-gardes. Sometimes there’s a very specific future, like a socialist revolution, but as I already said, the relationship between the stated ideology and how it reflects in the work can be complicated, if not outright contrary.

    As I said earlier in a response to Chris, it’s not so much whether or how fast you embrace technology as what you do with it. And Adam, I’d say your read on modernism is one of the many possible theories of modernity/modernism out there today, and I don’t have a problem with it. It’s okay if High Modernism is a term invented after the fact. Most such terms are. Did the ancient Greeks think of themselves as ancient? In contrast, the idea of postmodernism was developed concurrently with the era it described, and look what happened to it?

    As for this: “For the record, it always irks me when people use terms like ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’ to refer to later, derivative work done in established traditions,” you have a good point. I already touched on it in the post, but will say more in an upcoming post.

  12. Josef Horáček

    It just occurred to me that what Johannes is suggesting is doing a genealogy of the term. Now that’s a very ambitious (and worthy) project! Perhaps a fly-by version should at some point be incorporated into this investigation.

  13. A D Jameson

    Dear Johannes, Josef,

    > Rather than transhistorical, essentializing
    > taxonomies, I’d be interested in someone tracing
    > when the term comes back into usage in
    > contemporary US poetry; it seems to have died in
    > the 1960s but then come back in with the
    > institutionalization of language poetry.

    This. And…

    > It just occurred to me that what Johannes is
    > suggesting is doing a genealogy of the term. Now
    > that’s a very ambitious (and worthy) project!

    …this. I agree—that’s a wonderful idea!

    > I think there’s a difference between
    > experimentation and the idea of linear progress

    I definitely agree, and think we’re in agreement, overall.

    I know I keep mentioning my own posts—true apologies for that; I mainly don’t feel like retyping all of it here—but in some ways I think the best thing I ever wrote at Big Other was that “What Is Experimental Art” post. It’s the only time in my life that I think I’ve had a truly original thought (even though it’s essentially just a rereading of Roman Jakobson by way of a brilliant little essay by a film critic named James Peterson). Well, hopefully it’s useful, along this line of thought.

    And, Josef, if others have suggested a reading of Modernism similar to the one I sketched out above, I’d love to learn more about them. Sometimes I feel all alone in my particular cornfield.

    My main objection to “Modernism” is when it’s used to describe a coherent, stable, group aesthetic. Which I don’t really believe in, except for in the grandest of strokes (and maybe not even then). And I say that despite the fact that some critics have done some wonderful readings of Modernist aesthetics (which are always necessarily very selective). But I myself would rather break things down, and see everything that’s out there. I’m less interested in a single Modernist “movement” than I am in cataloging various artistic phenomena and movements and sub-movements of any given time. Let’s look at all of it! If that makes any sense. Dick Higgins said it best, really, in his brilliant essay “Against Movements”; too bad it’s not available online (maybe in some database?). (I consider his book A Dialectic of Centuries an indispensable part of my academic library.)

    Incidentally, it’s very nice to be having this conversation with the two of you; thank you. And by the way, is there some way to subscribe to a particular thread’s comments here (so I know when someone has added a new comment)? Not that I mind checking back in from time to time—I should read this site more regularly…


  14. Josef Horáček

    Adam, Peter Nicholls published a book titled _Modernisms_ (in the plural) in the mid-1990s, although you may find that it still covers just the usual suspects. There’s also the concept of modernity as a opposed to modernism and further the concept of vernacular modernities (and modernisms) – alternative versions of modernity coming from the postcolony and such. And gender and queer studies have very much been pluralizing what is considered modern.

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