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OverviewAvant-garde As Ideological Metaphor, Theories And Historiographies Of The Avant-garde, Bibliography

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.

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