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Avant-Garde

OverviewAvant-garde As Ideological Metaphor

The ideological components of avant-garde as a metaphor can be grouped under three headings: political, formal, and temporal-historical. The avant-garde artist, often a self-conscious member of a sectarian group or movement, creates artworks that at once lay claim to formal innovativeness and to their effective quality as social criticism. "Avant-garde" connotes precisely this implication of social criticism in acts of formal innovation and the artist's corollary struggle to find new artistic expressions—new figures and forms—to probe imaginatively beyond the strictures of a given social order. But this conflation of form and political meaning carries only two dimensions of avant-garde as metaphor. A further, temporal dimension gives that ideology its peculiar depth. "Avant-garde" also suggests an historical measure that lies in the future, a goal toward which artists are leading, while others merely follow. Through its artistic practice and products, the avant-garde adumbrates this end toward which the whole of a society is—or at least should be—heading. Where the avant-garde was, it is implied, there the social mainstream must inevitably find itself.

At first glance, the ideology is patently absurd. How could an abstract painting, a dadaist collage, an aleatory musical composition, or a film composed of mere patches of light and color be an anticipation of a new social norm, when it cannot even appeal to the present taste or understanding of a majority of citizens? At this point, however, the political and formal dimensions of the metaphor come to the ideological rescue of the avant-garde artist, by investing this estrangement of the artist from the audience with a paradoxical surplus value. The interpretative gap between the artist and his or her audience is taken by the artist (or by his or her critical champions) to represent the difference between the transfigured future, which the artist anticipates figurally, and the unredeemed present, which the audience literally embodies and from which the artist must break free. The audience's lack of understanding with respect to the avant-garde work thus in no way discredits or devalues the work in the artist's eyes. On the contrary, from the perspective of the avant-garde, this incomprehension indicates that the artist has authentically broken with the present and now stands in secret league with the future. The audience must be directed, perhaps even forced to catch up over time, to that which the artist has already discovered freely, through acts of artistic intuition and creation. But of course by that time the artist will have already moved on to new terrain, in perpetual revolt even against those utopian orders that presently can hardly be imagined.

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