Society of the Spectacle

The avant-garde (French: ‘advance guard’ or ‘vanguard’) are people or works that are experimental, radical, or unorthodox with respect to art, culture, or society. It is frequently characterized by aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability.

The avant-garde pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm. The avant-garde is considered by some to be a hallmark of modernism, as distinct from postmodernism. Many artists have aligned themselves with the avant-garde movement, and still continue to do so, tracing their history from Dada through the Situationists and to postmodern artists such as the Language poets of the 1980s.

The avant-garde also promotes radical social reforms. It was this meaning that was evoked by the Saint Simonian Olinde Rodrigues in his essay, ‘L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel’ (‘The artist, the scientist and the industrialist,’ 1825). This essay contains the first use of ‘avant-garde’ in its now customary sense; Rodrigues called on artists to ‘serve as [the people’s] avant-garde,’ insisting that ‘the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and fastest way’ to social, political and economic reform.

The term was originally used by the French military to refer to a small reconnoitring group that scouted ahead of the main force. It also became associated with left-wing French radicals in the nineteenth century who were agitating for political reform. At some point in the middle of that century, the term was linked to art through the idea that art is an instrument for social change.

Only toward the end of the nineteenth did l’art d’avant-garde begin to break away from its identification with left-wing social causes to become more aligned with cultural and artistic issues. This trend toward increased emphasis on aesthetic issues has continued to the present. Avant-garde today generally refers to groups of intellectuals, writers, and artists, including architects, who voice ideas and experiment with artistic approaches that challenge current cultural values. Avant-garde ideas, especially if they embrace social issues, often are gradually assimilated by the societies they confront. The radicals of yesterday become mainstream, creating the environment for a new generation of radicals to emerge.

Italian essayist Renato Poggioli studied the concept in his 1962 book, ‘Teoria dell’arte d’avanguardia’ (‘The Theory of the Avant-Garde’), concluding that vanguardists may share certain ideals or values, which manifest themselves in the non-conformist lifestyles they adopt. He sees vanguard culture as a variety, specialization, or subcategory of Bohemianism. German literary critic Peter Bürger’s ‘Theory of the Avant-Garde’ (1974) looks at the Establishment’s embrace of socially critical works of art, and suggests that in complicity with capitalism, ‘art as an institution neutralizes the political content of the individual work.’

The concept of avant-garde refers primarily to artists, writers, composers and thinkers whose work is opposed to mainstream cultural values, and often has a trenchant social or political edge. Many writers, critics and theorists made assertions about vanguard culture during the formative years of modernism, although the initial definitive statement on the avant-garde was the essay ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch,’ by New York art critic Clement Greenberg. It was published in ‘Partisan Review’ in 1939. Greenberg argued that vanguard culture has historically been opposed to ‘high’ or ‘mainstream’ culture, and that it has also rejected the artificially synthesized mass culture that has been produced by industrialization. Each of these media is a direct product of capitalism—they are all now substantial industries—and, as such, they are driven by the same profit-fixated motives of other sectors of manufacturing, not the ideals of true art. For Greenberg, these forms were therefore kitsch: phony, faked or mechanical culture. Such things often pretended to be more than they were by using formal devices stolen from vanguard culture. For instance, during the 1930s, the advertising industry was quick to take visual mannerisms from surrealism, but this does not mean that 1930s advertising photographs are truly surreal.

Similar views were argued by members of the Frankfurt School, the originators of ‘critical theory,’ an approach to social philosophy that focuses on reflective assessment and critique of society and culture in order to reveal and challenge power structures. Thus, German philosophers and sociologists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their essay ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass-Deception’ (1944), and also German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin in his highly influential ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1935) spoke of ‘mass culture,’ what is now commonly called ‘popular culture.’

They indicated that this bogus culture is constantly being manufactured by a newly emerged culture industry (comprising commercial publishing houses, the movie industry, the record industry, and the electronic media). They also pointed out that the rise of this industry meant that artistic excellence was displaced by sales figures as a measure of worth: a novel, for example, was judged meritorious solely on whether it became a best-seller; music succumbed to ratings charts, and to the blunt commercial logic of the Gold disc. In this way, the autonomous artistic merit, so dear to the vanguardist, was abandoned and sales increasingly became the measure, and justification, of everything. Consumer culture now ruled.

The avant-garde’s co-option by the global capitalist market, by neoliberal economies, and by what French Marxist theorist Guy Debord called ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ (a seminal text for the Situationist movement describing the ‘autocratic reign of the market economy’), have made contemporary critics speculate on the possibility of a meaningful avant-garde today.

Despite the central arguments of cultural theorists, the mainstream culture industry have co-opted and misapplied the term ‘avant-garde’ since the 1960s, chiefly as a marketing tool to publicize popular music and commercial cinema. It has become common to describe successful rock musicians and celebrated film-makers as ‘avant-garde,’ the very word having been stripped of its proper meaning. Noting this important conceptual shift, major contemporary theorists, such as Matei Calinescu in ‘Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism’ (1987), have suggested that this is a sign our culture has entered a new postmodern age, when the former modernist ways of thinking and behaving have been rendered redundant.

New York critic Harold Rosenberg suggested that, from the mid-1960s onward, progressive culture ceased to fulfill its former adversarial role. Since then it has been flanked by what he called ‘avant-garde ghosts to the one side, and a changing mass culture on the other,’ both of which it interacts with to varying degrees. This has seen culture become, in his words, ‘a profession one of whose aspects is the pretense of overthrowing it.’

Avant-garde is frequently defined in contrast to ‘arrière-garde,’ which in its original military sense refers to a rearguard force that protects the advance-guard. Art historians Natalie Adamson and Toby Norris argue that arrière-garde is not reducible to a kitsch style or reactionary orientation, but can instead be used to refer to artists who engage with the legacy of the avant-garde while maintaining an awareness that doing so is in some sense anachronistic.

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