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Avant-garde (French pronunciation: [avɑ̃ɡaʁd]); from French, "advance guard" or "vanguard") refers to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics.
Avant-garde represents a pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm. The notion of the existence of 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 a history from Dada through the Situationists to postmodern artists such as the Language poets around 1981.
The term also refers to the promotion of 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) which contains the first recorded use of "avant-garde" in its now-customary sense: there, Rodrigues calls 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. Over time, avant-garde became associated with movements concerned with "art for art's sake", focusing primarily on expanding the frontiers of aesthetic experience, rather than with wider social reform.
Several writers have attempted, with limited success, to map the parameters of avant-garde activity. One of the best-known analyses of vanguardism as a cultural phenomenon is the Italian essayist Renato Poggioli's 1962 book Teoria dell'arte d'avanguardia (The Theory of the Avant-Garde). Surveying the historical, social, psychological and philosophical aspects of vanguardism, Poggioli reaches beyond individual instances of art, poetry, and music to show that vanguardists may be seen as sharing certain ideals or values which are manifested in the non-conformist lifestyles they adopted, vanguard culture being shown to be a variety or subcategory of Bohemianism.
Other authors have attempted to both clarify and extend Poggioli's study. The 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."
Bürger's essay also greatly influenced the work of contemporary American art historians such as Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, while older critics like Bürger continue to view the postwar neo-avant-garde as the empty recycling of forms and strategies from the first two decades of the twentieth century, others like Clement Greenberg view it, more positively, as a new articulation of the specific conditions of cultural production in the postwar period. Buchloh, in the collection of essays Neo-avantgarde and Culture Industry (2000) critically argues for a dialectical approach to these positions. Recent criticism has theorized the limitations of these approaches, noting their circumscribed areas of analysis, including Eurocentric, chauvinist, and genre-specific definitions.
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, published in Partisan Review in 1939. As the essay’s title suggests, 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, which 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. It was a matter of style without substance. In this sense Greenberg was at pains to distance true avant-garde creativity from the market-driven fashion change and superficial stylistic innovation that are sometimes used to claim privileged status for these manufactured forms of the new consumer culture.
A similar view was likewise argued by assorted members of the Frankfurt School, including Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass-Deception (1944), and also Walter Benjamin in his highly influential "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). Where Greenberg used the German word kitsch to describe the antithesis of avant-garde culture, members of the Frankfurt School coined the term mass culture to indicate that this bogus culture is constantly being manufactured by a newly emerged Culture industry (comprising commercial publishing houses, the movie industry, the record industry, 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 was a best-seller, music succumbed to ratings charts and 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 Guy Debord called The Society of the Spectacle, have made contemporary critics speculate on the possibility of a meaningful avant-garde today. Paul Mann's Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde demonstrates how completely the avant-garde is embedded within institutional structures today, a thought also pursed by Richard Schechner in his analyses of avant-garde performance.
Despite the central arguments of Greenberg, Adorno and others, the term "avant-garde" has been co-opted and misapplied by various sectors of the mainstream culture industry since the 1960s, chiefly as a marketing tool to publicise popular music and commercial cinema. It is now 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),[page needed] and Hans Bertens in The Idea of the Postmodern: A History (1995),[page needed] have suggested that this is a sign our culture has entered a new post-modern age, when the former modernist ways of thinking and behaving have been rendered redundant.
Nevertheless the most incisive[need quotation to verify] critique of the vanguardism against the views of mainstream society was offered by the New York critic Harold Rosenberg in the late 1960s.[page needed] Trying to strike a balance between the insights of Renato Poggioli and the claims of Clement Greenberg, 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."
|This section may contain excessive, poor, or irrelevant examples. (September 2010)|
Some influential avant-garde figures in English-language literature have included Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, William Gaddis, John Hawkes, John Ashbery, Joseph McElroy, Stanley Elkin, John Barth, Robert Coover, Kathy Acker, Giannina Braschi, and Thomas Pynchon.
Avant-garde in music can refer to any form of music working within traditional structures while seeking to breach boundaries in some manner, or to describe the work of any musicians who radically depart from tradition altogether. Some avant-garde composers of the 20th century include Arnold Schoenberg, Charles Ives, Igor Stravinsky, Harry Partch, Olivier Messiaen, Elliott Carter, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Frank Zappa. In jazz one could cite a first wave of experimenters associated with bebop, such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, and Bud Powell, and then a second wave associated with free jazz, including Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and the later recordings of John Coltrane.
|This section may contain excessive, poor, or irrelevant examples. (September 2010)|