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What ever happened to the avant-garde?

I remember the idea of the avant-garde artist and a time when there still were avant-garde artists but it is a distant memory of the nineteen seventies. Even then the time between being an avant-garde artist and an establishment artist was getting shorter and shorter.

Eventually all that remained of the avant-garde was the shock, not the shock of the new, but just shock art. Mark Kostabi and Jeff Koons were not avant-garde they were just shocking. Then there was nothing avant-garde, everything that was new was old. Australian aboriginal art was fresh on the art market in the 1980s but thousands of years old. There were the kids out in the street doing their graffiti but that wasn’t avant-garde.

Was the avant-garde simply a feature of modernism? If not, would it be correct to describe any artist from the 17th Century as ‘avant-garde’?

Although there may no longer be an avant-garde there is the underground and independents.

Independent started in the late 1960s, a vague, nebulous idea of not being controlled by a large corporate institution. It was more of an economic than an artistic progressive model.

The underground would never become mainstream, it wasn’t so much an avant-garde as resistance movement deep behind enemy lines.

The avant-garde is different from simply being opposed to the status quo. Being opposed to the status quo may also be an indication of conservative and reactionary thinking. Likewise being different is not necessarily avant-garde, it could merely be eccentric, or again, deeply conservative.

The military model of the avant-garde art would be that of the advance guard, the forward flank that is the first to engage with the enemy. It also provides a clear indication that progress has been made would be if the rear guard moves to occupy the area formerly occupied by the avant-garde, such as in the case of impressionist painters or jazz.

The military model does raise the question of what is the enemy of art?

This academic model of the ‘avant-garde’, or at least of innovation, presumes that in to develop art it is necessary to be conscious, in the Hegelian sense, of the history and theory of art. It is an understanding that only those in an academic environment have the training and research opportunities to accomplish. The audience for this art must be educated, lectured to and continually challenged to see if they are keeping up with the progress of contemporary art. However a studied approach to a new conclusion is insufficient for the avant-garde needs to be seriously relevant and not merely the product of ‘serious culture’.

“In jazz, as in classical music, the avant-garde is less of a site of innovation than an academic branch of an art-form.” Michael Jarrett, Sound Tracks – A Musical ABC, (Temple University Press, p.174)

The popular arts has its own model for innovation in the arts that proved powerfully sometime between Toulouse LaTrec’s poster and Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground. The use of electronic instruments on the Dr Who theme was indicative of the shape of future contemporary music.

Robert Maycock in Glass, a Portrait (Sanctuary, 2002) argues that the popular arts provided an economic way to bypass the moribund institutional system. The numerous film scores of Phillip Glass and also other composers like, Michael Nyman shows how the economics of popular art now provides more autonomy for the artists than the old institutional art system. The popular arts also provides a motivation for the progress and a means to entrench the progress in the system.

What is the avant-garde today? What would it mean to be an avant-garde artist or musician? Is the value of the avant-garde practice based on its historic achievements and not on any present necessity?

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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