Is the Avant-Garde Still Avant-Garde?

Tomorrow’s Orthodoxy

Is the avant-garde still avant-garde?


The idea of an “avant-garde” tends to inspire complex emotions, oscillating between excitement at its glamour and scorn at its pretensions. The term carries an association of being daring, experimental, unconventional; the main body of practice or opinion that it is in “advance” of is usually figured as a monolith of dull orthodoxy. But the label also easily attracts a lightly ironical coating, in which those so designated are held to be exhibiting an excess of self-consciousness or even self-congratulation, pluming themselves on innovations that others suspect are merely willful or modish. An avant-garde likes to present itself as insurgent and radical, yet the logic of the metaphor suggests that a new group will soon be coming along to replace it. Today’s avant-garde is always liable to congeal into tomorrow’s orthodoxy.

English-language dictionaries were slow to register the metaphorical sense of this imported term. The 1928 first edition of what we now know as The Oxford English Dictionary gave just one meaning: “the foremost part of an army; the vanguard or van.” Only with the OED’s completely revised 1989 edition was the meaning with which we are now more familiar added: “the pioneers or innovators in any art in a particular period,” with a first usage of this sense dated to 1910. The fact that the dictionary’s illustrative example comes from that year should alert us to the term’s connection with a particular historical moment, while the retention of the French form also ought to signal something about its original cultural setting.

That moment is the focus of David Cottington’s closely argued book Radical Art and the Formation of the Avant-Garde. Although its prose is sinewy and not always easy to digest, the book is ultimately rewarding, identifying and analyzing with exemplary care the conditions in the three decades before 1914 that led to the formation of the original Parisian avant-garde and the markedly different version that somewhat belatedly grew up in London. Although the book is adorned with over 50 beautifully reproduced color plates, it is more a sociology of cultural movements than a conventional work of art history. The 63 pages of endnotes range impressively across social theory and intellectual history as well as across original sources and secondary scholarship in both French and English. Cottington wrote his first book on this subject 25 years ago, which means the present work feels like a deeply considered enterprise.

The term “avant-garde” had been used, mostly as an adjective, to identify various forms of innovative practice in literature and other arts in France in the middle decades of the 19th century, but Cottington is interested in something more specific, both chronologically and sociologically: the emergence of an avant-garde as a “formation” among visual artists in Paris, especially in the decade after 1905. This was not simply a matter of painting differently or of propounding a theory of radical rupture with the past; it involved a set of conditions that enabled a number of artists to become “a collectivity somewhere between a group and a movement,” with its own material basis and social relations.

There is a long tradition, often going back to the preferred self-descriptions of some of the participants, of seeing the avant-garde as not just protesting against the commercial criteria of the art market but actually stepping outside all such constraints, challenging the whole economic system from a position of proud self-exclusion. This notion of a defining “outsiderism” has been vital to the self-flatteringly romantic view of the innovators in several arts, yet it always falsifies a more complex position: All outsiders are insiders somewhere. Cottington is hardly the first to challenge the traditional story, but he documents in compelling detail the ways in which the activities of even the most innovative painters were embedded in a dense network of small dealers and galleristes, independent art schools, and les petites revues that discussed and promoted their work. “By the beginning of the decade before the First World War,” he writes, “a sector of the contemporary market had become established in Paris that provided the infrastructure upon which an artistic avant-garde was able to build both a collective identity as professionals distinct from the mainstream and to make a living.”

The notion of what Cottington calls ”the professionalization of non-entrepreneurial middle-class occupations” across “western societies” is central to his account. This process is part of what distinguished the Parisian avant-garde from various “brotherhoods” and “cenacles” that had been established earlier in the century. These latter groups had largely been based on affective ties: They were forms of fellowship built on friendship and shared ideals, whereas the avant-garde, in Cottington’s view, was a group of professionals instrumentally seeking a certain kind of market advantage through technical innovation. This economic purpose distinguished the avant-garde from another social phenomenon with which it is sometimes confused: bohemianism. Though bohemians flaunted their ostensible rejection of bourgeois norms, they did not constitute a formation committed to sustaining an alternative professional practice. Bohemianism was a gesture, often a temporary one undertaken by young men (rarely women) who would soon revert to inherited respectability; belonging to the avant-garde, by contrast, was a career move.

Since Paris in the late 19th century was the undisputed center of European art, large numbers of artists, both French and foreign, flocked there in this period, most of them cobbling together an existence quite outside the established circles of the École des Beaux Arts and “smart” salon art. Cottington calculates that “if we take participation in the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne [the two main ‘alternative’ exhibitions] as a rough guide,” then by 1910 there were some 3,000 would-be insurgent artists in Paris. He charts the growing sense of a self-contained professional community beginning with the Neo-Impressionists, including Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, and Camille Pissarro, in the mid-1880s, and the Nabis, including Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, at the end of that decade. But it was out of the maelstrom of artistic experiment that marked the 1890s and the early 1900s that a true avant-garde formation emerged around Henri Matisse and somewhat lesser-known figures such as Émile Bernard and Maurice Denis. Thereafter, more ambitious dislocations of perspective and proportion led to the early Cubists: Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Though various self-styled “radical” artists had, in earlier years, attempted to find a necessary link between the form of their art and their preferred political and social loyalties, that was not the determining characteristic of the artistic avant-garde in France. Instead, it was what Cottington calls the “technicism” of the Paris-based painters in the decade before 1914—their commitment to making technical experiments informed by the most recent ideas about perception, color, and so on—that marked their distinctiveness. They were professionals, driven more by the goal of expanding the range of visual possibilities than by any large political or cultural position-taking (a contrast might be made here with Italian Futurism). Using a French term coined at the time, one might say that if the explicit motto of aestheticism was “art for art’s sake,” then the implicit motto of the avant-garde was “technie for technie’s sake,” where technie was distinguished from the more general term technique in being relentlessly focused on innovation through reconfiguring the elements of the medium itself.

London, for all its political and financial prominence, occupied a subordinate position as a locus for innovation in the arts, so it was hardly surprising that young British artists, initially encouraged by the example of Rex Whistler, went to Paris in large numbers to envy and to learn. Cottington devotes almost half his book to exploring the different sociological and aesthetic currents shaping the development of modern art in London; these chapters are rich and thickly documented, creating illuminating contexts for understanding such movements as the Bloomsbury Group and Vorticism. He emphasizes the closer integration in London of experimental art with elite social circles, where the right kind of radical chic could provide a form of cultural capital for ambitious patrons and hostesses. There was thus not the thick texture of the café-based, professional artistic and intellectual life that could be found in Paris: “Where is your Montmartre? Where is your Quartier Latin?” asked one bemused visitor.

In Cottington’s terms, the avant-garde was “endogenous” in Paris because it had the infrastructure to support autonomous art movements and groupings. In London, it was “exogenous,” because it relied on interaction with other social forces and structures, notably the aesthetically inclined or raffish element of the aristocracy. The Bloomsbury Group was an obvious example of an “impure” formation: part friendship circle, part aesthetic movement, part deviant fringe of upper-middle-class society. Nonetheless, the painters in the group, above all Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, proved extremely responsive to Parisian experiments, while the art critic Roger Fry, who was looked up to by his younger Bloomsbury associates, helped boost awareness of recent innovations in painting with his celebrated 1910 exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists.” (Fry’s critical commentary and entrepreneurial brio emerge here as crucial for the rapid assimilation of the new styles.)

But Bloomsbury remained a hybrid formation, not a true professional avant-garde. Bell and Grant, for example, went on to devote much of their energy to forms of decoration that drew back from the more daring modes of abstraction, and it was only with the rise of Vorticism, driven by the eccentric brilliance of Percy Wyndham Lewis, that London had, Cottington argues, its “first self-consciously avant-garde grouping.” Even this short-lived movement—more a series of gestures or explosions than a structured campaign—could not resist the embrace of aristocratic patronage and the seductions of mere decoration, and so it never fully attained the social and aesthetic autonomy of its Parisian counterpart.

Radical Art and the Formation of the Avant-Garde does so much, and does it so well, that it may seem ungenerous to raise questions that are beyond the scope of its self-imposed limits, but I suspect that readers will find themselves left wondering about some large loose ends. One is purely historical: If the avant-garde was inextricably tied to the cluster of circumstances in pre-1914 Paris that Cottington identifies, what becomes of the concept, and the formation it describes, as circumstances change? Though his book does not pursue the story into later decades, one can see how, over the course of the 20th century, the locus of such relentless technical innovation moved from Paris to New York, with a succession of theoretically driven “isms” marking the increasingly ambitious and fundamental—though also, to some eyes, increasingly willful—experiments with form. As a corollary of these developments and the growth of a high-ticket market for such works, the avant-garde became the new art establishment. Can we continue to find a useful meaning for this ubiquitous label once that has happened—once, to put it provocatively, “avant-garde art” has become the “academy painting” of the 21st century?

A different, and no less intractable, question concerns what one might call the yield or payoff of such densely contextual studies as this for our understanding and appreciation of individual works of art. To take just one example, Cottington has some acute remarks about how Grant’s The Tub alludes to but differs from Picasso’s Nude With Drapery: “the striations that so startlingly imbricate figure with ground in the latter reduced to rudimentary mimetic patterning by Grant, and the primitivism of his nude a pale, polite Anglicisation of the shocking alterity of Picasso’s figure.” Well, yes, some of the differences between the two paintings might be characterized in those terms, but the more one stares at them (there are good color plates of each in the book), the more one comes to feel that they are the work of two very different painters with different aspirations, sensibilities, and, surely, talents. It is not clear to what extent a deeper knowledge of the sociology of the Parisian art scene in the decade before 1914 helps to explain these contrasts.

More generally, there is a risk that the validation of avant-garde art implicit in this book may prove to be coercive—that it comes to tilt the language of appraisal too much in its favor. There is, it’s quite true, something more domestic and less confrontational about Grant’s painting, but must we conclude that its softer virtues are somehow trumped by Picasso’s radical technical innovations? Why is “shocking alterity” to be preferred to something more immediately recognizable? Is “radical” necessarily the term of highest praise? Beneath the sophisticated analytical surface of Cottington’s book, does there lurk some semblance of the old “story of art” trajectory, which always threatens to become a teleology, an account of the necessary journey toward abstraction?

Radical Art and the Formation of the Avant-Garde is a masterly piece of scholarly cultural history and deserves to be recognized as such. But it would be a pity if it were to reinforce, however indirectly, a tendency to prioritize art that is seen as somehow moving the story “forward.” Precisely because the metaphor buried in the label “avant-garde” possesses a powerful legitimating punch, we must be careful not to undervalue work that fails to contribute to the implied “advance.”

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