An ode to the Avant Garde

Claudia McCormick

6778 words

52 minutes

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First consider what it means to be Avant Garde. How can a movement be Avant Garde? Dadaism, Pop Art, De Stijl, Fluxus. These are just some examples of groups, formed of like-minded individuals who used art as a vehicle to share ideologies; to create something more than themselves. Terminology helps define the narrative of this insight. Avant Garde comes from the militant French term ‘vanguard’; the front of an army in battle (Poggioli, 1968). Henri de Saint-Simon is credited with first use of the term in 1825. “We artists will serve you as an avant-garde, when we want to spread new ideas, we inscribe them on marble or canvas” (Saint-Simon, 1820). As a major initial figure within the socialist movement, he signifies the importance placed on art to spread ideas in a broader context. The belief he holds is that art and design are the first point of contact between the audience and the message; how design has always been an important factor in the art of persuasion. The obvious militant connotation in the phrasing “serve you as an Avant Garde”, illustrates an ‘aggression’, common to Avant Garde movements – known as radical aesthetics. The passion that drives the Avant Garde is reflected within its origin. To introduce the topic of Avant Garde movements, the collections of essays curated by Slovenian philosopher Aleš Erjavec poses an insight into their make-up. There is “ambiguity at the heart of the notion of Avant Garde: the tension between artistic innovation and socio-political transformation” (Spiteri, 2015). Here Spiteri, in the present day, aligns himself with the original value of the word as seen through Saint-Simon. The spirit of the Avant Garde is entirely political, whether it wants to be or not. “The entire movement was connected with an impetus toward the political, social, and spiritual regeneration of mankind” (Poggioli, 1968). Teoria dell' Arte D'Avanguardia (‘The Theory of the Avant Garde’ in its English translation), Poggioli’s most prominent work is used as a starting point to define the Avant Garde. The movements are more than just the art themselves; they are a total rehaul of how we align our identity. These groups continuously attempted to change the narrative of what we consider to be the norm and then disappeared, out of sight. Not to be seen again: why?

Below are a collection of letters exploring this notion through a variety of lenses over the span of a couple months. Often, we are taught about the Avant Garde as an impenetrable idea, above the means of art as it is today, something completely radical. Art History, as taught within academia, has a way of glorifying itself, doesn’t it? However, I no longer see movements, or I can’t seem to recognise those of the kind described to me. I can’t seem to track the movements of late. Does the current day lack the need of the movement? Surely, our post-modern climate, still experiencing war, still in political turmoil, on the brink of nuclear war could use a few Avant Garde movements here or there, some people, somewhere, navigating the needs of socio-political transformation. One can only hope.

A collection of open letters, dedicated to the Avant Garde.

November 1st

Dear Avant Garde,

So suddenly and all consumingly did I long to understand you. Avant Garde, you’ve manifested yourself within the confines of manifestos, and A4 sheets of obtuse instruction. The height of sophistication. Cults of followers, small, or large, changing the course of history, never quite sure what you are or who you will be next. Movements, moving, Dada to Bauhaus. In your beginning the movement was a necessity. No longer was art made in the West exclusively for the elite1 (elite defined as wealth rather than skills at this time). No, that money dried up fast at the turn of the 20th century. Artists so used to reaping the benefits of generational wealth, making their money from commissions by the rich; another painting of our lady Mary, or one more portrait of the latest addition to the royal bloodline. Post-war austerity means that they were no longer needed; artists were the luxury not worth keeping. The elite's money was tied up in warfare or politics of various sorts. Artists had always been leeches of some sorts before this – at least, if they were to make a profit. Then, finally, the artists were cast aside (or set free). With no more commissions, no money, no rules. But does that stop the artist from creating? The desire to create does not simply disappear, their work began reflecting and challenging their own experiences, for their own benefit, to be viewed by each other. And through this, you (the Avant Garde), was born, well not all at once, in fact your roots can be traced back to at least seventy years prior to this in the ‘Realism’ of Gustave Courbet. A sense of a shared experience of the many was starting to be seen by more than just those within it. Movements, not like the ones with sketchy dates named by old professors decades after the fact of its existence. Movements with manifestos, and rules and reasons.

You flourished in this form and acted as an escape or reaction to the turmoil that existed in the reality of your day. Avant Garde do you recognise yourself in our present day?

I see glimpses of you every now and then- never quite the same glory.

I’m still looking for you

Best, Claudia

An open letter to kitsch.

November 15th

Dear Avant Garde (kitsch),

Me again.

Perhaps my initial thoughts need more context. In the prior letter, I referenced heavily from the art critic Clement Greenberg, whose essay ‘Avant Garde and Kitsch’ acted as my initial introduction to the subject. Greenberg recognises the development of the Avant Garde in the mid nineteenth century, a sublime new entity, created by the elite for the elite. Avant Garde was presented as the only way art should exist, showing his disdain for realism (can the Avant Garde never include realism?). Greenberg views it as kitsch; kitsch is bad and all that is bad is kitsch, including any sort of culture that might find itself supporting it. Kitsch is seen as some parasitic creature that feeds off the high culture of the rich, digesting and removing the nutritious culture part, producing meaningless voids from the ‘rear’, and we just lap it up. “Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations”2 he says. The antithesis of Avant Garde. Written towards the middle of the 20th century, the tone of the essay inherits the typical nature of a narrow-minded world view; one which the art world tended to admire, one with little room for anything other than what was considered suitable by those educated people of the same niche groups. Greenberg is generally the subject of much modern criticism due to his inability to view art as something for the masses. He insists the ‘peasants’3 of society have no real desire or ability to enjoy art as he can. He states “culture is being abandoned by those to whom it actually belongs- our ruling class” He believes that the “ignorant Russian peasant”4 doesn’t have the capacity to understand it. Well, we ‘peasants’ have risen through the rankings in the past century. As the result of mass education and freedom of information, the art world, compared to 1939 at least, is no longer so tightly interlinked to those elites. There is still a long way to go, nonetheless. The old society that is the subject of Greenberg’s essay and in which he describes “all that is spurious in the life of our times”5 would have him turning in his grave. Let’s take Greenberg’s notion of art to be true for a second. If you, Avant Garde, have been growing and developing over the decades, then kitsch has grown too, alongside you, and growing so much so that it has (perhaps) exponentially cannibalised the Avant Garde itself. There are many reasons to critique this response, many reasons to critique Greenberg himself but I find it more interesting to compare what is written here with that which is written in an article some 60 years later “When the avant-garde becomes a cliché, then it is impossible to defend yourself from kitsch by being Avant Garde”6 Avant Garde, you became what you once feared. Robert Scruton revisits Greenberg’s essay in his own 1999 essay ‘Kitsch and the modern predicament’. He elaborates how over the years Avant Garde and kitsch have become synonymous, due to the way society has curated art into a cliché. If something is produced over and over, it loses its initial sense of beauty, especially with art that became so focused on its form, rather than the radicality of what the art could mean, what it was made to inspire. And so, inevitably the work becomes kitsch.

If so, then the very notion of an Avant Garde movement becomes paradoxical, for the movements’ prolonged existence causes it to lose the quality that made it Avant Garde in the first place.

Kitsch is everywhere, kitsch is advertising, kitsch is my culture (or lack thereof). Kitsch, as Scruton says, is the “attempt to have the life of the spirit on the cheap.”7 And Avant Garde movements dissipated because it became exactly that. The Avant Garde started as the antithesis of kitsch and then became kitsch itself.

I guess it’s hard for you to exist if in a fleeting moment you become something else.

Best, Claudia

December 31st

Dear Avant Garde,

A movement becomes a cliché when it falls too far from the origin of its initial spirit –when it is overused and regurgitated not for its ideas but for the popularity that is associated with the movement. Kitsch is what becomes of the Avant Garde after too long living earthside.I understand this, that movements become a cliche after a while – but what specifically about our society created this cannibalisation of the Avant Garde?

Society has changed incomprehensibly since Avant Garde movements first started causing waves in early 20th century Europe. One of the biggest changes of our culture is arguably the rise of consumer culture. Is this change in our societal mindset the reason for the disappearance of the Avant Garde? Take, how America, got its people to start spending their money.They had everything ready: large-scale industrial production lines, alongside big big bank loans, and these were the ingredients used to revolutionise America’s economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.8

Bosses expected to quickly reap huge profits, alongside the rising prosperity of its citizens, but lacked that which is necessary to fuel a business – reliable customers. American citizens were emerging from below the poverty line and seeing disposable income for the first time. The start of a growing middle class – quintessential for the healthy capitalist economy desired, grew, but the average citizen was not used to spending lavishly. They had been taught to fix or mend something rather than buy anew, they had been taught to save at every opportunity. Spending on non-essentials was something reserved for the elites in previous centuries. Corporations had to find a solution to this thriftiness, and Sigmund Freud’s cousin, Edward Bernays came up with the answer in his book Propaganda (1928):

“Today, supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand … [and] cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda … to assure itself the continuous demand”9

Enter the advertising industry. This consumer culture, this obsession with needing to buy the latest thing or replace items instead of fix has only grown stronger and more malignant over the decades. Look to planned obsolescence, the shoddy clothing quality of the brands that fill our shops and online retail spaces, or the lightbulb. The Centennial bulb, operating over 117 years,10 compared to what we can buy in the present day, a bulb designed to break down quickly, in order to create repeat business for the owners of light bulb companies. President Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Committee on Recent Economic Changes aimed for “a boundless field before us … new wants that make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”11 This mentality of the endless consumer has bled into other aspects of society. Firstly, it can be seen in more obviously in consumer choice, in particular in fashion, one of our largest commodity markets after basic necessities. Beginning with seasons Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter, with the addition of Resort/Cruise and Pre-fall collections, fashion caters to those that can afford it. Smaller shops follow suit. For fast fashion platforms such as Boohoo this takes place weekly. Boohoo admit they have 52 fashion cycles a year, thus speeding up the trend cycle exponentially. More recently on social media platforms like Tik Tok, our consumption of media is faster than ever before, ‘content’ is expected to be churned out even daily in order to satisfy ever hungry algorithms. This relates to concept of the impulse society coined by Paul Roberts. “the tendency, wired in by evolution, to prize immediate rewards and ignore future costs. You can see this in the way our entire consumer culture has elevated immediate gratification to life’s primary goal.”12 This gluttonous approach to modern society's indulgences filters down to the arts too. Art is, of course, always a product of its own era. The constant want for the next new thing has made it hard for ideas to stay in place for more than a few months let alone a few years. And so, the Avant Garde movement cannot exist as it once did because the era of digital accessibility leaves no time for slow growth. The movement does not have time to come into fruition. The fall of the Avant Garde movement is tied to consumerism in this sense, but interestingly through this it is also tied to Graphic Design. Advertisements are an aspect of Graphic Design. Referring back again what was said about the Avant Garde at the beginning of these letters, Henri de Saint-Simon said “We artists will serve you as an avant-garde, when we want to spread new ideas, we inscribe them.”13 Avant Garde artists see the importance of using art to convey ideas, and this is subverted and used by the corporations to sell their products. Designer Jonathan Barnbrook said “Graphic design is at the heart of capitalism. It's the heart of encouraging consumption – you are consenting to that as a graphic designer.”14

I haven’t stopped thinking about his comment, since.

Writing this as a Graphic Designer, I set out searching for an external reason, but design itself being the included as a reason didn’t occur to me. Graphic Design itself is a broad field of varied activities to select as the sole destroyer of the Avant-Garde movement, even though the advertising industry facilitated ideas of consumerism, leading to a lot of the trouble. Lots of Avant-Garde movements such as the work produced at the Bauhaus, found beauty in mass production. You see other principles in the De Stijl movement, who craved a “return to order after war”15 using clear lines and bold colours. These are examples of design that have embraced and even become Avant Garde movements in their own right. However, amI myself (as a graphic designer), complicit in destroying the Avant Garde?



An open letter to a changing society.

2nd Jan

Dear Avant Garde and you pt.2,

Following on from my previous letter, when discussing the changes in society, Situationist International founder, Guy Debord, also author of The Society of the Spectacle, suggested that the modern obsession with appearances, rather than reality, means the value of experience is lost; the preference is for the fake experience. Something to consider when looking into the lack of Avant Garde movements in the 21st century, is the modern phenomenon of Hyperreality, taken from Jean Baudrillard. Hyperreality can be seen in the way in which we lack a separation from the online versus offline; the inability to “distinguish reality from a simulation of reality.”16 This permanent state of being online has been perfected over the years through the assimilation of technology, including the handheld smartphone. In our connected world, ideas can be shared within seconds, and this has has been detrimental to Avant Garde movements. At the turn of the twentieth century communication was limited to the small circle of peers around you. Some movements, like that of De Stijl had been created during the wars. Creatives sought refuge in Switzerland, a country which stayed neutral during the war. Previously, people’s circles were limited to those around them, such that it was easier to share similar ideals with people having similar experiences. Each individual now has access to a different ‘reality’, via the device in their pocket. Data is so singular; everyone's experiences online are completely tailored to themselves.17 Different networks, different data, different exposure; no need to build a community around you when the internet exists. Ideas once had to be written down via Manifestos to spread. Now ideas move rapidly, unlike the situation where people might have taken months to hear of what someone in Germany was making, so that a trend slowly becomes a movement, as it filters from community to community. This kind of movement grows from such a trickling effect, the movement dissipating, as it doesn’t have time to form. The entire world can learn of something in a matter of hours. Baudrillard saw hyperreality as a theory, but hyperreality is our reality in the present day. Its existence prohibits the Avant Garde movement.

Dear (Western) Avant Garde,

In 1863 the Salon Des Refusés exhibited work that was disregarded by the Parisian art council. The strict, rigid way art had been critiqued and categorised, stifled creativity and confined it to rules indebted to Christian morality. 18 You saw the birth of impressionism between those four walls, which became the birth of you in a way. Not limited to the art world, and across Europe, a sort of revolution was taking hold in all ways of life. The ‘swinging sixties’ might be accredited to the wrong century, since Das Kapital was written in 1867, you know. And so those revolutions, of politics, of society, of religious experiences created an atmosphere for innovation, and not just in the factories. For after fifteen-centuries of complete and absolute indoctrination by the Church in most of Western Europe, the social and intellectual discourse of society was beginning to give way.19 The Avant Garde was born on the death bed of Christian domination. New leaps in science caused doubt to creep into what had been firm faiths. Before the Avant-Garde movements, European subject matter (those that were allowed to exist or be displayed), had always been strictly limited to biblical scenes and those that extended the narrative of Christian theology. The necessity for your belief, and the undoubted devotion the Church came before anything else. In doing this, European art was strictly limited to ideals of the Church. Science, or more specifically geological discoveries around this period rang the sirens that allowed people to critique this absolute faith that had been instilled for generations. Avant Garde you’re a fleeting moment of creativity born out of oppression of Christianity.

These movements began like a teenager who had just left home all energy and fire in a way that only being alone could bring. The limitations that Christianity imposed were not worldwide, since the Avant Garde is in itself a European narrative. I didn’t think about this at first. Why would I? We are constantly fed European history as the only history. However, as technologies advanced, communications between other countries grew stronger, and a larger depth of understanding of other cultures and heritages was attempted. Europe, free of Christian indoctrination chaining them to the realism and glorification of the Church began to ‘catch up’ with older civilisations; including art from the ancient kingdoms, predating European culture by thousands of years. From the African continent that was once deemed ‘primitive’20 or ‘unskilled’21 comes the inspiration for groups of European artists. European art so dedicated to capturing detail of the Church lost sight of how art can be more than a hyperreal scene of war and Jesus. “African art demonstrated the power of supremely well-organised forms; produced not only by responding to the faculty of sight, but also and often primarily, the faculty of imagination, emotion and mystical and religious experience.”22 This is demonstrated by the artist Pablo Picasso, someone regarded to be at the forefront of the Avant Garde. The development of ‘du cubism’ was due to his work and the snowball effect that it had on the other ‘isms’. His artistic style was inspired by an African mask seen on a visit to the continent. It was unlike anything he had seen before. It changed the course of his practice, it is interesting that we accredit this then to him, rather than the artists in Africa who inspired him. The Avant Garde, obsessed with originality, positioned as a revolution – is simply a Eurocentric narrative of their first encounter; our first experiences feel original to us.

It is not to present Picasso’s influence from African art as something to be ashamed of. Quite the contrary, but how ‘revolutionary’ is the Avant Garde, when it was more a reaction to travelling outside your own environment? It is not as though art isn’t a product of outside influences, and not just a single transaction, it’s a continuous loop of ideas. European AvantGarde movements inspired each other to evolve, with countries borrowing ideas, For example, from Futurism to De Stijl. Theo Van Doesburg, wrote the first De Stijl manifesto in 1917, inspired by the modern baroque (a popularised style of the 17th century) in Amsterdam, expressing interest in “the struggle of the individual against the universal is revealing itself in the world-war as well as in the art of the present day.”23 This social but aesthetic movement aimed to inspire a return to order after war. Doesburg followed grids, simple colours and rigid block shapes. He later coined the term ‘concrete’ to separate his abstract work from others working at the time. Referred to as an ‘Avant-Garde apostle’,24 he travelled across Europe to spread his ideas further afield. Some 30 years later this spread to South America, whose post-war government had used their skills to create propaganda murals.25 Doesburg’s manifestos reached South America by way of some of the Brazilian artists being briefly educated in Paris. Brazilian Concrete and neo-concrete (1951-1961) movements in South America, took the principles of European art and expanded them within a new culture. By removing voices from art and focusing instead on form, artists were able to empower their work against a military government (though, after a military coup of 1964, it became prevalent that artists should no longer remove their voices from their art). Then, in Japan, we see the Gutai movement (1954). Gutai meaning the Japanese word for ‘concreteness’ nods towards the ideas emerging on the American continent.26 Do these singular movements have any less credibility now we see how they have been inspired from a beginning source? No. But there is accreditation even in the naming, a sense of respect. Avant Garde, although seeing itself as being at the forefront of the revolution, is simply a tool for artists to spread their ideas with the world. The Avant Garde lies in the work created, rather than the movement itself. “There's no doubt that art since 1900 is a textbook focusing on western art” (Piotrowski, 2009). Here, Piotrowski, the accredited Polish art historian, in his essay of the same title, reflects on the “horizontal history of the European Avant Garde” . More recently, we are coming to terms with the fact that the history we have been taught isn't necessarily true to its nature. Not just in the art world, as society looks past the white male narrative, we look for the whole truth. Before Picasso there was an ancient culture of artists, of equal, if not more talent. This ‘horizontal history’, this flat story, doesn’t reveal the whole truth. It Isn't so straightforward to understand art movements, and the ‘highlights’ of what we deemed most important are simply a product of this periods’ prejudice and lack of care for anything other than their own history.

Avant Garde, the movement is washed out, it distorts people’s perception of you.



Dear present-day Avant Garde,

And so, where did all the art movements go? When was the last one? To pinpoint the last movement is difficult. How to accredit such a loss to one group in particular?

I would argue that no movements had the scale of impact such as were seen in the early to mid-20th century, and no more were seen after the sixties. Perhaps due to what some named “the crisis of the Avant Garde in the 60’s”.27 I read in a book, called The Five Faces of Modernity by Matei Călinescu, that perhaps by the sixties we were all out of ideas. The idea put forward by Calinescu, suggests the Avant Garde received an unexpected amount of success in press and on an international scale, in the early days of movements post World War II. Movements, of course, welcomed the reach, hoping it would spread their ideas and get more people to join the cause. However, it was almost as though the ‘movement’ rather than the ideas they were trying to share, were more important to the journalist, a “look what those funny art type people are doing again!” piece. Movements had created a space for like-minded individuals to delve into their passions, coming together for a social or political agendas; pushing boundaries. The term Avant Garde became associated with ‘successful art’, and this would bring in high revenue. Avant Garde was the new buzz word. The art world started to make money from this, and art returned back to the elite. And so, the movement became a sort of cliché, and Avant-Garde became a widespread fashion (kitsch, as we learnt before). The more eccentric the better (see: postmodernism). In a way, it ties together the two letters I wrote previously, where we saw that the the movement had been destroyed by both consumerism and kitsch, through societies changing form in the sixties. The way the movements were spoken about in the news would be an example of this change. Post-war movements would be seen as a threat to order, or even be aligned with politicians, such as how the Futurism movement in the early 20th century became inextricably linked to Fascism in Italy. To quote Erajev “the movement appears particularly haunted by its inclusion of political action’. 28 They had lost momentum after lack of success perhaps. In the theory of the Avant Garde, Renato Poggiolo delves into the dialectic of the movement, referring to ‘the Avant Garde cult of youth.”29 This insinuates that it was more of a fleeting moment rather than a continuous effort, implying that Avant Garde movements are Darwinian in nature, rather an evolution of art and culture, and giving way to the next generation, as a succession of sorts. It makes sense that we were meant to pass the torch on to the next generation; as with everything in life. Each movement had its time, and its rise and fall of popularity. This process saw each of them coming to their natural end, such that “a new spirit rules and inspires the generation following me”30

The movement started off as something radical, something taboo, a way to create change. But perhaps by the 60’s, the movement began to look a little too comfortable next to the white collars of those it used to be against. Pop art of the 60’s undertook a near-total embrace of consumerism. Movements had to become self-aware, and some even embraced kitsch, which we see in Andy Warhol. There used to be a separation between the lives of the elite and that of the rest of us. However, he observes a cultural shift in America, when he states “what’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest”31 This is moving on some sixty years since the origin of Avant-Garde, towards a completely different culture, after advances in technology, and two world wars. It is their reality, and fictitious as it may be, it becomes them. It propelled art into the mainstream of profit over sentimentality, and through Avant Garde, in being the first of its kind, caused a complete full circle in the efforts made by many previous art movements.

The death of the movement, the beginning of the collective.

Dear present-day Avant Garde,

Avant Garde, I see your death in the sixties, but when was your birth? We need to look back before the wars, where I see evidence of you in the Romantic era. Romanticism lasted some fifty years, during the 18th century. It consisted of poets, artists, and thinkers, all dedicated to one movement for all those decades; an early exploration of you, perhaps. Even if not technically one of yours, it can be seen to have inspired the birth of your early movements. Poggioli dedicates a whole chapter to and states “many historians and critics have affirmed the continuity of the ideological and historical line between Romanticism and Avant Gardism.”32 Artists and poets and thinkers alike were inspired by the Romantics. Paving the way for a stream of fast paced movements in the 20th century. Would the Romantics call themselves a movement?

The term ‘movement’ is relatively new to our lexicon. According to Poggioli, T.S Elliot said “in our own time we should say ‘movement’ the terms are seen as interchangeable”33 “The school, then, is pre-emptily static and classical, while the movement is essentially dynamic and romantic”.34 Though used to describe essentially the same thing, the connotation of the word plays a role in how it is perceived. Choice of word is important to the perception, So, I see the movement as no longer existing. Avant Garde have you reinvented yourself, where are you now?

I think the ‘collective’ is the latest syntax update to the progression of the movement; a smaller scale, a more controllable form. Groups you may like to call movements post the 1970’s, I would argue are collectives. The stigma around the credibility of art movements took a turn, there even ended up being Avant Garde movements created to protest the very direction of the Avant Garde movement (for example – Fluxus). The term Avant Garde had this pejorative association to it. In the article ‘Artist Collectives working today’ Jacqueline Clyde suggests that collectives begin to pop up “as a social unit in the 1960's. In a time not too different from our own - marred by nuclear proliferation, threats of terrorism, increasingly right-wing discourse and fragmentation of society into opposed groups – a counterculture”.35 This aligns the timings with the decline of the Avant Garde movement perfectly. This idea of ‘increasingly right-wing discourse’ or ‘threats of terrorism’ is quite interesting to comment on, as I would be very much inclined to argue that this was always a discourse or threat which art movements were associated with; again, we can see this by looking to the wave of Futurist movements that spread across Europe in the early 19th century. Were they not a clear product of right-wing discourse, or ‘threats of terrorism’? The two world wars instilled a lifetime of trauma, and inspired the early movements as a reactionary event. Perhaps Clyde is referring to the new generations' experience of these events, rather than their existence within the art world. Early examples of the collective would be groups such as the Guerrilla Girls. Established in 1985, the anonymous members have a strict uniform code of gorilla masks, fishnets and miniskirts. They use modern media to protest that prejudice and inequality that lays claim to the art world. The collective, though similar to the movement, separates the viewer from the creator. We cannot become a member through simply wishing to, unlike the movements which inspired others to join. They are their own product; they are the brand.

Dogme 95, described as a film movement of 1995, was created to take back power for the director as artist. Though writing a manifesto and progressing film in an Avant Garde manner. This has a more Avant Garde disposition, but again I would argue that their status is as a collective, rather than a movement. This is due to their exclusivity and lack of longevity as a ‘movement’. Members Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg used this as a way to reclaim film making for their careers, and although it may have made waves in the film industry,36 it feels like it lacks the cultural impact of an art movement. However, perhaps that’s not a bad thing. These smaller, more manageable groups neglect to attract media attention, to the same extent. So, unlike our Icarus- style art movements of the past They won‘t fly too close to the sun and burn out from the heat that fame brings. It‘s a much more natural and slow process of coming to fruition, without the hounding for fame. They set out that which they want to achieve without the need for a downfall and replacement.

Where are the latest manifestations of the movement today?

In 2021, all Turner prize nominees were collectives, and this is the first time this has happened in the history of the event.37 Though not speaking for the art world in its entirety, this may be an indicator of the return of ‘the group’ to popularity, after a brief hiatus of a few decades. One of the nominees BOSS (Black Obsidian Sound System) would agree with the spirit of the movements when they say “collective organising is at the heart of transformation”38 (Just as the collectives were). The spirit of Avant Garde movements may live on. The idea of working towards a common goal through the group is in essence all that was needed from the Avant-Garde; to be as one. Collectives, in a sense, appease the needs of the 21st century, more so than ‘movements’. Realistically, to survive in Western society, you need money. The collectives are almost the more manageable, more marketable answer to the movement. Not that the collective cannot be radical, or a force for positive change, but in essence the work needs to generate profit in order to survive, such is the modern world BOSS themselves critiqued the Turner prize for idolising the collective without properly facilitating it through the “lack of adequate financial remuneration for collectives in commissioning budgets and artist fees, and in the industry’s in-built reverence for individual”39 Art is a business venture, and whilst the idea of being able to make a living off your passion is seen as the goal, it makes the movement a much more unachievable narrative.

Why does it necessarily mean so much that the movements existed to highlight the Avant Garde?

Avant Garde still exists. Artists and designers move through the world creating work that is considered Avant Garde, either individually, or in a group. The work is still being made regardless. Perhaps the movements’ narrative is quite reductionist. Does having one singular goal limit the reach of the artists; do they feel confined within these manifestos? It is not as though art needs rules in the first place. Let’s not forget, these movements did not last forever, they all dismantled after a few years. Some of them did so due to disagreements internally, some due to the lack of desire to pursue the cause any longer. Yet isn’t there something admirable about the Avant Garde movement? Humans innately want to be a part of something bigger, to strive towards a common goal. We are creatures of sociability; cooperation is in our very nature. I think the ephemerality of the Avant Garde movement gives it this sort of admirability, that for once we could put aside other things to focus on something more important. That art could be at the forefront of that.

Dear Avant Garde (as I see you now),

It’s been a few months now. I’ve been thinking about you less and less – I guess that’s a good thing. You are no longer an enigma resisting being understood. Even if the Avant Garde always becomes kitsch, there are still fleeting moments of existence to seek out. Even if the designer's role is forever indebted to its impact on society, we still can continue to have a positive role moving forward. The Avant Garde is still existent, just not as the movement.

The movement does not define the beauty, or the importance of the work that’s being created. Why can’t art exist in hyperreality? Questioning the Avant Garde movement was a personal enquiry for me. There was this assumed importance placed on such movements that on further inspection doesn’t necessarily deserve to be there. These movements do not make-eth man. Avant Garde will still exist, whether we call it that or something else becomes the term Avant Garde is no longer Avant Garde enough. The concept prevails, for as long as art is being made, there will always be someone, somewhere pushing the boundaries. As in previous centuries, it’s easier to ask this question on reflection.

I look for you in moments now and can’t predict your future. Perhaps some things are better left in the past.

All my love,



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  1. Greenberg, C. (1939) ‘Avant Garde and Kitsch’ New York City: Partisan Review, p10. 2. p14, 3. p8, 4. p14. 5. p8
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid.
  6. Scruton, R. (1999) ‘Kitsch and the Modern Predicament’ Available at: (Accessed at: 15 September 2021).
  7. ibid.
  8. Higgs, K. (2021) ‘A Brief History of Consumer Culture’ Available at:
  9. Bernays, E., 1933. Propaganda, By Edward L. Bernays. New York, Liveright: H. Liveright. Livermore, 3. California’s Centennial
  10. Hoover, H, 1929. ‘Hoover economic report sees Prosperity ahead for the nation’. San Jose Evening News, p.7
  11. Debord, G. 1960 ‘‘Situationists’ International Manifesto’
  12. Roberts, P, 2015 The Impulse society in the age of instant gratification
  13. Art Term: Avant-Garde Available at:
  14. Barnbrook, J, 2020. Graphic design is political: Jonathan Barnbrook on how we can build a better industry.[online] Available at: (Accessed: 1 Sept. 2021)
  15. ART TERM: Return to order Available at:
  16. Baudrillard, J., & Glaser S. F. (1994). Simulacra and simulation
  17. The Great Hack (2019) Directed by Amer, K. Noujaim, J Available at: Netflix
  18. Struhl, B. (2009) Art in a Time of Revolution: Avant-Gardes, Christ, and the End of an Era. Available at: (Accessed: 9 Dec 2021).
  19. ibid.
  20. Influence on Western art (2022)
  21. ibid.
  22. ibid.
  23. Van Doesburg, T. (1918) De Stijl manifesto
  24. Ottevanger, A. Avant-garde apostle
  25. Campbell, B (2003). Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis
  26. Art Term GUTAI
  27. Calinescu, M., 1977. Five faces of modernity. Durham: Duke Univ. Press.
  28. Erjavec, A (2015) Aesthetic revolutions and twentieth-century avant-garde movements, Durham, North Carolina; Duke University Press
  29. Poggioli, R., 1968. The theory of the avant-garde. 6th ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, p.17
  30. ibid. p.20
  31. Warhol, A. (1975) ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol’ Boston: Mariner Books
  32. Poggioli, R., 1968. The theory of the avant-garde. 6th ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, p.2
  33. ibid. p.20
  34. ibid.
  35. Clyde, J. (2016) ‘10 Most Inspiring Artist Collectives Working Today’ Available at: (Accessed on: 10 January 2022)
  36. Dogme 95 (2022) Available at: (Accessed on: 2 Jan 2022)
  37. Brown, M ‘Five collectives shortlisted for Turner prize’ Available at: (accessed 31 November 2021)
  38. BOSS (2021) ‘A public statement regarding the 2021 Turner Prize nominations By Black Obsidian Sound System’ Pg 4 Available at :
  39. ibid.