The way we are now – why ‘avant garde’ is now an obsolete term

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copy" width="1100" height="619" srcset="http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/McQueen-copy.jpg 1100w, http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/McQueen-copy-300x169.jpg 300w, http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/McQueen-copy-1024x576.jpg 1024w, http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/McQueen-copy-98x55.jpg 98w" sizes="(max-width: 1100px) 100vw, 1100px" />The Times – God bless its little cotton socks – has just been celebrating the triumphal return of the 1990s as a creative force.
“Suddenly contemporary art” it crows, “was
part of popular culture. The Royal Academy’s landmark Sensation show

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in 1997 was a turning point.”

It was so indeed, but not exactly in the terms the article intends. Here in Britain, Sensation marked perhaps the very last moment when

it was possible to google_ad_slot = "6023194682"; talk about an avant-garde in the visual arts with any appearance of authenticity. The show was widely hailed as the beginning of something – as the moment when the visual arts in Britain turned over a new leaf, as the moment indeed google_ad_height = 90; when British artists surged to the very forefront of innovation, displacing both the French and the Americans, who, each in turn, had carried forward the baton in the race to create what was entirely and indubitably new.

Looking back now, the exhibition seems, on the contrary, to have marked the instant when the hands of the clock moved on, and the whole notion of avant-gardism ran

out of steam. To quote the Times once again: “The beginning of the decade was all about exhibitions in abandoned warehouses and empty office blocks. By the end, thanks to Damien Hirst and his gang of barricade-storming rebels and Charles Saatchi, the ad-man-turned-art-dealer, it was more champagne and cocaine and exploding auction prices.” Only

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a little further on was the day when Tracey Emin RA, once high priestess of the YBA Movement, would celebrate her 50th at Annabel’s, London’s most establishment nightclub, in the company of Princess Eugenie, granddaughter of H.M. the Queen.

The avant-garde came late to Britain, and imploded late. Long before

1997 there had been signs that the impetus to innovate was beginning to falter. It is, I

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think fair to say google_ad_width = 970; that most of its energy was already exhausted towards the end of the 1970s, when the terms Post Modern and Post Modernism came into vogue. Art was no longer defined by its urge
towards novelty, by its eager embrace of some definition of the new. Instead, it was characterized by its relationship to what already existed in the recent past. This impulse has been further defined by the fashion for ‘appropriation’ – that is, for making exact copies of images

that already
exist as a paradoxically google_ad_height = 90; innovative act.

It is google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; possible to look at the present situation in the visual arts using google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; several different perspectives. One is the immense expansion of the contemporary art world. The old avant-gardes were confined to Western Europe and the United States,

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with perhaps an acknowledgement of what happened in Russia in the first two decades of the 20th century, and a dim consciousness of certain developments in Latin America. This expansion owes much to modern communications – first to the fact that colour printing became radically cheaper, which led in turn to the birth of the musée imaginaire or museum without walls. Secondly, to the
digital revolution and the birth and rapid growth of the Internet, which has made possible the
immediate diffusion of images from a

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huge variety of different sources. Google, and ye shall find.

This means src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> that it is increasingly hard to see any clear direction in the general progression of art. If we are looking for the proverbial ‘shock of the new’, it

often seems that the shock
of the exotic (something unfamiliar, coming from a culture very
With appropriation-art the opposite is the case. You have to know what is being so sedulously copied, otherwise
you’re out of the loop.

One refuge for avant-garde aspirationists, lacking visual inventiveness, has been to take refuge in supposedly radical politics. The visual arts have had an uneasy relationship with politics ever since the French Revolution. It was particularly strong in France during the first two-thirds of the

19th century, and reached a kind of climax in the days of the Paris Commune.

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This involvement, and the price that could be paid for it, is illustrated by the career of Gustave Courbet.

There was certainly political involvement between some elements of the visual arts avant-garde and the political left during the first half of the 20th century, but the relationship was always uneasy, as the history of the Surrealist Movement amply illustrates. One still gets a /* xin2 */ great deal of talk on this subject today. The current Venice google_ad_width = 970; Biennale, due to finish on November 22nd, features continuous readings from google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Whether anyone //--> will pay attention to the words of this text – anymore

than most of the traditionally religious pay attention to the actual words of the Mass when recited in Latin

going to rise again like Lazarus. It’s time we looked for something else, even if we don’t yet know what that is. London is now, for better or worse, a world metropolis. It is full of bright young artists from everywhere you can

think of, all enthusiastically making work – much of which can be at least loosely described by the two nouns ‘painting’ and ‘sculpture’. Definitions can wait. Forget the museums. Go to the bustling galleries in Shoreditch and take a look.

Edward Lucie-Smith

September/October 2015