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

McQueen copyThe 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 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 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 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 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 think fair to say 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 innovative act.

It is possible to look at the present situation in the visual arts using 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, 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 huge variety of different sources. Google, and ye shall find.

This means 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 different from our own) will do just as well instead. It is, of course, necessary to acknowledge, when saying this, that the original 20th century avant-garde made free use of certain exotic sources – look for example at the relationship between Cubism and what Picasso described as “l’art négre”.

Of course there is yet another paradox here, which is that the appeal of African tribal art to Picasso and a group of his artistic contemporaries was precisely its (to them) hermeticism – the fact that they in fact knew little and cared less about what the tribal artists were trying to express. Now we not only see too much – we are also in a position to know too much. Just go to Google, and ask the right questions. It is impossible to resist asking, knowing that the answers are within such easy reach. Today there is really no such thing as an innocent eye.

Another important factor here has been the influence of official institutions – in particular museums of modern and contemporary art. These offer one of the main channels through which contemporary art now reaches a mass public. One may argue that television and the Internet are in practical terms just as important, but the fact is that these institutions see themselves as being entitled to govern the agenda. Their priorities are set by two things. First, those in charge of them (though they may vigorously deny this) see themselves as the high priests of a cult. A lot of the more characteristic manifestations of contemporary art, as presented by official organizations, now quite openly call for the response, “Lord, I believe – help Thou mine unbelief.” Or, in more demotic form, “I believe you – thousands wouldn’t.” There are, notoriously, often no objective correlatives that can be used as measures of quality, or even of interest.

Secondly, museums – not surprisingly – feel a strong sense of responsibility towards those who supply their funding. The problem here is that the givers of money often tend to measure success in brutally populist terms. How many people are coming through the doors? What is the demographic breakdown, in terms both of generation and of class. Are a full range of taxpayers getting their money’s worth?

The result has been a rush towards supposedly populist forms, chief among them performance art and video. The problem here is that what museums deliver using these media, often in spaces not very suitable for the purpose, compares unfavourably with what the audience gets from better established forms of artistic expression that overlap – i.e. with theatrical performance (nowadays often very radical and imaginative, in addition to being a great deal more disciplined), and things seen in cinemas and on television. In addition to this, where film is concerned, the technical resources available outside the museum or fine-art context are often much richer and more sophisticated. Money talks ­– this is why the best television commercials often far outstrip, in terms of technical finesse, anything presented as ‘artist’s video’.  It is no wonder that a number of artists who made their reputations in that field have now made the transition to being career film directors. The recent career of Sam Taylor-Johnson offers a case in point.

It is worth noting, in this context, that looking at painting or sculptures is, in general, a different kind of looking from looking at video or even at performance. Video demands that you look from a fixed point of view, and the same is true of many, though not absolutely all, examples of performance art. Video and performance both impose a fixed time span on the audience. With paintings and sculptures the situation is different. You look from the angle and distance you choose. You look for a moment, or for a much longer span. You are free to walk away, then look again from a different viewpoint. Both physically and psychologically it is a very different kind of experience.

In this connection it is perhaps worth noting that Tate Modern’s current director, Chris Dercon, is due to leave the institution in 2017, to become director of the  experimental Volksbühne theatre in Berlin. In recent months, Tate Modern, having made a big deal about providing new spaces for performance art, has gone rather quiet on the subject. One wonders if its enthusiasm for this art-form will survive Mr Dercon’s departure?

A conspicuous feature of the contemporary art world as we now have it is its close alliance to the fashion industry. To a large extent, this is something inherited from the earliest phases of the Modern Movement. One thinks in particular of the huge impact made by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the Paris fashion industry. The impact of the Ballets Russes on the leading pre-World war couturier Paul Poiret is well known, but the influence was more general than this. Maison Paquin, for example, hired Leon Bakst, one of the chief Ballets Russes designers, to sketch ensembles for its collections. Chanel had a Russian phase, with outfits that echoed the shapes of Russian peasant tunics.

During the past year, probably the most successful exhibition staged by any major London museum has been Savage Beauty (see illustration) at the V & A, a retrospective devoted to the work of the designer Alexander McQueen. More than 480,000 people saw it, and special late-night showings had to be laid on for the two weekends at the end of its run. Public enthusiasm for the event is, in current circumstances, not surprising. The fashion industry commands powerful PR. It is also much less bound by theories and intellectual constraints than the art world and it certainly has no inhibitions about luxury, and no shame about the money required to support luxury. Yet fashion is conservative in this sense – it gives you something to ‘see’. However ridiculous some of its visual inventions may be, fashion design never neglects the purely visual effect.

Wear it if you can afford it. Wear it if you dare. And you can be damn sure that people are going to look at you and that they will probably remember what they saw.

Fashion designers also, as it happens, have much less self-consciousness about ‘appropriation’ than today’s would-be avant-gardists. Fashion designers have always been magpies – they borrow without shame and recycle without inhibition. The point, for them, is to give what is borrowed a new twist. If the audience doesn’t recognise where a particular idea or effect originated, so much the better. 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. 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 great deal of talk on this subject today. The current Venice Biennale, due to finish on November 22nd, features continuous readings from 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 – must, I think, be seriously in doubt. In fact, left wing events, safely quarantined in museums, are now a familiar form of preaching to the converted. A good example, here in London, was Mark Wallinger’s installation, State Britain, which won the Turner Prize in 2007. This was a faithful reconstruction of the Peace Camp by the late Brian Haw, which existed for a while out in the open, directly in front of the Houses of Parliament. The Tate Britain web site rather smugly notes that: “Mark Wallinger’s work is noted for its succinct social commentary and political resonance.”

Yes, indeed. And forgive my asking, but if this now almost-forgotten work ever had any real political impact, in which location would that have been more likely to happen?

The avant-garde, as we once knew it, is as dead as the proverbial dodo. It is not 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