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 google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; 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


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

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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

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presented by official organizations, now quite openly
call for the response, “Lord, I believe – help Thou mine
unbelief.” Or, in google_ad_width = 970; more demotic form, “I believe you – thousands wouldn’t.” There are, notoriously, often
no objective correlatives that can be /* xin2 */ 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 google_ad_slot = "8637400688"; 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

‘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

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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
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