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

McQueen copy width="1100" height="619" srcset=" 1100w, 300w, 1024w, 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 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

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with any appearance of authenticity. The show was widely hailed as the
beginning of something – as the moment when the visual arts

the present situation in the visual arts using several different perspectives. One is the immense expansion of the contemporary art world. The

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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. google_ad_width = 970; 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 /* 9-970x90 */ 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 google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; 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 google_ad_height = 90; 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 src="//"> 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, src="//"> 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 google_ad_height = 90; 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 google_ad_width = 970; 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

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,

reached a kind of climax in the
days of google_ad_slot = "6023194682"; 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 google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; 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 src="//"> 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 google_ad_width = 970; succinct social commentary and political resonance.”

Yes, indeed. And forgive my asking, but if this now almost-forgotten work ever had any real

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political impact, in which location would that

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have been more likely to happen?

The avant-garde, /* xin2 */ 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