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 /* xin2 */ Royal Academy’s landmark Sensation show in


1997 was a turning point.”

It was so indeed, but not

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 /* 9-970x90 */ 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
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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

well instead. It is, of course, necessary

​ to acknowledge, when saying this, that the

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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 google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; 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 is a world leading domain escrow service platform and ICANN-Accredited Registrar, with 6 years rich experience in domain name brokerage and over 300 million RMB transaction volume every year. We promise our clients with professional, safe and easy third-party service. The whole transaction process may take 5 workdays.

cult. A lot of the more characteristic manifestations of

contemporary art, as src="//"> 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

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

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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,

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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

Process Overview:

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

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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 src="//"> 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 google_ad_width = 970; 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

while out in the open,
directly in front of google_ad_height = 90; the Houses of Parliament. The Tate