The avant garde paradox

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the impossibility of being labelled as ‘avant garde’ in art. I’ve been, very slowly it has to be said, reading Peter Burger’s The Theory of the Avant Garde and despite the challenging language of this book, I kind of get most what he is talking about. At first when I pick him up, I get cross with him. Then I re-read him and I get it.

The Book

One of his arguments is:

Avant-garde works only help to stabilise the status quo, specifically, the conditions against which it protests.

In other words, if you try to break the system, you just end up becoming the system. Therefore breaking the system permanently is an impossible task.

This makes me think that perhaps the goal of every artist (or at least every artist who defines themselves as a contemporary artist) is contradictory and will never be resolved: to be radical and misunderstood but also to be accepted and to connect. How can those two things happen simultaneously? They can’t.

Umberto Eco has previously argued that if you create art that nobody understands, then you have succeeded and once your art is accepted, you have failed (I read that somewhere but I can’t tell you where). This might be true if we take the definition of success to be mass acceptance.

Umberto Eco and his cat

The contradiction that bedevils the avant garde artist is therefore obvious: if you succeed through acceptance then you haven’t ‘succeeded’ as an avant garde artist. The mark of success for the avant gardest is to be completely obscure. What is ‘success’ if nobody sees it or spreads it? It isn’t success as most people know it. However, once you are accepted and popular, your ‘original’ and ‘radical’ idea is no longer original and radical. It is accepted and copied and morphed and loved.

It’s a loose-loose situation.

I feel this push-pull myself. I want to create art that is exciting and uncanny. I want people to misunderstand yet try to get me. I want to confuse and confound, to some degree. However, I also want people to relate and be excited by my art. People who feel confused and confounded will turn away and then the artist is left sitting in their own bubble of original thought that only they appreciate. Relation and excitement will turn into popularity and dilution. Dilution sounds like a bad thing. Is it?

So what’s the solution? I have yet to discover it. Perhaps the solution is to remain in silence. I don’t like the sound of that.

I need to keep looking.



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