The legacy of the avant-garde – the essay I didn’t need to write

Is a 21st-century avant-garde possible?

The Book on which this essay is based


“It is we, artists, that will serve as your avant-garde.” (Rodrigues Olinde, 1825, ‘L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel ‘, quoted in Matei Calinescu Five Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism)

In this essay I will consider the traditional and contemporary definitions of the term ‘avant-garde’ and relate them to the possibility of an avant-garde in the 21st century. I will conduct my argument based on the conclusions of John Berger, as expressed in his book Theory of the Avant-Garde, in which he stated that any repetition of the original avant-garde is impossible and it would be a fallacy to hope for such an event. He firmly believed that the ‘historic’ avant-garde was a unique occurrence, and one which failed.

What is avant-garde?

This is not a radical question. Artists, business people, politicians, sociologists, historians, art critics and philosophers have been asking this question and pondering the answer for nearly two hundred years. However, despite the simplicity of the question, it is a difficult one to answer with precision.

It is well documented that sociologist Comte Henri de Saint-Simon was the first to conceive of the artist as a visionary. His hope was that the artist could work hand-in-hand with the scientist and the industrialist, to inspire humanity to imagine a better world (Margolin, 1997, p. 1). Rodrigues Olinde, a disciple of Comte Henri de Saint-Simon, argues Matei Calinescu, was in fact the real founding father of the concept of the avant-garde as he was the first to talk more conclusively of the role of art in uniting people with a new future (Calinescu, 1997, p.103). In a world that is fragmented and segmented, he believed that an imagined future was vital.

The term today is used to refer to any unorthodox and radical undercurrent of creative activity. I argue that a true avant-garde is generated from within itself, it cannot simply rely on external forces. It looks inwards and absorbs itself and causes a vertiginous feeling in anyone who tries to analyse it. It is the highest possible expression of revolutionary consciousness. For each major epoch since, during a period when culture, society and politics has been in crisis, an avant-garde of sorts has emerged, each one different from the previous.

In addition, the avant-garde is a kind of infantilism. The poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara wrote in 1936 that Dada, ‘was born of a revolt that was shared by all adolescents’ (quoted by Alex Melamid, 2017).  

A stronger definition of the avant-garde comes from Guy Debord. To him, the avant-garde is an overcoming of the current societal totality and development of an alternative organisation of reality. As he states: ‘The first realization of an avant-garde today would be the avant-garde itself.’ (Guy Debord in a letter dated March 15 1963 to Robert Estivals).

Given the legacy of the original avant-garde, I argue that part of what makes something avant-garde is in its inward-facing outlook, the ability to self-criticise, self-question and ask: what are we, are we avant-garde? The historical avant-garde self-created, rejecting all traditional media and methods and subjects. It turned the question ‘what is art’ on its head. I believe that this can be replicated as this question has not yet been resolved and the nature of the question changes with time.

Any sort of avant-garde is about challenging power and renewal, recycle, change, crisis, repetition, time and resistance through a seemingly infantile, rebellious means. A key word is repetition, in terms of originality borne out of the difference in repetition.

What is the legacy of the historic avant-garde?

Fundamentally, the historic avant-garde questioned authority and aimed to do this from within life. According to Peter Burger, an avant-garde is only possible when ‘art and the praxis of life are one’ (Burger, p. 51). Burger claimed that the original achievements of the avant-garde were unique, and that they could not be replicated and were therefore doomed to failure. The historic avant-garde sought to sublimate art with life, in the Hegelian sense, and according to Peter Burger’s theory it failed: ‘…the sublimation of art that the avant-gardists intended, its return to the praxis of life, did not in fact occur’ (Burger, p. 58).

The avant-garde was unable to achieve what it set out to achieve, according to Burger, for two fundamental reasons. Firstly, it was unique and therefore in the future it is impossible to replicate something unique. Secondly, because the definition and scope of the category ‘work’ expanded at the same time as the avant-garde flourished. The objet trouvé which was a chance discovery, a way of uniting art with the praxis of life, according to Burger, became to be recognised as the work of art. The objet trouvé, he argues further, stopped being anti-art but became an autonomous work with everything else that previously existed. In this way, then, he argued, the avant-garde as it was originally conceived, was inevitably historical and could never be replicated. The effect of the ‘historical’ avant-garde quickly diffused and the shock value was lost.

Marcel Duchamp’s contribution to the avant-garde was to question the notion of originality. He was, arguably, the first to put forward with one piece of art the following questions: what is art? What is not art? Is there a value in a copy? He facilitated artists to ask: how does that value compare to the value viewed as inherent in the original? He also questioned the notion that art necessitated time, effort and skill. His contribution to the avant-garde was to fire a revolution in art, which coincided with a global revolution in politics.

The historical avant-garde, or, the original avant-garde, by its happening, has allowed artists since to question art without controversy. It has become a fundamental principle of nearly all art now to question and self-criticise. The struggle for artists today is that they are preceded by a great number of significant movements. But it is a common misconception that the questions based on what art is have either been resolved, or left as unanswerable. It is easy to apportion blame on the historical avant-garde for this. The historic avant-garde has provided artists with a multitude of ways to approach art, including readymade, assemblage, performance, happening, documentation, image and installation. However, the greater legacy of the avant-garde is philosophical, and that is to question.

Conditions necessary for a new avant-garde art

‘The dreaming collective knows no history.’ Walter Benjamin (Benjamin, 1999, p. 546).

It has since been argued by many, irrespective of the ‘uniqueness’ of the historical avant-garde, that merging art with life can never be fully realised, as indeed it wasn’t at the first attempt. This idea that the historical avant-garde was doomed to fail has become very influential since Peter Burger theorised about it. The basis of that argument, one followed by Frederik Jameson (1992) and Perry Anderson (1984) is that the socio-economic-political conditions for the success of an avant-garde are no longer with us. I question: is that true?

If we argue that the conditions for an avant-garde include political and / or economic turbulence, then the events of last few years exhibit critical tendencies, for example, the collapse of banks and financial markets, depletion of economies, ecological disasters, wars and the occupation and movement of people. It could be argued that we are at a turning point, a time of interruption. The current social and political conditions are different, perhaps even opposite, to those that spurned the historic avant-garde. Ironically, there is a strange similarity, in that private interests of capital have managed to permeate the whole of society again. So why shouldn’t another similar revolutionary avant-garde idea come now, during a time of global political revolution? (Reference: buy Gamestop shares UK)

Frederic Jameson and Perry Anderson both see the avant-garde in purely historical terms. They have both questioned why we cannot have a genuine avant-garde today. The original avant-garde came about when the tension between capitalism and older forms caused a rift. But today, they both argue, the world is saturated by capitalist conditions. The socio-economic conditions which brought about the historical avant-garde cannot be replicated. However, I would argue that there is scope for a repetition of sorts.

If we argue that the industrial process has, as Theodor Adorno and Clement Greenberg have claimed, diluted the arts, can it now be debated that this same industrial process has actually created possibilities for cultural production to fight against the current path of progress of liberal capitalism? Can that reaction touch the lives of more people, in other words, blend art with life? The question to ask now is: what might be possible if community democratic participation in the cultural and aesthetic realm became a reality. Perhaps what is needed is to turn the cultural life of current capital upside down giving ordinary people the ability to control it, or, in other words, become artists of everyday life. The notion of class needs to be deconstructed again at the same time as tensions in the discrepancies in wealth in society should propel the direction of history. Intellectuals, philosophers, critics and artists are re-examining the role of labour in the creative economy. Artists, collectively at least, are starting to reassess again the relationship of art to work.

Instead of eradicating work, the current stage of commodification, argues Mackenzie Wark, has eradicated leisure (Wark, 2017). All of our movements and activities, he further argues, are part of a huge rhizomic network of data gathering and algorithm generation. He supposes that the next stage after Guy Debord’s predicted integrated spectacle might be what he calls a spectacle of disintegration. This describes a world where nobody, of any class, knows themselves (or looks inward on themselves). In other words, everything has become completely fragmented.

The role of time and history

Is being ahead of one’s time ever possible? What are the cultural conditions necessary for a new avant-garde? Moe Angelos argues that current artistic practices, such as the production of things and ideas, that may describe themselves as so-called avant-garde are ‘garde’ but not ‘avant’ (Angelos in Leger, p. 86). By which she means that we can see what the garde is but not what is ahead of it. The future is elusive, we only have the present. ‘The avant garde is not dead, yet at the same time it is dying,‘ (ibid., p. 87). In her argument, what occurs can, and does, die at every point in time in which we live. However, in the future, the ‘avant’, is always available and we can always see it. The ‘avant’ is the potential. In reality, we can only ever experience the future as the present, as we cannot actually imagine a future that isn’t in the present. This is reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s notion of ‘the continuous present’, in which our knowledge of the world and our experience of the world can only exist in the present and not the future (Stein, 1926). The present is deeply compelling. But, we have developed many ways to escape the discomfort of the present. Our desire to live in the moment still drives us. However, I would argue that this has always been the case and this isn’t something unique to art and thinking about art now. What is something is able to liberate us from the supposed eternal return of history?

Rosalind Krauss argues that the idea of practicing ‘vanguard’ art (what avant-garde art is) aims to show originality as a basic assumption and one that emerges from the premise of repetition and recurrence (Krauss, p. 151). This may come across as a criticism of the originality of avant-garde art but in fact it can be viewed as an acceptance of the validity of an avant-garde as a force of originality (the difference in repetition).

One of the foundational principles of an avant-garde is finding connection between artistic experiment and political commitment. The question now is: is this now possible? Artistic avant-garde and the political vanguard have been scooped up by capitalism, and this in turn has integrated culture with capital, argues Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen.

Burger warns in Theory of the Avant-Garde against trying to reinstate the avant-garde and his caution is backed up with much intellectual rigour. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try for a new avant-garde, one that is relevant to history being created now. Gregory Sholette concludes that to realise a ‘history from below’ as he calls it, means generating a platform which is apart from the market (Sholette, p. 188). Alain Badiou argues that what takes the most courage is to ‘operate in terms of a different durée to that imposed by the law of the world’ (Badiou, p. 41). There are pockets of resistance, but they are as of yet fragmented and not unified enough.

Contemporary conceptual art is not truly avant-garde. It is about experimentation but it is not trying to create the world or culture anew. It tries to effect change, but that change is not radical or original.

Art now: Can we move from the continuous present to the ‘future’?

‘To make people free is the aim of art, therefore art for me is the science of freedom.’ Joseph Beuys

Is originality still possible, given that originality is derived from random generation of existing ideas and concepts?

Gregory Sholette in his book Dark Matter makes much use of the analogy which titled his book to question whether an avant-garde art can exist today. ‘Dark matter’, or missing mass, describes for him a mass of artistic activity produced in the current post-industrial society. He supposes that all genres play a role in the modern art economy. What once was a missing mass of creative activity has more recently undergone changes, cycles and mutations. His ‘dark matter’ includes artists who chose to work on the margin of the mainstream art world as a form of social, cultural, economic or political critique. These artists embrace inadequacies and barriers to the art institution, choosing to live in the dark matter. Instead, they use their relative invisibility and marginalization to their benefit and they feel able to challenge the norms of the art institution.

However, he further argues, these artists aren’t yet a strong enough political force. They appear to be effective locally and on the outer reaches, or in the short term, but so far, their activity, he explains has had just a small impact. The issues are to do with matters of scale. The ‘dark matter’ needs to be more united and a greater cultural mass. There is potential, perhaps there needs to be a greater global economic and cultural epistemological crisis (the economic and political conditions) to allow the dark matter to become truly avant-garde.

The post-internet art world has an important connection to the legacy of Dada and Duchamp, in terms of finding new ways of shifting art from pictorial representation. ‘Random’ has once again become a means of expression, as it was for Dada. Much internet and post-internet art relies on seemingly random acts of content generation, in the form of algorithms.

The message of a contemporary avant-garde should be that there is no message. The recipient of the avant-garde art may expect a message or a narrative. He or she will try to seek a meaning. He or she will feel unease at the lack of meaning and realisation that there isn’t a message. The message becomes that there isn’t a message.

One significant artistic body which could be described as avant-garde today is Metahaven, which is a design studio and art collective based in Amsterdam. Metahaven comprises of artists Daniel van der Velden, Vinca Kruk and Gon Zifroni. Interviewed by Eye Magazine, Daniel van der Velden stated: ‘If you hammer too much it becomes too much like noise, and if it becomes too poetic you lose the tension of the density of ideas.’ (van der Velden, Eye Magazine online, 2009). It would be easy to dismiss the art practice of Metahaven as chaotic experimentations which are far removed from the realities of art practice. However, Metahaven as a group produce artworks that are theoretically and intellectually researched and strategically played. They show a level of intellectual sophistication and conviction that gives them credibility. They may not seem coherent, but in actual fact they are. Another similar artistic avant-garde body is Chto Delat, which translates as: What is to be done? This group was founded in early 2003 in Petersburg by a number of artists, thinkers, philosophers and writers. The goal of this group is to merge artistic practice with political theory and activism. The group also runs an art school called the School of Engaged Art. This group can be argued to be avant-garde in many ways including the way it produces art, the media it uses, the way it operates beyond the art institution and its philosophy of existing within life in a contemporary way. These are just two examples of what I argue to be current, or potential, avant-garde art practices today. There is also Gregory Sholette’s ‘dark matter’ of art practice, which constitutes too many examples of creative output, much of which aren’t documented, to mention. If this ‘dark matter’ can grow in strength and form a more cohesive whole, a strong, new avant-garde could emerge.

The issue currently is that these pockets of avant-garde-like activity need to build momentum and unite.


‘The artistic experimentalism and anti-bourgeois attitude of the vanguard successfully turns the raw directness of popular genres into searing political irony and satire, but only because the popular in these cases acquires a political function with respect to the avant-garde, forcing it to maintain a self-conscious honesty about mass destruction and oppression. The popular here is essential to preventing the avant-garde from folding in on itself and hiding its face from those who most need to receive its message. The “popular avant-garde” avoids the divorce of art and praxis, or everyday practice, of which the avant-garde has been accused.’ Renée Silverman (Silverman, 2010, p.11)

Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ was a watershed in the way we view art, but will artists using social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have the same impact for the 21st century that Dada did in the 20th century?

The continued supremacy of capitalism has been made complete as a result of the dominance of images in liberal capital culture. A new avant-garde needs to reject these images in their entirety. Perhaps nobody has quite achieved this yet. Change has been affected gradually by contemporary art practices which would like to describe themselves as avant-garde, the commodities of image replace and reinvent themselves in an endless repetitious cycle that is spiralling in the wrong direction, or perhaps parallel to the direction they should be going in. Capitalism has survived so well as it has been able to morph itself gradually to fit changes in the every day. The capitalist economy is a world of images, slogans, logos. This means that we do not perhaps yet see a true avant-garde, as argued by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen.

Mackenzie Wark argued that once the situationalists have been fully absorbed into the spectacle, the way will be clear for a new avant-garde. Has that happened? Avant-garde artists today need to live in the near future, not the present. If they can do that, they earn the title ‘avant-garde’. These artists have to deal with diffusion, decentralization and similar dispersing forces that are pushing them to look progressively to less traditional ways of expressing creativity.

Why should the avant-garde be restricted to an historical definition? Repetition is innate in the way we create. History is full of repetition, albeit with that vital slight difference each time a repetition occurs. Therefore, a new avant-garde is possible, and it can’t possibly be the same, but it is just as valid, or more so, than the original ‘historical’ avant-garde.

Each ‘repetition’ of avant-garde should be viewed as an individual act of rebellion and not compared directly with what precedes it, unless it is examined in terms of difference. Perhaps the only way to stop art being co-opted into the art institution is to not present it as art and not allow it be adopted by the market. The ‘dark matter’ of the art world needs to create an art that puts common and radical, democratic reinvention at its core.

Avant-garde artists have always used whatever the current ‘media’ is as their medium. However, perhaps it is in a future of invisibility that the ‘avant-garde’ lies. Maybe contemporary artists need to refuse any visibility, or exist purely in code.

A barrier to artists today who regard themselves as avant-garde in their practice is the prevalence of online critics. The consequence is that art shown online quickly becomes categorised and once it has been categorised or even touched by criticism, it becomes less avant-garde. One way to bypass this is for artists to curate their own work or act in a group or movement so that they can work with the modern media and concepts in a new and interesting way.

For as long as we have difference in repetition, societal, economic and cultural change, distress in the system and revolution of history we will always have the potential for a new avant-garde. It isn’t here yet, but might be soon.


Anderson, P. 1984. Modernity and Revolution. New Left Review I/144. March–April

Angelos, M. ‘The Avant Garde is Present’ in M. J. Léger. ed. 2014. The Idea of the Avant Garde and What It Means Today. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Badiou, A. 2010. The Communist Hypothesis. London: Verso

Benjamin, W. 1999 The Arcade Project. Translated by Kevin McLaughlin. Eds Rolf Tidermann and Howard Eiland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Billet, A. 2017. A 21st-Century Popular Avant Garde. In Red Wedge [online]. 3 March. [Accessed 4 November 2017]. Available at: [last accessed 8 January 2018]

Calinescu, M. 1987. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham: Duke University Press

Jameson, F. 1992. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso Books

Krauss, R. 1986. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Léger, M. J. ed. 2014. The Idea of the Avant Garde and What It Means Today. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Léger, M. J. 2012. Brave New Avant Garde: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics. London: Zero Books

Margolin, V. 1997. The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy 1917–1946. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Poynor, R. 2009. ‘Borderline’. Eye Magazine Online. Available at: [last accessed 8 January 2018]

Rasmussen, M. B. ‘The Self Destruction of the Avant Garde’ in M. J. Léger. ed. 2014. The Idea of the Avant Garde and What It Means Today. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Sholette, G. 2006. Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. London: Pluto Press

Silverman, R. ed. 2010. The Popular Avant-Garde. Amsterdam: Ropodi.

Wark, M. ’60 Years of Recuperation: Are the Situationists still Relevant?’  Art Review. October 2017,  pp. 74-79



Question for Facebook: What does ‘avant-garde’ mean to you?

  • The 1920s
  • A font used in the 1920s
  • Art that is eccentric, or art that most would be cautious to display
  • Unorthodox
  • Art deco
  • Pretentious
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • We are all avant garde: freedom, free and fun
  • Stravinsky for music and Duchamp for art
  • Art that breaks the rules or is very strange, it is usually arty, stylish and brave
  • Jazz
  • New and quirky
  • Unusual, possibly exotic or risqué
  • Art in any medium that takes the current technology and techniques and pushes them in new, interesting and sometimes uncomfortable ways. Before then being quickly consumed by advertising and marketing, only for the process to have to repeat onwards.
  • Punk rock is avant garde
  • To see, feel and hear things differently, a different angle of what others don’t see
  • Half a cow


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