Column by Heather A. Fraser.

The Artist at Odds with Society:
the historical roots of the artistic avant-garde.

Wanted: a visual artist concerned with creating new forms of art that tend to startle the public. Must reject anything that is traditional or limiting. Must sneer at materialistic, middle-class values. Must believe in art-for-art's-sake at the cost of making a living. Must have suffered the indignities of alienation and poverty for having tread the lonely path of truth. Hopes to improve a scornful society. Call 476-8365.

If you considered applying for this job, even for a moment, you'd better keep reading. The western artistic avant-garde that attempted to change social values was co-opted by the mass market after WWII. The job of the avant-garde no longer exists. It is difficult to startle a middle-class (which today seems to be rapidly disappearing) that is exposed daily to violence through the mass media.

Historically, the term and concept of the avant-garde were used to describe political radicals in the years following the French Revolution (1789-1802). Only in the late 19th century was the military metaphor of the avant-garde applied to artistic-cultural radicals. A precursor to the artistic avant-garde, however, may be found in the culture of Romanticism.

The Romantic movement swayed towards the "bourgeois" after the French Revolution and then away from it after the exile of Napoleon in 1815. Arnold Hauser explains in The Social History of Art that after the Revolution disappointed intellectuals, most of whom were from the aristocracy, aligned themselves with the "citoyens", the working class and the revolutionary bourgeois (middle-class). The intellectuals rejected their own class in order to criticise it.

After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the old and oppressive regime was restored under a new monarch, Charles X (who introduced the death penalty for blasphemy). Hauser contends that at this time, the wealthy bourgeois found greater benefit to supporting the King than the causes of the lower classes or the intellectuals. The hypocritical bourgeois quickly became the artists' enemy. In contrast to the rich bourgeois, the poor, honest artist struggling to criticise and thereby revolutionise society became a human ideal.

This idealisation of the artist is evident in works by the Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). H.W. Janson states in his omnipresent textbook History of Art , that Delacroix's finest paintings are of his "fellow victims of the Romantic agony", such as the famous Polish composer Chopin. Chopin is depicted as "the romantic hero at its purest, a blend of Gros's Napoleon and Gericault's Madman, he is consumed by the fire of his genius."

The romantic hero is found also in works by the poet Lord Byron. Byron made a social fashion of the betrayed and isolated artist and intellectual. He turned his seductive heroes, suffering from the "mal du siècle", into martyrs. The Byronic hero is a mysterious and lonely outlaw who is strongly moral. He declares war on a currupt society in order to save it.

As with its romantic precursors, the artistic avant-garde of the late 19th century in western Europe sought to transform society, the middle-class and its mass culture through art.

Mass culture in the West, suggests Andreas Huyssen in After the Great Divide, is largely a product of 20th century technology, of mass production and mass reproduction. Machine imagery, manufactured items or its antidote of primitivism in avant-garde art of the early 20th century were used often in an attempt to undermine the conservative middle-class culture and its commitment to technology as progress. The industrial revolution, the horrors of the technologised First World War, and the impact of capitalism on everyday life, appeared to most of the avant-garde in the early 20th century as forces of dehumanisation.

Modern art and avant-garde art to many art historians, are one in the same. Avant-garde or modern art functioned, according to historians, always in a dialectic with stagnant social values: to be modern was to be ever new and startling. Thus, the avant-garde rejected all that was traditional or old -- a pattern which, significantly also included itself. Avant-garde styles or movements were born, became old in a matter of years, and were quickly rejected in favour of something new. Ironically, the avant-garde began to embrace what it had hoped to condemn: capitalism and consumerism. Huyssen believes that after WWII, and after its migration to New York, the avant-garde lost its ability to criticise the middle-class: documented discussions on art soon devolved into pointless arguments over high vs. low, elite vs. popular art.

By the 1960's, the puported revolutions of avant-garde art had spiralled into mere changes in fashion. What we now refer to as the Postmodern seems to have begun in the late 1960's or early 1970's with the "de-materialisation of the art object" as Lucy Lippard called it (ie. conceptual art) and with the re-emergence of the figure in painting.

In concept or reality, the artistic avant-garde is likely impossible to revive given the impact technology has had on our perceptions of art and the artist. For example, through a painting's style or content it is very difficult ot shock people today. We are used to fluid, fast paced and jolting imagery everyday through the meia. And is shock a useful aim for contemporary art anyway? If the artist today sees himself still in the guise of an avant-garde inhabiting both the ghetto and the ivory tower, as Renato Poggioli wrote in The Theory of the Avant-garde , removed from an admittedly all pervasive mass culture, perhaps it is time that he re-examine his raison d'etre. There have always been forces of old and new, of the right and left, of change and stasis. The artist has not always been at odds with society.

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