Art In History Art Blog
I decided I would do one more post in this series on the origins of Modern art, because without talking about the notion of the avant garde, something is definitely missing. Of all the ideas which led to the phenomenon of Modern Art, the Avant Garde idea is perhaps the most fascinating and revolutionary.
What is the avant garde idea? It is the attitude that artists are an elite in society, specially equipped to sense the pulse of the times and reveal it to their contemporaries. Artists on the cutting edge of stylistic development will be "ahead of their time", will be rejected in their time, but will be vindicated by history.
This is huge! This idea upends the relationship of an artist to his patrons. Never before in the social history of art have artists been so completely and so deliberately isolated from the mainstream of their culture. Over the course of the 19th century, artists went from seeking acceptance and approval for their work, to seeking rejection and outrage. For those who considered themselves to be Avant Garde, to be accepted was a sure sign of having sold out.
Where does this come from? It is the fallout of the social phenomenon we call the rise of the middle class, and the mass distribution of images. For the first time, the purchasers of art were not "persons of breeding", not educated in the traditions and sensibilities of the arts. They were, in a word, "Philistines". To cater to their tastes was to mire oneself in sentimentalism and triteness.
Though there had been many previous rumblings, Courbet is a good place to start. He is the first to throw down the gauntlet to the art establishment, creating the "Salon des Refusees", an maverick exhibition of works refused admission to the annual Academy show. His "Studio" is an allegory of the new place of the artist in society, showing among other things a condescending tolerance for his patrons, those few with the perception to understand his greatness. Manet in the next generation, tries to teach the viewing public in his own way, by confronting them with images that are shocking and inexplicable if you insist on approaching them as storytelling. In "Luncheon on the grass", he invites you to get by the discomfort of seeing yourself in an embarassing narrative, and learn to approach the canvas in a new way.
There are two major aspects of the avant garde phenonmenon that I want to touch on. The first is that it spread "horizontally" instead of "vertically". Traditionally, schools or styles had been national or regional, developing intensely in their home area, and perhaps spreading gradually outward. The avant garde turns this process on its head.
An excellent example is the movement at the end of the 19th century known as "Art Nouveau". Significantly, it was named for an avant garde publication (same name) which had an insignificant circulation in its home country - France - but an equal circulation in the other countries of Europe, scandinavia, even the U.S. The English artist Beardsley, was better known by the avant garde in other countries than he was by the vast majority of his countrymen. The designs of the spanish architect Gaudi and the American Louis Sullivan were published in European avant garde magazines before anyone had seen them locally. Even the Scottish architect and designer MacIntosh, working exclusively in Edinburgh, had a loyal following among his peers in many other countries.
This also highlights another "horizontality": the cross-pollination of the arts. Within in the avant garde, writers, musicians, artists and architects were in close communication with each other, more influenced by their peers in the movement than by events in the mainstream of their own media. This cross-pollination is a dominant feature of 20th century cutting edge activity.
A second consequence of the avant garde idea - and its ultimate irony - is what I call "acceptance without understanding". The avant garde created its own worst enemy: the increasingly quick co-opting of each new artistic statement, if not by the general public, at least by the "literati". It aint so easy getting rejected these days! If you tell the view that he is not competent to judge your work, only history is, or perhaps only the artist himself, then you are likely to end up with undiscriminating acceptance. If the stamp of success is to be rejected in your own time, the movement sowed the seeds of its own distruction.
At first, as with Courbet and Manet, it was enough to break with the current establishment. They could be excellent artists, with remarkable painthandling, and simply flout the expectations of the public as to subject matter and treatment. However, within a generation their work was gaining acceptance by art connoisseurs and collectors. With the Impressionists, the acceptance came even faster.
In order to remain true to their avant garde credo, artists were soon driven to extraordinary measures. One ploy was to abandon "craft" and produce unsophisticated work. We see this in dancers by Matisse and by Picasso, who came to the same place from different directions. Maybe you can accept the abandonment of a "good" subject; can you accept the absence of craft?
It was quickly accepted; the work could have truth and power without refinement. The next step was to abandon "making" entirely. Can you accept something as art that isn't even made by the artist? The found objects of Duchamps strike at the heart of the notion of creation. Anything the artist chooses to view as art becomes art by virtue of his choice.
But still you can accept them! You can pay money for them and put them in your collection. Another step - desperation? - is taken when the Dada group handed out axes to the attendees at its exhibition, so that they could demolish the work at the end of the day. And perhaps the final step is found in Conceptual art, where the artist describes what he would do, if he ever were going to do it. I see this as the ultimate "reductio ad absurdum" of Leonardo's notion that it is not the physical creation of the work that is most important, but rather the idea behind it: the invention. I wonder what he would think.