As Baudelaire was quick to note, “avant-garde” was originally a military metaphor — an idiom from the battlefield transposed into the discourse of bohemians longing for some sense of urgency. It’s worth noting, too, that although later avant-gardists rushed to claim him for their own, the poet himself stated that only losers (“minds hardly militant, but made for discipline, in other words conformity, domestic minds, Belgian minds, who can only think inside society”) would buy into the idea. So in the twentieth century, many Western critics, academics in particular, fell in love with the terminology of avant-gardism. It succinctly signaled progress, power, precision, and stylishness, and permitted them to marshal all these connotations in the service of that most arduous campaign: their own careers.
The critics weren’t the only ones who capitalized. Artists routinely seek two goods: flattery and the chance to freeload. Self-identifying as avant-garde accumulates both in prodigious fashion; the only comparable bonus comes from self-identifying as an artist to begin with. If you’re going to posture as creative, why not present yourself as innovative while you’re at it? And if you plan to partake in the majestic reputation of Art’s major works by claiming to be a fellow-laborer, you may as well claim, at the low cost of three syllables, a deep affinity with all the virtues History lavishes on modern movements in the name of popular liberation.
Given that so much self-titled avant-garde art has proven, in retrospect, to be banal or overrated, why does the phrase retain so much renown? One reason is that we associate the achievements of artistic modernism with those of the avant-garde, its least successful element. Avant-gardists are by nature louder than other modernists: they must be publicists, manifesto-pushers, and propagandists, and their repetitious declamations stick in the mind more easily than the language of creative types less eager to spell out what they’re after. You could say that the avant-garde has been to modern art what the advertising industry is to capitalism more broadly. Indisputably crucial, fundamentally narrow, prominent but relatively insubstantial, it practically begs to be taken — called up, drafted — for the whole.
And modern art, by this point, is all or nearly all the art we know of. Who now doubts its core belief — that, in order to thrive, art must, to some degree, correspond with cataclysmic shifts in real-world politics, economy, and ideology? There’s too much proof that art thrives best by changing with the world around it — by now, so much that it can make up the entire cultural universe in which we live. We love modern art. Many of us love it more than we love modern people. We want the best for it, and when it seems to suffer, as it does now, we sincerely long for its restoration. School taught us to classify our art by schools. It taught us both the value of the avant-garde and the need to watch for formal innovations. Modern art was better back when avant-gardes existed; to make it great again, find (or make) new avant-gardes. Or so we seem to be told.
The problem with this formula is that it’s a near-perfect misreading of the real state of our culture, past and present. There is, of course, a “classic” period of avant-gardism whose terminus can be precisely dated. Once the conversion of China’s economy to a market-centered mode of production, the end of Soviet socialism, and the liberalization of the anti-apartheid movement foreclosed the possibility of artists uniting revolutionary politics and aesthetics, the distinctions sculpted by the avant-garde were dissolved in currents of triumphant capital. Cohesive avant-gardes as conceived by art-school syllabi and deep cultural memory — German Romanticism, Surrealism, peak Public Enemy — have been extinct since 1991. Yet the spirit of the avant-garde is vagrant and opportunistic, unwedded to coherence or specific ideology; it continually seeks to sell itself to newer hosts, and capitalist society, in the form of museums, universities, individuals, and sales departments, has been a ready buyer even prior to the Cold War’s end.
Suitably contrasted with some nebulous and bland “establishment,” what product, politics, or imagery will not acquire a revolutionary cachet? Can one seriously say that avant-gardism is obsolete in an era when its taboo-busting, unconventional, transgressive, ground-breaking, innovative, transformational rhetoric is routinely used to boost just about anything? In our fully libertarian culture, the label “avant-garde” has sprawled out to the point where it may credibly apply to Elon Musk, nostalgia for Vice magazine, the intellectual dark web, ChatGPT, Savage Mode II, Joyce Carol Oates, Zoomers, Rihanna’s Super Bowl performance, racism, cryptocurrency, misogyny, autofiction, anti-vaxxers, anti-Semitism — anyone that’s anti-anything can get it. Once the concept of “the mainstream,” in etiquette and style, is up for grabs, any enemy can be construed as the establishment. When a tremendous premium is placed on being cool, few can afford to keep their freak flags furled.
I don’t believe the problem with contemporary art is a lack of avant-gardism; the problem is a surfeit. The reason we can’t spot its spirit anymore isn’t because it’s nowhere, but because it’s everywhere, in everyone. Over the last three decades, the avant-garde has lost its solid figure, its grounding in art; it has sublimated itself into a thought experiment, a floating meta-meme with no fixed bond to anything. While the avant-garde as a concept has divested itself from artistry as such, many artists have yet to divest themselves from the avant-garde as an ideal. They cling to an image, half truth and half fantasy, of a bygone time when formal innovation, subcultural solidarity, progressive politics, and coolness could be plausibly aligned. God knows I miss the eighties too. But as critics and as artists, we neglect our own best interests when, ashamed of the condition of progressive politics in an age where progress seems like an anachronism, we resort to longing for a time other than our own.
What art needs now is what it has always needed: new, firm perspectives on the world at hand, at once illuminated by the most enduring brilliance of the past and liberated from its most constricting legacies. And right now I can’t think of a legacy more constricting than one that insists on equating aesthetics with politics, in an age when politics seems to do little and mean less; one that demands that artists should compete with publicists in their own debased language; one that invests new form with a messianic potential in tones indistinguishable from the tech industry’s most credulous hype-mongering; one that, to put it straight, sucks irredeemably, and will for the foreseeable future.
If the glamour of the avant-garde is at this point an obstruction to the artist’s growth, then the glamour of the avant-garde should be dispelled, and if the avant-garde has nothing going for it beyond its glamour, so much the worse for it. Yet strangely enough, it’s the artist who succeeds in breaking free from this enchantment who has the most potential to make real, timely use of it. Imagine, if you can, a play or novel spelling out the cost of trusting in the lost cause of conjoining art and politics: what’s the avant-garde to us — or what are we to the avant-garde — that we should weep for it? No one is denying that artists always have a great responsibility to take in what is new, or that the avant-garde, for all its faults, once played a historic role in emphasizing that responsibility. But during our current conjuncture, it happens that the new content for artists curious about the avant-garde is nothing other than the obsolescence of avant-garde art as a formal practice.
Frank Guan’s criticism has been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Bookforum. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky and is working on fiction.