Book review: The Avant-Garde by David Cottington

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain from 1917. Picture: Getty
Marcel Duchamp's Fountain from 1917. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

HISTORICALLY, the avant-garde, of whatever aesthetic, ideological, cultural or political stripe, set itself in opposition to the “mainstream”, the “Establishment”, the conventional or the traditional.

The Avant-Garde

By David Cottington

Oxford University Press, 136pp, £7.99

It is just one of the ironies elegantly analysed in David Cottington’s book – part of Oxford University Press’s very fine series of “Very Short Introductions” – that we are now in a situation where all art has to be avant-garde; or at least has to be to be considered noteworthy. Cottington’s book is both a brisk history of the idea of the avant-garde and a precise set of arguments about what constitutes avant-garde. In language pleasingly free from academic jargon, he poses three major questions: what are the historical conditions necessary for the emergence of an avant-garde; what happens when the avant-garde becomes the dominant form of art; and how useful is it anyway to talk about the avant-garde as if it were a coherent and homogenous phenomenon, rather than a series of different, overlapping and sometimes furiously oppositional avant-gardes?

Cottington locates the paradox of the avant-garde in its contradictory origins. On one hand, there is the thought of the Comte de Saint-Simon; his follower Olinde Rodrigues imagined a technocratic socialist society governed by three classes; the Artist, the Scientist and the Industrialist, in which the “artist” was the avant-garde, the “imagineer” of future possibilities to use the term now used by the Disney Corporation. Where the artists led, society would follow. On the other hand, in a work like Percy Shelley’s “The Defence of Poetry” – which does not use the exact term “avant-garde” – artists are “the mirrors of futurity”, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. They are not beholden to any faction, and are often the “lone voice” castigating and upbraiding the philistine tendencies of the present order. Should the artist be in perpetual opposition to the status quo, or strive to become the new status quo?

The rise of the urban metropolis, mass media and mass communication and new markets (and market entrepreneurs from gallery owners to influential critics) made the avant-garde possible: the interconnection between radical art and state approval was always more complex than it seemed. It’s a neat observation that the “Salon des Refusés”, the “Exhibition of Rejected Artists”, which famously showed Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, was established by Napoleon III himself. Although there have always been aesthetic differences – between, for example, classicism and Romanticism in painting, or Verdi and Wagner, or Wordsworth’s plain-speaking and Southey’s lush orientalism – the period from the late 19th century onwards saw an unprecedented explosion in the number of movements, manifestos and cultural agendas. Suddenly you could choose from Naturalism, Symbolism, Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Orphism, Vorticism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Primitivism, Purism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Art Brut, Arte Povera, Conceptual Art, Fluxus, Op Art, Pop Art... the list is, if not endless, extensive.

Very cleverly, Cottington quotes the Communist Manifesto: “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation... all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify: all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”. But, crucially, this isn’t a vision of unfettered artistic creativity and license: it is a description of the defining features of the bourgeois epoch. How much difference is there between the profusion of art forms, each supposedly sweeping away all former ones, and the succession of iPhone, iPhone 3GS, iPod Touch 4, iPhone 5, iPad, iPad Mini and so on? Ezra Pound proclaimed “Make it New!” – so did Steve Jobs. Although they were often committed to the ideals of Communism, a large sector of the “avant-garde” obviously benefited from the strategies of Capitalism. Although the USSR moved from supporting experimental art to promoting “socialist realism”, America did its part as well: many literary magazines and Abstract Expressionist exhibitions were bankrolled by the CIA. By promoting a “free” art market, without state censorship, where artists could be apolitical, was a Machiavellian tactic.

The spectre of what the Situationists called “recuperation” hangs over every avant-garde endeavour; the way in which radical gestures, provocations and artworks can be co-opted back into the dominant culture. Richard Billingham’s photographs from Ray’s A Laugh in 1996 turn into the “poverty chic” of advertising campaigns; multinational companies make T-shirts with iconic images of Che Guevara. Cottington cites two apposite examples. The first compares a photograph of Jackson Pollock creating one of his action painting in 1950. In 1951, an action painting hangs as a backdrop to a model in a Cecil Beaton photograph. More chillingly, there’s the “Avant-Garde Diaries”, a series of online articles and real world festivals where “contributors from the creative field... introduce someone or something they consider to be ahead of time” – all started and sponsored by Mercedes Benz. Marcel Duchamp, it transpires, was as always ahead of the game. Realising his iconic attack on museum culture – a urinal submitted for an exhibition, signed R. Mutt and entitled Fountain – had become a valued part of museum culture he secretly made more than a dozen copies of it, rendering the idea of having the “genuine” Fountain rather problematic.

Is there a way out of this cultural short-circuit? I remember at college a prospective student politician twitting the earnest radicals by proclaiming “Be a radical, wear a blazer”, and there is an artistic equivalent of this in, for example, the “Movement” of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, or the “Stuckists” and their return to “traditional” painting (albeit traditional à la Matisse, not Gainsborough). Cottington gives salient examples of how art could still be politically engaged and aesthetically innovative with some of the responses to the emergence of AIDS. The rise of a ubiquitous, networked, digital arena obviously poses both challenges and opportunities; and Cottington strikes a sceptical note at the end against some of the neophytes who think an e-revolution will make art life and life art, ending global capitalism. There are signs of new forms of art emerging online – such as the MarbleHornets ARG – but whether they can be heard above the cacophony of LOLcats is a moot point.

The avant-garde ought to be the cure for cultural stagnation. Even 30 years ago, the late Robert Hughes had identified an impasse: “What has our culture lost in 1980 that the avant-garde had in 1890? Ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore, and above all the sense that art, in the most disinterested and noble way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants.” The digital world makes this more, not less, pressing. To navigate the waters ahead we will require cultural historians like Cottington (and Hughes) more than Amazon reviews, Facebook likes and fleeting tweets.