(ceci n’est pas l’avant-garde)
The question of the failure of the avant-garde is a perennial topic in surveys of progressive art practice. As a practice that sets its task as dismantling mainstream dominant ideology, it claims a nearly impossible position. Once it has been subsumed into cultural institutions of the museum, criticism and art historical accounts, the earlier radical content seems nullified. Without this institutional framing, its content remains unknown to all but the elect. This paradox provides a useful way of gauging not just the advance and demise of the avant-garde but also its larger context.
Because the avant-garde is ever on the hunt to topple dominant ideologies, its demise is inherent in its creation. In this arrangement their can be no ruling power but a continual succession of revolution. This ever dying, ever to-be-born status of the avant-garde is implicit in capitalist culture as described by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto as “uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation.” In this reading the avant-garde is a commodity that in a capitalist arrangement needs continual renewal to remain viable to the art consumer on the lookout for the latest new thing.
While toppling capitalist assumptions is a common goal of the avant-garde one might ask if this continual demise and renewal of the culture industry is entirely negative. If no dominant avant-garde is allowed there can be no grand narrative. So this continual failure allows for the greater project of disallowing meta-narratives from holding sway over emerging viewpoints. These smaller narratives act to destabalize an over-arching power and resist domination. This is pre-requisite to allowing the diversity of viewpoints that characterize a pluralistic society. This selection of artworks from 1957-1981 charts the progression of the avant-garde in terms of ways these works have accepted, resisted, integrated and finally perhaps transcended failure.