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The Avant-garde and Kitsch
It's a term used today in reverence only by art historians. In fact, reverence or otherwise, today it's hardly used at all by anyone. The term is "avant-garde." One hundred years ago, it was on the tip of every cultured tongue in Europe and, to a lesser degree, in this country too. Roughly translated it means the "forward guard." Having a military root, it was the "point" in an army's advance against an entrenched enemy. Today we refer to it, when we refer to it at all, as the "cutting edge." Until the last decade or two of the nineteenth century, avant-garde rested comfortably in its native military jargon. Then it was appropriated by the revolutionary social intelligentsia of the time for that which was counter to the prevailing social culture--the bourgeoisie. In artistic terms, it denoted art that no longer held nature, and its skilled imitation, to be the ultimate standard of artistic excellence. In its place, it pronounced art to be the ultimate ideal and thus, by default, art began to imitate art--hence the oft repeated and oft misunderstood "art for art's sake."

Without this mindset, there could have been no Modern Art. At the time of its elevation from military to cultural use, the term's exact opposite was Academicism. In the movement from one to the other came Impressionism, which was Avant-garde only in a formal, technical sense. Otherwise it was merely a transitional phase. It dethroned the exalted religious and mythological content of the ruling elite, which had for centuries dictated subject matter to artists; but by the same token beatified nature to an extreme not seen since the Italians, followed by the Dutch, discovered landscape painting two hundred years earlier. The first truly avant-garde art was that of the Postimpressionists, and particularly that of the transitional artists leading to it from Impressionism--first CÚzanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin, later Vlaminck, Matisse, and some others. However, Avant-garde is not a style but instead implies movement. A forward guard that does not move, that is not offensive in nature, becomes static and defensive. Thus Avant-garde art continued to be controversial and topical through the first half of the twentieth century. One might say, in a sense, it won the war but with the passing of the Abstract Expressionist era in the late 1950s, died of its wounds.

In defeating Academicism, the avant-garde, for a time, took its place in feeding the refined tastes of the ruling and cultural elite whose money it relied upon for its physical survival. But any army with an avant-garde also has a rear guard. The same is true of a culture. The Germans gave it a marvellous name--kitsch. Today, Academicism is as dead as the proverbial doornail. As the opposite of the avant-garde (cutting edge), it has been replaced by kitsch. If the avant-garde was art imitating art, the kitsch is art imitating art imitating art. Just as the French Academic art machine cranked out hundreds of slick, hand-painted, but nearly identical gods and goddesses for bourgeoisie consumption; today the publishing, entertainment, and decorating industries rely on the literal machines of mass media production to do the same.

Kitsch, through sheer numbers, has the upper hand. And, of course, the cutting edge world of art today wouldn't have it any other way. Though, in fact, it leads and feeds the exalted world of "high art," cutting edge art relishes its underdog status as much as its wine and cheese. And, it's in no danger of losing it. Kitsch is much older and more virulent. It's been around since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution when men of the field left their agrarian folk culture and migrated to the cities; learned to read and write, and thus blurred the lines between the educated elite and the common rabble. They gained the means to a higher cultural plane but not the time to pursue it. Thus, they developed the need for a pre-digested culture, not unlike today's fast food as compared to haute cuisine. And what developed to feed the hungry yearnings of those with neither time nor money to pursue true art was fake art--what we now call kitsch. And even though we no longer use the term avant-garde, the battle goes on. The "cutting edge" continues to slice and dice our culture in the name of art, while kitsch grinds it up and recycles the leftovers to sell as carryout.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
3 July 2000

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