Why the Avant-garde is Behind Us

Posted on November 11, 2010




From a guest blogger:

The term ‘avant-garde’ is sometimes bandied around in reference to artistic movements that seek to push out the boundaries of aesthetic consideration. It rather assumes an element of rule-breaking bound up with attempts to re-imagine our perceptions of the world. At times these movements have been deeply introspective and focused on the internal life of the artist, while at others they have been all-embracing, elevating all manner of objects to the level of art in order that we may see the world anew. It is also a term that is falling out of use.

The notion of being an avant-garde artist is losing its sense of cachet. People are less interested in what the artistic future might hold than in whether or not an artist is capable of producing something of genuine and palpable interest. Nor are audiences as interested in the concepts evoked as in the work itself.

A prime example would be Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917. Much ink has been spilled on how this points to the ineffable in art, and indeed it does. It is an almost redemptive act that spirits a humble urinal out of the bathroom and into the gallery. It is as if the whole of humanity is being considered. We might well be turning our mind to the wonderful colours of Matisse but that doesn’t mean we’re any the less turning our breakfast into faeces. Fountain reminds us that it is not simply an image in which we are interested when contemplating a work of art but something spiritual, something impossible to represent but which is nonetheless present in an up-turned urinal.

Critics might gush page after page about Fountain but this does not alter the fact that it is a urinal turned upside down and daubed with the name ‘R. Mutt’. I might perhaps do well to contemplate the ineffable in my bathroom or in a gallery but I hardly go to the bathroom for aesthetic experience per se. Likewise I don’t go into an art gallery to think about passing water. I fully accept that there is beauty in contemplating the ineffable aspects of art and that Fountain very effectively reminds me that there is something metaphysical in all good art, but artists should not be surprised when such a piece is derided as meaningless and nihilistic.

For even the sympathetic and patient admirer of Western Art the concept of a work needs some elucidating and will have to give up some of its secrets of its own accord in order to have any impact. Fountain is purely conceptual and relies heavily on what has been said about it for its impact to be felt. It is about references to what we believe art to be, what has been considered art in the past and what it means to be an artist — references many people are unaware they should be looking for. The artefact presented is of little importance. Indeed, the ‘original’ has long since been lost and even when one of eight copies of Fountain was attacked in the Pompidou Centre in 2006 it is difficult to imagine that the work lost any of its meaning or value. The object is irrelevant. This is hard for many people to grasp. While it is all very well for a teenager to be enamoured of the contents of the Tate Modern as productions of living artists this doesn’t mean they will get any more out of the exhibits than out of those in the National Gallery.

Perhaps audiences should grow up and realise that not all art is served to them on a plate like a painting by Canaletto. Alternatively, artists could do some work and make their concepts more readily intelligible. Then, in their anxiety for recognition, they might have to rely less on the interpretations of fawning critics.

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