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  Avant-garde (French, ‘front-line’) is that section of any institution or movement in the arts which is judged, by its adherents or its enemies, to be ahead of the rest, in contrast to those who bring up the rear and are rétardataire, or at least in touch with the status quo. The term avant-garde is loaded with political and social undertones: ‘I am stable, reliable and for the status quo’; ‘you are a dangerous reactionary’; ‘she is a left-wing avant-gardiste’. Its mixture of alienation of artistic creators and consumers who feel themselves to be outside current social norms makes the whole concept a spin-off from Romanticism. At the same time, it can be comforting (and perhaps creatively enabling) to imagine oneself not outside the mainstream but as the mainstream, if only the rest of the world would catch up and march in step.

The whole concept of an artistic avant-garde is scarcely older than the 19th century. Before then, the ostensible aim of artistic creators who required commissions was to conform to expectations or possibly to confound them in a predictable and unthreatening way. (These procedures stifled neither initiative nor innovation. To take one art at random, drama: both Aeschylus and Ibsen, in their day, followed the conventions of the age—the structures of Greek religious tragedy and of the ‘well-made’ play respectively—and their work was just as fine, and just as admired by its audience, as the plays of such trumpeted radicals as, for example, Ionesco or Osborne in their day.) But it is true to say that 19th-century Europeans, influenced by the Romantic idea of the struggling artist (a measure of whose quality depended on his or her being against current trends or at least unappreciated by normal cognoscenti), developed the concept of the avant-garde not only to explain unappreciated innovation, but often to justify extreme radicalism in the arts.

In using labels like avant-garde, we are really talking less about the arts than about fashion in the arts. It is easier to decry as avant-garde something you fail to understand, or find threatening, than to try to get its measure. It is equally easy to cry up the novelty of your own or your favoured creators\' art as avant-garde, and explain the indifference of the majority by saying that the work of art is simply ahead of its age. As with all fashions, time is the only true arbiter, and the chief purpose of labels and styles, if one takes the long view, is to act as an irritant and/or a stimulant both to creativity and to that presumptuous handmaiden of artistic creativity, appreciation. Perhaps, if we artists and consumers are to come to grips with the arts at all, to keep alert, we need the noise almost as much as we need the actual art. KMcL

See also taste.



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