During my six decades as a painter I have had an on/off love/hate relationship with that strange phenomenon we call the avant-garde, and occasionally I used to write down a few thoughts on the subject. Now those writings, mostly invectives, have disappeared, perhaps for the best. If you are an artist, however, it is not something easily dismissed.
It is said, probably with good reason, that the avant-garde has always been around. But until very recent centuries changes in art were so slow and subtle they didn’t warrant a term like avant-garde. Avant-gardism, which, perhaps not coincidentally, began around the time of the industrial revolution, is a modern phenomenon.
The Impressionists are given credit for having broken with tradition more so than any school of art up to that time. Surrealism, which followed fairly soon after, made it clear that painting was not through breaking with tradition. Not by a long shot. During these and following decades the modern avant-garde was born and thrived.
By the time Abstractionism emerged, Avant-gardism, having taken control of the mainstream art world, was institutionalized and even hidebound, paradoxically. Many artists had seen this coming. The French poet, Paul Valery, once remarked, “Everything changes--except the avant-garde.” The new standards were just as rigid, in their own way, as the old standards.
The success of Avant-gardism came with a built-in dilemma. Having won its campaign and freed art from the shackles of tradition, convention, and conformity, the avant-garde failed to loosen its grip and disband its forces. So it was faced with the problem of having to keep coming up with new and revolutionary (and shocking, if possible) art forms. Once things like Minimalism and monochromatic canvases had been done, the avant-garde was somewhat at a loss as to what they could do to perpetuate its power and keep enriching itself. Then it discovered what would be in many ways the greatest display of its power to create a sensation out of nothing.
Pop Art was, in a strange way, the perfect finale for modern Avant-gardism. It was a joke (or so Andy Warhol insisted to the very end) that found its way onto the walls of the world’s great museums. People who would not normally consider themselves gullible seemed willing to swallow the idea that it didn’t matter if Pop Art was good or not, what mattered was its value as important social commentary. There was something in the air during those years that brought about a glorification of the mundane, and the forces of the mainstream avant-garde took full advantage. Pop Art was somewhat contemporaneous with the Theater of the Absurd, and together they were able to trick the public into thinking about things in terms of “camp,” “low camp,” and “high camp.” This was also the age of Marshall McCluhan and many social upheavals without which the impact of Pop Art would probably not have
been possible. In any case, artists, for the most part, breathed a sigh of relief when it was finally abandoned.
Does the avant-garde still exist? Of course. In some form it always will. But painting of the future, whatever new slants it may put on art, will likely incorporate aspects of the past, in the kind of painting that, however conventional it might have been, had an infinite number of possibilities. In my own case, I am trying to create a language of color, and that is as avant-garde as I feel a need to be.