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Avant garde (Fr.: ‘vanguard’)


Jim Samson

https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.01573
Published in print: 20 January 2001
Published online: 2001

A term derived from French military history where it signified an


advance group clearing the way for the main body of troops. The
connotations of frontiers, leadership, unknown territory and risk
accompanied the term as it was appropriated for and by artists. An
early instance of such appropriation was Saint-Simon's proposal that
artists might serve as an ‘avant garde’ in the establishment of his
new secular and scientific utopia (Opinions littéraires,
philosophiques et industrielles, 1829). This is of some significance,
as it already suggests that an avant garde might be motivated both
by intellectual specialization and by social dissent.

In our own age the term is often used loosely to describe any artists
who have made radical departures from tradition, but it has also
been freighted with particular meanings, and these have supported a
more specific usage referring to art histories of the late 19th and
early 20th centuries, the era of cultural history usually labelled
‘Modernism’. Here an avant garde would be differentiated from an
ars nova and from an ars subtilior, neither of which need be period-
specific. Thus an avant garde shares with an ars nova its
experimental profile, and with an ars subtilior its élitist taste-public,
but it carries two additional burdens, both relatable to Saint-Simon's
use of the term. First there is a commitment to the idea of
continuous progress within a single, notionally unified culture
(underlying even its most anarchic manifestations), together with an
acknowledgment that such progress is barely compatible with any
suggestion of limits or boundaries to our knowledge and experience.
Secondly there is an active engagement – whether critical (as in
Adorno's interpretation) or reintegrative (as in Peter Bürger's) – with
a social world from which it feels itself separate. In both respects an
avant garde is historically contingent, and thus may have a defined
end as well as a beginning.

Within the historical period of Modernism we can sharpen the


categorical focus of avant-garde music by distinguishing it from two
opposing categories. The first is ‘classical music’, a category that
emerged in the 19th century and was institutionalized above all in
the public concert. The second is ‘popular music’, distinguished by
its untroubled acceptance of the commodity status inherent in a
middle-class ‘institution of art’ (to use Bürger's phrase). Relative to
these repertories, an avant garde began to take on a clear profile in
the late 19th century, though it was made up of aesthetically and
stylistically contrasted elements. One variety is associated especially

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with the so-called New German School, notably through the
programmes (and rhetoric) of Modernism – a ‘music of the future’ –
proposed by Wagner and the Liszt circle. This prepared the ground
of Schoenberg's blatant defiance of the cultural market-place. His
Society for Private Musical Performances represented a powerfully
symbolic moment in the development of the avant garde, closing off
the populace in the interests of preserving musical language from
further degeneration.

A considerable pretension attaches to this increasingly specialized


‘project of greatness’ in art, and that pretension, itself a function of
aesthetic autonomy, might be viewed as a prerequisite for the
Modernist aesthetic. Music was much more than an object of beauty;
it was a mode of cognition, a discourse of ideas whose ‘truthfulness’
should be protected. It was from this vantage point, predicated on
the authority of an avant garde (understood as ‘the most advanced
stage of the dialectic of expressive needs and technical means’,
Paddison, 1996), that Adorno surveyed the entire history of Western
music. Significantly, he distinguished between the spirit of the early
20th-century avant garde and the New Music of the 1950s and 60s
(Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti). This too has been labelled an
avant garde, and some of its devices (multiple serialism, electronic
composition, aleatory procedures and so on) described, often
pejoratively, as ‘avant-garde techniques’. Certainly the New Music
shared with early Modernism the commitment to a specialized,
progressive and ‘authentic’ art, and to a ‘rhetoric of endless
innovation’ (Williams, 1989). Yet there is also a sense in which it
represented an ‘official’ Modernism, supported by the institutions
(‘growing old’ was Adorno's formulation), and as such it was far
removed in tone from the explosive, campaigning and dissenting
Modernism of that earlier period, when the bourgeois-romantic
project of greatness reached its apotheosis.

A very different face of the avant garde was the subversive, anti-
bourgeois protest associated with Dadaism and surrealism, given
musical expression by Satie, and further developed in the radical
aesthetic promoted by Cage and others in the aftermath of World
War II. For Bürger this was the true avant garde, distinguished
conceptually from Modernism through its rejection of the ‘institution
of art’ and of aesthetic autonomy (paradoxically it represented for
Bürger an attempt at reintegrating the aesthetic and social spheres).
Yet from today's perspective Bürger's position seems a development
of Adorno's rather than a major departure. More recent critical
theory has been compelled to go further, addressing a growing
perception (it may be disillusioning or cathartic) that any notion of a
single culture, on which modern art was predicated, is no longer
viable. Where music is concerned, those explosive tensions between
the polarized repertories (avant-garde, classical, commercial) of a
unified, albeit increasingly fragmented cultural world have been
defused with astonishing ease. Disparate musics can apparently co-
exist without antinomies or force fields.

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Within critical theory the responses to this ‘postmodern condition’
have ranged from Andreas Huyssen's cautious welcome of
postmodern art, provided its critical potential is acknowledged, to
Jürgen Habermas's proposal that Modernism remains an ‘incomplete
project’, now in search of a new communicative pragmatism.
Elsewhere, and especially outside the Adornian tradition,
postmodernism has been eagerly embraced by cultural theorists
such as Jean-François Lyotard, by musicologists such as Lawrence
Kramer, and by many composers for whom it seems to offer a
cathartic sense of release from the prohibitions of postwar
Modernism. In such a climate the fate of an avant garde is clearly
open to question. Arguably the concept can have only a narrow, and
perhaps a rather emasculated, definition within today's culture,
associated with a continuing but now decentred Modernist project.
That project is sanctioned rather than dissenting. It occupies a
single corner of a plural cultural field. It is neither threatened by,
nor threatens, the politics and aesthetics of mass culture.

See also Modernism and Postmodernism.

Bibliography
T.W. ADORNO: Philosophie der neuen Musik (Tübingen, 1949; Eng.
trans., 1973)

S. RUDOLF: Neue Musik (Göttingen, 1958)

H. VOGT: Neue Musik seit 1945 (Stuttgart, 1962)

H. HOLTHUSEN, ed.: Avantgarde: Geschichte und Krise einer Idee


(Munich, 1966)

T.W. ADORNO: Ästhetische Theorie (Frankfurt, 1970; Eng. trans.,


1984)

D. EGBERT: Social Radicalism and the Arts (London, 1970)

Zur Terminologie der Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts: Freiburg 1972

J. WEIGHTMAN: The Concept of the Avant-Garde (London, 1973)

M. NYMAN: Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (London, 1974)

P. BÜRGER: Theorie der Avantgarde (Frankfurt, 1974; Eng. trans.,


1984)

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M. BRADBURY and J. MCFARLANE, eds.: Modernism 1890–1930
(Harmondsworth, 1976, 2/1986)

S. BUCK-MORSS: The Origins of Negative Dialectics: Theodore W.


Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute (London, 1977)

M. CALINESCU: Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch


(Bloomington, IN, 1977)

C. BUTLER: After the Wake: an Essay on the Contemporary Avant


Garde (Oxford, 1980)

P. GRIFFITHS: Modern Music: the Avant Garde since 1945 (London,


1981, rev. 2/1995 as Modern Music and After: Directions since 1945)

T.J. REISS: The Discourse of Modernism (Ithaca, NY, 1982)

J.-F. LYOTARD: The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge


(Manchester, 1984)

R.J. BERNSTEIN, ed.: Habermas and Modernity (Cambridge, 1985)

J. HABERMAS: ‘Modernity – an Incomplete Project’, Postmodern


Culture, ed. H. FOSTER (London, 1985)

A. HUYSSEN: After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture,


Postmodernism (Bloomington, IN, 1986)

L. HUTCHEON: The Politics of Postmodernism (London, 1989)

R. WILLIAMS: The Politics of Modernism (London, 1989)

F. JAMESON: Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late


Capitalism (London, 1991)

M. PADDISON: Adorno, Modernism and Mass Culture: Essays on


Critical Theory and Music (London, 1996)

A. WILLIAMS: New Music and the Claims of Modernity (Aldershot,


1997)
See also
Keyboard music, §III, 7: Piano music from c1750: The avant garde
and after
Symphony, §III, 2: 20th century: France and Germany after 1918
Riegger, Wallingford

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