MAGICAL THINKING – Why the avant-garde is now history
By Edward Lucie-Smith
The word ‘avant-garde’, so much used in connection with the various manifestations of contemporary art, is starting to have a strange, ironic ring to it. One might even claim that it is starting to signify what is behind the times, rather than in front of them.
Like all such terms, it is in fact a metaphor, rather than a direct description. Borrowed from old-fashioned military terminology, it seeks to describe a situation where social norms are being perpetually challenged by artists. In the military sphere, where it originated, it is long out of use. Armies no longer marshal themselves in regular formations of the battlefield. There is now no recognized grammar of warfare – any more than (come to think of it) there is a recognized grammar of art. The mantra now is: ‘It’s art because I say it’s art!’ In these circumstances, it is increasingly difficult to define what is positioned ahead of what – who is at the head of the column and who is near he tail end of it.
If one tries to trace the beginnings of the avant-garde idea one has to go as far back as the second half of the 18th century. Before than, when the visual arts inter-acted with society, they had basically had three basic spheres of action: religion, secular power, and sensual pleasure. Even major artists, such as Raphael and Michelangelo, were basically he servants of the patrons who commissioned and paid for their work and chose, or at least approved in advance the subjects depicted. What liberated artists to choose their own subject-matter was first, the invention of printing, and contingent upon that, the appearance of a very active market in printed images. Where prints were concerned, the patron did not impose the subject. Instead, he or she selected from a range of subjects, presented in finished state. The decision was simply to buy or not to buy. Some of these prints were satirical, but they implied no real discontent with the established order – at least, not with the hierarchy of communicating ideas through art. The existing structure of genres had been added to by the appearance of a new technology, but not completely overthrown.
Caricature prints, reviving a Hellenistic genre of grotesque representation, and perhaps looking back to some of the equally grotesque ornaments to be found in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, and sometimes in Romanesque and Gothic church carvings as well, could nevertheless take modes of representation in fairly radical directions, and could at the same time deliver quite brutal reprimands to those in power. The most extreme were prompted by the rise of Protestantism and the Wars of Religion that ensued. The caricaturists who were killed in the recent Charlie Hébdo massacre in Paris would surely have recognized Lucas Cranach’s print The Pope - Donkey of Rome, published in 1523, as the work of a kindred spirit.
There was, however, a tacit assumption that political and other caricatures were not fully ‘art’ – their creators were, at least when working in this field, whatever they did elsewhere, second-class or third-class citizens in the world of ambitious, yes-you-have-a-duty-to-take-me-seriously spheres of artistic creation. Just because of this, caricaturists were allowed to take great liberties with existing conventions of representation. This too is visible in the Cranach print just cited. The Pope is portrayed as a hybrid monster, with an ass’s head, scaly arms and legs, a female torso with exposed belly and breasts, one leg with a hoof, the other with claws, and with a demonic quasi cockerel’s head protruding from his/her buttocks. The degree to which leading exponents of caricature, ranging in date from the early sixteenth to the start of the 20th century, anticipated many of the ideas associated with the Surrealist Movement has yet to be acknowledged by art historians.
Where most serious art was concerned with either religion or power, the sensual – erotic representation – also played an important role, from the Renaissance onwards, in the development of art in the West. In primitive societies, erotic representation was almost always connected with ideas about he sacred – so-called ‘Venuses’ from Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures offer paradigms of this. In the Ancient Greek and Imperial Roman worlds attitudes shifted – an element of the sacred remained, but he right to enjoy erotic representation also became a privilege for the few. A good example of this is one of the British Museum’s more notorious treasures – the Warren Cup, named for a rich, gay American collector of classical art who chose to make his home in Britain. In 1911 he chased across Europe to buy this sumptuous silver object, with