Monday, February 20, 2012

High Culture / Low Culture and "Avant-Garde"

defining avant-garde

The concept of "avant-garde" is a prevalent one in the art world, but what exactly does it mean? A dictionary definition states it to be an adjective declaring something as "unorthodox, daring, radical"; "of or pertaining to the experimental treatment of artistic, musical or literary material"; and also as a noun to describe "the advance group in any field, especially in the visual, literary or musical arts, whose works are characterized chiefly by unorthodox and experimental methods".

So, more generally, it means:

1. Being "avant-garde" in the work that you do - challenging, progressive, innovative, etc.
2. Being a part of a group dedicated to innovation - being a member of the "avant-garde"

This is reminiscient of the definitions of modernism, where all art and design sought to be progressive, novel and innovative; some consider that the idea of avant-garde is a hallmark of modernism as these same values are applied. 

However, the term is now used in many spheres outside of art culture, and so it's true impact and meaning has been lost. Hundreds of businesses utilise the term "avant-garde" to draw in customers and give the impression of being contemporary, for example Avantgarde Cars, Avantgarde Jewellery, etc. when, truly, they aren't seeking to be challenging and innovative and so aren't valuing the term's true definition.

It's concept has it's origins set in Dadaism, an art movement which peaked from around 1916-1922 and involved a range of media and design which aimed to reject the normal standards of art and culture as a reaction to the First World War; members of this movement sought to ridicule the meaninglessness of the modern world and the bourgeois. Marcel Duchamp is famously associated with Dadaism and is known primarily for his series of "readymades", ordinary manufactured objects which he selected and submitted to galleries when commissioned as a means of challenging the public to reconsider their conventional view of what is or isn't art, as he himself found the notion of the adoration of art unnecessary. His most widely recognised is the upside-down urinal marked with the signature "R. Mutt", entitled Fountain which shocked the world in 1917. 

Duchamp's Fountain, 1917

The aim wasn't just to be stylistically innovative, but also to be shocking and radical, and challenge the established order of things. 
This idea dates further back to between 1900-1910, with the short-lived movement of Fauvism, or les Fauves, French for "wild beasts", a group of artists who largely were self-taught and depicted subjects in in bright, vivid colours which emphasised the painterly quality rather than seeking to be representational or realistic like the Impressionist artists and classical paintings, which were most prevalent at the time.

Luxe, Calme et Volupté by Henri Matisse, 1904

There is quite an aggressive quality to the Fuavists, both aesthetically and in terms of attitude, and this sort of attack on the world of art and art criticism very much influenced the similar values held by the artists of the avant-garde. This incessant drive to experiment and be new has dominated all of the contemporary art world, eventually leading us to this notion of "art for art's sake", and is now a quality sought for in all artists.

avant-garde becomes "high art"

In this lecture, it was quite interesting to see that in the Leeds College of Art prospectus itself certain concepts are prioritised, namely:

Innovation - creating new ideas
Experimentation - the process involved in creating these new ideas 
Originality - to copy and adhere to traditions is bad, to be original is good
Creative genius - to bring out a hidden creative depth held deep within the student.

In the 16, 17 and 18th centuries, art education was formalised and only the very wealthy people could attend art school. The student would be assigned a master, and would be expected to copy their master's work exactly. After developing their skills through these means, they would be allowed to do minor work on their master's pieces, such as on the background or a figure, and finally would go out into the world to make their own art. It wasn't at all about innovation, but imitation and expression of their master's style. This was because most profitable work was limited to aristocratic portraits or religious pieces, so it was thought only useful to learn to create in this particular style.

During the 18th century, this meant that there was a number of affluent middle-class artists who wanted to be "free" with their art but could not, as they wouldn't be able to make money. This is depicted in Henry Wallis' best known painting, Death of Chatterton, 1856, which depicts the late 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton, who poisoned himself at the age of seventeen and was seen as a romantic hero for young, struggling artists. This painting is exemplary of how artists believed themselves as tragic and misunderstood, having to face poverty as a result of their work not being appreciated (which isn't seen as a fault on the artist's side, but the audience's); very much having to "suffer for their art".

The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis, 1856
On the other end of the avant-garde art spectrum of the 19th century, there was realism, which included paintings depicting the poor and impoverished in the true sense of the term. In contrast to the self-absorption of the other "misunderstood" artists, the realists believed that the role of the avant-garde was to push forward political statements and use art to be the "avant-garde of society".

The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet, 1850

So now, within the avant-garde ideology, there are two distinct attitudes. The "right wing" has been the most prevalent, with it's sole objective being innovation, and which seeks to expand and progress what art is, and eventually experimenting for the sake of experimentation. The left wing holds the view that artists should be progressive on a social and political level and committed to drawing attention to the difference between classes. In this context, innovation holds the risk of being perceived as elitist and decadent.

Looking at the right-wing objective of art for art's sake, one of the earliest and leading proponents would be James Abbot McNeill Whistler, particularly with his piece Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874). The painting depicts a fireworks display over a bridge in a London city park, but Whistler was more interested in conveying an atmosphere than providing details of the scene, the result being spatially ambiguous but depicting clear contrasts between stillness and motion, light and dark.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874) by James Abbot McNeill Whistler

The painting caused much controversy. Leading Victorian art critic John Ruskin was extremely critical, stating his disgust at how Whistler asked for "two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face". 

This leads to a degree of separation between an artist and his personal visions and views and his audience. The artist has a high opinion and believes to hold a creative knowledge beyond the understanding of his audience and critics, who simply don't appreciate it. Progressing into the early 20th century, critics began to see a profitable opportunity here and began to achieve fame and wealth through the interpretation and theorising of these works. This leads to an inevitable cycle between artists and critics, gradually increasing their distance from the public. 

Clive Bell: significant form 

Philosopher Clive Bell wrote extensively on this idea of how art is appreciated, describing the pleasurable experience of viewing beauty as "aesthetic experience", and stating that the work, to induce this feeling, must have the quality of "significant form". Form - that is, the relations and combinations of lines and colours, which when organised a certain way give the power to move someone aesthetically - becomes the essential quality of art, and when analysing art, the viewer should focus on the work's formal qualities and the story and narrative of the piece should be of little regard. This leads to arguments of whether or not purely "descriptive" pictures should be considered art. Bell goes on to suggest that audience's who do not appreciate art in it's purely formal quality, and who therefore argue against his theory, simply lack ability and faculty to appreciate significant form, making his argument impossible to contradict.

Bell was an admirer of Cezanne the Post-Impressionist, an artist said to pave the way from Impressionism to Cubism. It is easy to see his characteristic mastery of the relationship of colour, line and and composition, and his recognisable style of building upon small planes of colour to create complex explorations of tone and shadows.

Mount St. Victoire by Cezanne, 1900

In the case of the avant-garde, however, particularly in the 20th century up to modern day, there is an established relationship between artist and critic, with the critic's theories of a piece being the basis of analysis, thus meaning that for somebody to truly appreciate an avant-garde work of art - which would be quite challenging at face value - they must first research the history and story behind the piece and understand the values held in the avant-garde ideology, which goes against Bell's claim.

However, from his theory, the idea of appreciating a painting for what it depicts is rejected, and instead there is the adoption of the art for art's sake stance, a central quality in the right-wing avant-garde, and which is generally considered as "good" art.


The idea of experimentation and digression from the traditional qualities which necessitated "good" art was of course met with certain conflict and controversy. Constructivism, the left-wing avant-garde movement which originated 1919 Russia aimed to reject the self-absorbed quality of popular art in favour of seeking to use art as a means of expressing statements for social purposes. Stalin believed this to be a dangerous and demoralising practice and subsequently banned the avant-garde ideal of experimentation, and only allowed the creation of social realist paintings.

Books by Rodchenko, 1924

This further reinforced the significant issue of experimental artists being associated with elitism. Members of the "left-wing" would have to rely on academic techniques associated with traditional and accepted art to appeal to, or indeed be seen at all by, the public.

left-wing avant-garde, aiming to bring attention to social issues

the issues of the avant-garde idea

However there is one significant issue with the avant-garde. It is ironic that an ideology with it's origins set firmly in being anti-bourgeois and rejecting popular and decadent art, has now become the popular and "high culture" art of today, with it being highly sought out and supported in galleries, collections and annual award ceremonies such as the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize, whilst largely alienating the public. It has become recognised and valued by the same class who it aimed to reject. Theorist and critic Roland Barthes as gone as far to suggest that the avant-garde is a "dying" idea.

Avant-garde art has come to be accepted as the "good" art of today, although distinguishing between good and bad has been the topic of extensive philosophical debate, as already mentioned with Clive Bell's theory of significant form. If we now believe "art for art's sake" to be the highest and most revered form of art, then we have the idea of kitsch to represent the "lower culture" art. Clement Greenberg, who produced theoretical writings on the topic, believed that everything that isn't avant-garde is kitch or in bad taste.


Kitsch, for many critics and others, is characterised as art that aims to be popular, such as Hollywood movies and commercial art, however it is more accurately used to define objects which draw influence and desire to be "high-culture" or High Art, but fail because their popular appeal would be their primary objective. Kitsch art also often replicates and re-contextualises existing, valuable works of art or cultural icons into something which is considered inferior, tasteless and worthless. The term is more broadly associated and interchangeable with terms like "bad taste", "cheap", "trashy", etc.

Below are some examples of how a work considered a masterpiece has been mass produced as kitsch objects:

Haywain plate

a light-up Last Supper rainbow clock

a lot of animal themed art, which aims to be taken seriously as fine art

high art vs. low art

However the distinctions between high art and kitsch low art have become increasingly blurred. Pop artists such as Warhol sought to present kitsch as art in galleries as a way of challenging the elitism of critics, who would believe themselves as figures with the authority to control what is and isn't art; who reject kitsch even though it is the most easily accessible and intelligible. 

Many questions have been raised on this clear divide between the alienated elitism of high art and the popular low art; firstly, what sort of place does serious fine art holds in a culture where cheap prints and collective plates are also considered valuable? Where the majority simply don't understand or appreciate the avant-garde aspirations of contemporary artists?

When Carle Andre presented his piece, Equivalent VIII, an arrangement of fireplace bricks, it became the subject of much controversy after it was slated in tabloid media. The idea that the piece needs to be explained necessitates visiting a gallery; it can't be comprehended from the perspective of the general public, which gives it a subordinating quality.

But in many ways we can equate this to the disbelief and shock that met the punk movement when it arose in the mid 70s, which has ultimately gone on to influence and shape modern culture and society in significant ways - is the general public's opinion reliable? Is the punk movement associated with elitism? Similarly, will this art movement, which has been seen perceived as so controversial, will it grow to be accepted?

It is clear to see the outrage and general public opinion of most contemporary art. Satirical cartoons ridiculing Tracey Emin's bed, even when her aspiration was to challenge the view of "avant-garde" itself; numerous articles disparaging the fact that Damien Hirst, in fact, never touched his shark sculpture The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, or the claims that "anyone could have done it" (to which Hirst responds with, "but you didn't, did you?")

My Bed by Tracey Emin, 1999

This entire lecture has raised many questions within me: Is this the place of high art today, to increasingly push the boundaries until they're reacting against avant-garde itself, until it reaches the point where they aren't even creating their work, and can be in some ways considered "anti-artists"? Is this "good" art? Where is the value of this in our modern society outside the tightly-knit sphere of art critics?

And in terms of the old masterpieces, they are becoming increasingly judged on value alone, with people investing millions in a painting with the sole aim of earning a profit. We are now only viewing these works through kitsch objects, which is beginning to have a more noticeable and and widespread effect than avant-garde, and is becoming popular amongst those even with "good taste" as an ironic response to high art. 

So, ultimately, how possible is it to evaluate "good" and "bad" art? Many hold the belief that it all comes down to - and all that is important - is our subjective opinion, but this response is open to criticism. It is natural, particularly nowadays, to reject what is "good" and like what is perceived to be bad and against the norm. Also, to state that I like a painting says nothing of the work itself, just my view of it; our subjective responses to a work are easily influenced by other's judgements and our past experience and knowledge. We might explore the possibility of there being a context or criteria which will constitute "good", but it is realistic to assume that any sort of criteria will alter and evolve with time and context. 


The lecture closed with us being invited to explore our own approach to how we might evaluate good or bad art. Personally, I think that the main joy of art is sharing one's individual response with another and, because of the vast range of subjective opinions and how our attitudes towards art easily change with time, it isn't possible to define a criteria which constitutes good art. I would be inclined to suggest that a work which combines skilful practice with an expression of form which evokes an aesthetic emotional response (one that is distinctly detached from what we recognise as human emotion) is "good" art, and I personally favour this form. However, contemporary art is no longer confined to the traditions of medium, e.g. paint, sketching, engravings, etc. and we now see increasingly experimental expressions through installations, videos, acting and such, which often are capable of expressing poignant subject matter, so it is potentially problematic to expect an element of actual artistic skill. I am able to see the value behind increasingly avant-garde contemporary pieces like those of Hirst's as a rebellious response to challenge what is regarded as art, and I believe that in many cases the idea behind a piece is of more importance than what it physically is. But, as somebody who enjoys the process of creation, I naturally lean more towards artists who clearly are skilled, whether it be in writing, drawing, painting etc. and through this medium manage to evoke that aesthetic "significant form". 

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