Avant-Garde: Translating the Esthetic into Politics

Addressing the conceptual purchase of the avant-garde, one can combine the relationship of the esthetic to the political by unpacking the arts into three key categories – that of experience, performance, and expression – while distilling and summarizing their respective influence as manifested through, and housed within, the spatialities of particular institutions and communities. Within this telling of the avant-garde, it is also possible to discern six interlacing themes: a philosophical affiliation with 'nihilism'; an 'agonistic sense of politics' and ethics; concern with the realm of 'technological science' in projects like Futurism; a 'decadent lifestyle' with a parallel sense of morality; an 'attention to architecture', the best example seen in the De Stijl movement; and a concern with 'everyday practice' for the achievement of its aims (reaching its apogee with the Situationalists).


The avant-garde is particular in the way its experimentation with cultural forms united conscious practice with unconscious transformations. It is very much about thinking life literally by materializing it in different forms. As such its currency is experience itself. Jonathan Crary shows how, from the designs of the Italian Futurists, to the philosophical refiguration of matter, thought, and time in Henri Bergson, and to the social reorganization of the self in an age of technological and esthetic re imagining in the expressionist but equally academic observations of Walter Benjamin, the avant garde gathers together a whole set of experiments that shift the general conception of the body toward a more pliable composition that acts as the interface between technology and corporeality.

Taken forward to perhaps its last coherent formation in the guise of the Situational International, what is paramount in the social impact of avant-garde thinking is that such thoughts explicitly 'matter' – in other words, are material enactments themselves. Thus, an avant-garde movement distils and enacts its ideas in an embodied and performative manner soliciting immediate, everyday, and thus potentially political, action. Explicit in these formulations of the avant-garde, according to Pinder, is an attention to the ways in which experiential aspects of our individuality, such as feelings and desires, are affected by the everyday environments in which we live. Given the avant-garde's placement within a particular historical period, what is really being talked about here is the maelstrom of architected stimuli prevalent in modern urban living. However, these understandings were not thought of in asymmetrical terms, and attention was equally placed on the way our individual experiential dispositions – of mood and emotion – also affect and give form to the geography of those urban landscapes.

In its translation into human geography, the avant garde, as seen in experiential terms, is rendered more as a subversive rather than straightforwardly oppositional attitude to geographical thinking. This is particularly, taking Kevin Lynch's work as an example, illustrated through the cartographic sensibilities that are evoked in its name. Esthetics and politics come together in an avant-garde mapping that refigures the map as a questioning of how we know ourselves and hence our place in society. The map here, as depicted by Simon Sadler, both directs our practice and our placement in the environment while at the same time maps are produced through the experiential register of those sensibilities, moods, and derives solicited from the placements themselves. As such, it is easy to see why psychogeography is seen as an evolution of this way of thinking, and one which still holds sway today. Nonetheless, psychogeography's status of being avant-garde is somewhat moot, being just the latest genealogical trace of the avant-garde principles after the Situationists, and as such speaks the old ground rather than the frontier, both literally and in the conceptual thinking behind the practices it invokes. So in a sense geographers, like Steve Pile, have side stepped the avant garde in turning to psychogeography to iron out the indifference and ultimate ineffectualness of the incessant novelty of the avant-garde enterprise of what is in effect an incessantly refolding mapping, looking instead to the richness, and the rich lessons, of the past for the root of its social politics.

In sum, specific creative activities draw attention to the experience of everyday living, politically trying to fashion its direction by facilitating the production of new modes of behavior and social–spatial awareness.


In terms of performance, it is important to distinguish between street and stage, or artistic studio and gallery, author's intent and reader experience. At its heart the avant-garde is about merging art and life, and taking as the example, the cultural institution of the theater, such artistic spaces and institutions were in effect the laboratories for forging new forms of praxis for everyday existence. What makes theater stand out is its explicitly embodied and immediately present presentation of ideas, and as such it exemplifies how the public, as a spectator of an art form, here intensified within the heightened communal affect of an audience, come to see themselves as part of a historical process through which the metonymic depictions on stage embolden them to experience their transformative potential to effect change in the lessreified ambits of the everyday life of the street. Of course, theater is an illusion, the key word here is potential, and any resultant actual transformative action peters out all too quickly. However, in two key ways, theater does gain critical impact and is perhaps the most successful translation of avant-garde sentiment into actual political action. First, taking the work of Bertolt Brecht as an exemplary avant-garde practitioner, theater enacts a spatial interperformativity by both drawing on the collective knowledge and memory of shared experience – key adjuncts for the production of community – and in explicitly using the audience as the link between the dialectical relation between performance and reality by getting them to 'think' aside from the theatrical illusion. The art of emotional distance, that kept the actor and audienceaware of the character's individual relationship with society rather than with itself or wider metaphysical questions, staged the critical distance required for an avant-garde practice not to slip into an indiscernible merging of art with life. Second, theater, in its avant garde tendency to distil its principles to their most purified form, developed what came to be known as the Theater of the Absurd as coined by Martin Esslin's 1991 book of the same name. Here, the use of language, images, forms, rhythms, sounds, and movements crafted pared down vistas on to metaphysical ideas, and in effect set about staging questions about self perception and representation, language and identity, and body and space. The exemplary figure here is Samuel Beckett, whose influence today stretches into dance, film, sonic, and video installation art as well as theater, literature, and painting.

In broader terms everyday terms, questions of style, fashion, and manner were considered by avant-garde groups to envisage a subconscious translation of the creative values of the art form to the quotidian tasks carried out by the worker soldiers of public life. To different degrees and to different levels of success, avant garde movements removed the distance between artist and plebiscite. However, the aporetic irony at the heart of the notion of the avant-garde is that in terms of its political purchase, very much the drive of its ambition, the avant-garde can never mobilize a large number of followers; by its very definition, it is always a minoritarian enterprise. As history shows, Nietzsche's belief in the aristocratic nature of the artist holds true and the source of avant-garde politics, the artistic, can never, if to be critically effective, merge with the everyday aspirations and demands of the street.


In the realm of expression, be that in word, movement, paint, image, or form, the avant-garde once again enacts its political gesture by opening up how these different cultural fields can become autonomous of religious, political, and economic forces. One can think of how Charles Baudelaire was prosecuted by the political establishment of Second Empire Paris by offending public morality through his poetry. Geographically, as illustrated in Harvey's book Paris: The Capital of Modernity, and also in Jill Fenton's recent research, such avant-garde movements have had strong linkages to particular areas and communities; specifically here to the urban village of Montmatre in Paris, ghosted by the insurgent spirit of the Paris Commune, and the artistic studios and bohemian haunts peppered throughout its narrow streets.

Of course, our most relied upon mode of expression, the very art and artifice of writing, when considered in the light of the covert philosophical work of Maurice Blanchot, in particular his book The Infinite Conversation, turns it into the ultimate and incessant act of avant gardism. Thus, like Blanchot, the author takes on the very substance and identity of that which engages her, becoming permanently on the vanguard of infinite conversation. In opening up how to write experience, and in questioning the boundaries of what was to be judged as art, the avant-garde is then about moving beyond both the form and content of expression. In terms of form, stylistic questions of competence where slighted, and alongside the new technological advances – as in both new phenomena to be witnessed (railways in Impressionistic art for example) and as new equipment for capturing the world (photography) – experimental and thus surreal depictions of everyday life came to the fore; hence their disturbance of, and the consternation they caused for, the status quo. Ironically, but purposefully, for the manifestation and thus recognition of an avant-garde movement, galleries (the inaugural exemplar being the alternative of Salon de Refuses to the Paris Salon of 1863) were the key institutional sites for the perception, appreciation, canonization, and eventual secularization of the avant-garde. With such an inevitable teleology toward secularization, the avant-garde has a short half life; perhaps that is why its endgame figure, Samuel Beckett, insisted so much on failing again and failing better to perpetually avoid such a 'dead end'.

In terms of content, the traditional patronage of the arts by the elite political, economic, and religious groups loses its grip on censoring the values depicted in the artworks themselves. Thus, the defense of beauty, truth, integrity, propriety, and responsibility conveyed in stock images, perfected proportions, etc. are dispensed with or consciously subverted. On these grounds, one finds the quintessential expression of a philosophical nihilism at the heart of avant-garde practice. By and large, expression took a more emotional rather than educational form, and often this was achieved through the aim of integrating the subject matter depicted with the form in which it was expressed. Whatever was to be shown was to be depicted merely through the presentation of its being. It is for this reason that the term absurd fits the avant-garde movement of theatre. So it was not through artifice but more through instinct and intuition that dramatists such as Beckett, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, and Harold Pinter aimed to solely present life as it is on stage. Five minutes of watching someone do nothing on stage might be true to life, but is it art? Five minutes of someone doing nothing framed as art is absurd. Of course, the representational additive of the frame (it being theater) was played with, but its nonrepresentational ethos gave it the avant-garde characteristic of being heretical. Likewise in art, following the work of Martin Jay, one can think of Marcel Duchamp's 'readymades' in the same light. Eventually, the tendency toward a purification of the principles and presuppositions of the avant-garde whatever its form – be it theater, poetry, art etc. – results in a pared down epitome of form that in postmodern times becomes easy parody. That is not to say that one cannot still see successful avant-garde tendencies in art movements today; the work of Dogma 95 in the cinema is a good example.

Conclusion: Politics

The question of distance between art and life is crucial in evaluating the avant-garde, and significantly an aporia lies at the heart of the avant-garde project. If creative principles are to be merged with everyday practice, it is a difficult politics to achieve given that a certain social distance is necessary for any political action. Ultimately, the sublimation of art into political praxis is both impossible and undesirable, although not without merit, given its catalytic capacity for engendering novelty, invention, and originality. It is for these reasons that when most successful in political and artistic terms, the avant garde is about exposure and failure.

As the twenty first century finds its feet and heads into its teenage years, the concept of the avant-garde is really a defunct one, and one that no prefixing of neo or post is going to salvage. As Hal Foster has argued, with novelty so fast and furious, or spent, the space of the avant-garde is reversed in polarity, no longer ahead but looking behind to reconnect with a lost practice so as to disconnect with the workings of the present. And further, if we believe we have never been modern, and as nano, biological, and intelligent technology grows apace, it is not perhaps a question of art synthesizing with life, but with life becoming by nature more artistic itself. The undiscovered country of avant-garde thought has been found in what Gilles Deleuze has called, after Beckett, the 'exhausted', but the experimentation with the thinking once there is only just beginning.