Avant-Garde’s Relation to Modernist Thought

The dates of Modernism are disputable, it can be rightly claimed that nascent Modernism budded with the Avant-Garde (a military metaphor, meaning ‘advance guard’) which refers to a small, self-conscious group of artists and authors who deliberately undertook, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, to “make it new”. 


By violating the accepted conventions and proprieties, not only of art but of social discourse, they set out to create ever-new artistic forms and styles and to introduce hitherto neglected and sometimes forbidden subject matter. These artists frequently represented themselves as alienated from the established order, against which they asserted their own autonomy; a prominent aim was to shock the sensibilities of the conventional reader and challenge the norms and pieties of the dominant bourgeoisie culture.

Seeking a total rupture with tradition, these artists rejected all absolute aesthetic conventions, criteria and considerations of taste and were characterized by intellectual playfulness, iconoclasm, a cult of unseriousness, and.mystification, all of which are traits of Modernist writers. The adoption of this military-political term is an expression of the writers’ self-conscious extremism, an extremism meant to accelerate the disruption of aesthetic and social traditions in order to thrust art and society further and faster into the future.

Culture and its norms were viewed as an artificial arrangement to be subverted, parodied and transgressed. Shock tactics and various anti-art gestures (Marcel Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’ such as La Fontaine – a urinal signed R. Mutt) were used to shake the public out of its torpid acceptance of outmoded values. Avant Garde art decomposed old frames of reference and broke the implicit correspondence between ‘good taste’ and ‘good art’. The avant garde aesthetic was characterized by a defamiliarization of the accepted cultural order; it valued fragments, curious collections and unexpected juxtapositions — erotic, exotic, incongruous and unconscious. The notion of art as representation was subverted: Breton and Aragon in the novel and poetry; Alfred Jarry in drama; Salvador Dali and Magritte in painting; Marcel Duchamp in sculpture; Man Ray and John Heartfield in photography and Dali and Luis Bunuel in cinema. Much Avant Garde art attacks lucidity and clarity and deliberately pursues obscurity.



The traumatic experience of the First World War and of Europe’s collapse into barbarism provides the context of much Avant Garde art. A fissure was created between official discourse (the rhetoric of war, victory, diplomacy etc.) and the language of the creative artist. Language was considered redundant or deficient, a stifling convention in the way of our apprehension of reality. There was a new stress on finding a new/language – “trouver une langue” (Rimbaud) – to gatecrash a new and more authentic vision of reality. A predilection for childish or scatological language, language-games, automatic writing, nonsense and a-syntactical poetry, and ‘newspaper poems’ were all features of Avant Garde writing.

There was a general loss of faith in absolutes: God, Man, Reason, Truth, Beauty, Honour, Authority etc. Reason, logic, language and accepted social values were all rejected. Avant Garde artists defined themselves in opposition to the dominant conservative and reactionary forces within society often seeing themselves as aesthetic terrorists antagonistic to accepted social ideals and values:Anti-elitism, anti-authoritarianism, gratuitousness, anarchy, aid nihilism are clearly implied in the Dadaist doctrine of “anti-art for anti-art’s sake” (the formula. of Tristan Tzara). The pervasive elements of negation however, went side by side with a Utopian impulse. There was an affinity with the radical political movements of the day such as Anarchism and Communism and in the case of the Italian Futurists, Fascism. Avant Garde artists saw themselves as the harbingers of new forms of social relationships to be built upon the ruins of the old order, and they indeed were the harbingers of Modernist literature.


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