As early as the 1820s and the French Saint-Simonians, the vivid metaphor of an “avant-garde” was taken from its military origins to denote the self-conscious vanguard of a political movement fancying itself to be the cutting edge in the struggle for human emancipation. 1 By the 1870s, the metaphor had drifted from politics into the world of art, where it came to mean an embattled and courageous elite of writers and artists who spurn conventional taste and challenge the power of reigning art institutions, following instead the imperatives of aesthetic innovation wherever they might lead. The story of the two avant-gardes and their ambivalent relationship to each other— often mutually reinforcing, at other times mortally opposed—is an oft-told tale. 2 Both shared a faith in the future, rather than a reverence for the past. Both reveled in their roles as beleaguered minorities whose sacrifices in the present would be honored by a grateful posterity. And both often fantasized about the future in redemptive terms, whether envisaged as a political and social utopia or as the realization of a dream of artistic purification, absolute beauty, and autotelic self-sufficiency.
By the 1960s, it has often been observed, both avant-garde projects were in serious disarray. Ironically, it was their relative successes that helped undermine faith in their redemptive potential. A vanguard party had, after all, gained control over what became known as the “Second World” of “actually existing socialism” and over a large part of the “Third World, ” as well. But the harsh realities of their rule and their increasingly evident failure to fulfill the promises they had made during their ascendancy to power left widespread disillusionment in their wake. And when the traditional art institutions of the First World opened their doors wide to the no-longer-scorned martyrs of early modernism and their increasingly market-savvy successors, it was clear that the future had arrived, but without the expected redemptive payoff. Or rather, the payoff turned out to be more commercial than aesthetic as modernism became the easy handmaiden