The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature

By Richard Kostelanetz | Go to book overview
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Introduction: What Is Avant-Garde?

The term avant-garde refers to those out front, forging a path that others will take. Initially coined to characterize the shock troops of an army, the epithet passed over into art, in part because the dissemination of art resembles in certain respects the progress of an army. Used precisely, the term avant-garde should refer to work that satisfies three discriminatory criteria: it transcends current artistic conventions in crucial respects, establishing a discernible distance between itself and the mass of current practices; second, avant-garde work will necessarily take considerable time to find its maximum audience; and, third, it will probably inspire future, comparably advanced endeavors.

It is inevitable that only a small minority can be avant-garde; for once the majority has caught up with something new, what is avant-garde will, by definition, be some place else. Problems notwithstanding, it remains a critically useful category.

As a temporal term, avant-garde characterizes art that seems to be "ahead of its time"—art that is beginning something—while "decadent" art, by contrast, stands at the end of a prosperous development. "Academic" art refers to art that is conceived according to rules that are learned in the classroom; it is temporally post-decadent. Whereas decadent art is created in expectation of an immediate sale, the academic artist expects approval from his superiors. Both are essentially opportunistic, desiring immediate profit, even at the cost of likely disappearance in the near future from that corpus of art that survives by being remembered.

Avant-garde art has been defined as "whatever artists can get away with." However, this is true only in time—only if the invention contributes to an ongoing perceptible tendency or challenges an acknowledged professional

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