Britart Has Stolen the Shock Tactics of the Avant-Garde, but Ignored the Subversive Agenda

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In Los Angeles the pathologist Marc Pick is known as the Leonardo of dissections. He can skin a human head and torso whole, peel the face away from the skull complete with the ears, and hold this flesh up to the gaze. The photographer Pat York takes pictures of Dr Pick's dissected bodies, lovingly shooting the brains of corpses and seeing in them the houses of departed souls, of their dreams and passions.

Like Damien Hirst's pickled carcasses, these photographs make us reflect on our bodies' afterlives. Like Marc Quinn's Perspex head filled with the artist's own blood, they make us wonder at the stuff we are made of. Like driving slowly past a car crash, they make us think of death, even our own death. All these journeys through viscera are shocking, bringing us closer to what we may want to keep taboo - in art as in life.

Quinn's head, Hirst's shark and Pat York's photographs could be seen as avant-garde art, the shock of the new inscribed on the age-old story of death and decay. As Terry Eagleton recently wrote of avant-garde artists: "Each dissident generation of artists has denounced its predecessors as effete and escapist, as the running dogs of Renaissance princes or capitalist production. They, by contrast, have finally captured in the coils of art that slippery thing called Reality which has eluded everyone else."

And what could be more real than death? Not just the corpses drawn by Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Stubbs in order to further their understanding of anatomy, but the stuff of death itself, unflinchingly cabineted and firelessly exhibited before a shocked public.

But these cannot be examples of avant-garde art because the avant-garde died in the 1970s, unmourned and aged at least 100, not even dignified by a telegram from the Queen. How did it happen?

By the mid-1970s all isms were wasms and, according to Robert Hughes, avant-gardism was the biggest wasm of all: "This sudden metamorphosis of one of the popular cliches of art criticism into an unword took a very great many people by surprise. For those who believed that art had some practical revolutionary function, it was as baffling as the evaporation of the American radical left after 1970. The ideal - social renewal by cultural challenge - had lasted a hundred years, and its vanishing marked the end of an entire relationship - eagerly sought but not attained - of art to life."

The avant-garde began its life wandering the Parisian streets with Baudelaire, and reached its climax in the Cafe Voltaire of the Dadaists and in surrealism. It sought to blow up tradition through shocking public scandals: Duchamp's urinal in the gallery, the silent music played straight-faced in the concert hall. At the same time it prized secrecy, that very aloofness from society that made its radical critique of society possible.

In Eagleton's schematic history of dissident art, the 18th-century realist novel came first, dismissing the epic and pastoral as unreal productions of an out-of-touch aristocracy. But realism was criticised in the late-19th century for its respectable unreality, denounced by Ibsen, Zola and other writers of super-realist plays and novels. Then came the modernists, who abandoned society and submitted themselves to the flow of perception and the proddings of the unconscious.

In turn, these modernists were subverted by the revolutionary avant-garde, those Soviet artists who smashed their easels and set themselves to producing useful designs for workers. For them, the work of art stood in arrogant isolation from society, in defiant uselessness. With Aleksandr Rodchenko's two-colour posters "art had achieved truth in the act of immolating itself".

Actually, the death of the revolutionary avant-garde in the Soviet Union was not by its own hand. It was killed by something much more prosaic: Stalin and his philistine henchmen.

In any case, reports of the death of the avant-garde were greatly exaggerated. …