‘Avant garde’ has become a ubiquitous label, eclectically applied to any type of art that is anti-traditional in form. At its simplest, the term is sometimes taken to describe what is new at any given time: the leading edge of artistic experiment, which is continually outdated by the next step forward. But ‘avant garde’ is by no means value-neutral, as such usage implies. For Marxist critics like George Lukács it became synonymous with decadence, a cultural symptom of the malaise engendered by bourgeois society; for apologists it is the defining imperative in all art of our time, and ‘the modern genius is essentially avant-gardistic’. 1
Borrowed from military terminology by Bakunin, who titled the short-lived anarchist journal he published in Switzerland in 1878 L’Avant-Garde, the label was first applied to art by his followers. Their aim in revolutionizing aesthetics was to prefigure social revolution; and avant garde art is still characterized by a radical political posture. Envisioning a revolutionary future, it has been equally hostile to artistic tradition, sometimes including its immediate predecessors, as to contemporary civilization. Indeed, on the surface the avant garde as a whole seems united primarily in terms of what they are against: the rejection of social institutions and established artistic conventions, or antagonism towards the public (as representative of the existing order). By contrast any positive programme tends to be claimed as exclusive property by isolated and even mutually antagonistic sub-groups. So modern art appears fragmented and sectarian, defined as much by manifestos as imaginative work, and representing the amorphous complexity of post-industrial society in a multiplicity of dynamic but unstable movements focused on philosophic abstractions. Hence the use of ‘-isms’ to describe them: symbolism, futurism, expressionism, formalism, surrealism.
However, beneath this diversity there is a clearly identifiable unity of purpose and interest (at least in the theatre) which has all the characteristics of a coherent trend, since its principles can be shown to be shared