January 10, 2021
January 10, 2021


As the previous essay attempts to demonstrate, the term avant-garde can be linked to a series of revolutionary upheavals from the late 18th century to the 20th. Alongside political revolutions, industrial revolutions transformed processes of production and overthrew remnants of a feudal way of life. This transformation of life led to a challenge to art itself. If, on the one hand, the term ‘avant-garde’ is historically linked to revolution, it has also been linked to purely formal experimentation. The vanguard of form and colour stand at the forefront, not necessarily because of any radical politics, but because of an experimentalism that challenges traditional art practices. In this respect, the avant-garde could be seen as a series of formal innovations from Manet to Pollock that challenged the way painting (and other art mediums) were engaged with. Clement Greenberg’s history of modernist painting characterises modernism as a mode of immanent critique. “Modernism” he writes, “criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized.”1 Art, in this respect, comes to critique art itself. Art changes representational form and the illusion of three dimensional space. Rather than seeing art as critiquing something external to it (e.g. politics), Greenberg casts the history of the avant-garde as a history of internal critique: art as the critique of art.
Nonetheless, even if this variant of the avant-garde is primarily concerned with the internal critique of art, such a formal ‘revolution’ should not be seen as separate from the upheavals that were accompanying it. Artists of the period did not perceive their formal experimentation as separate from the world around them. As Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc write: “A great era has began: the spiritual ‘awakening’”2. In an era of profound change artists looked at formal transformations in art as a symbol of a new spiritual awakening.

The Cover for Der Blaue Reiter almanac, 1912

If Kandinsky and Marc looked at the emergence of modernism with a sense of spiritual optimism, the sociologist Max Weber, writing at the turn of the 20th Century, tended towards a bleak pessimism. “The fate of our times,” Weber tells us, “is rationalisation, intellectualisation and above all the disenchantment of the world.”3 As a social scientist and secularist, Weber saw this process as absolutely necessary and unavoidable, yet at the same time was fiercely critical of the instrumental rationality and bureaucratism that he believed was essentially tied to it. In a manner that seems laden with irony, Max Weber attempts to capture this modern predicament:
“No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: ‘Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilisation never before achieved.’”4
If, for Weber, protestant asceticism, scientific specialisation, capitalism and bureaucratism led to an iron cage of instrumental rationality, the romantic turn to the sensual (here aligned with the heartless) on the surface appears to offer no alternative. Yet for Weber, this ‘disenchantment of the world’ was our ‘fate’; a necessary characteristic of the modern world that we are unable to escape from. Our only hope, it would seem, comes from the very nullity itself; the remedy could only reside in the poison. Alongside 19th century Romantic and Decadent artists, the rise of formal art experimentation in Cubism, Futurism and Suprematism could be characterised as a kind of ‘sensualism without heart,’ merely concerned with brushstrokes and abstraction at the expense of ‘human’ concerns. However, for artists like Kandinsky and Marc quoted earlier, these artists were more like Weber’s ‘new prophets,’ who saw their ‘nullity’ as capable of attaining ‘a level of civilisation never before achieved.’ Olga Rozanova captures something of how the modern art project counterintuitively offers a new aspiration:
“The works of pure painting have the right to exist independently and not in relation to banal interior furnishings. To many, our efforts and endeavours — as well as those of our Cubist and Futurist predecessors — to put painting on a course of self-determination may seem ridiculous, and this is because they are difficult to understand and do not come with glowing recommendations. Nevertheless, we do believe that a time will come when, for many people, our art will become an aesthetic necessity — an art justified by its selfless aspiration to reveal a new beauty.”5

Olga Vladimirovna Rozanova, Composition non-objective, 1916

In this view, Cubism, Futurism and Suprematism offer a new beauty yet-to-be fully comprehended. This new form of beauty seeks painting’s self-determination. Yet unlike traditional painting, this beauty does not emanate from narrative and representational form, but the painting’s ‘self-determination’; the paint, the colour, the stuff it is made of. This takes us away from the interpersonal and ‘human’ element and back to the canvas itself. In the mind of these artists, however, the apparent ‘nullity’ that remains is really a new beauty yet to be fully understood.
If Renaissance painting should be characterised by the discovery and greater scientific understanding of three-dimensional space, Greenberg characterises modern painting as a turn to the two dimensional. From Henri Rousseau and Gauguin to Malevich and Pollock, painting could be seen as an increasing flattening of the image. However, this characterisation risks casting abstract expressionism as the telos of avant-garde experimentation. As Charles Harrison notes, figures such as Salvador Dali “who continue throughout the mid-twentieth century to employ roundly modelled forms and deep illusionistic spaces”6 would not fit into this narrativisation of the modern painting, rather, it might be tempting to characterise modernism as a general critical tendency, which challenges formal assumptions on how paintings, poems, novels etc. are constructed.

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Cherries and Peaches, 1885-1887

At least at one level, the work of the Italian Futurists give us an insight into this critical impulse. In 1910 Umberto Boccioni and others wrote Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto in which they state “Our growing need for truth is no longer satisfied with Form and Colour as they have been understood hitherto.”7 Their ‘revolution’ could be essentially characterised as an attempt to cast off all hitherto art traditions and uncover a new sense of artistic form. Noting how “Victorious science has nowadays disowned its past in order the better to serve the material needs of our time”, the Futurists called upon art to do the same, “disowning its past” so it would be “able to serve at last the intellectual needs which are within us.”8 Such a characterisation suggests a link between avant-gardist formal experimentation and Enlightenment and Positivist thought. For Kant, the Enlightenment’s motto was “Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!””9, whilst positivism, from Robert Hooke’s scientific method10 to Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological positivism11, the motto was “back to the things themselves.” In all these variants, the search for a new form of reason required a radically new subjective process that cast off traditions and assumptions and attempted to perceive afresh. Thus, for Merleau-Ponty, the roots of Husserlian phenomenology, which attempts to describe the necessary conditions of lived experience as it emerges within experience without importing ideas from elsewhere, had its precursor in the works of “Balzac, Proust, Valéry or Cézanne—by reason of the same kind of attentiveness and wonder, the same demand for awareness, the same will to seize the meaning of the world or of history as that meaning comes into being. In this way it merges into the general effort of modern thought.”12 In this respect, modern thought and modern art involve a casting off of traditional assumptions and the attempt to perceive afresh. Yet rather than this attempt to perceive afresh generating the three-dimensional space of a Da Vinci painting, modern art, according to Merleau-Ponty, discovers the lived perspective. In his account of Cézanne, Merleau-Ponty writes that “By remaining faithful to the phenomena in his investigations of perspective, Cézanne discovered what recent psychologists have come to formulate: the lived perspective, that which we actually perceive, is not a geometric or photographic one.”13 Cézanne’s paintings are an attempt to perceive afresh rather than rely on tradition or classical assumptions.

Gustave Courbet, A Funeral At Ornans, 1849–50

Despite their differences, something similar could be said of Gustave Courbet’s Realist paintings. Often criticised in their time for being ugly, influenced by the positivism of Proudhon, Courbet’s realism could also be seen as embodying a positivist impulse, casting off traditional conventions of beauty and learning to paint what one perceives afresh. “I cannot teach my art, nor the art of any school whatever,” Courbet tells us in his Realist Manifesto, “since I deny that art can be taught, or, in other words, I maintain that art is completely individual, and is, for each artist, nothing but the talent issuing from his own inspiration and his own studies of tradition.”14 Courbet’s approach to art, like Kant’s ‘Sapere aude!,’ calls upon the individual to turn to their own reason and and draw upon own experience.

Salvador Dalí, La Persistance De La Mémoire, 1931

If the ‘grotesque’ realism of Courbet emerges from a reassessment of subjective experience, the ‘grotesqueness’ of surrealism emerges from the imposition of the subconscious upon consciousness. Surrealism is the disruption of consciousness, which enables that which was repressed to reveal itself. Taken together, Cézanne’s Post-Impressionism, Courbet’s Realism, and Dali’s Surrealism each challenge us to rethink the nature of subjectivity.

Giocomo Balla, Dynamism of a dog on a Leash, 1912

The same can be said of Cubism, Futurism and Suprematism. Returning to Boccioni’s Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto, he writes “…all forms of imitation must be dispensed, all forms of originality glorified.”15 For Boccioni the problem with representational form is embodied in “the monotony of the nude”16, which had become a kind of tired trope of painting. Futurism challenges artistic convention and traditions, whilst attempting to uncover new themes for painting. Rather than the nude, Futurism turns to new themes for painting and art: “our whirling life of steel, of pride, of fever, and of speed.”17 The emergence of the modern city and the speed of the motorcar created new demands on painting, specifically the demand on capturing speed. Akin to the Cubist fragmentation of perspective, the Futurist attempt to represent speed demands a formal innovation. Cubist paintings such as Picasso’s Women with Mandolin at the Piano (1911) and Futurist paintings such as Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912) experiment with perspective by presenting movement within a single painting or presenting multiple perspectives at once.

Pablo Picasso, Woman with a Guitar and Piano, 1911

For Kandinsky, this shift made painting closer to musical composition than representational art. Kandinsky’s Impression III was inspired by one of Arnold Schoenberg’s concerts.18 On the one hand, painting ceased to be primarily concerned with representation, and became, like music, abstract. On the other hand, like Schoenberg’s experimentation with atonality and disruptions to traditional musical development, Kandinsky’s painting challenges traditional expectations of visual harmony, to which, for Boccioni also, “it is essential to rebel against”.19
If the search for a new understanding of perception and experience was the positive manifestation of the avant-garde, this required a rejection of tradition. Boccioni provocatively tells us to “demolish the works of Rembrandt, of Goya and of Rodin.”20 Likewise, the Barbus, a group of rebellious artists and students of the painter Jacques-Louis David, challenged the conventions of post-revolutionary France by celebrating primitive art, wearing eccentric costumes and practicing vegetarianism and alternative lifestyles. One such student, Maurice Quai, declared that “in order to cut short the pernicious doctrines and prevent the propagation of bad taste, one should have preserved only three or four statues from the museum of the antiques … and set fire to the art gallery of paintings, after removing, at most a dozen productions.”21 It is tempting to link this to the anarchic venom of Punk bands like the Sex Pistols as they rebel against Sixties counterculture. From the Barbus to Punk, the demand for a new form of art has often been accompanied by an iconoclastic drive to rip it up and start again!

Wassily Kandinsky, Impression III, 1911

This iconoclastic tendency is closely tied to a performative dimension in the avant-garde. From the toppling of the Vendôme Column to Viennese Actionism, performance enables an ‘acting out’ of the destructive dimension of the avant-garde. Painting, even in its most minimalist form, overthrows tradition by creating something new. Whilst this is literally true of performance too (an act of destruction is still a performance), the ephemerality of performance seems better able to embody this destructive and anarchic dimension. Accounts of the avant-garde that leave out performance and focus on painting and sculpture tend to emphasise its formalism over its iconoclasm. This formalism seems much easier to tame and institutionalise. The provocative and destructive dimensions of the avant-garde are often more problematic and harder to simply claim or recuperate. According to RoseLee Goldberg, performance art is at the centre of the avant-garde project:
“Moreover, within the history of the avant garde ― meaning those artists who led the field in breaking with each successive tradition ― performance in the twentieth century has been at the forefront of such an activity: an avant avant garde. Despite the fact that most of what is written today about the work of the Futurists, Constructivists, Dadaists and Surrealists continues to concentrate on art objects produced by each period, it was more often than not the case that these movements found their root and attempted to resolve problematic issues in performance.”22

Herman Nitsch’s Viennese Actionism

Performance is so integral to the avant-garde that it functions as a kind of avant-garde of the avant-garde. Zurich Dadaism was mainly poets, cabaret artists and performers, whilst Parisian Dadaists and Surrealists were poets, writers and agitators. According to Goldberg, it was performance that came first and art objects that were a secondary concern. From Alfred Jarry to Luigi Russolo, from Vladimir Mayakovski to John Cage, performance was at the center of avant-garde experimentations. Even movements such as Bauhaus, primarily concerned with architecture and design, took performance as central to their project, with pieces such as Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet fundamentally challenging costume, choreography and spatial composition with an awareness gleaned from architecture and design. Whilst performance was central for the avant-garde, it was never particularly theatre as spectacle. The avant-garde art of performance had more in common with festivals, carnival and cabaret. If we are to, once again, trace the history of the avant-garde back to Jean Jacques Rousseau and Jacques-Louis David, it is precisely this suspicion of the passivity of theatre and the turn to the participatory dynamics of carnival that grounds avant-garde performance. Cabaret Voltaire, Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Ephemeral Panic, Happenings and Fluxus all challenged the fourth wall of the theatre and the distinction between performer and spectator. Even painting itself becomes performative. Take, for example, Boccioni’s demand in the manifesto that “We shall henceforth put the spectator in the centre of the picture”23, or Yves Klein’s ‘live’ paintings such as ‘Anthropometries of the blue period’. The act of painting itself becomes a performance!

Oscar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, 1921

If performance is better able to express the iconoclastic dimension of the avant-garde, it is also better able to express a sense of the collective, especially when it breaks with the forth wall enabling participation. In Mark Fisher’s conception of Acid Communism he looks back to the counter-culture of the sixties exploring how experiments in consciousness (psychedelic consciousness, feminist consciousness raising, class consciousness) converged with radical politics.24 Here the line between participatory art and new forms of collective consciousness converge in the creation of a new radical culture. This transformative dimension of the performative can be seen, for example, in the work of figures such as Gene Youngblood and Alejandro Jodorowsky.
When Gene Youngblood wrote his 1970 book Expanded Cinema he revealed that “When we say expanded cinema we really mean expanded consciousness.”25 Long before the internet came into being, Youngblood’s conception of expanded cinema explored how cinema (including film, television, computers, etc.) was transcending itself and becoming something else. Drawing upon experimental art and media, the latest technological research, video art and intermedia performance art, Youngblood offered a prophetic account of the emergence of new media. Yet his focus was not merely new technologies, but rather, how new technologies would develop a new form of consciousness; an expanded consciousness. Like Marshall McLuhan, Youngblood held the position that the medium was the message.26 Just as the birth of the printing press had birthed a radical new consciousness (the Reformation), so too would this new expanded cinema.

Yves Klein’s Anthropometries of the blue period, 1960

If cinema, or expanded cinema, offered a way of transforming consciousness for Youngblood, for the filmmaker, psychomagician and practitioner of ephemeral panic, Alejandro Jodorowsky, the theatre was inherently a transformative space. “If the objective of other arts is to create oeuvres,” he tells us, “the goal of theatre is specifically to change man. If theatre is not a life science, it cannot know how to be an art.”27 Sixties and seventies counterculture renews a challenge to perception and consciousness already present in the 19th and 20th century avant-garde. Boccioni writes that ”…the soul must be purified; the eye must be freed from the veil of atavism and culture…”28 From Futurism to psychedelia, from ephemeral panic to expanded cinema an array of tactics are used, from shocking the audience to inducing unusual psychological states, in order to bring about a new way of thinking, perceiving and being. In order to construct a new way of life, the avant-garde constructs an array of weapons for creating an array of experiences.
Today, this challenge risks being neutralised the more ‘modern art’ simply becomes a genre to be presented within particular art institutions. When Duchamp exhibited Fountain (1917), his found object, a urinal, it was an act of provocation, but the more the ready-made becomes a genre, the more it loses this provocative dimension. It is often said that art is timeless, and in some respects this is true, but it is also very time specific. What it ‘means’ often changes with each generation; with each new context. The act of curation is always, at some level, an act of transformation. In this respect, the avant-garde of the future will not be the same as the avant-garde of the past. New situations and problems will condition the avant-garde of the future, and each generation will have to invent, or reinvent, an avant-garde afresh. Nonetheless, the history of the avant-garde is a rich and complex tradition that it is worth grappling with. The historical avant-garde provides us with an arsenal of ideas and aesthetic devices to be deployed in the construction of a new radical syncretism.


1 Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting (
2 Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, “Preface to Der Blaue Reiter Almanac” (1912) in 100 Artists’ Manifestos from the Futurists to the Stuckists, ed. Alex Danchev (Penguin, 2011) p.39
3 Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation” in H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (ed.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (Oxford University Press: New York, 1946) p.155
4 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (Routledge, London, 2001) p.124
5 Olga Rozanova, “Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism” (1917) in 100 Artists’ Manifestos from the Futurists to the Stuckists, ed. Alex Danchev (Penguin, 2011) p.133
6 Charles Harrison, Modernism (Tate Publishing, London, 1997/2004) p.21
7 Umberto Boccioni and others, “Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto” (1910) in 100 Artists’ Manifestos from the Futurists to the Stuckists, ed. Alex Danchev (Penguin, 2011) p.15
8 Boccioni, p.16
9 Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment? (
10 In the introduction to his Micrographia (1665), Robert Hooke explains how his “reformation in Philosophy” does not so much require “strength of Imagination, or exactness of Method, or depth of Contemplation”, but rather “a sincere Hand, and a faithful Eye, to examine, and to record, the things themselves as they appear.” Robert Hooke, Micrographia (The Project Gutenberg eBook, 2005) p.7 (
11 Husserl tells us that “the empiricists start from unclarified preconceived opinions whose truth has not been grounded. On the other hand, we take our start from what lies prior to all standpoints: from the total realm of whatever is itself given intuitionally and prior to all theorising, from everything one can immediately see and seize upon ― if only one does not let himself be blinded by prejudice and prevented from taking into consideration whole classes of genuine data. If “positivism” is tantamount to an absolute unprejudiced grounding of all the sciences on the “positive”. that is to say, on what can be seized upon originaliter, then we are the genuine positivists.” Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book, trans. F. Kersten (Kluwer Academic Publishing Dordricht, 1983) p.39
12 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (Routledge, London, 2002) p.xxiv
13 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Cézanne’s Doubt (,for%20him%2C%20an%20attempt%2C%20an%20approach%20to%20painting)
14 Gustave Courbet, The Realist Manifesto (
15 Boccioni, p.17
16 Ibid, p.18
17 Ibid, p.17
18 Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Picador, New York, 2007) p.61
19 Boccioni, p.17
20 Ibid.
21 George Levine, The Dawn of Bohemianism: The Barbu Rebellion and Primitivism in Neoclassical France (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978) p.62
22 RoseLee Godberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (Thames & Hudson, London, 1979/2011) pp.7-8
23 Boccioni, p.17
24 Mark Fisher, “Acid Communism (unfinished introduction)” in K-Punk, (Repeater, 2018)
25 Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (Studio Vista Limited, London, 1970) p.41
26 See Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (Routledge, 2001)
27 Alejandro Jodorowsky, Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy, trans. Rachael LeValley (Inner Traditions, Vermont, 2010) p.38
28 Boccioni, p.17


Click for more articles in this issue: