The Avant-Garde Die First
In the 19th century, under the suffocating weight of a centuries long tradition in academic art, artists began to break free. Tired of meaningless imitation and decoration, the avant-garde artists pushed for drastic revolutions in aesthetic and social taste. This experimentation rapidly grew less and less controlled, and new technique and new style, which shocked and enraged the critics and public, stopped being experimental and started desiring the side effects of shock and disgust. There is an error in believing the artist is always ahead of his time, will always be understood in the future, and is a well-intentioned progressive, because it ignores the present actions and consequences of modern art.
Henri de Saint-Simon was a leader in socialist thought and advocate of the arts as one of the “leaders of a new society” along with science and industry (Tate). In 1825, he coined the term “avant-garde” in reference to art:
‘We artists will serve you as an avant-garde… the power of the arts is most immediate: when we want to spread new ideas we inscribe them on marble or canvas… What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society, a true priestly function and of marching in the van of all the intellectual faculties!’ (Tate)
Harvey H. Arnason proclaims the beginning of the avant-garde movement with the social/visual realism of Gustave Courbet, the retreat from three-dimensional forms in Édouard Manet, and the off-center compositions of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. “From this time onward the idea of an artistic avant-garde, or vanguard, became firmly established” (Arnason 24).
These artists were some of the first to resist the rising bourgeoisie tastes for neoclassical and academic art. Later artists of Impression and Post-Impressionism would make an “overt declaration of the actual physical texture of the paint itself” as a counter-reaction to photography’s perfectly mechanical reflection of life and nature (Arnason 31). Their ideas may have been the first of a radical new tradition, but they weren’t the most ostentatious. Later movements like Dada, Surrealism, and art post-World War II, would more clearly demonstrate the extreme separation the term “avant-garde” implies.
It is important to reflect on the detachment of art from its former religious manifestations, where the painting was a moving piece of “symbolic meaning” (Barzun 32). According to Jacques Barzun, a painting connected with the viewer because it reflected some manner of spiritual recognition; it was the attachment to God or spiritual symbolism that satisfied the patron and provoked emotion, not the piece of art itself. “The Renaissance glorification of man, the scattering and weakening of the creeds of Protestant Reformation, and the general unbelief caused by the progress of science” caused art to become an idea into itself...