• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.



Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 9 months ago



                   By Amy Smith



  • Background
  • Modernism and the Avant-garde
  • Affiliated American Artists
  • Related Modernist Art Techniques




    "Avant-garde" is a French term for front guard or vanguard.  It was originally taken from a military vocabulary, and came to be used as a way of describing the role of the Communist party as “the vanguard of the working class” in Europe (Cunningham, 49).  Because of this early affiliation with politics, and Communism in particular, the movement and its affiliates were often regarded with suspicion by Americans in the Modernist age. 

    The term is used in English to refer to artistic, political, and cultural movements that are considered unconventional or progressive.  It can also refer to a member of such a movement (i.e. an avant-garde musician).  Such artists (writers, photographers, painters, composers, musicians, etc) are characterized as breaking norms and pushing boundaries in their respective fields.  Because of their position on the outside of mainstream artistic movements, avant-garde writers of the modernist era had to rely on little magazines to publish their work (http://memorial.library.wisc.edu/lttlmag.htm).  


Modernism and the Avant-garde

    During the period between the World Wars, America was an optimistic nation.  Significant changes were occurring economically, politically, and socially, and most changes were for the better.  This air of progressivism greatly influenced the avant-garde movements, as artists and authors sought to create their art in a new way.

    Modern avant-garde art promotes two key ideologies. First, it is concerned with "art for art's sake," focusing on the aesthetic experience of the work rather than its moral or didactic purpose. Artists within the avant-garde movement believed that artistic pursuits were self-justifying and did not need social validation.  At the same time, though, they were deeply moved to affect life with their art by “dissolving the boundaries that maintain art in a sphere of its own.” ( Seigel, 75).  In one sense, avant-garde artists wanted art to be accepted as its own entity, yet they also hoped to make art a more prominent aspect of life and change. 

    Secondly, avant-garde art relates to the process of art's unfolding over time. Avant-garde artists believed that their work was temporal; therefore, art produced in one era could not be re-produced in another era and still considered "art." With the overall goal of breaking norms and pushing boundaries, artists in this movement believed in a work's intrinsic value based on how "it marks a historical point in the advancement of the conception" (Wikipedia).  Interestingly, one of the major goals of these artists was to make change permanent.  They sought an unchangeable opening in the realm of art for constant experimentation, innovation, and “receptiveness to new forms of experience” (Seigel, 74). 

    Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, two prominent modern American avant-garde writers, exulted the concept of “make it new,” in which they promoted the importance of modern artists taking art from the past and changing to become art of the present.  In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot simultaneously defends the value of traditional works, but maintains that new art cannot simply be a repetition of those works.  He states, “If the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successors, “tradition” should be positively discouraged. …Tradition is a matter of much wider significance."



                     T.S. Eliot                                              Ezra Pound



    One other prominent aspect of the avant-garde movement was its often stark separation from the majority of popular culture.  There was a maintained desire to be and to create something utterly different.  Ezra Pound once defined the beauty of art as "a brief gasp between one cliche and another" (Pogglioli, 82).  Furthermore, these artists purposefully geared their work to a social and artistic “elite” in order to uphold an idea of “higher” art which was somehow above the average masses.  The works often include various allusions to other works of art or movements from the past (as evidenced in many of T.S. Eliot’s poems) and employed difficult modernist techniques (like cubism in the poetry of Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams) which made the art less relatable to mass culture. Likewise, authors may use foreign languages within their writing, which required the reader to have a basic understanding of these as well.  While this position of eliticism made the Avant-garde works more difficult for the masses, many artists felt that they were opening the way for the masses to be enlightened, not leaving them behind.

   Indeed, the avant-garde sought an audience comprised of the intelligentsia (a Russian word which means, "those who labor with the intellect").  This term became a common one for describing artists and art appreciators who affiliated themselves with the notion of avant-garde.  In fact, the concept of these cultural proletariats, the intelligentsia, became the vague category of admirers whom the avant-garde artists were seeking to reach (Poggioli, 87).


    Here is just a brief excerpt from one of T.S. Eliot's extremely influential modernist poems, "The Waste Land".  In this first stanza alone, there are five instances which require footnotes for a basic level of understanding. (To hear this poem read aloud on RealPlayer software, try PoetryArchive.org.)



"Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi

in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα

τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω."


For Ezra Pound


il miglior fabbro. 1



I. The Burial of the Dead 2


April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee 3

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,  4

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Bin gar kine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.  5

And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,

My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.


    Footnotes as provided by the Norton Anthology:

       1. "The better maker," the tribute in Dante's Purgatorio 26.117 to the Provencal poet Arnaut Daniel.

       2. The title of the Anglican burial service.

       3. A lake near Munich. Lines 8-16 were suggested by the Countess Marie Larisch's memoir, My Past (1913).

       4. A public park in Munich, with cafes; former grounds of a Bavarian palace.

       5. I am certainly not Russian; I come from Lithuania, a true German (German).


    As one can clearly tell, this avant-garde poem is purposefully difficult to read and understand unless the reader has a broad knowledge of other cultures and works of literature.  This is a quintessential example of writing for the avant-garde.



Affiliated American Artists

Stan Brakhage (filmmaker)

John Cage (composer)

Robert Florey (director, photographer)

Jeffrey Daniels (poet)

Lydia Lunch (singer, poet, actress)

William Carlos Williams (poet)

T. S. Eliot (poet)

Louis Armstrong (musician)

Georgia O'Keeffe (artist)


  Here are some examples of avant-garde visual art: A 35mm film photograph by Robert Florey and a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe.



             "The Loves of Zero"                       "Cow's Skull with Calico Roses"



Related Modernist Art Techniques

Many prominent techniques in modern art fall under the category of avant-garde or were implemented by artists affiliated with the movement.  Among these are expressionism, cubism, constructivism, Impressionism, Surrealism, minimal art, and Dadaism. 





 Works Cited



"Avant-garde." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. December 2006. 14 March 2007. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avant-garde>


Cunningham, David. "The Futures of Surrealism: Hegelianism, Romanticism, and the Avant-Garde." Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 34.2 (2005): 47-65. Academic Search Premier. 5 April 2007.


Pogglioli, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-Garde. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1968.


Seigel, Jerrold. ""SPIRITUALIZING THE MATERIAL" AND "DEMATERIALIZING THE WORLD" IN MODERNIST AND AVANT-GARDE PRACTICE: On the Wider Import of a Distinction Debora Silverman Develops in Van Gogh and Gauguin." French Politics, Culture & Society 24.2 (2006): 71-80. Academic Search Premier. 5 April 2007.


The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Between the Wars 1914-1945. 6th ed. Edited by Julia Reidhead. New York: Norton and Company, 2003.


Willard, Sandra. "The American Avant-Garde 1904-1920." Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. 14 March 2007. <http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1987/4/87.04.08.x.html#c>







Back to Encyclopedia of Modern American Literature

Comments (3)

Anonymous said

at 11:03 am on Mar 14, 2007

Ok, decent start, Amy. Peter Berger has the definitive study of the Avant Garde in relationship to Modernism in general. It might be worth pointing out that avant gardism has had an iffy history in the American context. it may be that the democratic ethos of the country has made Americans suspicious of this kind of movement. On the other hand, an American form of avant gardism can be traced to Emerson in a peculiar way. This form is highly individualistic, paving the way for more individualism rather than social transformation.

Anonymous said

at 8:01 pm on Apr 22, 2007

I think it would be helpful to include short bios on each of your "Affiliated American Artists" explaining why each is specifically considered an "avant garde" artist. Mentioning their major contributions to modern art, literature, etc. would add a lot of substance to the entry.

Anonymous said

at 7:25 am on Apr 25, 2007

Amy, your basic text looks good. Might spice up the page to illustrate with an image or two. Take advantage of the technology where you can.

You don't have permission to comment on this page.