Some Introductory Notes on the Politics of a Label
This chapter gives an overview of the history of the term ‘avant‐garde’ as it has been used in the historiography of art. The point of departure is the lack of agreement as to the term's meaning. Noting the almost complete absence of the term in the statements of the early 20th‐century artists more recently viewed as representing the avant‐garde's apogee, the chapter emphasises instead the role of the 1960s avant‐garde in retrospectively constructing an ‘historical avant‐garde’ to serve as their legitimating forebear. The 19th‐century association of the term with the service of political ideology was essential to its appeal in the 1960s, but this putative radicalism was muddied by the later, early 20th‐century understanding that progressive artists should lead, not serve. The chapter also notes how the association of artistic avant‐gardes with radical political movements undoubtedly contributed to the avant‐garde's alleged demise in the 1980s and 1990s.
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