Podcast Episode 7: The Academy and the Avant-Garde

THE ACADEMY AND THE AVANT-GARDE IN FRANCE

The artists of the French Academy and the artists of the French avant-garde are often presented as being protagonists, but, in fact, each group defined itself in terms of the other. The French Academy was the bastion of the establishment, of rules and regulations and of order. The avant-garde bohemians were the original outsider artists, misfits without credentials, who were able to break the rules of art and change the course of art. But the Academy absorbed and co-opted and softened the concepts and techniques of the avant-garde artists, making the “radical” changes acceptable to the general public.

The model for the Academy as the purveyor for “official” art, approved by the State, which supported the system of art schools, was followed by other nations. England had its own Royal Academy, Germany had its academies, even Spain and America had an Academy. The struggles between the forces of the Academy or the status quo and the Avant-Garde or change were fought mostly in Paris and London. There were several reasons for the quarrels between the older and young generations. First, there were questions of style, centered mostly in painting—how to paint, second, there were issues of content—what subject matter was appropriate for public consumption, and third, by the second half of the nineteenth century, there were economic conditions.

Arbitrary academic restrictions on art, censorship by the state on artists became an economic restraint of trade. As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, there were simply too many aspirants for too few positions in the Academic system and the so-called avant-garde artists were those artists who, for reasons of style or content or both, could not find success within the existing establishments. It would be these artists, pushed into the position of being Refusées, who would seek out new means of exhibiting, displaying and selling their “outsider art.”

 

 

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