When the theorists of the avant-garde wrote of the avant-garde movements and works of art, whether Renato Poggioli in 1968 or Renato Poggioliin 1984, it was from a historical perspective, in the past tense.  The question is what killed the avant-garde? When did it die or did it just fade away? Today the avant-garde exists as a nostalgic concept coupled with assertions that a “true” avant-garde is impossible today. Such a statement, like Postmodernism itself, is inherently conservative in that by stating that it is impossible to be ahead of the mainstream art world, thereby discouraging any attempts to challenge the status quo…which is, in and of itself, the condition of being dead.

Several historical paradigm shifts contributed to the death of the avant-garde and all occurred about the same time, in the 1960s. The historical avant-garde depended upon the outsider status of the artist and his or her support group: followers, art writers, dealers and so on.  The outsider position in turn depended upon the existence of an establishment that was entrenched and buttressed with vested interests.  For the avant-garde artist of the nineteenth century in France, the looming presence of the Academy provided something to rebel against. By the end of the century, the Academy had lost its potency and it was the public which had to be shocked.

The avant-garde probably would have ended sooner if it had not been for the intervention of two world wars.  Early in the century, the profitability of contemporary art was clear and after the Great War there was a booming business in “modern art.”  That which passed for avant-garde rested, not so much with any inherent “shocking” qualities of the art itself (Amedeo Modigliani was quite classical and tame) but in its ability to distress a conservative art audience. But the nascent art market in London and Paris was cut short by another World War and the art scene moved to New York.

It was here in the post-war financial capital, New York, that the avant-garde really entered its death throes.  The concept of the avant-garde was closely linked to the notion of secession and succession.  Without any establishment institution to secede from, avant-garde art in New York survived on the impetus of the forward movement of Modernist art.  Abstract Expressionism was the logical extension of  the developments of European Modernism.

For the avant-garde, the only direction of movement was forward, away from the past and on to the future.  But then the impetus to go ahead, to be avant, as it were, simply stopped. The desire to shock through unfamiliarity slipped away.  Although it could be augured that the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp were avant-garde, by the time consciousness of their import sunk into the mind of the art world, they had already become history.  Therefore, the Dadaesque gestures of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were “shocking” only in the sense that the critics and art dealers were made uneasy by this turn away from the tradition of painting.  The imagery itself was quite conventional.

Concurrent with Neo-Dada and Pop Art and its familiar and popular quotations from “low” art was the rise of the art market on a wave of affluence in the 1960s. Although the market would rise and fall over the years, it was clear to art collectors that art would hold its value. The scandal of yesterday would become today’s blue chip old master and by the 1980s everyone, as critic René Richard famously remarked, was afraid of missing out on “the next van Gogh.” The art market was the final coup-de-gras for the avant-garde with even the outsider artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, positioning themselves “outside” the galleries of SoHo. The “new” became only what had not been discovered yet.  Anything and everyone could be elevated and absorbed and be made profitable.

With the death of the avant-garde, art lost its ability to shock, to critique, to stay ahead of public mentality. Despairing of the possibility of being “original,” and scoffing at the preventions of “uniqueness” and “authenticity,” so important to the precepts of Modernism, despairing of any hope of original creativity, architects and artists began to rifle through history, freely borrowing and appropriating styles and motifs without regard to source or original purpose.  Style became a “look” that was quoted out of historical context and this new eclecticism was less an homage to history than a freewheeling seizure of relics in a self-conscious manner.

Pre-Postmodern artists began to borrow and appropriate to re-do that which had been done before, but from the perspective of distance and detachment.  Pop Art was characterized by its supposed Cool, its apparent lack of passion and its reluctance to criticize the society that gave the artists visual inspiration. When Abstract Expressionism became too heavy a moral burden, when galleries began to see how profitable art could be, when artists became dazzled by the star system, Modernism was over.

Rather than the innocence of “pure art” produced by the eccentric starving artist who would probably die from poverty—the van Gogh myth—the artist became a public figure, a new rock star. A collector did not buy a particular painting but a “Warhol” to round out a cache of Pop Art. The commercialization of art and artists and the commodification of the avant-garde could be foretold by a careful reading of Baudelaire, who could have predicted the transition of art as fad and consumer good. The art market co-opted and transformed even the most defiant and deviant gestures into a financial transaction.

The mock stardom of art superstar Jeff Koons combined everything that was anti-avant-garde—deliberate kitsch, commercial success, and a cynical celebration of art as commodity. The “new” became the “latest” art sensation and in his turn Jeff Koons became yesterday’s art star and became a blue chip old master.  In its nostalgic posture towards the past and in its self-conscious historicism, Postmodernism certainly played its part in the demise of the avant-garde, but by the 1980s any art form, however, unexpected or unconventional became absorbed into the open maw of the ever-hungry art market. “Art” became a signifier” of its owner’s cultural status hanging above the Barcelona sofa in a loft in Chelsea.


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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