If I have ever been, or will ever be on the outer edge of a thing, it will only be my own life. I know what it is to explore the fringes of my world, but not that of an entire society. Nor am I interested in being part of such a front line. Fact is, I am happily enlisted with the Common Corps.
That doesn’t mean I avoid those who deliberately seek the unusual and strive for originality. I am an excited observer of many things that play on the brink of what is familiar, and I like being enthralled with the unexpected. But I also genuinely enjoy the mastery of things that are common. I don’t reject either the mainstream or the unusual.
Ironically, the term “avant-garde” has been abducted by our mainstream lexicon and, in my opinion, has lost its original vigor and enigmatic nature as a result. The term seems to be more defined as “not-typical,” or “strange,” and it’s been almost entirely usurped by the fashion industry as a genre of style rather than a school of thinking.
The avant-garde was so-called for a group of late 19th/early 20th century artists whose work was in response to a wildly changing world. They wanted to explore, experiment with, and defy “normal.” Modernism, post-modernism, avant-garde…all of them distinctive from one another and yet obviously related. Like siblings. Their parents? Machinery, molecules and socialism. Or rather, the invention, discovery and implementation of these things. Suddenly, there was something far more productive than a horse or an ox. Politics were evolving. And scientists had been spending the better part of the previous decades trying to tell the world an inanimate object is actually made up of millions of naked-to-the-eye moving parts they called molecules. It’s not as simple as that, of course, but these things do seem to be a common denominator.
Historians give World War I a lot of the credit for the genesis of the avant-garde. But so much more was happening that must have had influence: New global and “local” social statuses were defined by the creation of Industrialized Nations and the Middle Class. The Suffragette movement was gaining ground in many places around the world. Shifts in colonial power, the notion of an individual’s manifest destiny, and the rise of communism and fascism were forcing people to rethink political, and in some ways, religious convictions. The introduction of psychology, psychoanalysis, biological evolution and the notion that man is, in fact, was an animal. The discovery of completely isolated ancient tribes and the first dinosaur fossils. The list goes on. Our great (and great-great) grandparents’ generation had a lot of s***t to have to get their heads around.
So, perspectives had changed. Discovery was being lauded. Experimentation became technique. And those that embraced it all were on the leading edge of challenging preconceptions and previous known “facts.” Who better than artists of one kind or another to navigate us through the complexities of our emotional reaction to such things? The avant-garde was fresh, exciting, disturbing, and thought-provoking.
Today, however, its significance has been diluted. It’s become a common phrase meaning “a sort-of edgy, out there otherness,” with just enough touches of darkness and juxtaposition to keep the troupes in the Common Corps entertained with surprise, rather than being forthrightly stimulated, confronted or challenged.
I’m not sure many of us know who the avant-garde truly are these days. I’m not sure many of us are actually interested in finding them, for extremism has taken on an unpleasant face and produced too great a rift to want to seek out someone or something that will have possibly the same effect. Possibly. Or, maybe, it might mend bridges.