Using Clement Greenberg's definition of modernism (Modernist Painting), we can make a clear distinction between it and the avant-garde. Too often these terms are mixed up. For Greenberg, modernism implies the innately self critical, i.e. the characteristic methods of a discipline are used to criticize the art itself. This purification of a given art was directed at making it distinct from entertainment (kitsch). The best example would be to compare a painting of an Old Master to a modernist one: When we view the Old Master, we see through the flatness of the canvas to the essence of the subject itself; in a modernist work, we are first aware of a painting as an object with its component parts. The flatness is part of the work. Using a more specific example of Braque and Picasso working together to develop Cubism, Braque used muted colors to integrate the objects in his paintings to their backgrounds, thus creating a conceptual whole. Picasso, on the other hand gravitated to bright colors so as to enhance rather than dissipate reality (Richardson, P. 165).
Greenberg goes on to relate modernism to tradition in its rejection of the sculptural (illusory three-dimensionality) as far back as in the work of Ingres. With the Impressionists, the question of definition of color vs. drawing stopped, because of the integration of these parameters on a flat surface (P. 310). Ultimately, modernism represented a further evolution of tradition toward an art for art's sake aesthetic.
The avant-garde, on the other hand represents a distinct immediate break with the past in an attempt of the artist to drive the cultural agenda. The concerts arranged by Slonimsky in the late 20's and early 30's of the music of Ives, Cowell, Varèse, Ruggles, etc. were designed to challenge the audience and enlarge the stylistic palette. Ives himself denied that he was a modernist (Swafford, P.332). The avant-garde appears to be a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment; and, although experimental works were produced before the 19th century (e.g. Gesualdo's Madrigals), the self-conscious rebellion present in the work of Berlioz or Liszt is not present.
We can say that all avant-garde works are willfully designed to stretch our perceptions; and it is this aspect of human nature- the realm of the magical, illogical, and ultimately anti-rational- that is appealed to in the avant-garde. It is also why there appears to be a cycle of avant-gardism. Even in the realm of a single artist's output, there may be only an brief avant-garde period. Works themselves could have avant-garde elements (like timbre modulation in Webern, a quintessential modernist composer in his use of traditional forms and rigorous pitch manipulation). Sometimes an artist's entire life is dedicated to experiment: John Cage and Marcel Duchamp come to mind. At this point it is important to realize that the word, experimental is not being used in the scientific sense, because no hypothesis is being confirmed; rather the outcome of the work is uncertain. Indeed, ALL avant-garde artists take the continual risk of failure (unlike modernists who are grounded in tradition).
The last issue to be addressed refers to the permanence of of the avant-garde moniker to a work. For some pieces, like Antheil's Ballet mécanique, the novelty is temporary, while the early piano pieces of Henry Cowell or Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase continue to shock and surprise. There is, therefore, some intrinsic denial of natural law that is recognized by the viewer or listener, even generations after the work has been absorbed into the cultural tapestry.
Next week we will look at Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony in order to try to glean
some general principles of the avant-garde. Since this work appears to be permanently
experimental, it should be an ideal template for discussion.