The Avant-garde

June 11, 2020

In artistic movements, the pattern of ambition is clear enough: the avant-garde literally advances art. Wikipedia notes that the avant-garde, which is French for “advance guard” or “vanguard,” is “frequently characterized by aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability.”

In other words, it is risky, highly experimental, and typically undertaken by an unusual few. Moreover, this unacceptability seems to me important, as the avant-garde has an interesting relationship to criticism. And what follows is as applicable to science as it is to art.

Art and her critics

Writers have been complaining about critics since at least 1711. Alexander Pope begins An Essay on Criticism (emphasis mine throughout the quotes):

‘Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill

Appear in Writing or in Judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mislead our Sense:
Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.

Pope considers bad criticism (which leads us astray) more dangerous than bad writing (which merely bores us), but he also notes that ratio of critics to writers is 10:1. This, I think, is no coincidence, and may be no bad thing.

I have argued that what we find interesting is limited by the bounds of what we know. We find ourselves metaphorically adrift, unmoored, when we drift too far from the shores of our existing knowledge. But the purpose of the avant-garde is to push as far forward and as fast as possible, through a series of experiments. In that sense, they are like evolution in a highly mutagenic environment. Many may die for a single successful experiment.

The avant-garde, by definition, advances the guard. This means that the mainstream, almost by definition, is not interested in most of its experiments, but only in its successes. In order for society to comprehend and assimilate the innovations of the vanguard, a group that is larger than the avant-garde, but smaller than the public, must engage with (and hence judge) the art.

You might say that critics in such a situation tolerate higher entropy than the mainstream can sustain, but that the artists, in their experiments, are even more entropic. And the mainstream, with its bulk, has no trouble acting as ballast against all the furious experimentation at its edges. It is fundamentally conservative.

But if the mainstream is to remain impassive, it needs critics who follow developments closely. Critics must be immersed in their subject. But as judges, overall, they could be seen to reduce entropy in art, reining it in by judging, rightly or wrongly, the merits of the experiments.

Pope loathes such critics (and in this he is no doubt joined by many other artists), preferring to be criticised by other practitioners:

‘Tis with our judgments as our watches, none

Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In poets as true genius is but rare,
True taste as seldom is the critic’s share;
Both must alike from Heav’n derive their light,
These born to judge, as well as those to write.
Let such teach others who themselves excel,
And censure freely who have written well.

But the idea that only writers should be critics seems slightly ludicrous. Isn’t it hard enough just to write? True, there was once an age of writer-critics, but even if it long outlasted Pope, I think it is safe to say it is over now, and those people were probably the exception rather than the rule (like athlete-coaches?).

The word connoisseur literally means “knower.” And if you become a connoisseur in anything, you are apt to acquire a taste for it. There is a cost to knowing so much, to being so immersed in the output of any art; it takes time and effort. Much of avant-garde art is not exactly easily absorbed. It is hard work to keep up with the latest and most difficult trends, and presumably it rarely pays. Being immersed with the avant-garde may well make one elitist and judgemental. Or it may attract elitist, judgemental people. Likely a bit of both.

However I think that this on balance is a worthwhile trade. Elitism is the price that society pays for a valuable service, just as weird failed experiments in art are the price artists and critics pay for the advancement of an art.

Golden Years

Overall, I’m arguing that for art (or any movement) to thrive, you need a small group of people iterating and performing a large number of experiments. Under the right circumstances this can lead to a kind of creative explosion. Then you need a larger group (but still small compared to the general population) who is engaged enough with that domain that they can judge the output of the smaller group. They act as a selection filter.

To the extent that this combination produces successful experiments, those successes will enter the mainstream. Together, these two things can actually provide sufficient momentum to overcome the mainstream’s inertia. In conjunction, as successful experiments attract newcomers, a virtuous cycle will lead to a Golden Age, after which the mainstream will be moved in some small way toward the direction of where the avant-garde was. Meanwhile the avant-garde (or more likely their replacements in later generations) will move in some other direction entirely.

This is the pattern Clifford discussed in ambition, but I think that the pattern is more fundamental in nature, and relates to evolution.

Part of the reason I think that this pattern applies not just to ambition and to art is Polanyi’s 1962 essay The Republic of Science (PDF), about which my feelings are greatly mixed. More on this to come.


After speaking to someone more in touch with one such movement (“Glitch Art”), I’ve decided that the term “critic” may be too specific. I did not mean to include only formal art critics (like Ruskin — what a photo!) — though I was surprised to learn that one appears to have theorised about the movement already, and she is also a practitioner.

I suppose by “critic” I meant something more like an “engaged audience” which would include formal critics or theorists, other artists, fans, newbies, and so forth. I think the important thing is that they act as an intermediary between the bleeding edge of a movement and the broader public. Especially the way in which they might act as a proving ground or filter.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.