Although the term Avant Garde literally means ‘before the troops’, the actual movement it describes gives more of an impression of abandoning the troops, and leaving them far behind, in real life. The Avant Garde as a term to describe art was first used in the early decades of the 20th century. Artists such as Tristan Tzara, Theodore van Doesburg, Duchamp, and Mondrian, among others, representing several stylistic and philosophical tendencies, broke as far as they could with all pre-existing artistic traditions. All expected characteristics of art were discarded, and in every way possible, art diverged from everything that preceded it.
Such notions as order, symmetry, representation, professionalism, accessibility, beauty, comprehensibility, and many other aspects of art that had been taken for granted for centuries if not millennia, were cast aside. This movement was largely European, but had US adherents as well.
Representational art was perhaps the first casualty of the movement. Whether through ridiculing the forms and expectations of traditional art, as in Dadaism, or reducing art to a series of lines or blocks of color as in De Stijl’s Neo-Plasticism and Elementarism, Constructivism, or Art Concret , the Avant Garde avoided anything that looked like anything one might reasonably recognize from the world of the senses.
The next casualty was conformity. The artists, and their lovers, spouses, and hangers on, were quite deliberately out to shock.
The movement disconnected itself from both the traditional professional training requirements of art, and the expected marketplace of art (Burger, 1984, p. 37). This has had a powerful effect on all aspects of art, architecture, and fashion.
The adherents of the Avant Garde adopted modes of dress, lifestyles, and channels for presenting their works that were themselves works of art (Ward, 2010). The effects of this set of choices is still resonating today.
Out of all this came a persistent attitude of deconstruction, of rejection of anything that had been done before. This is the area in which the Avant Garde may have had the largest impact on fashion.
What is the history of the Avant Garde?
Just after the First World War, the brutal scars of that conflict were still fresh and painful. The flower of European youth had either been slaughtered or crippled in ways that led many to question the purpose of the war, and its clear mismanagement in many of its aspects. Like many other intelligent people, artists questioned the purpose of life, of their art, and of themselves.
The dreamy landscapes of the Impressionists, and even the more radical approaches to depicting nature taken by the Cubists, futurists and expressionists, must have seemed rather ineffectual and trivial in light of mustard gas, blinded eyes, lost limbs, and, what modern psychiatry would call PTSD. It was against this backdrop of post -war reflection that Tristan Tzara, in mid-1910s, published his Dadaist Manifestoes.
“DADA is our intensity: it erects inconsequential bayonets and the Sumatral head of German babies; Dada is life with neither bedroom slippers nor parallels; it is against and for unity and definitely against the future; we are wise enough to know that our brains are going to become flabby cushions, that our anti dogmatism is as exclusive as a civil servant, and that we cry liberty but are not free; a severe necessity with entire discipline nor morals and that we spit on humanity.” (Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918, 1970, p. 76)
Al though this appeared officially in one magazine, the eponymous Dada, which had only 4 issues, this manifesto stirred up an astonishing amount of activity. Over the next several decades, artists of all media on both sides of the Atlantic were energized and stimulated by this call to … whatever it was; nothingness and anti-everything.
The concrete results of this movement were art techniques that used randomness and non-art-academy techniques to convey a message or an idea. Use of typeface in idiosyncratic ways, collage, use of found objects (known as readymades), all developed from Avant Garde Dadaist principles. Assemblages of objects and images (photomontage) placed the creation of art within reach even to those without formal training. It was all a matter of training the viewer, and the artist’s, eye.
What were and are the social aspects of the Avant Garde?
The mostly young enthusiasts of the Avant Garde took the implications of the movement’s abandonment of social traditions very seriously. Tristan Tzara allowed for the application of the Dadaist mindset to all aspects of life.
This is signaled in the following quote from a 1922 lecture by Tzara:
“The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust. Disgust with the magnificence of philosophers who for 3ooo years have been explaining everything to us (what for? ), disgust with the pretensions of these artists-God’s-representatives-on-earth, disgust with passion and with real pathological wickedness where it was not worth the bother; disgust with a false form of domination and restriction *en masse*, that accentuates rather than appeases man’s instinct of domination, disgust with all the catalogued categories, with the false prophets who are nothing but a front for the interests of money, pride, disease, disgust with the lieutenants of a mercantile art made to order according to a few infantile laws, disgust with the divorce of good and evil, the beautiful and the ugly (for why is it more estimable to be red rather than green, to the left rather than the right, to be large or small?). Disgust finally with the Jesuitical dialectic which can explain everything and fill people’s minds with oblique and obtuse ideas without any physiological basis or ethnic roots, all this by means of blinding artifice and ignoble charlatans promises. “(sic) (Tzara, Lecture on Dada, 1922, reprinted in Tristan Tzara: Biography, DADAism, and Poetry, 2010)
This seems to be nothing less than a rejection of religion and philosophy, love, government, commerce, aesthetics, and, by extension, everything that society holds dear. The corrosive effect on morals of such a nihilistic view has been discussed widely (Pete, 2011).
If not only religion, but words themselves, have no meaning, how can anyone pass on values? How can anyone justify behaving in a moral manner when the very basis of morality is questioned?
What are the psychological origins and impact of the Avant Garde?
The Avant Garde, and especially Dadaism, have been previously identified as symptoms of the stress of an unprecedented war. These movements have also been associated with a reaction to the theories of Freud (Acker, 2011).
The discoveries by Freud of parts of the mind that are not perceived routinely by the individual were revolutionary, to say the least. Freud recognized that our actions are not always motivated by the aims that we acknowledge consciously. This realization has so profoundly changed modern thinking that it is almost impossible to discuss his contributions to science without using words he himself defined.
The locus of control for thought and inspiration moved, permanently, from the deity, or spirit. Freud’s work allowed former believers to explain all the acts of the saints, and the martyrs in terms of unconscious motivations.
What are the philosophical implications of the Avant Garde?
Since the avowed purpose of the Avant Garde was to reject all that went before, the philosophical implications of this movement are apparently largely negative. There is no God, there is no meaning to any institution such as family, or country, church, or the academy; such items are all merely words, and words have no intrinsic meaning. So goes the Dadaist view.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its negativity, the Avant Garde still reverberates today. The implications of such a view can be traced into such subsequent philosophical movements such as Existentialism. In Existentialism, the individual is entirely responsible for their own happiness and their own moral behavior, since no God is acknowledged at all.
In fine art, the impact can be perceived even in the way this subject is taught in a children’s crèche or pre-school. Consider how teachers these days tell their tiny students that whatever creation they name as art – is indeed art.
The Avant Garde was not passive about their rejection of the old. Many were involved with socialist or communist ideas, in the generous hopes of bettering the world. The democratization of art was an outgrowth of this impulse. Do it yourself poetry, sculpture, performance, and painting, all placed art at the level of a craft, accessible to all, and presented in venues that were free or cheap (Tzara, To Make A Dadist Poem, reprinted in Tristan Tzara: Biography, DADAism, and Poetry, 2010) (Trachtman, 2006) (Duchamp, The Richard Mutt Case, 2002).
On the opposite side, philosophically, it is tempting to draw another connection. Could the anti-religious stance of the Avant Garde have influenced the often sterile individualism of Ayn Rand? Her notions are getting a renovation with a current remake of one of her novels, Atlas Shrugged.
What is “zeitgeist’ and ‘avant-garde’, in terms of fashion?
It is fair to observe that fashion, as a human artifact, reflects the culture that produces it. The zeitgeist or mood of a time or era (Merriam Webster, 2011), is part of the culture, and so will be reflected in all the creations of humans during that period.
In the era when the Avant Garde first developed, women were also creators (Yale Books, 2011) as well as wives and lovers (Ward, 2010) of the artists whose names we know now. As companions, the women wore clothes as costume or art pieces (Ward, 2010). Of the designers whose work survives, the best known is probably Elsa Schiaparelli. Her sense of humor, even in the depths of the Depression, qualifies her for retrospectives on a grand and institutional scale (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004).
However, the Great Depression in the 30’s, and rationing right through the 40’s, made custom couture a difficulty. Persons recently living recount stories of having to make do with fancy lingerie for wedding gowns because of fabric shortages, and the Queen of England is said to have had to use her rations to augment her own wedding celebration.
This had a dampening effect on experimentation for the couture market. It is interesting that it was in the 1960s, in the midst of the boom in prosperity, that fashion houses such as Courreges and Givenchy generated designs of deconstruction and stunning anti-utility. The topless Givenchy bathing suit is one such example. The slitted sunglasses by Courreges, seemingly modeled on indigenous Eskimo sun goggles, are another. It is likely that it has taken so long for the ideas of the Avant Garde to seep into the interstices of fashion thought because, unlike art, fashion has to at least make a show of trying to turn a profit or at least pay its bills.
The ebullience of the 1960s was an increasingly rebellious ferment, and quite congruent with the anti-establishment ideas of the Avant Garde. Some of the most concrete realizations of Dada actually took form in the 1960s in the USA, for example, thanks to Claes Oldenburg and his staged storefronts (Haskell, 2009).
What are some impacts of the Avant Garde on fashion?
In recent decades, there have developed two strains or currents in cutting edge fashion. There are the Deconstructionists, and the Avant Garde.
Consumers in sizable numbers had access to the above-noted silliness of the 1960s. There was always a relationship between the style and the human body. A topless bathing suit is impractical on most beaches, but can be moved in and used for swimming.
More recently, Comme des Garcons deconstructed styles in such a way that it might require instruction to learn how to wear them. This is still not so very extreme. Anyone who has baby-sat in the last two decades knows that it requires instruction to learn how to put on some of the current textile infant carriers, such as baby bundlers or slings, and no one blanches at the thought.
It is in the most recent period that runways of many houses have been dominated by styles that cannot be worn without a spotter and handler. These are garments that are only tangentially related to the body. The body, usually female, but increasingly, also male, is merely the scaffold, the pivot, the framework, or the frame, for kinetic sculptures.
Who counts as Avant Garde, and what is their expression of this movement?
Designers both new and established have taken an Avant Garde turn in their styling. Fashion houses such as Alexander McQueen, Viktor & Rolf, John Galliano,
Jean Paul Gaultier, Maison Martin Margiela, Christopher Kane, Versace, Hussein Chalayan come to mind. All of these designers have produced both styles and shows that evoke the over-the-top silliness or shock of classic Dada stunts.
Case Study: Fashion designers
Viktor&Rolf evoke the visual jokes of Elsa Schiaparelli, but take the notion of style as art a bit further. Their styles really cannot be worn in any practical way, but they ask questions and challenge assumptions. For example, a transparent chemise covers all but the parts that would cause an arrest for indecent exposure. A skirt is worn around the neck. A one-shouldered dress could double as shelter for the homeless. The mounting of their shows in un-authorized locations and venues, such as art galleries, and their willingness to perform in their own shows, places them within the Avant Garde tradition, if there can be said to be such a thing.
Maison Martin Margiela has adopted one of the central thrusts of the Avant Garde and specifically the Dadaist movement by substituting a blank label for the logos of other houses. He deconstructs styles and recombines them. He revives styles and reproduces them in new ways. His garments often change the way that clothes fit and move on the body or away from it. All these tendencies place him squarely in the camp of the Avant Garde.
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