“The Two Avant-Gardes” by Peter Wollen

The idea of the avant-garde artist has been circulating for centuries, believed to have started with the Salon des Refuses in Paris, which was a collection of artists that had been refused by the art schools of 1863 as existing outside of their predetermined conception of the definition of art. Other ideas regarding the initiation of the term are attributed to Saint Simonian Olinde Rodrigues who issues a challenge to the artists of the world to “serve as [the people’s] avant-garde” by introducing controversial social, political and economic conceptions into the general discussion (cited by Calinescu, 1987). This ‘leading force’ shocked and surprised the public, not always in a positive way, and introduced previously taboo subjects into the conversation. In modern times, though, the term avant-garde is generally used to refer to expanding the aesthetic experience by constantly challenging the boundaries that have been established. It was generally associated with modern art in that the forms of art produced in this period were experimental and attempted to bridge the difference between the flat, two-dimensional space of the canvas and the real, living, breathing world of the audience. New technologies being developed, such as the camera and the cinema, led to even further developments in these areas. By 1975, when Peter Wollen wrote his contentious article entitled “The Two Avant-Gardes”, the question had made the transition to film and film theory with numerous individuals questioning just what was meant by the term and how it should be applied. Within this article, Wollen argues that there is not a single face of the avant-garde, but rather a dual image, one of which was centred in the art world and their explorations regarding the relationship between art, life and the audience while the other was centred in the political realm and the productions of written thought, such as that expressed in literature and philosophy. To understand what Wollen meant by his two avant-gardes, it is necessary to take a closer look into the examples he provides as being emblematic of each form he envisioned.

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Wollen distinguished the two avant-gardes as being separated by “aesthetic assumptions, institutional frameworks, type of financial support, type of critical backing, historical and cultural origin” (Wollen, 1975). Aesthetic assumptions referred not only to the actual content but also to questions of whether or how much of the process should be concentrated on the ultimate communication as it was focused upon the art itself or upon broader terms of social and political outer issues. The different forms of the avant-garde were also separated by the types of sponsors and critics that supported it as they either understood the goals and focus or failed to make connections between the art and its significance. There is also a distinct difference between the various cultural approaches taken to avant-garde art, both in its creation and in its interpretation.

The first of these two identified divisions was based upon an American viewpoint-based predominantly in New York. Those artists who contributed to Wollen’s idea of this first form of avant-garde included Leger, Picabia, Eggeling and Richter, each of whom could be seen trying to extend their art outside of the frame of the canvas and into the greater sphere of the real world. Examining the world left behind after Jackson Pollock’s death, Allan Kaprow (1993) said, “Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other sense, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odours, touch. Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists” (8). As they worked to investigate the various methods by which this could be done, artists noticed that the process of creating art itself began to take centre stage and the art became an examination of how ideas were communicated – in other words, focused upon the process. “This has led, in Wollen’s estimation, to an essentialism, an ontology not of the prolific (as is the case in the realist project, à la Bazin) but of the nature of the cinematic process, or what he there terms ‘pure film'” (Curtis, 2007). Again, the idea is art for art’s sake, examining the means by which it is produced and how its ideas are communicated to the viewer without reference to outside symbols or other obvious signifiers.

As an example of this kind of art in its early phases, Wollen pointed to the Cubist movement as a means of breaking the boundaries of traditional signifiers and make reference instead to the relationship between the signifier and the signified. As this idea expanded, reference to an established set of symbols was further broken down and explored through abstraction and minimalism. The ultimate breaking down of this was the examination of how the art medium was able to communicate a world of transition and change, reality and illusion within the very context of its delivery. “What soon emerged as the dominant strand was that theorized by Clement Greenberg as art’s self-interrogation of its own practices and materials, as calling attention to itself” (Lapsley & Westlake, 1989: 190). The idea was no longer a case of representation of the world, but rather a representation of art and appealed primarily to those within the world of high art who were aware of the overall focus and understood the importance of the process in the understanding of the work.

This exploration, which took place in two-dimensional as well as cinema art, plunged into the realm of phenomenology, in which it is recognized that what appears to a subject’s consciousness may not match exactly with the view of the world held by a majority of others. Alfred Schutz, in his examinations of Edmund Husserl’s writings regarding scientific objectivism, revealed the concept that we use subjective ideas and meanings in order to define an apparently objective social world (Orleans, 2007). These subjective observations could be something as simple as what our definition of bright red might be through the most complex concepts of self or time but were nevertheless often held to be objective truths, universally agreed upon and quickly understood. With increased globalization in the social and business worlds, the fallacy of this assumption became increasingly revealed, especially as the ideas being explored in the avant-garde of the Americas was becoming increasingly distant from that being explored by Europeans and vice versa. With this realization, artists began to explore how their viewpoint remained unique from that of other artists and of other individuals by concentrating on the emotions or the essence of the experience rather than the representation of it (Walker, 2005). It was determined that while symbols, shapes and even colours could have different meanings to different people, it was also recognized that human emotion is generally experienced the same universally. What triggered these emotions differed, but the process of evoking emotional response could also be treated in a more or less universal way. Thus, it was also being recognized that the viewpoints held by individuals within the general audience would necessarily bring their own distortions into the dialogue established between the art, the artist and the viewer and this would affect the way the art would be experienced.

The structural film is representative of this form of avant-garde art because it focuses on the film’s material processes which are themselves emblematic of the perceptive process. The film as it is played is a different experience than the film as it is viewed on the celluloid strip (Walker, 2005). It is the subjective experience of the human eye that makes the images on the screen seem to move about rather than through any specific action of the film. Although the images don’t actually move on their own, it is instead an act of the film itself, we anticipate and blur the edges, thus perceiving images that move. The structural film highlighted the discontinuity between the moving images and the moving film, one ‘moving’ in a virtual way as the images in successive cells changed and combined, the other moving in reality in a linear and ordered progression. This process is the physical representation of the concept of the phenomenological relationship that exists between the individual and his or her consciousness of the world around them or of the film or art before them. By focusing upon the mechanics of this process, portraying varying levels of film and processes, the structural film highlights the importance of this perception in our formation of meaning regarding the world we see and in our interpretations of what is intended. It also illustrates how the world that is seen is only seen in fragments, leaving us to fill in the gaps where necessary and sometimes making faulty assumptions or seeing a distorted image as a result. The film thus embodies the concepts of the artistic avant-garde as it presents varying yet simultaneous levels of awareness and highlights the concept that life is a unique perception.

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Joyce Wieland is one example of a structuralist film artist working from a cultural context different from that of American artists living and working in New York at the time. Although she also lived in New York for a portion of her working life, she first engaged the public through her art in her native country of Canada. Elements that are included in her work are concepts of disaster and the concept of the ridiculous within the tragic. “She took a keen interest in the space and objects, the delights and hazards of her own everyday life, focusing often on the domestic sphere, its instruments and implements, its techniques and its tactile sensual pleasures, all symptomatic of the feminist slant to her work” (Walker, 2005). This was done by focusing on the emotions of the process of objects in everyday life. This concentration on ideas also looked into the concept of the present as it was expressed in the nationalistic ideas of her fellow Canadians. According to Northrop Frye, the Canadian identity was formed not by the typical American question of ‘Who am I?’ but rather worked upon the various answers to the question of ‘Where is here?’ (1995: 222). Thus, Wieland attempted, through her films, to help specify the place in which we create meaning, whether ‘we’ is referring to the individual or to a geographic concept. Finally, Wieland kept her work rigidly contained within a reductive environment in which each piece had its own answer to her primary themes, but few additional clues were afforded. This complicated series of the subject, process and reductivism created “a body of work that, in its eclecticism, seems to continue to be largely illegible to critics and scholars alike” (Walker, 2005).

While this art-centred American approach to the avant-garde was emerging out of New York, the second avant-garde, more focused upon political issues, was growing throughout Europe but is centred more concretely within Paris with such filmmakers as Godard, Jancso and Oshima (Woolen, 1975). While it was also associated with the modernist movement, like its counterpart in America, its focus was mostly political rather than aesthetic art for art’s sake. It worked to simultaneously emphasize the signified images and the obvious relationship that developed between the signifier and the signified. “Thus focus switches here from the dispositif of the medium as defined by the rarefied contemporary art world to that defined by a film with an audience, created for mass agitation” (Curtis, 2007). Because of this difference in approach in which the audience is defined as a generalized public rather than the contemporary world of high art, the shifts that took place were significantly different from that seen in the artistic avant-garde. For example, while those in America were working to remove language and sound from their interpretations as a means of focusing upon the investigation of signifiers, those in the political avant-garde were dependent upon the language and narrative as a means of transforming how these new ideas of the modern movement were to be expressed. Multiple viewpoints, voices, backgrounds, assumptions and more were to be explored in minute detail without the clutter of the everyday world to provide a more complete understanding of the relationships that are created out of the mingling of understandings that were possible. While the films that emerged remained complicated and took some effort to understand if one wasn’t intimately familiar with the avant-garde approach, it was accessible by the general public and thus gradually gained a greater ability to affect discourse.

It was eventually this form of cinema that garnered a greater deal of attention, frequently referred to by Wollen as the counter-cinema. Within his article, Wollen identified several ways in which this form of cinema was diametrically opposed to the constructions of traditional cinema (Lapsley & Westlake, 1989). For example, one of the ways in which this form of avant-garde film differed both from traditional film and from the avant-garde cinema of the New York scene was in its dependence on narrative. Although the narrative is often a key feature of more traditional film, the way in which it was used within the counter cinema was noticeably different. Narrative in this form of the film became interrupted, digressed into unrelated side avenues and introduced far more subtle connections between events. This motion was frequently mimicked in the introduction of objects, scenes, etc. in such a way as to attempt to re-create the real experience of life, not as a continuous and well-understood process, but instead as a series of disjointed events and times that must be carefully contemplated in order to create meaning.

Like its American-based counterpart, this counter-cinema sought to break apart the traditional relationships established through the old forms of cinema by consistently crossing the boundaries between the actor and the character, the storyline and the film, through such techniques as having actors transition between themselves and their characters or directly addressing the audience through the screen rather than remaining in place or in the scene. The idea of space is thus fractured as well. As might be expected through its use of narrative and characters, another aspect of the counter-cinema is a general attempt to continuously remind the audience that they are watching a film, construction of some kind that cannot be a representation in the true sense of the word, but is instead the concept of an individual’s perception of the world as it appears to him/her rather than as it actually is. While the meanings that are depicted may come very close to hitting a known truth or a believed idea, this is not necessarily because the filmmaker was able to capture a profound universal concept, but instead because of a shared vision between the filmmaker and the individual audience member that may or may not also resonate with numerous other audience members.

Jean-Luc Godard is one of the film producers Wollen lists as being exemplary of this approach. The 15 feature films he produced during the 1960s feature a multiplicity of stylistic exploration and conceptual investigation. Like the films being made in America, Godard included discussion regarding the nature of movies in his work; however, he also looked into the meanings of pop culture influences such as key passages in books, political and commercial slogans and philosophical conceptions. Many of these passages are given directly to the audience from the actor, breaking down the illusion of the world inside the film. Also, in keeping with an increasingly disjointed society, Godard frequently merely introduced ideas rather than developing them fully. “Instead what we often get are fragments, as beautifully structured as an epigram or as sloppily inserted as a note scribbled on a scrap of paper, and often abandoned as suddenly as they are introduced. This isn’t to say that Godard’s ideas aren’t worth considering. No filmmaker has ever been more profoundly obsessed with the question of how movies, even ones made at the speed Godard worked, could keep pace with a culture that was both fragmenting and accelerating” (Taylor, 1999). In introducing his ideas in this way, Godard was indeed the epitome of the European counter cinema avant-garde.

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Through his developed discussion of the counter-cinema, which is the evolved version of the second avant-garde or the political avant-garde discussed in “The Two Avant-Gardes,” Wollen is able to explain the differences between the approaches taken in the Structural films of America’s early 1960s and 1970s and the Structural/ Materialist films of Europe slightly later. His article was written as an attempt to bring these two diverging schools of thought together and perhaps make film theory more cosmopolitan rather than dominated by a particular continental faction. However, as the discussion was carried out by Wollen and others after him, the counter-cinema movement proved to have greater overall potential as well as the added benefit of being more accessible to a wider audience and therefore more effective in addressing the explored concepts.


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  2. Curtis, Robin. ( 2007). “Of Gerbils and Men: Politics, Satire and Passion in Some Films of Joyce Wieland.Art and Cinematography. Web.
  3. Frye, Northrop. (1995, 1st pub. 1971). “Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada.” The Bush Garden. Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto: Anansi Press.
  4. Kaprow, Allan. (1993). “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock.” Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Jeff Kelley (Ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
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