Modernism and Avant-Garde Art Practice

RELATED TERMS: Avant-garde movements; Socially engaged art; Critical thinking; Agonism and avant-gardism; Dissensus - Ranciere

Design practice has long been influenced by art practice, and vice versa, for example, the minimalism of the 1960s and 1970s influenced graphic and industrial design, in one direction, while modernist art of the early 20th century incorporated designed artefacts from everyday life into its artworks and pop art explicitly took commercial art themes and icons and re-contextualised them within the institutional gallery system of fine art, in the other direction. Elements of art practice and design practices are, by the early 21st century, well and truly intertwined, which does not mean that they are equivalent.

The practice of designing a narrative environment, then, may incorporate techniques, devices and concepts from art practice directly or indirectly and/or consciously or unconsciously. It is as well, then, to be aware of the relationship between modernist and avant-garde art practices, as this distinction bears upon the question of whether a specific art practice, and by analogy a specific design practice, is separate from society and self-referential or is socially relevant, whether critically or conventionally, and integrated with society.

Jochen Schulte-Sasse (1984: xii) points out that Peter Burger (1984) does not accept the argument presented within the Anglophone cultural history tradition that there was a radical turning point in the mid-19th century, after which a scepticism towards language marked the beginning of modernism, as an important demarcation in art history. By setting the avant-garde within the broad context of cultural politics and the consciousness industry, and by seeing the chances to use the ruptures within this system, as Burger does, a more full understanding of the avant-garde can be obtained. Thus, Burger reconstructs literary history from the development of autonomous literature in bourgeois culture during the period of classicism and romanticism in the 18th century and early 19th century through to the turn to Aestheticism/modernism and on to the avant-garde.

In the Anglophone tradition, the modernist writer of ‘high’ literature no longer refers positively to society by presenting norms and values critically. Rather, the modernist writer attacks the ossification of society and its language. By this definition, in plot construction in modernist literature a writer no longer tacitly assumes that there is a rational structure in human conduct, that this structure can be ascertained and that doing so enables the writer to lend his work a specific order. Assumptions concerning human conduct, rationality, sequence and order are put in question: there is no secure or preordained meaning in the action portrayed. The reader remains uncertain as to the possibilities or horizons of meaning.

The Anglophone tradition holds that from the mid-19th century onwards, beginning with Flaubert, this sceptical tendency becomes predominant. Burger finds in this Anglophone debate about modernism an assumption that obscures the much more radical shift from Aestheticism to the historical avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century.

For Burger, the developing scepticism toward language and the change in relation of form and content that characterised Symbolism and Aestheticism was inherent in the developmental logic of the institution of ‘art’ from the beginning, i.e. from the beginning of the specific institutionalisation of the commerce with art in bourgeois society. Even if the autonomous art of bourgeois culture in the late 18th century criticised society through its contents, it was separated through its form from the mainstream of society.

In Burger’s view, the development leading to Symbolism and Aestheticism is best described as a transformation of form into content, whereby art becomes a problem for itself as form becomes the content of art works, such that the predominant feature of modernist or aestheticism art is that it calls attention to its own material means and media. In other words, the apartness from the praxis of life that constituted the institutional status of art in bourgeois society became the content of works.

The passage from the autonomy of art in the 18th century to the Aestheticism of the late 19th century and early 20th century is, for Burger, a process of intensification of art’s separateness from bourgeois society. In so arguing, Burger departs from the history of the avant-garde in the Anglophone tradition. For Burger, the tendency inherent in art’s autonomous status drove the individual work and the art institution to increasingly extreme declarations of their autonomy. The increasing consciousness of writing techniques and the aesthetic sensitising of art’s audience lead, for Burger, to art works that are characterised by semantic atrophy.

Burger sees no purpose in valorising the purely aesthetic experience that motivates Aestheticist texts. Rather, his contention is that aestheticist art severs itself consistently from all social relevance, establishing itself as a medium of purely aesthetic experience in which ‘content’ withers as the artist/writer turns her/his attention in upon the medium and materiality of her/his own craft.

The development, i.e. the intensification of separation, is the historical precondition for the further development of art at the beginning of the 20th century. Thus, Burger argues, aestheticism’s intensification of artistic autonomy and its effect upon the foundation of a special realm of aesthetic experience prompted the avant-garde to recognise clearly the social inconsequentiality of autonomous art and, in consequence of this recognition, to try to lead art back into social praxis.

It can be seen, then, that for Burger the development of the avant-garde has nothing to do with a critical consciousness about language. It is not, Burger suggests, simply a continuation of processes already present in Aestheticism.

The turning point from Aestheticism to the avant-garde is determined by the extent to which art comprehended its own status in bourgeois society. The historical avant-garde of the 1920s was the first movement in art history to turn against the art institution itself and the mode in which art’s autonomy functions. By doing so, the avant-garde differed from all previous art movements, whose mode of existence was determined precisely by an acceptance of autonomy and exceptionality. Avant-garde artists actively attacked the institution of art not in an effort to isolate themselves but to reintegrate themselves and their art into life.

Burger shows that the avant-garde’s attack upon art as an institution in bourgeois society was not only designed to destroy this institution but also permitted its existence and significance to become perceptible in the first place. Burger demonstrates that the historical analysis of the social functioning of past art, i.e. its institution, became possible only when, first, the historical unfolding of this institution had reached its end in the radical separation of aestheticist or modernist art from society; and, second, when, due to this development, the avant-garde could attack the institution of art.

The equation of the terms ‘modernism’ and ‘avant-garde’ stems from an inability to see that the theoretical emphases of modernist and avant-garde artists/writers are radically different. Modernism may be understandable as an attack on traditional writing techniques, notably the tendency of realism to use conventional language patterns, but the avant-garde can only be understood as an attack intended to alter the institutionalised commerce with art.

Thus, Schulte-Sasse stresses, Burger goes beyond those who argue that the key point in the development of modern art was the shift to aestheticism, i.e. modernism, from realism, through his insistence on the importance of the avant-garde’s attack on the institution of art. Burger pursues his argument by highlighting the distinction between the institutional role of art and the concept of the work of art which inhabits a privileged domain apart from society.

By showing how the institution ‘art’ mediated art with bourgeois society, Burger makes clear that the institution itself, and no transcendental concept of the work of art, serves as the essence of art in precise, historical, and recoverable, ways. Nevertheless, for Burger, as for Marcuse and Habermas, art holds a precarious, ambiguous position in bourgeois society. Art can both protest and protect the status quo. In radicalising its autonomy from other aspects of society, art gave rise to a counterculture that was hostile to the possessive-individualistic achievement- and advantage-oriented lifestyle of the bourgeoisie. In this radicalised, autonomous art, the bourgeoisie had to recognise the negation rather than the complement of its social practice.

Anglophone criticism, in exaggerating the significance of the shift from realism to aestheticism (modernism) so much, neglects or insufficiently appreciates the important effort of avant-garde praxis to destroy the shell of the no-longer-beautiful illusion in order to make art pass de-sublimated over into life. In consequence most Anglophone criticism has lost sight of the goal the avant-garde set up for itself.
Avant-garde artists were not just reacting to society with pseudo-existentialist passions of the soul. Nor were they simply reacting to society with efforts to break up and dislodge prevalent styles. Anglophone theories of modernism, Schulte-Sasse argues, emphasised the pathos but not the praxis of modern artists. Schulte-Sasse suggests that French poststructuralist models of modernism may have a similar emphasis.

Unlike modernist art, Burger insists that avant-garde aesthetic praxis aimed to intervene in social reality. The avant-garde recognised that the organic unity of the bourgeois institution of art left art impotent to intervene in social life. The avant-garde therefore developed a different concept of the work of art which permitted the possibility of reinterpreting art into social praxis if artists would create unclosed, individual segments of art that open themselves to supplementary responses.


Burger, P. (1984). Theory of the avant-garde. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Schulte-Sasse, J. (1984). Foreword: theory of modernism versus theory of the avant-garde. In Theory of the avant-garde,by Peter Burger, translated by Michael Shaw. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, vii-xivii.