Modernism and the avant-garde are not the same thing, even though they are often used as if they are. While they both began in France in the nineteenth century as a rebellion against the constraints imposed on artists by the official Academies, they are two different, but related, approaches to traditions and technique.
Modernism in art began with the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire’s book The Painter of Modern Life (Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne), first published in Paris in 1863. In it he explains the fundamental difference between the first Modern painters—such as Manet or Courbet—and the academics. The difference between the first Modern artists and their academic peers was not a question of how they painted, but of what: the academics painted idealized pictures drawn from ancient history—the Greeks or Romans—or allegorical scenes from the Bible. The Modernist painters painted the everyday life of the nineteenth century when they lived. The change in subject matter was shocking to nineteenth century audiences and provoked major scandals at the time. It is the scandalous dimension to these earliest Modernist works that leads to the confusion between Modernism and the avant-garde.
Further confusing the two terms, Modern and avant-garde in the twentieth century, is the fact that being avant-garde also meant being Modernist. But it is possible for an artist to be a Modernist, and not be an avant-gardist. The difference between Modernist and the avant-garde originates with the avant-garde’s disruption of our basic expectations of what makes a work of art; the scandals caused by Modernist works came from violating a prohibition against painting the contemporary, everyday world of the nineteenth century—none of these works fundamentally challenged the idea of “art” itself. This challenge to the definition of “art” is essential to the definition of the avant-garde.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the avant-garde became the most visible, important and controversial kind of art being made. The shift from a concern over subject matter into the avant-garde’s concerns with the underlying meaning and definition of art itself is related to the impact that photography had on painting. Before photography, most painters—unlike the Masters such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian or Rubens, who created images with literary and intellectual content—worked as documentarians, producing pictures for their clients of family members, decorative pictures of landscapes or still lifes. But photography allows anyone to own a detailed, realistic picture of anything that can be photographed. Prior to its invention, high-quality portraiture was the exclusive domain of the elites, due largely to the level of technical skill required of painters. Photography “short-circuited” this process. The development of photography in the 1830s led, with its general adoption and refinement, to the supplanting of painters by photographers as the documentarians of visible reality. It is no accident that the majority of images from the first fifty years of photography are portraits and other subjects well-known from paintings. In attempting to demonstrate that it was art by imitating painting, photography proved to be the archetypal disruptive technology: it replaced painting by doing what painters did, only cheaper and more often; it was what is now known as a “disruptive technology.”
Disruptive technologies always work democratically: they allow increasing numbers of people to have access to those things which were previously very rare, expensive, or difficult to produce. The avant-garde is the transformation of the idea of “disruptive technology” into artistic methodology. It is the difference between an experimental search and the formalistic searches of traditional art limited in advance by accepted approaches that constitutes the disruptive aspects of the avant-garde. A formalistic search remains within the confines of tradition; an experimental search is unbound by tradition. The experimental domain of the avant-garde is the unexplored areas of the soul—a territory whose examination began with the rejection of certain art and artists by the French Salon in the 1860s. It is the academics’ rejection of the painters who, Charles Baudelaire defends in The Painter of Modern Life, that gave birth to the idea of “avant-garde art” beyond simply art that is Modern.
This history of art in France in the 1860s has been replayed several times in the art world since then. Starting with the 1913 Armory show in New York, the conflict between academics and Modernists arrived in the United States; the confusion of avant-garde and Modern originates with this introduction—the most notable works in the Armory Show were abstract, making their connection to the “modern life” Baudelaire talks about difficult for most viewers to discern. At the same time, the avant-garde conflict swirled around them, especially around abstraction, and the press coverage of the show and the scandal was often confused about the nature of the debate and simply used “Modern” and “avant-garde” as if they meant the same thing.
A similar conflict arose again in the 1950s, as Abstract Expressionism supplanted the earlier Regional movement, and again in the late 1960s around Conceptual Art, a conflict that still has not been resolved.