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On the Avant-Garde, Responses, and How an Artwork Can Stand Out

Essay, 2023

Any response subjects the responding to the responded.


1. Introduction

In this essay, I will discuss the generic pattern and distinct particularities of an artistic movement through the example of the Avant-Garde. The example will then be generalized to answer the question of “what makes an artwork stand out.” 

A comprehensive introduction to the movement can be found in Renato Poggioli’s The Theory of the Avant-Garde, on which I will rely heavily for facts about the movement, as well as evidence of the various opinions around it. I will, however, impose my own structure of analysis, and within such a structure, spell out my own arguments on the Avant-Garde, which oftentimes disagree with some of Poggioli’s (“some,” as Poggioli himself presents self-contradicting arguments without acknowledging/explaining the contradictions. It might be of some comfort that among these contradicting views, the ones that come at later sections of the book are often closer to the truth, perhaps signifying an unplanned and therefore undetected improvement in his own understanding of the subject matter.) While I will often quote or paraphrase Poggioli, this essay is not intended to be a summary of or a response to his book, and should be able to reach readers unfamiliar with Poggioli, or (if I may be so ambitious,) the Avant-Garde movement itself. Stylistically, as my work is not intended as an addition to the already overflowing texts of art critique or art history, I will keep my distance from the meandering sentence structures, often consisting of double, triple, or quadruple negatives, that Poggioli (his translator as well) seems to be so very fond of.

The essay is structured in three sections – the first discusses the intertemporal responses of and to the Avant-Garde; the second discusses the intratemporal responses of and to the Avant-Garde; the third proposes how an artwork can “stand out” by not responding to matters that do not warrant a response. 


2. Intertemporal

A generic intertemporal pattern can be set up metaphorically into a “father-son” model. One father can have multiple sons; all sons share the same father. All sons respond, in various attitudes, forms, and intensity, to the father. In his response, each son grows, and potentially becomes a father. 

Perhaps the most popular specification of this intentionally general analogy is for the “responses” to be various rebellions/resistance from the sons against the oppression of the father. This already narrowed-down version of the pattern is still quite general – as Mao famously says, “哪里有压迫哪里就有反抗” (“Where there is oppression, there is resistance,”) and for the rest of the essay, will be further confined to the realm of art. The pattern described above repeats itself through time while in each iteration takes on time-specific/time-dependent characteristics. 

I normally do not share Poggioli’s zeal for the action of giving names to things, however, an exception that marks the distinction between a “school” and a “movement” will nicely ground the generic pattern in art. Poggioli defines a school of art as “pre-eminently static and classical,” and a movement of art as “essentially dynamic and romantic” that “is constituted primarily to obtain a positive result, for a concrete end” (20, 25). It is obvious that the school is the “father,” the movement is a “son,” and the “concrete end,” his response/rebellion to his father, yet it is nontrivial to note that Poggioli’s descriptions of both are valid only conditioning on the perspective of the “son.” The son sees his father as “static and classical” and himself as “essentially dynamic and romantic.” How does the father see himself? “All art was once contemporary.” “How does the father see his son(s)?” is a question without ground as the father is the responded, and by construction is not required an impression of the responding.

2.1 Avant-Garde as the Son

I will first discuss the Avant-Garde movement’s position in the temporal pattern as the responding son, as this is the bulk of Poggioli’s argument and also fitting to the general impression of the Avant-Garde the readers might have. While Poggioli denotes “the connection between avant-gardism and romanticism” as a “parental bond,” he confirms the popular perception of the former as a rebellious youngster, claiming that “(the) aesthetic radicalism often expresses itself by opposing that special category of society (in both the large and the limited sense of the word) called the old generation, the genera­tion of the fathers” (34). Poggioli later defines and describes in detail the different variations or sub-categories of the Avant-Garde: the activism, the antagonism, the nihilism, the agonism, and the futurism, yet fails to realize that these isms are in fact different stages of the son’s rebellion. I will bridge that gap, and in doing so, not only describe the distinct characteristics in the how and what of each ism, but more importantly, elucidate the common trend underlying them – different parts of which anchors the whys behind these isms. 


The first part of any response is the urge to do something. Action denotes intention, externally and introspectively. Sometimes, action only is enough, without trivialities of logic, planning, metrics, etc. The urge is all the more immediate and fierce when the response is of a negative and challenging nature. For the Avant-Garde, this first part is branded the name “activism.” In Poggioli’s words, “the essence of activism lies in acting for the sake of acting,” to which he further explains that “often a movement takes shape and agitates for no other end than its own self, out of the sheer joy of dynamism, a taste for action, a sportive enthusiasm, and the emo­tional fascination of adventure” (25, 61). A closer inspection would show that the “sheer joy of dynamism” (the three proceeding phrases are simply its synonyms, only giving the deception of having different meanings under the disguise of the parallel sentence structure) on an individual level, consists of 1) gaining justification for one’s knee-jerk reaction, 2) equating the sense of action with the sense of progress which is somehow enough to prove the feasibility of successful completion, and optionally 3) seeking confirmation in a herd. Poggioli, in a different section of the book, confirms that  “...the avant-garde originates in this kind of polemical consciousness” where he coined the term “polemical consciousness” to mean “a function not of being and knowing, but of acting and doing,” which is again just a synonym for “activism” (48).

The next step after “do something” is “keep doing something.” The responding/rebel, now accustomed to confirming his attitude with his action is constantly looking for more available actions. At this stage, these available actions can still be found, but have already started to seem scarce in the anxious eyes of the confirmation-seeking rebels. This stage is branded the name “antagonism”, where Poggioli claims that “(the essence) of antagonism, (is the) acting by negative reaction” (61). Though not directly stated, Poggioli confirms that these “negative reactions” are not always easy to come by, in an example of the Avant-Garde poetics where he notes that “one of the most impor­tant aspects of avant-garde poetics is what is referred to as experi­mentalism; for this, one easily recognizes an immediate precedent in romantic aesthetic experimentation, the anxious search for new and virgin forms, with the aim not only of destroying the barbed wire of rules, the gilded cage of classical poetics, but also of creating a new morphology of art, a new spiritual language” (57). The “anxious search” for “new and virgin forms” in poetics is indeed a concrete example of the “anxious search” of any and all “negative reaction” by the antagonism. It seems that just like coal, or money in a checking account, rebellious action is also a finite resource that could become scarce or even depleted upon frequent digging in. “At times, the sociopsychological dialectic is left behind altogether, and the an­tagonism is elevated to a cosmic, metaphysical antagonism: a defiance of God and the universe” (33). Indeed, who else to show your defiance when you’ve exhausted the usual targets?

As exhaustion continues, even scarcity is a fleeting bliss as one approaches absolute barren – the third step. Unfortunately, the process of exhaustion has, through repeated granting of gratification, turned the rebel’s confirmation of attitude through action from a habit into an addiction. In the face of involuntary cold turkey, the desperate rebels of the Avant-Garde turn three ways. The first group, named “nihilism,” yearns for the familiar action of destruction so much so they are willing to become its final subject. When there’s nothing left to destroy, even self-destruction seems favorable. A rather lengthy quote from Poggioli covers the leap from antagonism to nihilism: “It (nihilism) finds joy not merely in the inebriation of movement, but even more in the act of beating down barriers, razing obstacles, destroying whatever stands in its way. The attitude thus constituted can be defined as a kind of transcendental antagonism, and we can give it no better name than nihilism or the nihilistic moment. Looking deeper, we ultimately see that, in the febrile anxiety to go always further, the movement and its constituent human entity can reach the point where it no longer heeds the ruins and losses of others and ignores even its own catastrophe and perdition. It even welcomes and accepts this self-ruin as an obscure or unknown sacrifice to the success of future movements” (26). It is worth noting that while at previous steps, the rebellious stance trumps the rebellious action, whereas the latter serves as the materialistic confirmation of the former, the attention on and subsequent addiction to the latter could outweigh the former at this step. The practitioners of nihilism, in the heated moment of desperately searching for a fix, fail to follow the logic that they are the “son” rebelling against the “father,” and that the self-destruction of the “son” does not challenge the oppressing “father” (it would, or at least it might, if the “father” has a clear impression/acknowledgment of the “son,” but it has been established previously that such an assumption is without ground.) Poggioli acknowledges the heat of such moments, stating that “the nihilistic posture represents the point of extreme tension reached by antagonism toward the public and tradition” (64). The second group, “agonism” they are branded, nurses the pain of not getting the fix of action, and tries to make peace with it. Poggioli defines “agonism” as “(a) paradoxical and posi­tive form of spiritual defeatism,” and explains further to readers like me who have an irking for defining one ism with another that “the ago­nistic attitude is not a passive state of mind, exclusively dominated by a sense of imminent catastrophe; on the contrary, it strives to transform the catastrophe into a miracle.” Loosely speaking, the “agonists” seem more pacified than their fellow “nihilists:” when the fever of red-hot yearning abates, and yet the pain persists, one is forced to make do with the excruciating position he is in. The third group, branded with “futurism,” creates false hope when all possibilities of hope are gone – not unlike a parent who, with any hope of his own career development deprived, starts to dream of an over-achieving future for his poor child. In Poggioli’s words, “the very spirit of avant-garde movements is that of the sacrifice and consecration of the self for those who come after” (67). When the sacrifice is selfish, the consecration is a self-consoling illusion. A harsher view might say that the followers of “futurism” substantiate their own loss and failure at the present in their empty expectation of the next generation – who might stand a chance in their rebellion against the current losers.

The giving of names stops here, as if the process, along with the people, dwindles out of existence. In fact, these steps will repeat, with activism coming up again, though might be differently named at the mercy of critics like Poggioli, just like the sun will rise the next morning.

I have detailed, in stages, the rebellion of the Avant-Garde,  as the “son” in the “father-son antithesis” (34). Before moving to the next (or the second half of) iteration, I’d like to address the so-called “infantilism” of the Avant-Garde. Poggioli claims that the “In the excessive exaltation of youth, (con­temporary civilization) obviously leads to a regressive condition: from youthful fresh­ness to adolescent ingenuousness, to boyish prankishness, to child­ishness,” and that “this sui generis primitivism determines a psychological regression and produces what one might call infantilism in certain aspects of avant-garde movements and art” (35). The regression from the “angry young men” to that of the “adolescent” or the “boyish” are all indeed possible, but the final step of reaching the “infantile” is not (35). There is a qualitative difference between a curious and inquisitive boy and an ignorant child that poses too high a barrier for such a regression. This point is essential as it not only points to a critical mistake of Poggioli, but more importantly, underscores the futile attempt of the Avant-Garde in trying to seek genuine innocence in the barbaric. To supplement his discussion on the “regression,” Poggioli claims that “the avant-garde often loves certain forms and devices of modern life primarily as toys” (35). Toys, often imitations of grown-up tools, might be conveniently associated with a child, but in fact signifies curiosity and a yearning for growth – growth of the son that cycles through activism, futurism, etc. Even Poggioli concedes that “it is, despite appearances to the contrary, only a variant of that antagonism. Certainly one cannot imagine a greater antag­onism than that existing between the child's world and the grown­up’s world” (36). Children with toys are still in the cycle, the iteration, the pattern, whereas ignorant infants are not. Therefore, there is no real alleviation of the pain felt by the addicted rebels of the Avant-Garde if the regression stops at the adolescent or the boyish. Yi Jing prescribes the optimal way of education as “匪我求童蒙,童蒙求我” (“(as a teacher), I do not seek/beg for the ignorant child; the ignorant child seeks/begs for me.”) Rather comically, the Avant-Garde indeed seeks/begs for childish ignorance, but fails to find it. Poggioli describes their effort as “turn(ing) their attention almost exclusively to negroid sculpture and the art of savages, prehistoric graffiti and pre-Columbian Indian art; they turn, in short, toward cultures remote in space and time, almost to pre­history itself” (55). “Almost” is the keyword here. A distinction needs to be made between the childishly ignorant and the barbaric. The distinction is in intention. An ignorant child does not know of his ignorance, and in not knowing, does not seek to improve it. Indeed, the child loses his precious ignorance when he “seeks/begs for” the teacher, and in that precise moment, enters the cycle of the father-son pattern. The same can be said for the barbaric – indeed, a child of a barbarian is born with ignorance, and loses such ignorance when he becomes an adolescent barbarian. Such ignorance is exactly what the Avant-Garde craves for, but cannot get. The flow from not knowing to knowing is one-directional, just like time, and pretending is of no use. Another distinction also begs clarification – between the essence of humanity from prehistory and attributes of “cultures remote in space and time” that resemble prehistory. Such a distinction can be made in time. An ancient culture could inherit wonderful qualities from as far back as prehistory, but not all things prehistoric are worth inheriting. Time is the indispensable filter in cultural inheritance. The Avant-Garde that turns to contemporary “prehistoric” cultures is without this filter. They could only find the qualities or inspirations if they know what they are searching for, but if they know what they are searching for, they wouldn’t be searching in the first place. Hence their inevitable failure. This concludes the argument that the so-called “infantilism” is only an unattainable hope for the Avant-Garde.

2.2 Avant-Garde as the Father


Without going into the details of the inevitable aging of the young Avant-Garde, it suffices to find an apropos summary in Poggioli’s words: “Like any artistic tradition, however antitraditional it may be, the avant-garde also has its conventions. In the broad sense of the word, it is itself no more than a new system of con­ventions, despite the contrary opinion of its followers” (56). Yet getting old doesn’t simply turn a son into a father, but merely a candidate for one. Success in some shape or form is also required, (in the case of the prospective grandpa: “Romanticism rapidly conquered the people, who had never been able to stomach the old classical art,”) and the Avant-Garde delivers, gaining popularity through its intentional unpopularity (49). To this point, Poggioli brilliantly asserts that “The chief characteristic of fashion is to impose and suddenly to accept as a new rule or norm what was, until a minute before, an exception or whim, then to abandon it again after it has become a commonplace, everybody’s “thing.” Fashion’s task, in brief, is to maintain a continual process of standardization: putting a rarity or novelty into general and universal use, then passing on to another rarity or novelty when the first has ceased to be such” (79). I will discuss the inferiority complex of the public that underlies this phenomenon in much detail in the Intraotemporal section, but for now it is enough to note that the attributes of the Avant-Garde discussed earlier make it a wonderful candidate for the “thing.” In doing so, the Avant-Garde can make the transformation from a movement to a school, from a son to the father, from the responding to the responded. 

2.3 A Tiny Example


It is worth reasserting that the intertemporal pattern described at the beginning of the section maintains its shape through iterations, but at the same time takes on specific time-dependent features that are distinct in each iteration. A sports analogy can be set up to say that the rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees (or insert your favorite pair of nemesis) is constant, yet each team goes through different managements, coaches, and players, all with their distinct styles and skills. Any arguments on the Avant-Garde being categorically different from the rest of art history (for example, Poggioli's at the beginning of his book: “novelty which is not merely formal but substantial, with a phenomenon truly ‘of exception’ in cultural history,”) focuses on these time-specific features, without concurrently taking into consideration the constant overarching pattern. I’d note to any eager readers that the subjects of discussion of the entire proceeding section of Intratemporal are time-dependent, that is, special to the era of the Avant-Garde. For now, I will offer a taste of this distinction through a tiny example, giving credit to the thoroughness of Poggioli’s factual research. A note-worthy feature of the movement, Avant-Garde’s utilization of the press is introduced by Poggioli to “function as an independent and isolated military unit, completely and sharply detached from the public, quick to act, not only to explore but also to battle, conquer, and adventure on its own” (24). He claims that “The romantic and the avant-garde periodical both differ notably from the Enlightenment periodical, which was not universal but generalized, written for education and propaganda, to instruct and to edify,” and accurately explains the root cause: “the triumph of mass journalism is precisely what motivates and justifies the existence of the avant-garde review, which represents a reaction, as natural as it is necessary, to the spread of culture out to (or down to) the vulgar” (24). In this well-packaged example, the common utiliation of the press shared by the “father” and the “son” is an attribute specific to the Romanticism and Avant-Garde era, caused by the evolvements of the journalism industry, and it would be foolish to treat such commonality as evidence against the father-son pattern described above.


3. Intratemporal

It might be beneficial at this point to remind the readers that the Avant-Garde movement is examined through responses. After discussing the intertemporal responses by and to the Avant-Garde, I will now explore the intratemporal responses, which can be further divided into those close to or within the realm of art, and those outside of it.

3.1 Close to/Within the Realm of Art 


The Avant-Garde’s response to its contemporary audience can be succinctly summarized in Poggioli’s words as “making no compromise with public taste” (33). A logical deduction similar to that used in the discussion of childish ignorance can be applied here and draws a comparable conclusion that “making no compromise” is still a response to the “public taste,” as it exposes first an implicit acknowledgment/awareness of the subject, and then an explicit attitude of negativity, rejection, and downward-looking disdain. Much into his discourse, Poggioli gives a largely parallel but perhaps more specific statement that “the epoch of avant-garde art and littera­ ture d'exception is also the era of commercial and industrial art. From the awareness of this state of affairs stems the frequent and nearly always sincere refusal of the genuine artist, in our day, to yield to the temptations of material success” (114). “Refusal” is an even clearer indication of the acknowledgment and attitude recounted above. It would seem that the Avant-Garde adopts a similar response to its contemporary audience as it does its predecessor. The intentional unpopularity touched upon earlier is a synonym for this antagonizing response, and the inevitability of such intention is well described by Poggioli as “normally, though not always, the more general and inclusive culture can ignore the particular and exclusive one, but the latter has no choice but to as­sume a hostile posture before the other” (108). Poggioli then goes on to attribute this intention largely to a craving for tragic heroism when he declares that “Forced to live in the desert of his own surrender or on the mountain of his own solitude, the artist found compensation in that heroic doom which Baudelaire called both his curse and his blessing” (110). The promise of solace from experiencing a tragedy and the ego-boost of being a hero might indeed be enticing to the Avant-Garde artists, but they are merely welcoming side-effects, not the motivation. What is the motivation? As described previously in the different stages of rebellion, the knee-jerk comes before the need for and the finding of a reason. The only thing that happens before the knee-jerk reaction is the perception of the subject of reaction, in this case, the public, the popular arts, the commercial and industrial art, etc. The avant-garde reacts to such contemporaries, and in doing so, surrender their attention, and tribute to these parties that they resent.

Contrary to the Avant-Garde artists’ hostile attitude to their surroundings, a considerate section of their audience embraces them, fueling their popularity precisely on their intentional seclusiveness. This rather paradoxical phenomenon is induced by the collective sense of inferiority of the public audience – in the time-specific case of the Avant-garde, the intelligentsia. Poggioli makes the important contradiction between the intelligentsia and the elite. On the former, he claims that “the modern aficionado of art and culture, even though for the most part stemming from the petty or middle bourgeoisie, can be­long or not belong to any class awhatsoever, landed aristocracy or industrial bourgeoisie, professionals or bureaucrats, and in socially advanced countries even the proletariat or farmers,” and more succinctly that “a member of the intelli­gentsia is not born but made,” concluding with a justifiably acerbic comment that “Intelligence alone is neither a necessary nor a sufficient qualification for a mem­ber of the intelligentsia” (86-88). On the latter, Poggioli credits them as the exclusive audience of the classical arts, noting that “the public for art and letters was never, up to the threshold of the romantic epoch, a class but was a special elite, which could only be formed or re­cruited within a given class, furnished by the most intelligent and educated elements of the ruling order or dominant social group” (85). Largely agreeing with Poggioli’s observations and arguments, I will simplify his comments to say that 1) the intelligentsia is large in size and the elite small; 2) the intelligentsia is not, but tries to pretend to be the elite; 3) the intelligentsia doesn’t know what art the elite understands/admires but does know what art it itself understands/likes. Therefore, any art of popularity is stripped from the candidacy of “elite art” by the election commission composed of the intelligentsia. Similarly, the Avant-Garde, with its pronounced rejection of popularity warrants votes of confidence from the self-abasing intelligentsia. Poggioli reiterates this comically pathetic situation, commenting that “doubtless there is a rapport between art and society, in our case, between the avant-garde and the bourgeoisie; precisely because of this rapport, the avant-garde’s antibourgeois position becomes merely an illusion or a pose” (89).   

It seems fitting to conclude the comments on the response Avant-Garde elicits from the intelligentsia with a totally unrelated daily-life observation. When a long line of passengers tries to get on an already crowded bus, the ones still in line would make every effort to push in, whereas everyone already in the bus – existing passengers and the ones that just got on would try to stop them. At any specific time cutoff, is there any real distinction between those who just got on, and those who are still in line?

3.2 Outside the Realm of Art 


It is always a good reality check to put the subject matter in discussion into perspective by comparing it with a general sense of “all that is not.” While the Avant-Garde movement is enticing and nuanced in itself, it sees clear limitations in the face of all the other industries, subjects, and realms in its contemporary. I will skip the Avant-Garde’s response to contemporary politics after simply relying on Poggioli’comment that “We must not forget that Italian futurists and French surrealists embraced fascism and communism, respectively, at least partly out of love of adventure, or by attraction to the nihilistic elements contained within those political tendencies” (96). Instead, I will focus on the Avant-Garde’s response to the note-worthy scientific advancements of its time.

The Avant-Garde’s response to its contemporary scientific breakthroughs highlights its limitations. The late 19th and early 20th centuries is the last era of breakthroughs in mathematics and the hard sciences, during which humans as a collective learned a great deal more about the world and the self. Not unlike their successors decades later, the Avant-Garde artists cannot comprehend these genuine, cutting-edge advancements in science, and instead are mesmerized by their trickled-down, commercialized adaptations in technology. A machine that works is technology, why the machine works is science. Without science, technology is magic, and as Poggioli asserts, “many moderns look at science almost with the eyes of savages or children, and reduce it to magic” (139). Technology, though much inferior to science, is still held by a higher rigor than magic, and the Avant-Garde’s misperception underlying “the machine aesthetic” or “the cult of the vehicle” speaks only to its own limits (29). To simplify Poggioli’s embellished remarks that the “Avant-garde scientificism remains a significant phenomenon even when one realizes that only a purely allegorical and emblematic use of the expression “scientific” is involved,” and that “the modern man or artist sometimes seems to consider the machine not only as a source of energy but also as the fount of life, an end rather than a means, and thus treats the machine itself as more valuable than anything it produces,” it can be said that the Avant-Garde artists don’t understand the science, not even the technology, yet is overcome by their charms to feel compelled to respond (139-140). The result of combining the lack of understanding with the urge to react is artwork that does not capture the essence of the responded, but reveals the ineptitude of the responding. Poggioli explains such artistic response to science by saying that “What Pareto called the ‘instinct for com­binations’ in fact leads the modern artist to go beyond art forms and to experiment with factors extraneous to art itself. The experi­mentalism of some avant-gardes, especially some of the more recent  – surrealism, for example – is largely a matter of content, that is, psychological” (137). While I will postpone the discussion on experimentalism to the next section to use it as a cautionary tale, it suffices to say that experiment is not the essence of science, but merely one component of it that is easier to understand. Such fervor down a tilted channel is reiterated, rather lengthily,  by Poggioli that “what often triumphs in avant-garde art is not so much technique as ‘tech­nicism,’ the latter defined as the reduction of even the nontechnical to the category of technique. ‘Technicism’ means that the technical genius invades spiritual realms where technique has no raison d'etre. As such it belongs not only to avant-garde art, but to all modern cul­ture or pseudo-culture. It is not against the technical or the machine that the spirit justly revolts; it is against this reduction of nonmaterial values to the brute categories of the mechanical and technical. Such a consideration resolves the problem of the links between contemporary culture in general, avant-garde art in particular, and science (or, better, applied science, popularly confused with science­without-adjectives)” (138). This notion of reduction is fascinating as it connects well with “the machine aesthetic,” and in doing so might offer some insights to the artists of the present. An earlier discussion touches on a child’s fascination with toys and how such fascination takes from him the ignorance that has protected him from the cycle of the father-son pattern. A child’s passion is unhindered by the decorums or the norms of the grown-ups, yet it is unheard of that any child would love his toy (or the idea of toys) so much that he wishes to be reduced to the toy. Yet a comparable, absurd eagerness, made even more absurd by the fact that it is exhibited in grownups, attempts to reduce people to machines. With that said, it is not without value to compare the “mechanical and the technical” with the artistic, as the former will draw the line, with its own limitation, between the replaceable and the truly special components of the latter. A quote not entirely irrelevant from Douglas Adams could serve as the conclusion of this thought: “There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”


4. How to Stand Out


After spending a considerate length of words and the reader’s precious time at the Avant-Garde movement as an example of the giving and receiving of responses, I’m now ready to prescribe a method for an artist to make his artwork stand out. The method can be simply described as not responding to matters that do not warrant a response. That is, focus on the elephant, and the room will figure itself out. For an artist, the elephant is art. While Avant-Garde as a movement can be largely described as a response to its temporal successor, and its contemporary peers, an Avant-Garde artist, or rather any artist, will not be successful if he proactively considers in addition to his artwork itself, its potential responses. It has been established that ignorance cannot be regained – one cannot withdraw acknowledgment of the room after acknowledging it. Therefore, the key to preserving such ignorance lies in the focus, the dedication to the elephant.  A specific example can be found in Poggioli’s discussion of the literary artists’ attitude toward their contemporary readers, which he describes as “a phenomenon due to the diffusion of mass culture from the lowest social strata to the highest, the modern writer has no choice but to assume an attitude of absolute intransigence in the face of the indistinct multitude of his readers, an undifferentiated antagonism” (126). It is a heroic effort to intend a piece of writing to reflect each reader, to give them exactly what they warrant. The way to do that is by staying true to the writing. Again, this is not to suggest a writer to block the readers from his mind, but instead, urges him to clearly identify the true boundaries of his work and to constrain his dedication within it – to quote Mao again, “打得一拳开,免得百拳来。” (“throwing one punch away will keep a hundred punches at bay.”) The readers, the audience might very well be a part of an artwork, and in such cases, warrant the utmost care from the artist as the rest of the artwork. 

I will further expand on the prescribed methodology of making an artwork stand out by giving a positive and a negative example. The negative example can be found in the so called “experimentalism” of some Avant-Garde artists, to which Poggioli too shares my disapproval in his comment that “sometimes, as in futurism, what occurs is nothing but vulgar experimentalism, formless and imitative, which works with the raw material of art, introducing mechanical ingredi­ents (the cuebars or noisemakers in Russolo’s futurist theater) or really foreign bodies (the more ingenuous collages, false moustaches or real eyeglasses on statues or portraits,)” and also that “...from this point of view we might even say that an experimentalism aiming solely at novelty can end up sterile and false” (135-137). In science, experiments are used to confirm, reject, or at least question a conjecture or a hypothesis. The conjecture, or “the knowing of what one searches for,” predates the experiment, or the “actual searching.” One extreme example of such mindless dashings of experiments without knowing beforehand the hypothesis can be found in the poem-composing tutorial that suggests “Take one newspaper. Take one pair of scissors. Choose from that newspaper an article of the length desired for the poem you intend to write. Cut out the article. Next cut out with care each of the words forming that article. Next put them in a bag. Mix gently. Take out one by one each excision in the order they fall from the bag. Copy carefully. The poem will resemble you” (190). The tutorial suggests finding the truth of a one-dimensional line in a two-dimensional space by randomly picking lines through trials and errors. Fundamental knowledge of mathematics would show that the expected number of trials needed before one stumbles across the truth is infinity, and before then, there are nothing but errors. Indeed, one shall focus on the elephant, and during the times that the elephant is not there, one should not force oneself to pretend otherwise. Giving a bath to a non-existing elephant is very difficult, almost as difficult as taking a shot at real poetry by taking words out of a paper bag. Not knowing what to search for is indeed a waste of time and energy, and only knowing what not to search for is also not sufficient. The supporting arguments can be found in the false hope of the futurism or the sense of inferiority of the intelligentsia, as they are discussed in previous sections. It seems apt to follow the negative example of the prescribed method of “standing out” with a positive example, and thereby to use it as a conclusion of the section. Poggioli names, rather incorrectly, the users of such method in the Avant-Garde era as “chameleons” noting that “the great ‘chameleons’ of our time, such as Picasso and Stravinsky who, even though they pass with enormous facility from one to another stylistic phase, preserve a unique style in each work” (122). A chameleon responds to its surroundings, but the likes of Picasso and Stravinsky, the leaders of the herd, are the setters of the surroundings and the governing principles for the rest of the herds. They do so by staying focused on art itself, or in Poggioli’s words, “preserving a unique style in each work” (122).


5. Conclusion 

Any artist in artmaking is impacted by his time and his contemporary peers. It is not my suggestion for an artist to deny or resist such impact. Instead, I suggest every artist, in the process of artmaking, stay committed to, and only to the art at hand. If such impact forms part of the art, the same level of dedication shall be requested. If not, the artist can ponder on the fact that his artmaking is also impacted by the burger and ginger ale he has had at lunch (assuming burgers, ginger ales, and lunches are not the subjects of discussion of his artwork.) 


Poggioli, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-Garde. Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1997. 

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