The Bourgeois Avant-Garde


Modernism is a thoroughly bourgeois project, but this is obscured by the aura of transgression cultivated around it by both its promoters and detractors.

In reality, the avant-gardes did not so much set out to shock the bourgeoisie as to seduce that part of the bourgeoisie that craved recognition for its forward thinking. Patronizing the avant-garde gave this fashion-conscious section of the bourgeoisie a means to show off its rarefied taste. Without tycoons and society mavens willing to finance them, few if any modernist projects would have gotten off the ground. But the crucial role these wealthy bourgeois played (and continue to play) in the promotion of the avant-garde is obscured by the intellectual froth of critics and art historians who insist on looking at art and directing the rest of us to look at it through the blinders of its own self-mythification. A great deal of the critical genius these arbiters bring to the task involves hiding the crass reality of art marketing and speculation under a thick verbose layer of dense speculation about the connotation of essentially vacant art works produced to function as lures for just this kind of theorizing.

Far from shocking the bourgeoisie, modernism gave the bourgeoisie a means to segregate itself into a new aristocracy. The invention of modernism coincided with the invention of the liberal elite. In the terminology of Pierre Bourdieu, modernism marks the moment when economic capital finds a means to translate itself into cultural capital.

Because the avant-garde exists to cater to bourgeois progressive pretensions, it is always careful not to exceed what is liberally permissible. This takes fine calibration. From time to time, the avant-garde will even propose the abolition of art—but always as a means to ensure the continuity of the avant-garde. When the real abolition of art was achieved in the Soviet Union and elsewhere by the forceful subordination of art to the propaganda requirements of the state, the Western avant-garde either remained aloof or recoiled from this violation of art’s vaunted “autonomy.”

This alleged autonomy of the avant-garde has been its greatest and most successful lie. The doctrine of épater le bourgeois was never more than a cover for the avant-garde’s contempt for common taste. (On occasion, this contempt is disguised by the “appropriation” of the debris of mass culture, which permits the ruling class to enjoy its own propaganda as art.) Indeed, at no time in the history of Western culture, was there ever a time prior to the modern era when art so slavishly devoted itself to promoting the elite’s self-regard. In the bad old days when art served the church and nobility, it did so in ways that even the commoners could appreciate. Upper class taste did not then need to so radically distinguish itself from the taste of the commoners because the upper class was assured its social position regardless of its taste. But in the modern, democratic era, the bourgeoisie is a ruling class that is obligated by democratic pretension to justify its fitness to rule. It was for the purpose of giving the bourgeoisie a means to manifest the superiority of its discernment that the avant-garde was invented. And it is because it continues to serve this purpose that the myth of the avant-garde survives, albeit in postmodernist guise, as the myth of art’s continuing transgressive potential.

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