Politics, Protest, and the Avant-Garde

Politics, Protest, and the Avant-Garde

Must avant-garde art manifest a radical aim? Does it require a collective identity? Is it the product of an “ideological community”? To each of these questions, Harold Rosenberg—coiner of the term “Action Painting” for the abstract art of de Kooning, Pollock, and the rest—answered yes. He took stock of the avant-garde in the politically charged climate of 1968, the year Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated, students seized five buildings at Columbia, and protesters had their heads bashed in at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. “No matter how radical its effects, an action is not avant-garde without an ideology to characterize it,” Rosenberg argued. Art that lacks “the will to change the world” is a “parody of vanguardism.” Rosenberg conceded, however, that the radical will in a work of art may make itself felt in an almost purely aesthetic way. He could think of no better way to illustrate his “combative” position than with respect to the Fauves and their love of vibrant color in the early years of the twentieth century: “The politics of an avant-garde art movement might consist of nothing more rebellious than overthrowing the conviction of the middle class that color in a painting ought to correspond to that of appearances.”

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