"The phenomenon of the artistic avant-garde is historically linked to the rise of kitsch. Both avant-garde and kitsch can be seen as reactions to the experience of fissure that is typical of modernity. The accelerated changes in traditional values and living conditions that are brought about by modernity lead individuals to experience a split between their inner world and the behavior patterns required of them by society. Modern individuals experience themselves as “rootless”: they are not in harmony with themselves and they lack the self-evident frame of reference of norms and forms that one has in a society where tradition prevails. That at least is the diagnosis shared by a whole range of intellectuals writing on modernity.
At the beginning of the twentieth century it was clearly stated, by Adolf Loos among others, that it was the task of intellectuals and artists to face this fissure and to look for a new basis of culture, because culture could no longer be established on a self-evident continuation of tradition. The space left vacant by the decline of tradition was laid claim to by the avant-garde that regarded itself as “the only living culture we now have.” (C. Greenberg, 1939) As against the pseudo-values of kitsch, the avant-garde posited the ideals of purity and authenticity. Kitsch, they argued, is pleasant; it focuses on easy entertainment; it is mechanical, academic, and cliché-ridden. Because of this it glosses over the effects of the split character of modern life: kitsch maintains an illusion of wholeness by which individuals can painlessly forget their inner conflicts. The avant-garde, on the other hand, refuses to deny these conflicts by ignoring the fissures and ruptures that do exist—rather it combats them openly. The strategy of the avant-garde thus consisted of a direct attack: perceiving that outer forms no longer correspond to inner feelings, the avant-garde chooses to destroy these forms in order to expose their hollowness. Therefore, it is constantly engaged in an iconoclastic struggle. Marinetti’s appeal, “Let us kill the moonlight!” can serve as a model for the logic of negation that the avant-garde advocates: all norms, forms, and conventions have to be broken; everything that is stable must be rejected, every value negated.
In doing so the avant-garde radicalizes the basic principle of modernity—the urge toward continual change and development, the rejection of the old and the longing for what is new. In its historical manifestations—futurism, constructivism, dadaism, surrealism, and kindred movements—it represents a “spearhead” of aesthetic modernism, which in itself can be said to have a broader basis (not every modernist writer or artist belongs unquestionably to the avant-garde). Renato Poggioli characterized the avant-garde by four moments: activism, antagonism, nihilism, and agonism (Poggioli, 1982). The activist moment meant adventure and dynamism, an urge to action not necessarily linked to a positive goal. The antagonistic character of the avantgarde refers to its combativeness; the avant-garde is always complaining, it wages a continuous struggle—against tradition, against the public, and against the establishment. This antagonism goes hand in hand with an anarchistic aversion to all rules and norms, a revulsion against every institutionalized system. Activism and antagonism are pursued in a way that is so absolute that an avant-garde movement finally overtakes itself in a nihilistic quest, in an uninterrupted search for purity, ending up by dissolving into nothing. The avant-garde is indeed inclined to sacrifice itself on the altar of cultural advance—if the price of obtaining mastery over the future is one’s own destruction, it is fully prepared to pay it. It is in this masochism that what Poggioli calls the agonistic phase lies: it wallows pathetically in morbid pleasure at the prospect of its own downfall, in the conviction that it is there that it will find its supreme fulfillment. In so doing it also complies with the military metaphor implicit in its name: it is the fate of the avant-garde to be slaughtered so that others will have the opportunity to build after them."
Heynen, Hilde: Architecture and Modernity. A Critique. MIT Press, Cambridge. pp 26-28