Renato Poggioli: The Concept of a Movement: The Theory of the Avant-Garde

The subtleties of language are not lost on Renato Poggioli. In his mind, “language is our greatest historical revealer” [p. 17].

The Concept of a Movement is the chapter that Poggioli devotes to defining avant garde art. Herein, the author details a crucial distinction between the avant garde and other historical periods of artistic practice, not only in terms of old versus new, but also how the artists named their practice.

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Artists that align themselves to a school, in Poggioli’s mind, comprise an altogether different breed than those that identify with a movement. Most significantly, how the artists thought about their practice, for Poggioli, reveals their category.

Art that derives from a school owes its origin to some form of official endorsement or affirmation, which it requires as a necessary element of its creation. School art must be sanctioned, and depends more or less on historical as well as mainstream acceptance. For Poggioli, “the school notion presupposes a master and a method, the criterion of tradition, and the principle of authority” [p. 20].

Conversely, “the followers of a movement always work in terms of an end immanent in the movement itself” [p. 20]. Said end need not be sanctioned, accepted, affirmed, valued, or even understood, by those outside the movement.

Where the school presupposes disciples consecrated to a transcendent end, Poggioli believes, the movement holds multiple paths for multiple participants who may or may not arrive in the same location [p. 20].

Art based in the school form also has a qualitatively different energy than that which originates as part of a movement. “The school [art] is preeminently static and classical, while the movement is essentially dynamic and romantic” [p.20].

Innovation remains muted in the school, since it carries the weight of historical precedence, and its proponents produce work in a somewhat limited field, hamstrung by the need for permission. Movements, on the other hand, remain free of precedent, thus, its participants remain free to germinate and generate based on the present moment and their own experience.

Poggioli also points to the conceptual difference between the two camps, with an emphasis on diverging views in the artists’ understanding of culture.

The school is inconceivable outside the humanistic ideal, the idea of culture as a thesaurus. The movement, instead, conceives of culture not as increment but as creation – or, at least, as a center of activity and energy [p. 20].

This distinction in thought bears scrutiny. Particularly, Poggioli’s use of the term “thesaurus” to describe culture produces a lightning rod [p. 20]. Essentially, artists belonging to a school will always be creating synonyms of the work of their forbearers, in Poggioli’s mind; thus, the work looks backward, and endlessly repeats, reinvents, and rehashes. Artists in the school therefore do not experience time in the present moment, but continually live and create in the past.

Artists who adhere to a movement, on the other hand, not only live in the present moment, but understand culture as a social agreement, one that is constantly in flux. Culture endlessly transforms according to individual epoch and contemporary events.

Thus, these artists create work that reflects their own selves in their own times, times that always change. Therefore the artists of a movement, and their artistic products, more closely resemble the actual experience of life and art: dynamic, fluid, and live.

Poggioli moves on to discuss the difference in purpose between reviews of work that comes from the school and those that emanate from the movement.

The school does not aim to discuss; it intends only to teach [p. 24]. [T]he school prefers to create new variants of traditional poetics and rhetoric, normative or didactic simply by nature [p. 25].

Reviews of avant garde work, conversely, engage in the vital task of

affirm[ing] in words the uniqueness, particularity, or exceptionality of its own theoretical and practical achievements. [Avant garde reviews and reviewers] more faithfully bear witness to divergence and exception: they operate in closer proximity to the sources of the work, closer to the creative process and the experimental phases [p. 25].

Ostensibly, Poggioli challenges avant garde reviews and reviewers to disseminate the conceptual framework of the movement, and become artists themselves in the process.

For Poggioli, the avant garde movement breaks down into four discrete aspects or moments: activism, antagonism, nihilism, and agonism [p. 25-26].

Activism refers to the movement’s propensity to take shape and agitate 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 [p. 26].

Antagonism names the movement’s tendency to rail against something, be it the school, tradition, or authority [p. 26]. Nihilism labels the urge of the movement to indulge in wholesale destruction, and advocate a cultural fire sale of sorts.

Agonism, finally, describes the element of the movement that produces artistic martyrs, participants who “accept self-ruin as an obscure or unknown sacrifice to the success of future movements” [p. 26]. Poggioli delineates further within the four aspects to attach activism and antagonism to rational pursuits, and nihilism and agonism to the irrational.

The avant garde, as defined by Poggioli, exists as a social force, as well as an artistic one. It differs from the art formed by a school in that it seeks to live in the present moment, and express itself to the public from a shared psychological, physical, and emotional space, indicative of a particular time, culture, and zeitgeist.

The avant garde movement hunts large scale engagement and involvement, both from its members as well as the public, and creates its own end. The school, on the other hand, seeks to teach, and wishes only to reveal its teachings to a select group of converts who will in turn learn, and eventually continue the tradition and teach. Art from a school therefore can remain isolated from the public, and may or may not choose to engage with it.

Reference List

Poggioli, Renato. 1968. The Concept of a Movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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