A book review essay on


The Transformation of the Avant-Garde







Mark Chen

March 1993












            The avant-garde has been defined as "a flourishing of political and cultural rebellion" (Wallis 1988) and can be exemplified by art movements of the first half of this century: Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism, and Futurism.  This rebellion manifested itself in the rejection of the institution of art and the rejection of the bourgeois affiliations of art.  Herein notions of a high culture versus a popular culture existed.  After World War II, America became the center of avant-garde art, but the meaning of avant-garde changed due to the decline of traditional imperialist powers and the rise of capitalist production in America during the 1950s and the overall differentiation and continual growth of the art world during the last 45 years.  Crane categorizes the following seven major artistic styles and uses them to illustrate how the notion of the avant-garde has changed: Abstract Expressionism in the forties, Pop and Minimalism in the early sixties, Figurative painting in the late sixties, Photorealism and Pattern painting in the early seventies, and Neo-Expressionism in the early eighties.  For each, Crane gives a brief summary of the ideologies, or lack thereof, that motivate the artists and how each of the ideologies used are avant-garde in a different way.  Her point, then, is "that the avant-garde ceased to be oppositional over this period as artists were incorporated into the middle class" (Bender 1989).  The avant-garde has shifted from a counterculture to interlocking subcultures (Crane 1987).

            The author begins her book by laying down some foundations for her study.  In her introduction, along with other assertions, she claims that the art world is, and has been, expanding since the end of WWII.  She supports her claim with statistical data; the book abounds with tables and charts full of percentages of all sorts, and these can be examined to support or invalidate her argument.  Crane then goes on to give a brief survey of previous definitions of "avant-garde," and, finally, she proposes her own working definition to study how it changed or evolved with the seven different art styles.  Briefly, her definition of avant-garde is one in which the aesthetic content, the social content, or the means of production or distribution of the artworks are notably different than what was previously considered in the norm.  Before going further, however, she studies the social context of art movements since the 1940s.  She illustrates that the phenomenon of the lone artist working without any outside influence and dying a pauper, a common occurrence during the beginning of Abstract Expressionism, quickly develops into a vital social network that includes not only artists in one style but also ones working in other styles, as well as influential critics, dealers, and curators.  Next, the author describes each of the seven art movements and each of the ideologies involved in motivating the movements.  In order of appearance:

            The idea of Abstract Expressionism is one of eliminating all traces of symbol systems.  No preconceived ideas are allowed in the artworks.  The meaning of the painting emerges during the act of painting.  Minimalism takes this notion a step further in trying to eliminate all meaning from artworks.  Both Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism are avant-garde in the way they alter the aesthetic content of art.  Pattern painting also alters the aesthetic content of art to a certain degree, but mostly it is considered avant-garde because it alters the social content of art.  It tries to alter the meaning of certain non-Western decorative motifs.  To the Pattern painters, decoration is "perceived as a humanizing element...rather than as second-class art," (Crane 1987:60).  Pop art seeks to alter the social content of art as well.  It undermines the concept of high culture by exposing it to ridicule and suggesting that popular culture and high culture are interchangeable.  The use of popular images outside their social context builds on the ideas of Duchamp, the creator of "readymade" art, that art should play games with the audience.  Chuck Close, a good example of a Photorealist, creates each of his paintings with a different process.  No two paintings are alike.  Of particular concern to him is the constant discovery of how trivial alterations can make a fundamental difference in the way a painting is perceived and what it then means to the viewer.  Neo-Expressionism is obsessed with media images and mass-produced styles of decoration and dress.  Neo-Expressionists are concerned with popular culture themes as opposed to only the icons of popular culture.  Their works include images of violence, explicit sexuality, and romance taken from comic books, television, and movies instead of real life.  Poking fun at aesthetic traditions and laughing at traditional avant-garde movements ironically make the Neo-Expressionists avant-garde.  Figurative painters want their images to invoke whatever meanings they can.  "New Realist painting reflects everyday life or what we are thinking about, whatever it is you recognize, imagery you are confronted with..." (Pollock quoted in Crane 1987:105-6).

After summarizing the different artistic styles and their inherent attributes that make them avant-garde, Crane describes the role of the reward system for artworks and how that affects the growth of the art world and, ultimately, the definition of the avant-garde.  The "gatekeepers," also known as curators and collectors, play a key role in determining which styles were successful since they are the ones purchasing the works.  Crane ends her book with a brief summary and conclusion of her study: the organizational infrastructure for American avant-garde art has grown and has become more complex and varied since 1940.  Part of this is due to New York museums' responses to newer art styles.  As Swidler (1989) summarizes:

She concludes that "over a period of four decades, New York museums became gradually less responsive to emerging art styles" (p. 126) because of attachment to established aesthetic paradigms, financial deficits that reduced acquisitions, and changes in the museums' conception of their consistuency away from "the informal network of collectors, patrons, critics, scholars, artists, and dealers" (p. 128) and toward government, corporations, and the general public.  The newer, representational styles were supported disproportionately by regional museums and corporate collectors.

This was a move of differentiation which led to growth, and that, in turn, led to a necessary change of the avant-garde.  This change included the use of new ideologies as to the definition of art, as well as how art is accepted in the modern world.

            Crane is one of the few people analyzing the sociology of the arts, yet she made a few errors, and it can be argued that her approach is more in the realm of art history.  Although  she has done a wonderful job of collecting and organizing data and starting a thorough analysis of her data, there are a few issues of which she has overlooked.  Crane covers more than 400 artists in her study.  She obtained information from a variety of sources including museum catalogs, artists' biographies, numerous articles, and individual interviews with artists, curators, and critics.  This has been claimed the first comprehensive sociological analysis of the postwar art world (Wallis 1988), but, upon further analysis, it seems that Crane does not stray from art history, even if she is undertaking a multidisciplinary task; there is no tie in to the world outside of art.  She also does not question a few of the art history legends and myths which causes a slant in some of her interpretations (Wallis 1988).  There are three main problems with her methodologies.  First, she cannot possibly hope to interpret all the data she has collected without making some sort of error or without being too vague.  Secondly, her definitions are too free and dependent on assumptions.  And thirdly, Crane is either unaware of or has chosen to ignore recent contradictory information.

            Most of the data she collected is difficult to interpret.  In fact, most of her interpretations are dismissed in many of the various reviews written on The Transformation of the Avant-Garde.  For example, Wallis (1988):

What Crane provides is a merely journalistic record of the changing role of the artist (from alienated rebel and esthetic innovator to tenured "leisure specialist" and tender of the moyen-garde), the changing nature of art institutions (from private culture barons to multinational culture barons), and the changing character of the art world (from "a tightly knit counterculture" to a variety of subcultures demonstrating an "unprecedented cultural pluralism").

Additionally Bender (1989) says that Crane provides "some interesting quantitative data, some very good anecdotal material, and a series of very concise summaries of the aesthetic theories associated with abstract expressionism, minimalism, pop, photorealism, and neo-expressionism."

            Many of the critics suggest that even if she were infallible at interpreting data, she would still wind up with incorrect conclusions because her working definitions and presuppositions are wrong.1  Some critics even suggest the use of other labels like

"neo-avant-garde."  They seem to be intent on nit-picking and not following the author's own working definitions.  Crane's use of categories, however, is definitely questionable.  She places artists in a certain style if they have had a couple of shows or more in that style and if critics generally refer to them with that style in mind.  Her categories, though, are rigid and do not allow ideas from other fields to come in.  Also, gerrymandering seems to be "in fashion" in her book, supposedly to make the categories all inclusive (Wallis 1988).  Her use of "non-questioning pigeonholing" (Francis 1989) is best exemplified by her ideas of the difference between modernist representers and traditional representers:  "Here she proposes a subcategory of modernist representers (whose only source is in modern images) as against traditional representers (who look at older art -- as if the moderns did not look at the old masters)," (Francis 1989).  To further illustrate her lack of effective use of definitions, there is little variation of the key variable of artistic recognition and reward.  Comparing successful styles with unsuccessful styles might provide information about how reward structures affect art styles (Swidler 1989).  Finally, "is growth associated with differentiation?" (Clignet 1988) as Crane would lead us to believe.

            No use or recognition of recent contradictory information suggests that Crane chooses to ignore the facts.  For example, contemporary art historians now consider Lee Krasner, a woman, an early Abstract Expressionist (Wallis 1988) while Crane suggests that there were no women in the field.  Another example of ignoring the facts or simply interpreting the data wrong is presented by Swidler (1989):

Comparing the proportion of artists exhibited or acquired, across styles, is strongly affected by how many artists are included in each style.  Crane selected the recognized members of each style-- those who appeared in group shows, catalogs, and definitive discussions by critics-- with the paradoxical result that the most successful style, abstract expressionism, has only 21 members (the recognized "first generation"), while there are 80 minimalist artists, 61 pattern painters, and 126 figurative artists.  Thus, in table 7.1 (p. 121), while only 10% of the figurative artists versus 57% of the abstract expressionists had been acquired by MOMA 10 years after the style's origin, the actual numbers of the artists purchased were nearly identical: 12 abstract expressionists and 13 figurative artists.  Indeed, for five of the six styles, the number of artists MOMA had acquired after 10 years was nearly the same, with no consistent change over time.

On the other hand, it appears that Crane may simply be naive.  Unwillingness on her part to believe that art can employ irony and insistence that every object has a literal meaning makes her seem as if she does not know much about art or art history (Francis 1989).

            In my opinion, overall, Diana Crane is very successful in gathering and presenting statistical data, outlining the general ideologies of various artistic styles (although her placement of artists into those styles may be skewed), and giving her own theories based on her own interpretations of her studies.  There may be numerous faults with her study, but, like art, there is no right or wrong way to interpret data, especially if it is in a field that is just starting to gain wide acknowledgment.
















Book Reviews

            The articles that review The Transformation of the Avant-Garde may be placed into four different categories: (1) appraisal, (2) a little criticism and acknowledgment of achievement, (3) in-depth criticism with some acknowledgment of achievement, and (4) total opposition and spiteful criticism.

1.  Rosanne Martorella, from William Patterson College, writing in Contemporary Sociology, seems to take the book for face value and does not question Crane's interpretations.  (I guess that would make her close to the Fundamentalists, so she would fit well into our class section.)  Her review is the only one that gives a concise description of the thesis and outline of the book.  This review would probably be the most helpful for people who have not read the book and want to know more about it before they start reading.  This is just as well for she believes that the book should be required reading for sociologists interested in the arts and culture.  I tend to agree with Martorella in that Crane's book is well written, persuasive, and enjoyable reading.

2.  A couple of critics do not have much to say about Crane's book.  My guess is that they didn't read the book all the way through or that they read it while watching television.  W. B. Holmes, in Choice, does not say much and it is probably because the critic does not know much.  The critic believes that a sociological standpoint is one of pure statistics with no interpretations nor use of other social sciences.  The other critic, Remi Clignet, from the University of Maryland, reviewing for Social Forces, asks if growth is associated with differentiation.  No conclusion is given.  He also states that the book is just "theoretical description" and not "sociological interpretation."

3.  Three reviews fall into this category.  All gave the insightful, but obvious, criticisms.  The reviewers are Brian Wallis, Thomas Bender, from NYU, and Ann Swidler, from UCB, writing for Art in America, American Historical Review, and American Journal of Sociology, respectively.  Swidler tries to answer the question of how the avant-garde and the art world in general have changed.  She states that if anything, only the art changed and not the art world's reception of art.  First, institutions show homogeneity in its acquisitions and exhibitions.  Furthermore, New York museums are passive and keep a constant number for their acquisitions.  Moreover, the large number of artists in newer styles suggests either that the first critical sifting hasn't taken place yet in those styles or that the growth and diffusion of reward systems made room for a larger number of art styles.  Swidler also questions the use of only successful artistic styles, but says, "All we know is that recent representational styles look very different from the abstract art that was the pinnacle of modernism and that in the larger and more diffuse world of contemporary art, no single aesthetic theory has hegemony over artistic discourse."  Maybe it does not matter which art styles succeeded or not.  Bender best describes Crane's use of "tunnel history."  Crane does not use other views of history (political, economic, etc.) to interpret her data.  Both Wallis and Bender are dissatisfied with Crane's definition of avant-garde but do not suggest better definitions themselves.  Most of these reviewers' ideas are noteworthy, but I don't think they emphasize strongly enough the importance of Crane's work in the field of sociology of art.  They seem to dismiss the book as a naive foray of a sociologist into art history.

4.  The last review is a total vengeful criticism on Crane and her book.  I cannot help wondering if the reviewer, Richard Francis, is Crane's ex-husband.  He is, however, the only critic who is not from a university or college.  Instead, he writes from the perspective of a "gatekeeper."  He works for the Tate Gallery of Liverpool and is reviewing for the Burlington Magazine.  Francis does make some good points but most of them are wrong or taken to the extreme.  He claims that differentials in market price and purchasing budgets weren't considered. This view is wrong.  She did use data that included budget of different museums and galleries, but perhaps not to the degree that would be satisfactory for Francis.  I feel, however, that no degree would be satisfactory for him.  Finally, he tries to disqualify the work of Crane by saying that it is just a statistical analysis and nothing more.  He seems to have a sharp object stuck up one of his body cavities.

            I tend to agree with some of the criticisms but I highly recommend the book even with all its faults since it is revolutionary and almost one-of-a-kind.  "There still may be no consensus as to what art is -- nor need there be -- but some consensus is shaping up as to the direction in which the field should be moving" (Lang 1992).  Until enough articles and books are written to form a general consensus on the history of the avant-garde, Diana Crane's book, The Transformation of the Avant Garde, will have to do, and a wonderful job it does.  Unfortunately, the only references made to this book have been ones that cite the statistical data found therein (Smith 1991).






















            1.  The following contains Crane's own definitions (p.14).  One might point out that these definitions cannot be falsified and that almost anything can be included within the definitions.


            In this book, I will argue that each new art movement redefines some aspect of the aesthetic content of art, the social content of art, or the norms surrounding the production and distribution of artworks.  An art movement may be considered avant-garde in its approach to the aesthetic content of its artworks if it does any of the following: (1) redefines artistic conventions (Becker, 1982); (2) utilizes new artistic tools and techniques (for example, the elimination of the easel by Jackson Pollock); (3) redefines the nature of the art object, including the range of objects that can be considered as artworks.  Art movements whose tenets include the revival of the aesthetic conventions of an earlier period are unlikely to be considered avant-garde.

            An art movement may be considered avant-garde in its approach to the social content of artworks if it does any of the following: (1) incorporates in its artworks social or political values that are critical of or different from the majority culture (for example, Schwartz, 1974:5, echoing Marcuse, states as one of the possible roles for the avant-garde that of providing a countercultural force and 'cultural criticism'; Haney, 1981:6, an artist, says that art works can 'find those metaphors of visualization that...define the imagination of a culture'); (2) redefines the relationship between high and popular culture (for example, the use of images from advertising and comic strips by Pop artists); and (3) adopts a critical attitude toward artistic institutions (the epitome of the latter is seen in the Dadaist attack on the legitimacy of art).

            Finally, an art movement may be considered avant-garde in its approach to the production and distribution of art if it does any of the following: (1) redefines the social context for the production of art, in terms of the appropriate critics, role models, and audience; (2) redefines the organizational context for the production, display, and distribution of art (for example, the use of alternative spaces ['Alternatives in Retrospect: An Historical Overview, 1969-1975']; the attempt to create 'unsaleable' art works); and (3) redefines the nature of the artistic role, or the extent to which the artist participates in other social institutions, such as education, religion, and politics.  Some observers have pointed out that, as a result of the increasing integration of artists into middle-class life, the artistic role has begun to approximate what has been called a "moyen garde" with a well-defined niche in middle-class society (Davis, 1982).












Bender, Thomas. 1989. American Historical Review 94:234-5.

Clignet, Remi. 1988. Social Forces 67:276-7.

Francis, Richard. 1989. Burlington Magazine 131:567.

Holmes, W. B. 1988. Choice 25:1076.

Lang, Gladys Engel. 1992. "Art and Society." Pp. 107-8 in Encyclopedia of Sociology. New   York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Martorella, Rosanne. 1988. Contemporary Sociology 17:221-2.

Pollock, Duncan. 1972. "The Verist Sculptors, Two Interviews." Art in America 60:98-9.

Smith, Richard Cándida. 1991. "Modern Art and Oral History in the United States: A Revolution           Remembered." Journal of American History 78:598-606.

Swidler, Ann. 1989. American Journal of Sociology 94:1241-43.

Wallis, Brian. 1988. Art in America 76:23-5.