Where did the Avant-garde go? Montparnasse a century on

We no longer live in the age of an avant-garde in which Paris sheds its light around the world, but we are in the midst of something as exciting – a transformation of received forms of knowledge that will equip us, inside and outside the academy, to help the world, change the university, and rethink the challenges that face it.

Mark Mazower
June 09, 2023

Thierry Grillet’s beautiful evocation of the spectacular world of the arts in and around Montparnasse in the year that the Grande Salle opened is a reminder of how much has changed – in Reid Hall, Paris, and the arts – in the century or more that has passed since then. In those halcyon days, it was in this neighborhood, or so it seemed, that a spirit of modernity in art arose which was to sweep the globe. This year, which also marks the fiftieth anniversary of Picasso’s death, offers us a chance not only to reassess modernism’s claims, but to reflect upon what succeeded it and the changed place of the arts and the academy in the twenty-first century.

Where else to begin but with the very idea of an avant-garde, the idea that was so fundamental to modernism? At the end of the Belle Époque, the claim of Paris to stand at the center of the world rested on a set of self-assured assertions: that Europe was at the heart of international affairs, that its ruling classes were the bearers of civilization and that only an avant-garde of daring and penniless revolutionaries was capable of challenging those values and moving beyond them.

Today all these assertions belong to the past.

Eurocentrism is more than a sin; it is an error of fact. Civilization is a word that has been tainted by its association with the imperial condescensions of the past. As for the appeal of the avant-garde, this began to fade in culture as in politics some decades ago, along with Marx’s vanishing shadow: we cannot say that the idea is entirely dead but it has less and less to do these days with the arts. We can trace its movement in the visual arts after the Second World War from Paris to New York, but where it went after the Cold War ended is anyone’s guess.

Which brings us to the USA.

It was not only avant-garde modernism that migrated westwards across the Atlantic after 1945, it was something else of importance to us gathered here today in Columbia University’s Reid Hall: the model of a modern university. The expansion of higher education was globally pervasive in those decades, but the most successful postwar exponents were the great U.S. universities, both public and private. Columbia University, headed for a time by the man who had overseen the Allied reconquest of Europe and would go on to become President of the United States, was in the forefront: university departments proliferated and expanded as expertise about the world became more essential to Americans. At the same time, some dozens of blocks south in downtown Manhattan, the arts scene was booming: Eisenhower’s tenure at Columbia coincided with the Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko years.

If these two trends – the birth of the modern art scene in Manhattan and the emergence of the modern university – are so rarely associated in our minds, it is probably because they insisted on having so little to do with one another. Both flourished and went global, but in very different directions. The New York art market became a setter of trends, turning contemporary art into an investor’s dream, generating prices for living artists that depended on the role of an ever smaller number of high-profile galleries as taste-makers. Meanwhile, the postwar universities supported scholarship in unparallelled depth and range. Increasingly, they set international epistemic norms, and spearheaded technical problem-solving across the globe, but these achievements came at the cost of growing specialization and siloization. In this way, artists and academics shared a common predicament: both of them lost older connections with a wider public. Might one also add: they lost the capacity to philosophize, that is, to articulate their relationship to a larger whole?

Today, when the acme of American power lies in the past, the Grande Salle reopens in a world transformed and fragmented. There is no new modernism, and no avant-garde: we live in a multicentred universe in which all hierarchies of values are open to question. In a prescient set of reflections regarding the Internet back in 1999, David Bowie foresaw that we were losing that older world with its unified public culture and its selfconsciously shocking bands of rebels – punk was perhaps the last gasp of that idea. The task before us is no longer to lead the call to arms for humanity but, rather, to try to knit a multiplicity of microcommunities together again. The challenge is to overcome fragmentation – not only across peoples, languages, and nations but also across professional specializations, practices, and the echo-chambers of the Web.

At Reid Hall – home of Columbia Global Centers | Paris – the University, under President Lee C. Bollinger’s leadership, has been working out, for some years now, how to respond to this challenge. The Institute for Ideas and Imagination was thus established to create a small magical microcosm in which we bring together the arts, the university, and the larger society in new ways, overcome our own contemporary narrowness of vision and connect worlds of ideas that now diverge. The arts help us disrupt the academy, challenging ossified discourses and freshening scholarly communication. Scholars learn from the artists to contemplate the world’s problems anew and to see differently. Conversely, engagement with those on the cutting edge of knowledge fructifies the arts and poses new topics and issues for creative practice.

It is in this spirit, for example, that two Institute for Ideas and Imagination Fellows, the composer Zosha di Castri and writer-film-maker Xiaolu Guo, collaborated here at Reid Hall in the Institute’s first year on a work that opened the 2019 BBC Proms. The pervasive legacies of the colonial have been illuminated by Fellows such as photographer João Pina, film makers Mila Turaljic and Nora Philippe, writer Clair Wills, sound artist Emeka Ogboh, and the visual artists Lamia Joriege and Bouchra Khalili. The impossibility of separating the world of man from the world of nature leaps out of the films of Karimah Ashadu, and the research of James Graham, Lynnette Widder, and Emlyn Hughes. Writers Deborah Levy, Tash Aw, Dina Nayeri, Anuk Arudpragasam, Eduardo Halfon, Yasmine El Rashidi, Ersi Sotiropoulos, and Édouard Louis, along with the scholars and researchers from Columbia with whom they have shared these spaces, have experimented with new ways to narrate human life. We no longer live in the age of an avant-garde in which Paris sheds its light around the world, but we are in the midst of something as exciting – a transformation of received forms of knowledge that will equip us, inside and outside the academy, to help the world, change the university, and rethink the challenges that face it. Today, thanks to the generosity of Judith and Paul, Reid Hall and its Grande Salle Ginsberg-LeClerc are at the heart of this effort.

Mark Mazower is the Ira D. Wallach Professor of History at Columbia University, and Stavros Niarchos Foundation Director of the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination.