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  • Postmodernism and the Avant-Garde: Stylistic Change in Fashion Design
  • Diana Crane (bio)

In intellectual circles today, it is fashionable to argue that modernism and its counterpart, avant-gardism, as the dominant “world views” that influenced the nature of style for most of the twentieth century, have been replaced by postmodernism, not only in the arts but in popular culture. According to a French scholar, “Avant-garde art still exists but it treads water and upsets no one. . . . Modern art no longer scandalizes its public.” 1 It has become the new academy, a new form of official art. 2

Modernism and avant-gardism, which presume the existence of clear-cut distinctions between different types of aesthetic endeavors, are perceived today as elitist in comparison with postmodernism, in which high culture is no longer viewed as aesthetically superior to popular culture and dominant cultures are no longer more significant than minority cultures. The shift from modernist to postmodernist styles is viewed as a consequence of social, political, and cultural changes that have altered the relationships between different social groups and the dominant culture, as well as the ways in which these social groups can be plausibly represented by cultural categories.

The enormous proliferation of different forms of popular culture (cinema, television, and popular music) transmitted by film and electronic media has made it difficult to ignore the aesthetic influence of these cultures in everyday life, and, at the same time, has had the effect of marginalizing traditional arts, such as painting, theatre, dance, poetry, and experimental music. The concept of two cultures, one aesthetically superior and identified with the arts as traditionally defined, and the [End Page 123] other aesthetically trivial and identified with culture produced for mass audiences, has ceased to be convincing. From the postmodernist perspective, all forms of culture today mix elements from different styles and different time periods, erasing the distinctions between high and low cultures and between dominant and minority cultures.

Unfortunately, the enormous amount of discussion and debate about the significance and impact of these types of styles has created what are in fact stereotypical images of both postmodernism and modernism, and particularly the role of avant-gardes. As Wilson has observed, our “generalizations begin to seem to have more to do with the creation of a cultural myth about ‘our times’ which . . . seeks to create a stereotype of the present in the present.” 3 The modernist avant-garde is characterized in terms of its alleged aloofness from popular culture and political concern rather than in terms of its critique of modernity, specifically the latter’s commitment to the belief in progress. 4 Avant-garde art tends to be identified with its post-World War II phase of experimentation with artistic form, while its engagements with political issues in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are forgotten (PC, 237). Instead of being aloof from popular culture in the late nineteenth century, French avant-garde artists often appropriated motifs from certain aspects of popular culture. 5 Curiously, while the avant-garde tends to be derided in discussions of postmodernism, the concept has not been entirely abandoned. Postmodern artists, while eliminating clear distinctions between popular culture and art in their works, are sometimes described as using avant-garde strategies. Boyne and Rattansi argue that postmodernists in relation to their battle against modernism constitute an avant-garde in the same sense as the dadaists and surrealists in their opposition to post-impressionism (“TPP,” 10). Connor describes postmodernists as using “a lexicon of cultural subversion and deconstruction which is partly inherited from modernist culture and its avant-garde theories” (PC, 166- 67).

At the same time, some writers have argued that postmodern theorists exaggerate the extent to which postmodernity has replaced modernity. Kellner suggests that there may be “continuities” as well as “discontinuities” between the two types of societies and suggests the relevance of Williams’ distinction between “residual,” “dominant,” and “emergent” cultures. “Using Williams’ distinctions we might want to speak of postmodernity as an emergent tendency within a still dominant modernity which is haunted as well by various forms of residual, traditional cultures. 6

Collins has pointed to “the simultaneous presence of [postmodernism] alongside modernist, pre-modernist, and...