The avant-garde is where new and unusual or experimental ideas flourish up through the 20th century. Anti-establishment by birth and anti-art by nature, the avant-garde has used a number of ways to suspend the existing hierarchies over three distinctive periods. Circumventing and suspending existing rules and conventions is its hallmark. It allows the artist to position himself and stand out, and it is what ultimately makes the avant-garde a grouping of individual projects, rather than a unified style.
Such individualism is expressed to the extreme by the philosopher Max Stirner, who in the 1840s stated that the world in its entirety belongs to the individual only, who is free to act in it whichever way he wants and is capable of, and that all institutions the hierarchies they uphold only has the purpose to restrain the individual, and therefore are not to be respected. This lack of regard for and acceptance of existing norms made humor – with its ramifications of scorn, disdain and ridicule – one of, if no the preferred corrosive method of the successive avant-garde movements. And in its original form, humor in avant-garde can readily be traced throughout the various resurgences of avant-garde movements over the course of the last 150 years.
But as we look back in time, what is really surprising is to discover that not only humor, but virtually all methodologies and attitudes that we take as typical of the avant-garde was already present from the very first moment, merely to be re-discovered, -formulated and -invented by subsequent movements and independent artists.
Generally, the Fluxus movement that started in 1960 is seen as the moment the arts open up for novel definitions. Fluxus would give birth to an ample set of anti-definitions in non-sensical humor and subversive actions as a revolutionary flood of anti-art intended to blur the border between life and art. Its exploratory nature would contribute to give us conceptualism, but also explore novel technologies in sound and video art and intermedia, among many others.
Fluxus, however, was preceded in the mid 1910s by Dada, which was loose clubs of artists that existed for about 10 years and that likewise wanted to turn things upside-down, not just in the rarefied art world, but also in wider social and political life. Like Fluxus, Dada wanted to shock and mock common sense and apply absurdist humor to move against public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste – in short, the whole prevailing post-war order.
But further tracing the lineage of Fluxus and Dada, we must go to the late 19th century for Conceptual Art’s roots. From the early 1880s the Parisian movement Les Incohérents is one of several that display a surprising range of concepts that will go on to feed Dada, Fluxus and Conceptual Art, with the significant exception that for Les Incohérents it was for laughs only. Les Incohérents did not invent Conceptual Art, but they had intuitions that exceeded their time and place and that significantly contributed to modern art, with their main revelation being humor as they welcomed any and all attacks on the established arts and the institutions that upheld them by means of ridicule.
Over a brief period of less than 10 years, Les Incohérents reveal it all: monochrome paintings, silent music compositions, garbled language, ready-mades, unconventional support mediums for paintings, abnormal sculptural materials, multi-disciplinary works, chance as determining principle of aesthetics, the use of corporal secretions for paintings etc. All this being the basis for what many years later will become stock procedures in formal experiments by avant-garde artists in Dada, Fluxus and turn-of-the-millenium movements.
Les Incohérents likewise aim their obscene ridicule at all kinds of authority around the commercial art-scene, as they would donate all income from their salon, select jury members by chance and without any merit, instruct jurors to accept all submission without exception, lampoon the vanity of the art exhibition opening with extravagant events, dresses and behaviors, exposing the – now so familiar – subversive artist who covertly craves for acceptance by the same hierarchy he claims to despise.
Thus, conceptualism if not Conceptual Art not only becomes the advent but significantly becomes the heritage of Les Incohérents, as subsequent artists – unknowingly? – have derived their novel visions from them without much ado.
As for intentionality, the French-US artist Marcel Duchamp is of particular interest as he is generally accepted as the harbinger of this new art-form. But he does not develop his ideas out of a vacuum, as he in the mid 1900s was exposed to Les Incohérents. He personally knew several of the people involved in the movement, just has he was very familiar with their works through catalogues, magazines and posters in his possession, as well as through artworks he would be acquainted with.
Himself very much a jester, Duchamp perhaps just took on the movement’s use of humor in his own particular way, for instance in the case of the famous ready-made Fountain that was submitted to Society of Independent Artists in New York 1917. Because he apparently saw little need to rectify matters when he himself was being accredited for inventing these novel ideas in the 30s by Andrés Breton, as the academic and commercial art-world gradually began to digest the emerging Conceptual Art: Duchamp did not see any reason to take the art scene out of its (mis)conceptions about this artwork’s provenance, neither at this moment, nor later.
And when he authorized the production in the 1960s of copies in his name of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s urinal – because it was in fact she who submitted Fountain to the Society, not Marcel Duchamp. It not only consecrated him as the work’s author but also as the conceiver of conceptual art, here in the form of ready-mades in spite of the first ready-made being shown at the 1886 Salon of Les Incohérents. It would plant a lingering prank on the art-world as a conglomerate of institutions and business, and, in passing, conveniently hand Duchamp the latter’s fruits.
We may also consider the conceptual provenance of John Cage’s seminal 4’33’’ – three movements of silence composed in 1952, as we recall the 3rd movement In Futurum from Erwin Schulhoff’s Fünf Pittoresken for piano solo from 1919 - purely rests set out in 29 bars of intricate notation, or Alphonse Allais Marche Funèbre composée pour les funérailles d’un grand homme sourd from 1897 - consisting of 24 empty bars, Alphonse Allais being one of the seminal member of Les Incohérents.
Or Yves Klein’s monochrome and Paul Billaud’s all black painting Combat de nègres dans un tunnel from 1882, Marcel Duchamp’s intervened Joconda L.H.O.O.Q. and Eugène Bataille aka. Arthur Sapeck’s La Joconde fumant la pipe from 1883, Jackson Pollock’s drip-paintings and Piero Manzoni body fluids.
Les Incohérents is an unlikely nebula and caricature of avant-garde, and the group never claimed anything nor theorized in any way, as this was their exact antithesis. But Les Incohérents must surely remain at the pinnacle of avant-garde, since they had no ambitions in making a career in the arts, and they have never been recognized as a true, artistic movement: Les Incohérents incarnates the extreme and scornful purity of the avant-garde concept, hereby undermining any avant-garde project that a contemporary artist may believe to have.