Disruptive Technology:
The Avant-Gardness of Avant-Garde Art

A "disruptive technology" is always a new, young technology that is initially of little commercial value, and so does not attract the attention of the marketplace and those companies which dominate it. It is a concept borrowed from economics to describe the relationship between entrenched power structures and new developments outside that structure that eventually come not only to threaten it, but eventually to replace it. A "disruptive technology" challenges the status quo, forcing change. Initially it is ignored because it has an inferior character when compared to the best, most-expensive products of existing technologies. Modernism, most obviously in the twentieth century, is a history of the appearance and success of these disruptive technologies, from the invention of records threatening the musician's union to television threatening film and movie theaters, to cableTV threatening broadcast TV. It is a history of technological innovation building towards levels of greater impact as the century progressed, until the Internet's popularity in the 1990s threatened the entire system of information dispersal, ownership, and control.

However, this history begins in the 1830s with the invention of photography. Disruptive technology has a connection to the avant-garde; in fact, the appearance of disruptive technologies in the nineteenth century primarily affected the arts. The development of photography in the 1830s lead, with its general adoption and refinement, to the supplanting of painters by photographers as the documentarians of visible reality. The musician's union's attack on records and player pianos was connected to their recognition that these technologies threatened the economics of live music. It is this aspect of disruptive technology-its ability to force change-that is the link between the historical European avant-garde's interest in futurity and the embracing of the technological and scientific in the first half of the twentieth century. This connection between the arts-mainly the visual arts-and disruptive technology is superficially surprising, even counterintuitive. But this is only the case when we consider disruptive technology without also considering the conditions which produced the need for an avant-garde in the visual arts.

Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century was the site of a cultural conflict between the Ancients and the Moderns. Their disagreements about techniques and subject matter produced both Modernism and the avant-garde. The reasons for this conflict are connected to the abandonment of tradition and the consequent controversy that ensued. This shift is connected to the emergence of photography and certain painter's response to that technology. The result was an avant-garde which Italian art historian Renato Poggioli describes as proceeding experimentally.

In reality, experiment precedes creation; creation annuls and absorbs experimentation within itself. Experiment fuses into creation, not creation into experiment. ... The avant-garde's experimental nature is not essentially or exclusively a matter of art; thus circumstance separates it from the formalistic searches of traditional art and from many Modern currents as well. ... The issue is not so much experiment in the technical or stylistic realm as experiment in the terra incognita of the unconscious, the unexplored areas of the soul.[1]

It is the difference between the experimental search and the "formalistic searches of traditional art" that constitute the disruptive aspects of the avant-garde. A formalistic search remains within the confines of tradition; an experimental search is unbound by tradition. The "unexplored areas of the soul" Poggioli describes as the experimental arena for the avant-garde began with the rejection of certain art and artists by the French Salon in the 1860s. It is the exclusion of the painters who Charles Baudellaire defends in The Painter of Modern Life from the Salon that gives birth to the idea of "avant-garde art" and connects that art with disruptive technology. The Salon is the established technology, the art world is the marketplace (in more than metaphor) and the assault which the avant-garde proposes takes the same approach as a disruptive technology does in more familiar economic contexts. The interest and connection between the avant-garde artists and those parts of culture rejected by the Salon is then inevitable. The use of "kitsch" in both the Duchampian readymade-think of Duchamp's Pharmacy, or Bottlerack, or Jeff Koonts and Haim Steinbach's assemblages-and Pop Art serves the avant-garde in much the same way that the development of a new technology enables more people to have access to what was previously the exclusive domain of the elites.

Disruptive technologies always work democratically: they allow increasing numbers of people to have access to those things which were previously very rare, expensive, or difficult to produce. Photography allows anyone to own a detailed, realistic picture of anything which can be photographed such as a portrait. Prior to its invention, high-quality portraiture was the exclusive domain of the elites, due largely to the level of technical skill required of painters. Photography "short-circuited" this process. It is no accident that the majority of images from the first fifty years of photography are portraits and other subjects well-known from paintings. In attempting to demonstrate that it was art by imitating painting, photography proved to be the archetypal disruptive technology: it replaced painting by doing what painters did, only cheaper and more often.

Modernism and the avant-garde are cultural parallels to the economic action of disruptive technologies. The academicians who controlled the official French Salon and Ecole des Beaux Arts denied access to the first Modern artists who were the originators of the avant-garde. Their work had the same disruptive effects culturally within the French art world as photography did economically in relation to painting.

This parallel between the avant-garde artists and these newer, marginalized, and officially unacceptable products of new technology which occupy a separate market is further shown by the establishment of the Salon de Refuse├ęs by Emperor Napoleon III. The creation of the new Salon is generally regarded as the beginning of Modernism.[2] The appearance of this second Salon, specifically for those artists rejected by the academy, occurred because the academic Salon jury-the controlled by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts academicians-rejected 3/5 of the work by artists who had shown in that Salon in previous years.[3] It is the legitimization of the new work and artists as "separate, but equal" to the established order. This origin marked it, in part, with a program of arguing for the inclusion of works within the accepted parameters of the art world.

Movement between arguments for inclusion and exclusion define the dynamic between the avant-garde and the traditionalists. It is always a fight for a broader, more democratic ideal. The concept of "disruptive technologies" is principally one that proposes greater inclusion, rather than an elitist pattern of greater and greater exclusion. Within the art world these developments take place within two parallel, interrelated areas: those of techniques and materials, and the parallel, that of content and criticism. Pop Art, most especially Andy Warhol's silk-screens, present developments in both areas. His presentation of "unacceptable" subjects derived from the mass media, and presented using a technology that specifically negates the painterly techniques that dominated the art of the 1950s. The conflict Pop Art proposed at the start of the 1960s was a complete reversal and negation of the values from the preceding period-Abstract Expressionism. The complete revaluation and shift of reference towards a broader, more familiar context connects these avant-gardes to those which began in Paris in the 1860s. In both periods it is the exploration of areas rejected by the dominant power structure of the art world that parallels disruptive technology. This is a democratic process:

You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.[4]

Andy Warhol's observation that "All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good." shows "Coke" is a democratic object, equally available to everyone, identical and equivalent. This kind of uniformity of quality is the ultimate "goal" of disruptive technology. By making what had been previously too expensive, too difficult to manufacture, too restricted to an elite class available to everyone at a low price (thus eliminating the cost-restriction that maintains that elite's access) the disruptive technology is basically a form of cultural democracy. It is necessarily "universal." It is also authoritarian. Everyone gets the same, no matter who they are; the standardization of "Coke" is a realization of the necessary equivalence between people of different social standing-the bum, the President, etc.-who would in a traditional culture be separated by an almost unbridgeable "gap." Class differences break down as a result of democracy as proposed by Warhol. This disrupts traditional cultural hierarchies, giving a specifically cultural dimension to the economic aspects of disruptive technology.

It is the cultural effect which this democratic goal has on established systems of thought and value that cultural critic Craig Owens regards as the foundational moment for the shift from Modernism to Post-Modernism. The discovery that there is a plurality of cultures requires the abandonment of the class-based hierarchy proposed by American democracy and enacted through its mass-produced commodities. The movement into a "Post-Modern" phase comes when the relationship between European (and American) culture and that of its former colonies shifts fundamentally:

Decentered, allegorical, schizophrenic ... -however we choose to diagnose its symptoms, Post-Modernism is usually treated, by its protagonists and antagonists alike, as a crisis of cultural authority, specifically of the authority vested in Western European culture and its institutions. ... But perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the end of Western sovereignty has been that of Paul Ricoeur, who wrote in 1962 that "the discovery of the plurality of cultures is never a harmless experience."[5]

Owen's description of Post-Modernism is the democratic leveling which Warhol explained through his Coca-Cola example. His understanding of a "crisis of cultural authority" is a natural consequence of the leveling of hierarchies performed by disruptive technologies like the avant-garde. By assaulting the entrenched values of the academy and status quo, the avant-garde also attacks the systems of cultural authority invested in those institutions. A hierarchy serves to separate and isolate people into a priori groups which democratic constructions breakdown and replace with a uniform understanding of people as equivalents or equals, instead of as a dualism: master and slave, powerful and powerless, etc.. The irony of this situation is that these dualisms continue under a different guise, one which Post-Modern theoretical frameworks deny our ability to describe or critique. This is the problem posed by this critical approach.

In the expansion of democratic plurality, of which the decline in cultural authority suggested by Owen's commentary is a symptom, the Post-Modern appears as an awareness of alternative versions of cultural 'reality' coexisting simultaneously and with equal validity to / within the supposedly monolithic "Western Europe," as well as the recognition that indigenous cultures elsewhere in the world are also equally valid. This is a radical proposition, but one which is implicit in the use of non-Western art as a source of influence by the avant-gardes starting with Impressionism. The adoption of traditions exterior to those of Europe provided a readymade solution to the confines of those traditions. Marcel Duchamp's invention of readymades in America where these traditions were not as entrenched or as powerful as in Paris provided the same escape for the avant-garde, one which Pop Art in the 1960s, and Commodity art in the 1980s both used to lesser degrees of disruptive effect. The lesson of disruptive technologies is that their ability to force change decreases with time as they approach dominance. A readymade such as Duchamp's Fountain (1917) does not have the same ability to cause a scandal and disrupt the art world when it's exhibited at the Pasadena Museum in 1961 as it does when it's rejected from the Society for Independent Artist's exhibition in 1917. Once a disruptive technology succeeds, repeating it will not have the same disruptive impact. Eventually it comes to dominate and so can only be disrupted by a technology approaching its power structure in a different manner.

The gradual disappearance of the avant-garde is connected to the decreased impact that older disruptive procedures now have. The fragmentation of the art world which follows from the success of the Post-Modern program (which the disappearance of critical discussion about Post-Modernism implies) also makes further avant-garde developments problematic. Part of the shift from avant-garde as a disruptive technology to avant-garde as political, critical, or social action is evidence that in the contemporary art world. The "avant-garde" no longer acts in the same ways as it has historically, suggesting it is no longer an "avant-garde" but establishment instead.

What would be required for a contemporary avant-garde?

Recognizing a contemporary avant-garde is problematic when considered in relation to the concept of the avant-garde as a disruptive technology. Because the contemporary situation can be understood as the complete success and dominance of the historical avant-garde's initial program of democratic inclusion, it is unclear what a contemporary avant-garde would be like. However, based on the concept of "disruptive technology" there are some things that can be identified as characteristics for a new avant-garde. This is not a manifesto; it is a consideration from a critical standpoint of what would constitute an avant-garde in the disruptive technology sense. The purpose here is to aid recognition of such an avant-garde were it to appear.

The first and most important aspect of this avant-garde is that it would fall outside the framework of the existing art world-outside the alternative spaces, galleries and museums which define the status quo. This is an absolute necessity since for it to exist within that framework would be a basic contradiction that would compromise its ability to function disruptively. Being within the art world from its on-set, it would move into mainstream of those institutions within a generation. The difference between the Moderns and Ancients within the French art world remained until well into the twentieth century. The first and most important aspect of the historical origin of the avant-garde in Paris was its separation from the established Salon and the systems of patronage and support the Salon represented.

Democracy-in the form of equal access and availability-is another crucial characteristic of a disruptive technologies model for avant-garde. The ability to be available to the majority of the population is the difference between the elitist art and the avant-garde. The potential mass audience of "new media art" is artificially contained through the limited edition videotape selling for high prices. Even though media work of this type is potentially distributable to a mass audience, it is not in order to create an artificial scarcity that supports high prices in the art market. This is how the art world contains the radical potentials this work had in its infancy. It is not accidental that the historical avant-gardes were also opposed to the enshrinement of art within elitist institutions, private collections and other such spaces which separated art from the actual lived experience of people living in the culture. This is a development partially performed by the mass media, but with the purpose of dominating the audience intellectually and economically, which renders it authoritarian instead of democratic. The differences and dynamics of art world versus mass media are so complex and important on the one hand, and so similar in their dominance on the other that any disruptive avant-garde would necessarily (and unavoidably) address both forms of culture at the same time.

These first two characteristics of a disruptive technology model for an avant-garde are grounded within observable characteristics of the historical avant-garde. They are predictable based upon what an avant-garde has been; however, they are no longer sufficient in themselves. Too much of the established art world already incorporates these characteristics-to varying degrees depending on the specific institution-for them to suffice in themselves. What the other determining characteristics are is unclear. However, it is likely they are connected with computer technology and the Internet because it is the "site" of a cultural war over control, production, and distribution that is being fought between the corporations which directly dominate the mass media and indirectly dominate the art world through sponsorship. It is this conflict which has created the concept of "disruptive technology." For an avant-garde to act in that way it needs to undermine and ultimately replace the established order with a radically different set of beliefs and values. That these values are connected to democratic ideas of equal access necessarily implies that such an avant-garde would be connected with a technology like the Internet (or a new technology that replaces it, as yet unknown.) In looking for a disruptive avant-garde (rather than one which is based in social usefulness), one should ask questions about audience: is it the art world or the culture at large that the work addresses, and then, how does it address them? The avant-garde which appeared in 1860s Paris directed its audience out into the world, to see where and how they lived in that world-this egalitarianism produced the democratic aspirations of the avant-garde.

Michael Betancourt is an art critic and artist working in Miami, Florida.


[1] Poggioli, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-garde, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 137.

[2] Cohen-Solal, Annie. Painting American (New York: Knopf, 2001), p. 75.

[3] Ibid., p. 55.

[4] Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, (San Diego: Harvest, 1977), pp. 100-101.

[5] Owens, Craig. "The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Post-Modernism" in The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster, (Seattle: The Bay Press, 1983), p. 57.