Agonism and avant-gardism

As is noted under the term Agon, the terms, agonism, agonist, antagonist and protagonist are of great value in developing and understanding the dynamics of narrative environments, particularly when considered from the point of view of dramatic conflict. Renato Poggioli (1968: 65), furthermore, argues that agonism is a moment of enormous import as a disposition within modern culture. The particular significance of agonism within avant-garde art is his specific area of interest, however.

Agonism derives form the Greek root words agone and agonia but, Poggioli suggests, its modern sense transcends the purely etymological meanings of the two terms. Thus, he reasons, if agonism meant no more than agony, it would simply be a synonym for activism and would express the modern cult of contest, sport and game, that is, of competition and competitiveness. On the other hand, if agonism meant no more than agonia, it would allude to the tragic sense of life so intensely felt by Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, a sense that was rendered popular by the existentialist philosophy of the 1960s.

However, within the context of avant-garde art, what is meant by agonism is more pathetic than tragic, and is neither Christian nor Dionysian. It represents the deepest psychological motivation behind the decadent movement, Poggioli asserts, and also the general currents, from which the decadent movement emerged, that reach back to romanticism itself.

In these currents, the agnostic attitude is not a passive state of mind, exclusively dominated by a sense of imminent catastrophe. Rather, it strives to transform the catastrophic into a miracle. By so acting, through its very failure, it tends toward a result that both justifies and transcends itself.

Thus, in this context, agonism means tension; and it means sacrifice and consecration. As an hyperbolic passion, a bow bent toward the impossible, it forms a paradoxical and positive form of spiritual defeatism, such as exemplified by Mallarme’s “Un coup de des”.

For Mario Praz, the romantic agony is among the most extreme and symptomatic themes of modern literature, keenly suggesting a continuity between romantic and avant-garde mentalities. The presence of an agonistic mentality in the avant-garde aesthetic consciousness can be demonstrated through the frequent appearance of the hyperbolic image in modern poetry. Within critical discourse, similarly, the contrast between a work and the atmosphere in which it is produced presupposes that the creative act takes place in a state of crisis.

Poggioli proposes that in an epoch such as that which encompassed the 1960s, which is dominated by an anxiety or anguish that is impervious to any metaphysical or mystical redemption, agonism must be conceived of as a sacrifice to the Moloch of historicism, in which history is made into a divinity.

This, Poggioli contends, is precisely the transcendental function (ideal mission) of avant-garde agonism as futurism, understood as a general tendency or orientation toward the future, and not the determinate movement that took on that name. Thus, Poggioli defines the agonistic variant of futurism as a self-sacrifice to the glory of posterity (an agonistic sacrifice to the future). Nevertheless, he points out, avant-garde artists sometimes permitted themselves to be seduced by an agonism that was almost gratuitous, that is, by a sense of sacrifice and a morbid taste for present suffering that was not conceived of as self-immolation on behalf of future generations.

Massimo Bontempelli concludes that the avant-gardes of the first fifteen years of the 20th century in general submitted to the fate of the military avant-gardes, from whom the image is taken: they were destined for the slaughter so that after them others might stop to build.

Furthermore, this immolation of the self to the art of the future must be understood not just as an anonymous and collective sacrifice, but also the self-immolation of the isolated creative personality. This agonistic sacrifice is felt as the fatal obligation of the individual artists.

In the ideologies of more recent avant-gardes (post-1945), the agonistic sacrifice is conceived in terms of a collective group of men and women born and growing up at the same moment in history, i.e. a lost generation.

This destiny, while accepted as an historic one, is also accepted as a psychological one, suggesting that the agonistic disposition in avant-garde psychosis represents the masochistic impulse while the nihilistic disposition represents the sadistic impulse.


Poggioli, R. (1968). Agonism and futurism. In: The Theory of the avant-garde. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 61–77.

edited 9 July, 2016 by Allan Parsons