The term “avant-garde” has a double meaning, denoting first, the historical movements that started in the late nineteenth century and ended in the 1920s and 1930s, and second, the ongoing practices of radical innovation in art, literature, and fashion in the later twentieth century (often inspired by the historical avant-garde and referred to as the neo-avant-garde).
Avant-garde is originally a French term, meaning in English vanguard or advance guard (the part of an army that goes forward ahead of the rest). It first appeared with reference to art in France in the first half of the nineteenth century, and is usually credited to the influential thinker Henri de Saint-Simon, one of the forerunners of socialism. He believed in the social power of the arts and saw artists, alongside scientists and industrialists, as the leaders of a new society. In 1825 he wrote: “We artists will serve you as an avant-garde, the power of the arts is most immediate: when we want to spread new ideas we inscribe
them on marble or canvas. What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society, a true priestly function and of marching in the van [i.e. vanguard] of all the intellectual faculties!”
Because of its radical nature and the fact that it challenges existing ideas, processes and forms – avant-garde artists and artworks often go hand-in-hand with controversy. Read the captions of the artworks below to find out about the shock-waves they caused.
Avant-garde art has, traditionally, never just been described as avant-garde, but has also been associated a particular movement: from Realism to Impressionism to Expressionism to Cubism and so on. Part of the avant-garde artist’s identity and purpose has traditionally involved defining a clear and programmatic set of aims for their work, generally also associated with a tight-knit group of associates or comrades, which would form the basis for their creativity. As such, the origins of avant-garde art are also the origins of the contemporary notion of the art ‘movement.’
While Impressionist art may not seem avant-garde by contemporary standards, the movement was revolutionary in its time. Rejected by the traditional Paris Salon, painters like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir favored landscapes and scenes of daily life over the accepted historical and mythological subjects. They also broke with tradition by moving out of the studio and painting en plein air.
Avant-garde music is music that is considered to be at the forefront of innovation in its field, with the term “avant-garde” implying a critique of existing aesthetic conventions, rejection of the status quo in favor of unique or original elements, and the idea of deliberately challenging or alienating audiences. Avant-garde music may be distinguished from experimental musicby the way it adopts an extreme position within a certain tradition, whereas experimental music lies outside tradition.
Whereas the avant-garde has a significant history in 20th-century music, it is more pronounced in theatre and performance art, and often in conjunction with music and sound design innovations, as well as developments in visual media design. There are movements in theatre history that are characterized by their contributions to the avant-garde traditions in both the United States and Europe. Among these are Fluxus, Happenings, and Neo-Dada.
The avant-garde also promotes radical social reforms. This meaning was evoked by the Saint Simonian Olinde Rodrigues in his essay, “L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel” (“The artist, the scientist and the industrialist”, 1825). This essay contains the first use of “avant-garde” in its now customary sense; there, Rodrigues called on artists to “serve as [the people’s] avant-garde”, insisting that “the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and fastest way” to social, political and economic reform.
* The vanguard also called the advance guard is the leading part of an advancing military formation. It has a number offunctions, including seeking out the enemy and securing ground in advance of the main force. The vanguard derives from the traditional division of a medieval army into three battles or wards – the Van, the Main (or Middle), and the Rear. The term originated from the medieval French avant-garde, i.e. “the advance guard”. The vanguard would lead the line of march and would deploy first on the field of battle, either in front of the other wards or to the right if they deployed in line.