Avant garde (Fr.: ‘vanguard’)
- Jim Samson
A term derived from French military history where it signified an advance group clearing the way for the main body of troops. The connotations of frontiers, leadership, unknown territory and risk accompanied the term as it was appropriated for and by artists. An early instance of such appropriation was Saint-Simon's proposal that artists might serve as an ‘avant garde’ in the establishment of his new secular and scientific utopia (Opinions littéraires, philosophiques et industrielles, 1829). This is of some significance, as it already suggests that an avant garde might be motivated both by intellectual specialization and by social dissent.
In our own age the term is often used loosely to describe any artists who have made radical departures from tradition, but it has also been freighted with particular meanings, and these have supported a more specific usage referring to art histories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the era of cultural history usually labelled ‘Modernism’. Here an avant garde would be differentiated from an ...