The term refers to cultural practices that challenge tradition through experimentation and innovation, and is used in the context of modern and particularly twentieth-century art. From the French for ‘vanguard’ or ‘advance guard’ it dates back to the Middle Ages and was strictly a military term referring to those on the front-line, closest to conflict.
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The term was first used in reference to the arts by the French social reformer Henri de Saint-Simon in 1825 when he called upon 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. In this tradition it is generally accepted that the avant-garde began in the mid-nineteenth century with the Realist artists Gustave Courbet (1819-77) and Jean-François Millet (1814-75).
Courbet challenged the establishment by exhibiting out-with the recognised artistic Academies and their Salons in France. He depicted peasants and rejected the dominant Romantic and Neoclassical schools. Artists who followed such as Claude Monet (1840-1926), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Berthe Morisot (1841-95) followed suit, leading to the emergence of the Impressionist movement.
Subsequent Modern art movements such as Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism have become synonymous with the ‘Avant-garde’ although there are diverging views on its application. The critic Peter Bürger associated the term exclusively with Dada, Constructivism and Surrealism because these movements had a social agenda, referring to them as the ‘classic avant-gardes’. In contrast, the critic Clement Greenberg – endorsing movements such as Expressionism and Cubism - associated Avant-Garde with ‘art for art’s sake’, meaning that art does not need justification or serve any political, religious or educational function.
The former use has widespread acceptance but broadened to encompass movements, schools and styles from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, including later developments such as Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art.