Avant-garde means "advance guard" or "vanguard". The adjective form is used in English, to refer to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics. Avant-garde represents a pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm. The notion of the existence of the avant-garde is considered by some to be a hallmark of modernism, as distinct from postmodernism. Postmodernism posits that the age of the constant pushing of boundaries is no longer with us and that avant-garde has little to no applicability in the age of Postmodern art. However, this is not true in the case of music as many pieces are still being released which are generally considered Avant-garde in popular culture.
The vanguard, a small troop of highly skilled soldiers, explores the terrain ahead of a large advancing army and plots a course for the army to follow. This concept is applied to the work done by small collectives of intellectuals and artists as they open pathways through new cultural or political terrain for society to follow. The origin of the application of this French term to art is still debated. Some fix it on May 17, 1863, the opening of the Salon des Refusés in Paris, organized by painters whose work was rejected for the annual Paris Salon of officially sanctioned academic art. Salons des Refusés were held in 1863, 1874, 1875, and 1886.The term also refers to the promotion of radical social reforms. It was this meaning that 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) which contains the first recorded use of "avant-garde" in its now-customary sense: there, Rodrigues calls 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. Over time, avant-garde became associated with movements concerned with art for art's sake, focusing primarily on expanding the frontiers of aesthetic experience, rather than with wider social reform. Avant-garde jazz is a more recent application of the term, dating back to the late 1950s.
Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz For instance, whereas Marcel Duchamp's fountain (a urinal), which he declared a piece of art, may have been avant-garde at the time but is no longer given the title today as the body of work has already been created; it is no longer innovative. Avant-garde is therefore temporal and relates to the process of art's unfolding in time. Duchamp's work retains its distinction as avant-garde even today, because it marks a historical point in the advancement of the conception of art, relative to the period in which it surfaced. Similarly, "avant-garde" can be applied to the forerunners of any new movements.
Theorizing the avant-garde
Several writers have attempted to map the parameters of avant-garde activity with limited success. One of the most useful and respected analysis of vanguardism as a cultural phenomenon remains the Italian essayist Renato Poggioli's 1962 book Teoria dell'arte d'avanguardia (The Theory of the Avant-Garde). Surveying the historical, social, psychological and philosophical aspects of vanguardism, Poggioli reaches beyond individual instances of art, poetry and music to show that vanguardists may be seen as sharing certain ideals or values which are manifested in the non-conformist lifestyles they adopted, vanguard culture being shown to be a variety or subcategory of Bohemianism. Reflecting on Charles Baudelaire's complaint that 'the man of letters is the enemy of the world' and Stéphane Mallarmé's distress over the isolation of the creator in "this society that will not let him live", Poggioli opines that beyond having habitually non-conformist postures,...