Understanding the Significance of Avant-garde

Art History

July 12, 2016

On May 17, 1863, Paris saw the opening of the Salon des Refusés, an exhibition of artworks that were rejected by the jury of the prestigious Paris Salon, held annually by the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

It was the very first time the term avant garde, or avant-garde, was used in relations to the arts, and it marked the beginning of a cultural revolution.

Renowned painters like Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet and Camille Pissaro, cast aside by the critics and the public for not being conservative to their taste, organized their own shows throughout the French capital, featuring the now legendary paintings such as Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Symphony in White, No. 1.

Attracting thousands of visitors, these artists announced a certain kind of rebellion that would come to influence an entire century and a half of art movements and like-minded artists, despite the ongoing ridicule they received from the arts elite.

Avant garde became a symbol of progress, exploration and innovation, of everything and anyone ahead of their time and ways of doing.

what is avant garde
Picture of the 1898 Salon de Refuses in Paris, the “salon of the rejected” established in 1863.

The Definition of avant-garde

To define avant-garde is a bit of a challenging task. The dictionary word originates from the French language and it translates to “vanguard” or “fore-guard”. It was as a term in the military, to describe a small troop of highly skilled soldiers who went ahead of the rest of the army to explore the terrain and warn of possible danger. With this in mind, the avant garde artists can be described as a group of people who develop fresh and often very surprising ideas in visual art, literature and culture at large. In fact, the French political writer Henri de Saint-Simon first introduced the term in declaring that artists should serve as the avant-garde in the general movement of social progress and radical reforms, even before scientists, industrialists and other classes. However, since it was unclear what “ahead of time” means exactly or who it is that establishes what artwork should be branded revolutionary, avant garde was adopted as an adjective attributed to those who explored new artistic techniques and subject matter, to the individuals who introduced something almost never before seen or done by anyone. Because of such radical nature and the fact it was going against the widely accepted existing forms, ideas and processes, avant-garde was often, if not always, shocking and controversial.

Henri de Saint-Simon introduced the term avant-garde words in english dictionary today 2019
Henri de Saint-Simon introduced the term “avant-garde” to declare that artists should serve as the avant-garde in the general movement of social progress and radical reforms

Precursors of the 20th Century Art Movements

One of the main characteristics of avant garde was going against the academic understanding of art, the imposed rules on what an artwork should look like and the way it should be produced. This kind of departure from an established norm could also be seen in the Italian Renaissance, which encouraged nudity and represented figures from the Bible in an entirely naturalistic manner in both painting and sculpture, defying Byzantine and Gothic art, as well as the influential Catholic Church. While the art movements of the 20th century shook all the imposed conventions to their core, it was the 19th century pioneers who gave way to such actions and thinking; in particular the Impressionism, scandalizing at the time, which proposed a realistic painting based on “impressions” and the way light interacts with our own perception. Along with other artist groups and movements which developed at around the same time, such as Symbolism, Post-Impressionism and subsequently Die Brücke and Fauvism, the end of the 19th century and the advent of the 20th presented itself as the beginning of something completely unprecedented.

The Fate of the avantgarde movement - Essay in Partisan Review
The Fate of the Avant-Garde - Essay in Partisan Review

Major Avant Garde Movements

A very important question was asked in the introduction of this text and it is this one: What is considered ahead of its time, and what does avant garde mean ? Standing at a front line of challenging the way art was made and thought about, stands a deeper desire for a revolution, for a shift in the perception of the world and the art’s role within different societies as either a tool for propaganda and politics, or as a medium helping to re-define some of the traditional ways of viewing a subject matter, or the space understood as a place of art. The first soldiers (“vanguard” or “fore-guard”) either die first or receive some of the most prestigious acknowledgments. To the following Avant guard movements, we owe a great amount for some of the major concepts, mediums, and functions of art that we see present today in the vast mix media bubble known as Contemporary art. Most of the movements occurred during the inter-war and post-war periods, where it is understandable that major shifts in the society were needed. Challenging the traditional way of looking at art, the greatest number of the movements that came after, seem to have sprung from a major modern art movement known as the Impressionism. The Impressionism artists advocated radical theories of painting, which broke almost all of the major rules concerning the composition and the choice of the subject matter. Promoting the painting of a contemporary society, which was quickly modernizing itself, artists, during this movement introduced an original subject matter of the everyday leaving behind the grandeur of historical paintings. Owing much to the experimental spirit of the Impressionism artist, the major Avant guard movements we will be discussing today, did a bit more, as they helped to revolutionize not just the medium of painting but other art disciplines, such as music, film, and theater.


The first major anti-art movement, Dada was a revolt against the culture and values, which, it was believed, had caused and supported the bloodshed of The First World War. Quickly developing into a highly Avant-guard art, aiming to undermine the traditional value of art, believing to have helped the socio-political ambivalent status quo, it sprang simultaneously in 1916 in both Europe and America. The name was in fact coined in Zurich and according to the poet Richard Huelsenbeck, the word was selected at random by him and a painter-musician Hugo Ball. Taken from a German-French dictionary, the word Dada means Yes-Yes in Russian and There-There in German.

The Dadaist goal was not to have art as ‘ an end in itself but to be an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in” and as a truly anti-art pressure group, Dadaists organized and performed outrageous tactics to attack the established traditions of art. Numerous demonstrations were organized, a variety of manifestos were written, alongside exhibitions of absurdity art, designed to fight, scandalize, and shock both the authoritative figures and the general public. This group was a loosely knit international network that was prominent in Zürich, New York City, Berlin, Cologne, Hanover, and Paris. What connected the figures of this movement was their need to re-define the definition of art. To them, the idea was more important than the work of art itself, and some of the major figures, helping to promote this concept were Marcel Duchamp, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, and Francis Picabia, just naming the few.

The major concept, which we owe to the Dada movement, was the idea that art can be made out of anything. Duchamp’s readymades, works of art made from found objects, reflect this idea and his first readymade was a bottle rack that he proclaimed as a work of art in 1914. This Dadaist technique of dislocating objects from their normal context and representing them as art was widely accepted by later assemblage and Pop artists. Another technique, still employed today that we owe to this revolutionary movement is photomontage that culled illustrations and advertisements cut from the popular magazines. Taking to another level the idea of the collage defined by the Cubist artists, the images produced were often very puzzling.

Across the globe Dadaists fought against the repressive social institutions and in the process helped to shape the most revolutionary idea at that time and that was that regardless how ordinary something was or is, if placed within an artistic context and defined as a work of art, it is a work of art.

Avant Garde artists
Left: Duchamp - Fountain / Right: Duchamp - Bicycle Wheel. Images via cultured.com


Constructivism was an artistic and architectural avant garde movement that originated in Russia beginning in 1913 by Vladimir Talin. This term described art and its function, which dismissed traditional art in favor of an art used as an instrument for social purposes, namely the construction of the socialist system. Reflecting the revolutionary time, most of the art was a fusion of art and political ideas and it needed to be ‘constructed’ from modern industrial materials such as plastic, steel, and glass in order to serve the political purpose rather than to express a purely abstract idea. Most Constructivists, such as Tatlin, thought painting to be dead unless it represented and acted as a kind of a blueprint for something to be physically built. Due to this idea, most constructivists worked mainly with ceramics, fashion design, graphics, and in architecture. In the most famous manifesto of this movement, Realist Manifesto, written in 1920 by Tatlin along with Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo, proclaimed the key idea of constructivism and that was the admiration of the machines and technology over more traditional art.

Avant Garde examples and artists
Poster Art Showcasing the Constructivism Style. Image via creativebloq.com


Suprematism was another unique Russian art movement that started conjointly with Constructivism. The focus and the emphasis were placed on the embracement of the abstraction allowed by paintings on canvas and Suprematism was the first avant guard movement to implement geometrical abstraction in painting. Kazimir Malevich is viewed as its founder, and it was him, alongside his contemporaries that helped to promote the idea that art should be returned back to its basic. This explained their dedication to pure geometrical abstraction and frequent employment of basic shapes such as squares, triangles, and circles, as well as primary and neutral colors. It was Malevich’s painting White on White that epitomized the movement that was closely linked, in a similar way as Constructivism, to the Revolution. An important aspect of Suprematism differed greatly to Constructivism, as the movement was closely linked to spirituality and mysticism that added to the strength of the abstraction. In 1927, Malevich published his book The Non-Objective World that became one of the most important theoretical documents on abstract art. In it, the painter explained the role of the abstraction in his paintings as a medium to “free art from the dead weight of the real world”.

Avant Garde art definition and paintings
Kazimir Malevich - Suprematism Painting. Images via wikiart.org


Futurism was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th-century, but there were parallel movements in Russian and England as well. It accentuated speed, technology, youth, and violence. Embracing change and linking humans to machines and vice versa, with the emphasis on violence and the technological triumph of humanity over nature, this avant garde movement is one of the most controversial movements of the Modernist era. Discarding the traditional artistic and cultural forms of the past at the center of the Futurist platform was, in fact, the endorsement of war. Futurism, coined in a 1909 manifesto by Filippo Marinetti, was not limited to just one art form, but its artists worked across an array of different art disciplines such as sculpture, ceramics, graphic design, theater, film, textiles, literature, and music. Frequent subject matters of the artist were cars, trains, animals, dancers, and large crowds. Borrowing the intersection of planes from Cubism, the vibrant and expressive color, along with the dynamic brushstroke from Fauvism, the art produced glorified the virtues of speed. As the devastation of the First World War was realized, the Futurism lost its steam.

Avant Garde examples
Fortunato Depero - Skyscrapers and Tunnels. Image via exhibitions.guggenheim.com


It is, in fact, Analytical Cubism that is considered as the most intellectual of all the avant garde movements. The rejection of the conventional idea of the linear perspective in favor of the emphasis on the two-dimensional picture plane shocked the art academies of Europe. Discarding the conventions of the past that promoted the mimicry of nature and high constructed realism, the Cubists highlighted the flat dimensionality of the canvas surface and its unity with the depicted scene helping to pave the way for non-representational art. As one of the best-known movements of the Modernist era, Cubism has come to be associated with two major figures, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque. It was their experimentations, which helped to reshape the traditional understanding of art and to change the course of it.

For a movement to be considered a truly avant garde movement it carries with it an implication that it must shake the core of the status quo. Like the most powerful protest art, the force of the new art that comes must shake all of the predisposed aesthetic and conceptual ideas about what art is and what it must do. The above-mentioned movements, helped to shape the rest of the early modern art and their ideas moved in the manner of a domino effect shaping the art’s legacy. To the mentioned avant garde movements we owe the birth of the later 20th-century Modern Art ideas such as Surrealism, Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, Happenings and Performances, whose impact on the contemporary art today we are all witnesses to.

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what is Avant Garde
Pablo Picasso - Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, detail. Image via www.flickr.com

Avant-garde in Music, Theater and Photography

The historic function of the avant garde was to complete the redefinition and consequent emancipation of art that began during the eighteen century. A concept inseparable from progress, avant garde demanded art to be revolutionized and redefined. Challenging every convention, rule and aesthetic idea they could identify, these artists wanted to look beyond the artwork and ask the question about the role of art in the construction of another world. Agreeing that the past should be torn up and cultural clock reset to zero, these artists proposed various combinations of new and old media such as performance, political engagement and metaphysics. As the most radical and ambitious of all movements, Dada was first to question the concept of art. With Duchamp’s introduction of the readymade, the notion of art became inseparable from the question of what art is. As movements proliferated, this concept started to reach various fields such as fine arts, music, photography and theater.

Luigi Russolo words in english dictionary 2019
Luigi Russolo with his assistant Piatti and the noise machine invented by him for futurist 'symphonies', one of which was performed at the London Coliseum in June 1914. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Early Avant Garde Music

The Italian Futurism has produced several composers and manifestos, but the seminal work was Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises where he propagated the use of industrial and military noises to conceive a fresh kind of music. He has built tje noise machines that replicated the clatter of the industrial age and the boom of warfare, but none of these instruments and designs survived. This machine music had a powerful influence on a number of composers of the era, as well as on the contemporary ones. Yet it wasn’t until the late 1940s that the term avant garde was finally attached to the music through the work of composers connected to Darmstadt Summer School.
At the same time in the United States, John Cage, who considered himself an experimental artist, had a more revolutionary vision. In his notorious piece 4’33’’ from 1952 he first introduced silence as a sound challenging the notion of what music is. This ‘composition’ consisted of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, and it was more of a philosophical statement than a musical piece. Throughout his practice, Cage promoted altered instruments, sounds of nature, found sounds, the movements of the performer and audience, random noises to the status of music. He also first introduced the concepts of indeterminacy and randomness into performing and created the so-called aleatoric music. Additionally, he created a concept of the prepared piano, the piano that has been altered by inserting various objects into the soundboard or between the strings to affect the sound.

John Cage - 4'33'', performed by David Tudor

The Beginnings of Electronic Music

The end of World War II brought the next period of musical revolution that was based on the most radical ideas of the previous decades and fresh technologies that started to emerge. In 1948, Pierre Schaeffer created a laboratory in Paris for musique concrete to explore theories of Luigi Russolo. With this musical form that was a type of electronic music using recordnigs, Schaeffer pioneered found sounds. The most famous example of this genre was Poème électronique by Edgard Varèse performed by 400 loudspeakers. Karlheinz Stockhausen contributed greatly to popularize all the main techniques of electronic music. He experimented with electronics, voice, tape and various samples and was interested in the way the sound moves through the space. Additionally, he pioneered subgenres of electro-acoustic chamber music in 1958 and live electronic music in 1964. The rise of minimalism didn’t skip the music as a form. Minimalist composers such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Phillip Glass and La Monte Young composed music using simple chords and repetitive rhythmic patterns. With new forms of music proliferating and various centers for avant garde music opening, it ceased to be an exclusive of celebrated composers and became a relatively common phenomenon.

Edgar Varèse - Poème électronique

The Avant Garde Jazz

The concept of avant garde was also applied to radical developments in black American jazz between 1950s and 1960s. Pursuing technical innovations and emotional expression, avant garde jazz was a unique hybrid that combined the extended technique, originality and genius with improvisational skills. Originally synonymous with free jazz, much of the avant garde jazz was distinct from that style. As a uniquely black artform, avant garde jazz emerged during colonial wars, occupations, the Cold War and the struggle for racial and gender equality, and due to these conditions it reflected uncertainty and anguish and celebrated the plebeian and absurd. Blurring the division between the written and the spontaneous, avant garde jazz was imbued with formal complexity and emotional directness. Still, avant garde jazz was distinguished from other avant gardes by its claims to art, not by a rejection of it.

avant garde music
John Coltrane, via musictour.eu

The Emergence of Photography As a Medium

The rise of photography in the 19th century has created a completely new language for capturing the human image and the world around us. First starting as portraiture photography in photographic studios, the relatively low cost of the daguerreotype led to a general rise in the popularity of portrait photography over a painted portrait. Photography as a medium was arguably avant garde in itself, since having a portrait taken was no longer the prerogative of the very rich. By the late nineteenth century, many photographers have rejected traditional settings and started to expand the genre of pictorial photography and promote it to High Art. What first started as a simple tool for documentation, became a genuine artistic medium in its own right. When first simple-to-use small format cameras reached the streets, the photography was completely democratized and revolutionized as a medium with various avant garde approaches that greatly affected the visual culture.

avant garde examples in avant garde photography
Left: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy - AKT No. 58, 1935, via thecharnelhouse.org / Right: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy - The Art of Light, via thecharnelhouse.org

The Avant Garde Photography

Having an untold expressive power and becoming a vehicle of modern consciousness that occurred after the World War I, many avant garde artists turned to photography to capture the soul of contemporary industrial society. During the 1920s and ‘30s, various unconventional forms and techniques, such as abstract photograms or photomontages started, to emerge. Various artists experimented with this powerful form, including László Moholy-Nagy, who is now considered a father of avant garde photography, August Sander and Albert Renger-Patzsch.

The avant garde photography in France, whose capital served as the unquestioned center of the international avant garde, was rooted in Surrealism that advocated the social transformation by rejecting bourgeois values and conventions. Surrealist photographers employed techniques such as double exposure, combination printing and reversed tonality to create the imagery that blurred the line between the dream and reality. Russian artists El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko made use of various techniques that served to break the conventions of perception and visual representation such as extreme close-ups, tilted horizons or abstracted forms.

This period between the two wars was certainly one of the richest in photographic history and it pushed this medium beyond its previous limits. The works by avant garde photographers such as Man Ray, Eugene Atget, Andre Kertesz, Claude Cahun or Henri Cartier-Bresson, provide a glimpse into this immensely productive and creative period. With Atget’s surreal cityscapes that were imbued with elegiac disquiet and strange uncanniness, Kertesz groundbreaking compositions, Ray’s formal experiments by transplants, Cahun’s questioning and destabilizing of established models of gender identity, Cartier-Bresson’s keen sensibility and appreciation of the moment, this creative and avant garde approach of the prewar period has changed photography forever.

avant-garde photography
Man Ray - Mode, via modearte.com

The Birth of the Avant Garde Theater

Similar to other forms of avant garde, experimental or avant garde theater emerged as a reaction against a perceived general cultural crisis and it rejected both the age and the dominant ways of writing and producing plays. Renouncing bourgeois values and conventions, this fresh concept tried to introduce a different application of language and body in order to change perception and create a more active relationship with the audience. This started in 1896 with Alfred Jarry and his Ubu Roi play that overturned cultural rules, norms and conventions in a wild, bizarre and comic way. This piece had a revolutionary importance as it opened the door for modernism of the 20th century and influenced Dada, Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd.

Traditionally perceived as passive observers, the role of the audience was first challenged with the rise of the avant garde. The audience became involved in a variety of ways, such as participating in the action on a highly practical level or being invited to feel a certain way in order to change their attitudes, values and beliefs. Celebrated director Peter Brook described this goal as ‘a necessary theater, one in which there is only a practical difference between actor and audience, not a fundamental one.’ Avant garde also aimed to change the social face of the theater, with performers becoming cultural activists of sorts. This was the case with the didactic agit-prop theater that aimed to make a certain moral or political statement and challenge the values and beliefs of the audience. Avant garde has also challenged and rejected the traditional hierarchical method of creating theater. With performers having more interpretative freedom, they were promoted to creative artists in their own right. Additionally, traditional conventions of space, movement, mood, tension, language and symbolism were altered.

avant garde art movement in theater
King Ubu, via steampunkchicago.com

The French and Russian Avant Garde Theater

The avant garde theater in France was significantly marked by Dada and Surrealism. Dadaists appropriated several aesthetic principles for the creation of drama from Futurists, such as the use of simultaneous action and of an antagonistic relationship to the audience. The production of Tristan Tzara’s Gas Heart was itself a form of anarchy against art and specifically theater and it resulted in a fight between its supporters and detractors. The introduction of Surrealism by Andre Breton in 1924, who had broken with Dada two years earlier, signaled the death of Dada as and influential avant garde movement. Surrealism was a major force in experimental writing and most celebrated theatrical works were those by Antonin Artaud and Gillaume Apollinaire. Artaud’s play Mysteries of Love produced in 1927 was the first play to apply the surrealist technique of automatic writing. Two lovers in the play constantly change their relationship and interact with various other characters whose identity shifted.

Meanwhile, in Russia, the theater became a hotbed of experimentation and a powerful vehicle for revolutionary propaganda. With a libretto in the experimental ‘zaum’ language, a combination of primeval Slavic mother-tongue mixed with birdsong and cosmic utterance, and costumes consisted of monochrome triangles and squares, the world’s first ‘futurist opera’ Victory of the Sun in 1913 has sparked an outrage with the audience. The costume designer was young Kazimir Malevich who first started experimenting in the theater before developing and articulating his artistic vision and ideas. The theater was transformed from a place of naturalism and emotion to a full-blown fairground spectacle. Artists such as Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, Alexandra Exter and Lyubov Popova created radical and outrageous design sets and costumes for a futuristic era that inspired Fritz Lang and even Flash Gordon. Vsevolod Meyerhold, one of the most enthusiastic activists of the new Soviet theater, championed bodily expression in acting and laid foundations for the modern physical theater. A plethora of artistic styles spawned in these tumultuous years. As Mayakovsky later wrote, ‘Theater is not a mirror, but a magnifying glass.’

what is avant garde theater avant garde music avant garde photography
Lyubov Popova’s fantastic mechanical set for The Magnanimous Cuckold, 1922, via V&A

The Theater of the Absurd

During the years between two wars, avant garde theater was blooming and various avant garde theater movements emerged. Inspired by these theatrical experiments in the early half of the century and by the horrors of the World War II, the Parisian avant garde New Theater completely rejected traditional theater settings, characters, plots and staging. Termed by the theater critic Martin Esslin as the Theater of the Absurd, it involved famed play writers such as Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov and Fernando Arrabal. Following the Albert Camus’ philosophy that the human situation is essentially absurd and devoid of purpose, these authors created absurdist fiction that gave the name to this style of theater that has evolved from their work.  These plays were imbued by the pessimistic vision of humanity that is left hopeless, bewildered and anxious. Some of the most celebrated theater pieces from this period are Beckett’s Wainting for Godot, Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, Genet’s The Maids, Harold Pinter’s The Room and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. The legacy and echoes of The Theater of the Absurd could be seen in many later playwrights' works.

what is avant garde theatre
Staging of the Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, via myentertainmentworld.ca

Avant-Garde Today

According to everything told by our history, the avant-garde is supposed to be ahead of its time. Hence, logic has it that people need some time to recognize that someone was “ahead of their time”, otherwise the avant-garde would not really be vanguard in the first place. In the time of most of the historical movements’ emergence, it was also a way to oppose the conventional manner of looking at art and to challenge the academic approach to it. But now that the academy is aware of the historical avant-garde movements, and it sides with contemporary art as well, how can we discern true progressiveness?

avant garde meaning
Renato Guttuso - Abstract versus Figurative Art

Why the Avant Garde Definition is So Complex Today

Contemporary art is experiencing the best of times and the worst of times. It is preceded by a vast number of significant movements and informed by the questions that were already resolved, which could be considered a benefit, or turn out to be a limiting handicap. Some are still bothered by the fact that art is hard to define, placing the blame on the avant-garde. And while these comments are often beside the point, it wouldn't hurt to reconsider the legacy which the avant-garde movements have left us. Yes, it gave us much to be thankful for, providing us with million different ways to approach art, not only as a traditional form but also as a readymade, an assemblage, a performance, a happening, an act, a document, an installation, you name it. But on the other hand, don’t we all, occasionally, experience the discomforting feeling of living in a world where everything has already been said and done, wondering, what now?

what is avant-garde art
Eve Riser Roberts - Duchamp's Cat Descending A Staircase No. 2, via fineartamerica

Pseudo-Autonomy of Contemporary Art

There is another thing that makes the matter of “contemporary avant garde” difficult to solve, and that is the prevalence of critics who usually aim to interpret art in their own way and to present certain artworks as something they essentially aren’t. What consequently happens is that, in the lack of words provided by artists themselves, art becomes easily turned into a pliable matter that changes shape when moving from one interpretation to another. On the other hand, most of the avant-garde movements had a manifesto explaining their sentiment, either forthrightly or implicitly. Today, we are not that accustomed to artists being their own “curators”, or even forming groups and movements. The supposed art movement, or a unifying leitmotif that brings a group together, is usually tailored by someone else.

avant garde movement
Students on the RCA Inspire Curating Contemporary Art MA installing 'Sum Parts' at the Acme Project Space. Photo Ruth Lie (2011), via acme.org.uk

Being Cool vs. Being Avant-Garde - The YBAs

To recognize the avant-garde in today’s art means to take a risk of proclaiming something to be relevant to the future, preferably reformist, even illuminative. In our recent past, a few so-called movements seemed to have intended to achieve these goals, but it is still uncertain if their collective energy was avant-garde, or simply trendsetting. Just like it happened in our distant past, it so happened in our recent past as well – most of significant discoveries begin with a single exhibition. Many would agree that Freeze, which was led by Damien Hirst in 1988, marked a turning point in the careers of artists whose names became associated with Young British Artists later on. The YBAs became a historic group, even though the names from the list were added and erased over time. Being that most of these artists came from the same school (Goldsmiths) and were allegedly supportive of a particularly wild careless lifestyle, the YBAs did, indeed, seemed to be an actual group. Still, when it comes to their art, while it was mostly based on the shock tactics that remained the common denominator in their work, it was characterized by a deliberate diversity in style. Apart from the fact that most of them turned out to be great entrepreneurs, capable of taking an advantage of both the positive and negative publicity, it would take a whole other article to discuss whether the YBAs (as a group) were particularly constructive with regards to art itself. After all, they were not the first ones to use “shock” as a method.

what is avant-garde today
Tracey Emin - My Bed

Probably Avant-Garde - Relational Aesthetics

Another attempt to define something revolutionary was Nicholas Bourriaud’s, in 1996, following the exhibition he curated - Traffic. Even though some of the artists who took part in it disregard the term to this day (and take a moment to recall the aforementioned problem of curators seeing something that isn’t there) Bourriaud saw the exhibition as exemplary of something fresh. It was the starting point for his definition of Relational Aesthetics, which was perceived a new “ism” by some, and rejected as a reiteration of the already-existent by others. In short, it is defined as art that relies on the social context and the network of human relations, which serve to decipher the work of art itself. In other words, the artwork is a mediator, an interface whose worth is not measured in its physical qualities, but through its capacity to translate the information between the artist and the viewer, counting on the viewer’s response to complete its purpose. In case you didn’t notice, the idea of such an artifact is tightly connected to the opportunities provided by the Internet, but our relationship with the Internet was not fully recognized back then. So we wouldn’t be wrong to say that the French curator’s ability to derive valuable conclusions out of a novel phenomenon was quite avant-garde.

avant-garde art page
Traffic (1996), exhibition view, CAPC, Bordeaux, France

Potentially Groundbreaking - Art Influenced by Object Oriented Ontology

Almost coincidentally, but reportedly a bit later, another movement officially emerged in contemporary philosophy, and its current and potential influence on art cannot be overstated. Object Oriented Ontology speaks of a world in which we live in, from an angle we haven’t considered before, placing the object instead of man. So you may forget about Kant’s Anthropocentrism, and embrace a new era in which the human race passes its title to objects, e.g. robots, machines, bytes, in which we no longer render objects as dependent on our interpretation or even our bare acknowledgement. “The exhibits are not exposed to us, we are the ones exposed to them” was how Pierre Huyghe approached the matter. With that in mind, we could be looking forward to the influence of OOO on art in future, and observe how trans-humanism already affects some of the artists labeled as post-internet artists.

avant-garde dictionary available book english avantgarde
Anthea Hamilton - Better Homes

So Kitsch That it Becomes Art - Kitschy Art

But if we consider the avant-garde as opposing to the academic definition of art, we might as well say that lobrow is the new avant-garde. Because, why not. It’s not so hard to believe that the 21st century Duchamp would dismiss all today’s "progressiveness" and disregard contemporary art and even the readymade, and eventually embrace pop surrealism as an obviously careless, lightheaded movement. If there is something sorely missing in the art of the 21st century, it is happiness - genuine happiness, hope, joy, glee, all of which contribute to a positive, carefree outlook on life, which somehow became associated with kitsch rather than art. Something truly fresh, in today's world, would mean something affirmative, which does not aim to challenge or question anything, but rather to be content about things, the way they are.

what is avant-garde art definition avantgarde
Mitch O’Connell - Practice Makes Perfect exhibition

Is The Contemporary Avant Garde Unreachable?

Being ahead of one’s time, in the 21st century, is almost impossible. The overall impression that time is constantly speeding up is a problem to begin with. With the information travelling as fast as a tap on the screen, translating ideas becomes easier, but so does our alleged understanding of those ideas (alleged, because in the worst-case scenario, we are rather more easily convinced that we understand them). How can we tell if anything is ahead of its time, if our perception of time is unclear itself? New becomes worn-out faster than ever, and even if time is curved and the past reoccurs in some form, we hardly have time to recognize it. Being avant-garde in the 2010s means being bigger, better, bolder than contemporary art. How is that possibly achieved, when contemporary art includes everything relating to the spirit of our time? Or is all contemporary art vanguard by deafult?

Instead of a genuine conclusion, we'll let the last few sentences from Liam Gillick's Contemporary art does not account for that which is taking place give you something great to think about: "The regime of the contemporary becomes more and more inclusive of its own past and eternal future. Bloated and on the edge of usefulness, it reaches out endlessly in all directions. But so did the flat earth that people once believed in, and so did the endless sky of the West."

Written by Angie Kordic, Silka P, Elena Martinique and Natalie P

All images for illustrative purposes only.

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