"Objects have vanished like smoke; to attain the new artistic culture, art advances toward creation as an end in itself and toward domination over the forms of nature."
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Kazimir Malevich Signature
"Art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living"
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John Cage Signature
"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones."
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John Cage Signature
"I would like to show the world today as an ant sees it and tomorrow as the moon sees it."
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Hannah Hoch
"New needs need new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements... the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture."
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Jackson Pollock Signature
"...a part of Western bourgeois society has produced something unheard of heretofore: avant-garde culture. A superior consciousness of history-more precisely, the appearance of a new kind of criticism of society, an historical criticism-made this possible."
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Clement Greenberg
"It was no accident, therefore, that the birth of the avant-garde coincided chronologically - and geographically, too - with the first bold development of scientific revolutionary thought in Europe."
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Clement Greenberg
" 'Art for art's sake' and 'pure poetry' appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like a plague. It has been in search of the absolute that the avant-garde has arrived at 'abstract' or 'nonobjective' art-and poetry..."
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Clement Greenberg
"Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rear-guard."
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Clement Greenberg
"Art, the expression of society, manifests, in its highest soaring, the most advanced social tendencies: it is the forerunner and the revealer. Therefore to know whether art worthily fulfills its proper mission as initiator, whether the artist is truly of the avant-garde, one must know where Humanity is going, know what the destiny of the human race is..."
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Gabriel-Désiré Laverdant
"Certainly the painter who best embodies the dual implications - both artistically and politically progressive - of the original usage of the term "avant-garde" is Gustave Courbet and his militantly radical Realism."
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Linda Nochlin

Summary of Avant-Garde Art

Originating in military terminology, the phrase "avant-garde" was adapted to apply to the work of artists - and then taken on by artists themselves - in order to indicate the socially, politically, and culturally revolutionary potential of much modern art. From the Realism of Gustave Courbet to the genre-defying multimedia experiments of the Fluxus movement, the term "avant-garde" has been associated with groups of artists - and sometimes single individuals - who sought to fly in the face of acceptable standards of artistic taste and to define new paradigms of creativity. In some movements this emphasis on the new was tied to a radical political and social agenda, a desire to tear down and replace social systems that were seen as somehow bound up in mainstream aesthetic standards.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Although the idea of the avant-garde suggests a preoccupation with breaking new ground, in almost all cases this did not reflect a standalone interest in novelty but was underpinned by a desire to give a clearer impression of "reality". For Gustave Courbet, that meant depicting the harsh working lives that were banished from the academic canvas; for the Impressionists it meant capturing the effects of light on the retina at the moment of perception; for the Constructivists it meant depicting the invisible scientific forces at work under the surface of visible reality. But in all cases, the desire to render reality in a newly precise way was the underlying aim.
  • The idea of the avant-garde has traditionally been beholden to two interpretations. On the one hand, it is seen as inextricably linked to a radical social or political program, so that transgressive art becomes the vehicle for transgressive social and political activity. On the other hand, avant-garde art has been seen as the domain of pure stylistic experiment, unfettered by social concerns of any kind. These two definitions have their own accompanying chronologies, hierarchies, and critical rubrics, which are often strikingly at odds with each other.
  • The birth of the avant-garde was also the birth of the idea of "anti-art": that art could stake its value partly on undermining, subverting, or mocking pre-existing notions of artistic value. From the Impressionists, with their quick, loose brushwork, to Marcel Duchamp with his readymades, avant-garde art always drew some of its impact from its evident disregard for existing norms, and its ability to generate an impression of non-art, even ugliness.
  • 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.'

Overview of Avant-Garde Art

Avant-Garde Art Image

Originally, "avant-garde" was a French military term for what would be called in English the vanguard of an army. However, its first application to art precedes by some decades the emergence of any distinctly avant-garde art movements. The coinage has generally been attributed to the French social theorist Henri de Saint-Simon. In his book Opinions litteraires, philosophiques et industrielles (Literary, Philosophical, and Industrial Opinions) (1825), published in the year of his death, Saint-Simon wrote: "It is we artists who will serve you as avant-garde . . . the power of the artists is in fact most immediate and most rapid: when we wish to spread ideas among men, we inscribe them on marble or on canvas...What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society, a true priestly function, and of marching forcefully in the van[guard] of all the intellectual faculties...!"

The Important Artists and Works of Avant-Garde Art

The Painter's Studio (1854-55)

Artist: Gustave Courbet

This painting, depicting the artist seated with brush and palette in hand as he contemplates the landscape he has been painting, is intended as a metaphor for the life of the artist. Courbet subtitled the work: "a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life." The artist is framed by a nude model, representing a muse and a small boy symbolizing innocence, while the room is filled with various recognizable figures. Charles Baudelaire, the noted poet and critic, is seated on a desk reading in the far right, among the cultural elite, while on the left are various figures from all aspects of society. The artist said he intended to represent "society at its best, its worst, and its average." As he further explained, "it's the whole world coming to me to be painted. On the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death."

A pioneer of Realism, Courbet was to define the movement by saying, "Realism is democracy in art." As the art critic Linda Nochlin puts it, "he saw his destiny as a continual vanguard action against the forces of academicism in art and conservatism in society." After the 1855 Paris World Fair's jury refused to exhibit this work, Courbet opened The Pavilion of Realism, his own exhibition, where he also presented The Burial at Ornans, which had also been rejected. Aided by his patron, Alfred Bruyas - also portrayed in The Painter's Studio - Courbet's exhibition represented an act of defiance to the official venues. It also prefigured the later development of the Salon des Refusés and all of subsequent 20th century exhibitions created by avant-garde movements in defiance of traditional venues.

Nochlin notes the importance of this work to the avant-garde: "it is not until seven years after the 1848 Revolution that the advanced social ideals of the mid-nineteenth century are given expression in appropriately advanced pictorial and iconographic form, in Courbet's The Painter's Studio. ...Courbet's painting is 'avant-garde' if we understand the expression, in terms of its etymological derivation, as implying a union of the socially and the artistically progressive." In summary, Nochlin describes The Painter's Studio as "a crucial statement of the most progressive political views in the most advanced formal and iconographic terms available in the middle of the nineteenth century."

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863)

Artist: Édouard Manet

Édouard Manet's shocking landscape work, showing two fully clothed men taking lunch on the grass with a nude woman, famously caused a scandal when it was displayed in the 1863 Salon des Refusés, an exhibition for works rejected by the official Paris Salon. Although Manet never fully aligned himself with the avant-garde imperatives of the Impressionist painters, a younger group of artists who saw him as something of a mentor, with works such as Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, he certainly broke down many of the doors that later avant-garde artists would stream through in their quest for the new.

This painting was avant-garde in two senses, rejecting both the stylistic tenets of the era and its bourgeois social and moral norms. In the first case, the large size of the canvas was at odds with its apparently mundane, modern subject-matter, the image presented on a scale normally reserved for historical and mythological scenes. The tonal qualities of the piece were also peculiar: brash and artificial-seeming, the harsh light and shadow jarring with the apparent outdoor setting (Manet famously never shared the Impressionists' enthusiasm for painting en plein air) and drawing the eye to the massed white flesh of its central subject. And much of the background brushwork seemed informal, almost half-finished, as if the composition were drawing attention to itself as such: a mere conceit or fiction, discarded on a whim before completion.

But it was the subject-matter of the work that was truly shocking. Nude women were an acceptable component of academic art provided they were presented in the context of a historical scene, such that the nudity was somehow at a moral and intellectual distance. Manet's scene presented a nude body without any of the veneer of historical narrative, which made it more real and shocking to its audiences. With this gesture, he paved the way for the increasingly unabashed focus on (female) nudity and moral transgression that defined the avant-garde endeavors of coming decades.

Impression, Sunrise (1872)

Artist: Claude Monet

Claude Monet and the Impressionists formed the first avant-garde movement to achieve international success and fame. In this work, from which the term "Impressionism" was indirectly derived, Monet captures a sunrise in the port city of Le Havre, the family home to which he had returned for a holiday. The elemental blue and orange color palette, combined with the quick, spontaneous brushwork, is designed to convey the visual impression made by the scene at a particular moment in time, rather than picking it out in all its detail. This revolutionary approach was not, in Monet's case, accompanied by radical social views, but it forced him into a position of oppositionality to mainstream culture and the art-world that was quintessentially "avant-garde."

Monet had met a number of other young painters in the studio of the painter Charles Gleyre in 1862, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley. These artists, joined by others such as Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro, formed the backbone of the Impressionist movement, which practiced its ideas for many years - under the informal tutelage of the older painter Édouard Manet - before finding commercial success. After their continual rejection by the Paris Salon, Monet and his fellow Impressionists formed their own society to fund and exhibit their work. Impression, Sunrise was amongst those displayed in its first exhibition in 1874, where it attracted the ire of many critics, including Louis Leroy, whose ironic play on the term "Impression" in its title formed the origin of the movement's name.

Though the method of depicting the natural world that Monet and his compatriots developed is now very familiar to us, at the time it was revolutionary to relay the details of a scene in such a quick and intuitive way, as it was to paint on-site, or en plein air, as Monet did in order to create Impression Sunrise. The formal advances of Impressionism, and its necessary opposition to received social and cultural norms, set the terms for the development of avant-garde art over the coming century and a half.

Useful Resources on Avant-Garde Art

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"Avant-Garde Art Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 04 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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