Avant-garde - Working Definition

Working Definition

The term was originally used to describe the foremost part of an army advancing into battle (also called the vanguard or literally the advance guard) and now applied to any group, particularly of artists, that considers itself innovative and ahead of the majority.

The origin of the application of this French term to art is still debated.

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 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.

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