Avant-garde was once a military term designating the elite shock troops of the French army.
Later it was applied to the “men of vision” of the coming society – artists, philosophers, scientists, and businessmen – whose actions would direct the future development of humanity.
Then it became a successive metaphor to identify writers and artists intent on the establishment of dramatic movements – writers like Lautreamont and Rimbaud and artists like Manet compelled the emergence of forms like Expressionism, Russian and Italian Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, and Constructivism.
Tate describes the movement today simply as “art that is innovatory, introducing or exploring new forms or subject matter.”
But in the book The Avant-Garde Today, the wonderful thrift store find from which this information is pulled, Charles Russell gives a more penetrating explanation.
It’s worth noting that the work is from the early 1980s, so the information might be dated. But Russell writes in such a way that makes you wish for the conception to have remained cemented.
It is as complicated as it is smart and intense:
A sanctioned aesthetic predilection, if not an institution. It suggests a personal and social need for renovation, for potentiality, change, and freedom. Struggling within the confines of a self-reflexive formal orientation and against an ill-defined social context of liberal and diffusive pluralism, the avant-garde bears curious witness to an ambiguous state of mind. It displays a creative and critical vitality, yet raises only minimal expectations. It countenances an active and often aggressive assertion of individual will, yet betrays an uneasy acquiescence and resignation. Its most significant innovations involve the self-conscious exploration of the nature, limits, and possibilities of literature in contemporary society. But the vision of the future of this literature and culture which the avant-garde works should provide is tentative and unclear, as if the avant-garde could not lead beyond doubt and distrust toward inspired vision.
He writes later in the book that it expresses a historical sensibility.
A future oriented art, it declares faith in the necessary transformation of art, consciousness, and society. It is known as both nihilistic and visionary: antagonistic toward whatever inhibits change, activist in its attempt to stimulate change. It is an art of discovery, of innovation and experimentation. Its goal is the expansion of consciousness and the liberation of behavior. The common assumption of all avant-gardes is that new forms of perception and expression lead to new states of consciousness and action.
In fine, he concludes, “Implicit in all avant-garde manifestoes are these corollary beliefs:
The act of discovery is an agent of liberation.
The act of liberation is an agent of discovery.”