As applied to art, avant-garde means art that is innovatory, introducing or exploring new forms or subject matter

Joseph Beuys, ''Avant Garde Art: What's Going Up in the 80's?'. Edinburgh International Festival, The Richard Demarco Gallery' 1980
Joseph Beuys

'Avant Garde Art: What's Going Up in the 80's?'. Edinburgh International Festival, The Richard Demarco Gallery 1980

Poster on paper

What does the term mean?

Avant-garde is originally a French term, meaning in English vanguard or advance guard (the part of an army that goes forward ahead of the rest). It first appeared with reference to art in France in the first half of the nineteenth century, and is usually credited to the influential thinker Henri de Saint-Simon, one of the forerunners of socialism. He believed in the social power of the arts and saw artists, alongside scientists and industrialists, as the leaders of a new society. In 1825 he wrote:

We artists will serve you as an avant-garde, the power of the arts is most immediate: when we want to spread new ideas we inscribe them on marble or canvas. What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society, a true priestly function and of marching in the van [i.e. vanguard] of all the intellectual faculties!

The beginning of the avant-garde

Avant-garde art can be said to begin in the 1850s with the realism of Gustave Courbet, who was strongly influenced by early socialist ideas. This was followed by the successive movements of modern art, and the term avant-garde is more or less synonymous with modern.

Some avant-garde movements such as cubism for example have focused mainly on innovations of form, others such as futurismDe Stijl or surrealism have had strong social programmes.

In this video curator Chris Stephens introduces a period of huge innovation in British art at the beginning of the twentieth century, when avant-garde ideas and creativity flourished and new forms in art emerged.

The development of the avant-garde

Although the term avant-garde was originally applied to innovative approaches to art making in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is applicable to all art that pushes the boundaries of ideas and creativity, and is still used today to describe art that is radical or reflects originality of vision.

The notion of the avant-garde enshrines the idea that art should be judged primarily on the quality and originality of the artist’s vision and ideas.

Movers and shakers

Because of its radical nature and the fact that it challenges existing ideas, processes and forms; avant-garde artists and artworks often go hand-in-hand with controversy. Browse this slideshow to see a selection of significant artworks, movements and moments in the history of avant-garde art, and read the image captions to find out about the shock-waves they caused.


Further reading

Bring the Noise
Tate etc. article exploring the futurists’ legendary and provocative performances which led the way for avant-garde participatory art in the twentieth century 

You saw it here first
Feature exploring how four trail-blazing contemporary galleries in London introduced British audiences to the international avant-garde of the 1960s. 

Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde
Find out about one of the pivotal figures of the European avant-garde in the early twentieth century, Theo van Doesburg, in this online exhibition guide to the 2010 Tate Modern exhibition.

Other perspectives

Perhaps one of the most iconic (and infamous) avant-garde artworks is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain – an upturned urinal which he signed with a pseudonym and entered into an exhibition. In this video, members of the public respond to this provocative work.

Nothing Works
This Tate Etc. article explores artists who have pushed the boundaries of how close to nothing an artwork or exhibition can be. How far can they go?

The lonely radical
Article exploring the life of British artist Marlow Moss who went from living in Paris at the heart of the European avant-garde to living in isolation in a small village in Cornwall.

The avant-garde in detail

Audio Arts: Volume 2 No 4
Listen to interviews with two important avant-garde artists: Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptual art; and notorious action artist Hermann Nitsch.

Futurism and the Avant-Garde conference video recordings
A collection of video recordings from the Tate Modern conference Futurism and the Avant-Garde

Concepts of the Avant-Garde Study Day: Video Recordings
Watch video recordings from the study day Concepts of the Avant-Garde, held at Tate Modern 

Related glossary terms

Modernismcontemporary art