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.

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  • Edgar Degas, 'Little Dancer Aged Fourteen' 1880-1, cast circa 1922
    Innocent though she may look to us today, Degas's 'Little Dancer Aged 14' caused an outcry when she was first exhibited at the 1881 impressionist exhibition in Paris. The figure was described variously as 'repulsive' and 'a threat to society'. Critics and the public were upset by the realism of the work but also because Degas had represented a provocative modern subject...dancers were considered part of the seamier side of entertainment and little more than prostitutes.
  • Georges Braque, 'Bottle and Fishes' circa 1910-2
    In around 1907 Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed a revolutionary new style of painting that transformed everyday objects, landscapes, and people into geometric shapes. Cubism paved the way for many of the abstract art styles of the twentieth century…but the name of the movement derives from the derogatory response of a critic who described one of Braque’s landscape paintings as looking like ‘cubist oddities’.
  • Raoul Hausmann, 'The Art Critic' 1919-20
    Perhaps the ultimate avant-garde movement, Dada was born out of disgust for the social, political and cultural values of the time particularly the horrors and folly of the First World War. Satirical and nonsensical, Dada antics caused outrage, and one of their exhibitions was closed by the police. But paradoxically, although they claimed to be anti-art, the effect of the movement was to open the door to many future developments in art.
  • Marcel Duchamp, 'Fountain' 1917, replica 1964
    Marcel Duchamp submitted his sculpture 'Fountain' (an upside-down urinal) for an exhibition organised by the Society of Independents under a false name. Although the society was supposed to show everything submitted by members, the work scandalized the board and was rejected. Duchamp is cited as one of the most important figures in modern art, inspiring many later artists and art movements – notably conceptual art.
  • Man Ray, 'Indestructible Object' 1923, remade 1933, editioned replica 1965
    Partly inspired by the ideas of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, surrealism was a movement of writers and artists who experimented with ways of unleashing the subconscious imagination. Many art critics viewed surrealism as absurd or nonsensical but the movement proved to be hugely influential, not just to art but also literature, film, music and philosophy.
  • Jackson Pollock, 'Yellow Islands' 1952
    Jackson Pollock's 'drip' paintings may seem very familiar to us now – but his approach to painting, (he laid his canvases on the floor and literally dripped and splashed paint onto the surfaces), and the paintings that resulted caused a splash that went beyond the works themselves, sealing his reputation as one of the most recognised avant-garde artists of the twentieth century.
  • Andy Warhol, 'Black Bean' 1968
    Pop artists rocked centuries of traditional fine art values when they rejected everything they had been taught in art school and embraced instead the popular culture they saw around them – such as product packaging and advertising. Although now a recognised and respected art movement (which commands high prices on the art market) pop art was once considered a serious threat to the art world.
  • Carl Andre, 'Equivalent VIII' 1966
    When Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, twenty seven fire bricks organised in rectangle, was exhibited at Tate in 1972 outraged public and critics dismissed it as 'a pile of bricks' and cartoons deriding the sculpture appeared in the national media. Andre and other minimalist artists often used impersonal materials (such as bricks or fluorescent lamps) to question the notion that the artwork is a unique creation by a gifted individual, and to prevent its commodification.
  • Rudolf Schwarzkogler, '3rd Action' 1965, printed early 1970s
    The Vienna based artists associated with actionism took performance art to a new level of avant-garde. Their ‘actions’ were intended to highlight the endemic violence of humanity and were deliberately shocking, including self-torture, and quasi-religious ceremonies using the blood and entrails of animals. In June 1968 one of their performances embroiled them with the law and charges were pressed against Günter Brus, Otto Muehl and Oswald Wiener.
  • Joseph Beuys, Information Action 1972
    Avant-garde art often has a social or political dimension to it. Joseph Beuys, who belonged to the avant-garde artist network Fluxus, used as his starting point the concept that everything is art, that every aspect of life can be approached creatively and, as a result, everyone has the potential to be an artist. Although a passionate and charismatic professor of art at Dusseldorf Academy his relationship with authority was stormy and he was dismissed in 1972.
  • Martin Creed The lights going on and off 2000
    From the mid-1960s conceptual artists have championed the idea and process of the artist over the art object. Martin Creed caused controversy in 2001 when he presented his conceptual 'Work No. 227' at Tate Britain. It consists of an empty gallery which alternates between being lit and plunged into darkness as the lights are turned on and off. The work prompted gallery visitor threw eggs at the walls to register her disgust at the piece.

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