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

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  • Edgar Degas, 'Little Dancer Aged Fourteen' 1880-1, cast circa 1922

    Edgar Degas
    Little Dancer Aged Fourteen 1880-1, cast circa 1922
    Painted bronze with muslin and silk
    object: 984 x 419 x 365 mm, 31 kg (integral base included)
    Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund 1952

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  • Marcel Duchamp, 'The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)' 1915-23, reconstruction by Richard Hamilton 1965-6, lower panel remade 1985

    Marcel Duchamp
    The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915-23, reconstruction by Richard Hamilton 1965-6, lower panel remade 1985
    Oil, lead, dust and varnish on glass
    object: 2775 x 1759 mm
    Presented by William N. Copley through the American Federation of Arts 1975 Richard Hamilton and Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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  • Carl Andre, 'Equivalent VIII' 1966

    Carl Andre
    Equivalent VIII 1966
    Firebricks
    object: 127 x 686 x 2292 mm
    Purchased 1972 Carl Andre/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2002

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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 in reference to art in France in the first half of the nineteenth century, 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!

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