What does avant-garde even mean? The dictionary definition is: “a style, new invention, or revolutionary innovation, especially in the arts, whereby original and innovative ideas are rejected or modified to make them acceptable.” It is a collective term that includes many different artistic and political movements. Some of these include theater, literature, and music.
During the 1950’s the term avant garde movement became associated with the artistic and political creations of the artists involved. These ideas and the politics of their creation were often criticized as far too “radical” for America at the time. In response, the art and fashion movements of the time were often described as “avant-garde,” or “academic,” more often than not in comparison to more conservative art and fashion forms. However, while the concept and ideas behind these movements have changed, the political underpinnings remain.
One common thread that continues through all avant-garde theories and concepts is a rejection of convention. Everything from Brecht’s surrealism to John Cage’s think about noise and music has been labeled an avant garde art form. While the avant garde may be on the verge of something new and unprecedented, there is much repetition in the world of contemporary art. Much of this has to do with the difficulty of truly defining what makes a work of art. Aesthetic reasoning goes beyond the realm of the visual, making a work of art subjective to the human mind and subject to interpretation.
Even before the twentieth century was in full swing, avant garde movements were shaping art and ideas. Art had been defined by the human mind since the earliest times of civilization. One way of creating an idea or concepts was to draw from objects around them, things already available in nature. These early abstract paintings or sculptures would give the first real visual concepts to which ideas could be added. The real avant garde movements came from the likes of Picasso, who fused traditional images of wild animals with modern ideas of abstraction.
With the advent of the industrial revolution and the availability of mass productions, ideas were more easily available for people to use as tools. As a result, with the development of new technologies, there emerged a new generation of artists who were derided as “hippies” or “rock stars” for their music and art. In reaction to this excess of disposable culture, a new movement emerged in the 20th century labeled as the “avant garde,” which was actually a rebranding of traditional artistic movements. However, it was not until the late sixties that a resurgence of avant-garde ideas began to gain traction. From this point on, with the advancements of digital media, video, and the Internet, the avant garde has become almost synonymous with creativity.
When looking at what does avant garde mean today, one must consider how these revolutionary ideas became so popular in the first place. One might also think of the idea of “free style,” which was an offshoot of traditional jazz styles. In essence, free style was about incorporating a lot of unconventional elements into otherwise familiar or expected music forms. Some examples include the use of non-traditional instruments like the saxophone, electric guitar, or synthesizer, non-traditional vocal melodies, and non-traditional performances.
The avant-garde in the late twentieth century was defined by its connection to twentieth century innovations, like electronic music and the digital age. Many critics and experts believe that the first introduction of this type of music was through the work of Albert Camus, who was often called a “postmodernist.” In his book, The Myth of Sartre, Camus discussed an imaginary conversation between an intellectual and a fictional character. In the book, the intellectual debates with the character, in answer to a question posed by that character. The character goes on to explain that in their opinion, humankind has reached the point of no return and that human societies are bound for collapse. After making this comment, the intellectual stands up and says that indeed, the concept of the avant-garde is a contradiction of every positive philosophy.
Today, many people are still connected to the avant garde, although it has largely fallen out of fashion. Many young artists have incorporated aspects of the avant garde into their own work, whether it be through synthesizer sounds obscure electronic music, or simply by using non-conventional song structures. In fact, many artists and musicians involved with the new-age of music, like LCD Soundsystem, have been considered avant-garde because they were able to push the boundaries of what was considered to be acceptable in mainstream circles. As technology continues to grow, more artists will push the limits of what is considered to be “normal” and “alternative”. By definition, however, any artist who falls into this category is considered to be an avant-garde.