Art Term Tuesday: Avant-garde

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

What does it mean for an artist’s work to be avant-garde?  

FWMoA Docent guide Michael points behind him to our Dale Chihuly chandelier, Lily Gold, that hangs from the ceiling in our atrium.
Dale Chihuly is an American glass artist who creates blown glass sculptures. His innovative works have taken blown glass into the world of large scale sculpture. Would you consider him avant-garde? Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Coined from a French military term for the “advance guard”, or “vanguard”, they are the forces that lead the way in battle and are either the first to die or the first to earn prestigious awards. In the cultural realm, it describes the forward thinking artists, writers, and musicians that push the boundaries of their traditions. Serving as the people’s avant-garde, these innovators are the first to create work that is diametrically opposed to mainstream cultural values, often subverting them and calling attention to social, political, or economic issues that need reforming.

Avant-garde is easier to define by what it is not: the status quo. In fact, it is often a direct attack against what is accepted. First used in response to an 1863 Parisian exhibition entitled the Salon des Refusés, the artists showcased were all rejected by the prestigious Parisian Salon because they did not conform to art historical standards. Names we now recognize, like Édouard Manet and Camille Pissarro, were deemed unfit by the conservative critics of the time; and this interaction marked the first use of avant-garde to describe artwork outside the norm. This definition, however, raises another question. If avant-garde is a term reserved for artists, writers, and musicians working ahead of their time, how do we define them during their time? Said another way, can you be avant-garde in your lifetime?

Installations, like Lucien Shapiro’s piece in our Reclamation exhibition earlier this year, were once considered innovative and avant-garde. Today, many artists use installation in their work. So, is it still avant-garde? Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

This question is tricky as art historians often retroactively define an artistic movement. Hindsight is always 20/20, and critics and historians alike don’t always see what’s right in front of them. Not to be confused with an art movement, however, like Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism, avant-garde refers to specific artists or groups that jumpstarted those movements. There is a motto in Modern art: I could do that! Yeah, but you didn’t. The avant-garde are the artists that DID it. For example, Dada artists, Surrealists, and Abstract Expressionists—all movements in Modern or Contemporary art—were heralded as avant-garde because they helped to redefine what we think of as art. Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, Picasso’s geometric figures, and Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings were all initially discredited as art by critics during their time. Their revolutionary use of objects and techniques set them apart from their contemporaries and engendered contempt from art critics, curators, and the public alike.

Abstract Expressionist artists Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler in our “Stone Truths: Lithographs from the Collection” exhibition, currently on view. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Who determines the avant-garde?

Artists were, for obvious reasons, the first to see and understand how works by Picasso or Pollock revolutionized artmaking. They then attempted to copy these styles, learning from a new set of “Masters” as they had before from Rembrandt or Van Gogh. As they explored these techniques and processes and put their own spin on them, what started as an unconventional style subsequently produced a full-scale movement. Eventually these artists were heralded as innovators and represented by galleries, some during their lifetime, but they would not earn the distinction of “avant-garde” until the effects of their stylistic deviations could be traced and analyzed. Therefore, the term is most often given to artists by critics or curators, people we view as experts and able to cast judgments. Their professional opinions, backed by years of schooling and experience, are recognized by both their peers and the public as having weight. While various critics and curators may disagree on who revolutionized what, there is no contest over what styles broke the mold. Similarly in literature, film, and music, when put into context one can easily trace how earlier generations influenced new generations and how culture shapes an environment for experimentation.

A student took Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer's well-known painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and made it her own. In her version, the girl is sick with cancer, which we can tell by her head wrap and IV. Her white t-shirt is reminiscent of a hospital gown, and her pale skin and the dark bags under her eyes further impress her sickly demeanor.
Inspired by Master artist Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, 10th grader Abigail Fernihough created Fighter with a Pearl Earring, a painting currently in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards 2019 exhibition.

Today, however, the term has been co-opted and applied to popular artists and filmmakers, stripping the term of its proper meaning. If something is popular, then it can’t be considered avant-garde because it isn’t being rejected by the status quo or current culture. Even if these artists are thinking “outside the box”, the title remains a misnomer if used to describe an accepted revolutionary practice. An avant-garde work makes critics and viewers ask themselves what they are looking at, and if it can be considered art or film. When Pollock’s drip paintings were first displayed, many mothers sent in “Pollocks” that their young sons and daughters had finger painted, effectively discrediting his style as professional, Fine Art. When, in reality, he was painting the way to a purer abstraction in art. Does this mean that avant-garde artists cannot be taken seriously during their lifetime? No, not necessarily. Many avant-garde artists were recognized by their community, as explained above, and savvier critics as their careers continued. Being heralded as the advance guard to a movement, however, requires some time to see if a movement occurs, or if that artist remains alone in their stylistic choices.

So, the next time you come to FWMoA and view our contemporary pieces, ask yourself, is this innovative? Have I seen this before in other museums, or even at FWMoA? Do I know this is art, or am I questioning the style/technique/process? Is FWMoA ahead of the group in recognizing an avant-garde artist that will spurn a completely new art style or movement? You never know!

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