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The avant-garde includes political and artistic movements, mostly of the 20th century, which have a strong focus on the idea of progress in common and are characterized by a particular radicalism compared to existing political conditions or prevailing aesthetic norms.

Origin of the term

The term originally comes from the French military language and describes the vanguard , i.e. that part of the troop that is the first to advance and thus first comes into contact with the enemy . The German military also originally referred to the vanguard as the avant-garde. For example, the term avant-garde is used in regimental stories before the Franco-German War .

General meaning

In the broadest sense, the term called avant - garde assigns a 'pioneering role' to what is designated. Avant-gardists are people who initiate new, pioneering developments. In contrast to the trendsetter , who only initiates new fashions in the short term , the changes that emanate from the avant-garde have a more fundamental and longer-term effect.

The avant-garde can generally be understood as a creative and innovative movement that rarely belongs to the prevailing social and economic power elite. Outside of its military origins, the term avant-garde appears in various contexts, but mostly refers to either a political, cultural or artistic movement that leaves the well-trodden path.

Avant-garde in politics

The concept of the avant-garde found its way into the political language of revolutionary parties and movements in particular . This is how Lenin , and with it later Marxism-Leninism , understood the communist party as the “vanguard of the working class ”. As early as Marx wrote in the Communist Party's manifesto that the Communists were “the most decisive, always advancing part of the workers' parties of all countries; Theoretically, they have the insight into the conditions, the course and the general results of the proletarian movement ahead of the rest of the mass of the proletariat. ”( MEW 4, p. 474) At the same time, however, Marx emphasized that the communists nevertheless, above all, are also part of the The proletariat itself: "The proletarian movement is the independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority." (P. 472)

Lenin, on the other hand, also organized a mass party with the Bolsheviks , but at the same time formulated a claim to leadership by the avant-garde over the rest of the proletariat. This avant-garde, which brought revolutionary ideas to the workers from outside , was necessary, according to Lenin, because the proletarians were only capable of a trade unionist, that is to say, union consciousness on their own : “The history of all countries shows that the working class can only produce a trade unionist consciousness exclusively by its own strength ”(Lenin, Was tun?, in: Werke , vol. 5, p. 386). This doctrine went a long way toward justifying the party's dictatorship over the workers.

The communist sailors , who had played a driving role in the Russian October Revolution of 1917 , but also in the German November Revolution of 1918 , were also seen as the political avant-garde of the revolutionary movement .

Avant-garde in the visual arts

Expressionist Einstein Tower by Erich Mendelsohn
Avant-garde design, here using the example of the Mercedes-Benz Museum

In the history of the visual arts , the term avant-garde stands for the artistic movements of the (early) 20th century and is linked to the concept of modernity or modern art . A characteristic of many artistic avant-garde movements of the modern age is the endeavor to " abolish art in everyday life".

The Russian avant-garde and Italian futurism played an important role in the history of the artistic avant-garde, and in its manifestos the “art of war” allowed its own revolutionary aesthetic . Also Cubism , Cubo-Futurism , Vorticism , Constructivism , Suprematism , Dadaism , Surrealism , Expressionism , Tachism , action painting , Minimal Art , Op Art , Pop Art , Lettrism , Situationism , Fluxus , Happening , the Viennese Actionism and the so-called conceptual art are considered to be art movements the avant-garde.

For art in Soviet Russia the term had a double meaning, since in the Marxist-Leninist theory the avant-garde was also and above all a political avant-garde, whereby the later change of the Russian avant-garde to the so-called, artistically hardly avant-garde, " socialist ." Realism ”.

In the German Reich , avant-garde art was fought as " degenerate art " by the National Socialists from 1933 onwards . Artists who did not adapt to the “ German art ” that had been brought into line and remained connected to the avant-garde were persecuted (if they did not already have to flee in 1933 or went into exile in the years that followed ). Modern works of art were confiscated as "Jewified", partially destroyed or in many cases auctioned in Switzerland. Jewish artists who could not leave Germany in time were murdered in the Holocaust .

After National Socialism was defeated in 1945, the German art landscape slowly recovered from this political and intellectual-historical catastrophe in the early / mid-1950s. In the Federal Republic of Germany there were activities by some artists who, with their informal painting, had caught up with the avant-garde movements of French tachism and American abstract expressionism or action painting. In the 1960s and in the course of the 1968 movement , German art development became increasingly important for Europe and the USA.

At the same time, the new avant-garde of the post-war period already marked the creeping end of the avant-garde concept. In the modern era, each of the avant-gardes, often in quick succession, appeared with the claim to represent the latest and "valid" state of artistic development, whereas in postmodern art the various avant-gardes coexisted and often eclectic mixed. Further developments seem possible in many directions, there is no longer any consensus on where to go. As a result, the word “avant-garde” loses its original meaning and no longer seems appropriate to describe contemporary art.

Instead of “avant-garde” and “modern art”, contemporary art is used for contemporary art . This can equally continue avant-garde strategies, reinvent the sometimes tense search for innovation or pick up older traditions again.

Avant-garde in literature

The beginning of the literary avant-garde and thus of modern literature in general can be determined at the end of the 19th century with French symbolism , with poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé , Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud , in Germany with Stefan George and the poets of Expressionism . With the First World War, the avant-garde movements radicalized and increasingly conceived their works as socially critical and provocative protest art. It is characteristic of the avant-garde that it sets itself apart from the dominant literary trends in terms of content, style, technology and / or form (e.g. through the development of new forms such as sound poems, collages, random poems). Nevertheless, avant-garde movements such as the circle of artists around Stefan George often saw themselves as an elite, because the concept of the avant-garde includes strong artistic figures. In addition, the avant-garde elites were often structured hierarchically (as was the circle around George).

The literary avant-garde includes surrealism , dadaism , expressionism, scapigliatura and futurism .

Avant-garde in the performing arts

Replica of the figures of the Triadic Ballet

In the theater , the term avant-garde is associated with breaking illusions, clearing out the stage and breaking out of conventions for acting. The naturalism is - except perhaps radically socially critical variations - not counted in the vanguard, but he prepared them. Radical political engagement and radical turning away from reality are equally part of the characteristics of the theatrical avant-garde.

A departure from psychology and inwardness is common to most currents. Literary movements such as Dadaism and Surrealism provided a new kind of theatrical writing that moved away from the convention of "assigned roles". The director Edward Gordon Craig designed the "Über-Marionette" as the ideal of the new actor, Wsewolod Meyerhold started from Taylorism in order to create a body-hugging and multicultural basis for acting. Erwin Piscator promoted the use of the latest technology on stage with film and sound recordings. Even Bertolt Brecht was influenced by the anti-naturalistic avant-garde.

The avant-garde currents in the visual arts such as cubism influenced the design of stage sets and costumes. Adolphe Appia contrasted empty “rhythmic spaces” with differentiated lighting with the naturalistic illusion stage with its multitude of props . Image, movement and music were combined in a new way, as in Oskar Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet . Movement technique was revolutionized by expressive dance (such as Isadora Duncan ), from which modern dance theater emerged.

Important avant-garde directors after 1945 included Jerzy Grotowski , Eugenio Barba , Tadeusz Kantor and Robert Wilson .

Avant-garde in music

As musical avant-garde styles in serious music have been considered since the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, here they were often summarized under the catchphrase new music . Important pioneers of the late 19th century were Wagner , Liszt , Scriabin and, in particular, Debussy ; those of the early 20th century initially Schönberg , Berg , Webern , Hindemith or Stravinsky , while in the second half Stockhausen , Xenakis or Ligeti were considered to be important sources of inspiration. What they all have in common is the break with traditional listening habits, for example through the striking use of dissonances , irregular rhythms , and above all through atonality and polytonality . Examples of musical avant-garde are the music of expressionism , impressionism , twelve-tone music , later serial music , aleatoric music , sound composition , minimal music and musique concrète composed of recorded sounds . Since the post-war period, avant-garde forms have also emerged outside the realm of serious music, here genres such as free jazz , the freely improvised music developed from it, as well as industrial and noise are among the most important musical avant-gardes. Some film scores can also have clear avant-garde influences, such as about Don Davis ' soundtrack released for 1999 feature film matrix .

Avant-garde film

→ See also avant-garde film

The avant-garde film appeared in the early days of cinematography and was then, as it was later, closely associated with the visual arts. In France , Italy and Germany , for example, there were films that emerged from Futurism , Dadaism , Constructivism and Surrealism . With the development of the inexpensive 16mm film , the avant-garde film received a new impetus in America , Europe , Australia and Japan after the Second World War . This time the overarching terms were structuralism , pop art , happening , fluxus and conceptual art .

The formal possibilities of film, which no other art form possesses, made the traditional connection to the visual arts weaken again and again. For example in the abstract film of the 1920s (“Cinéma pur”) or in the underground film of the 1960s . In addition, the avant-garde film began to refer to its own medium (material film, expanded cinema , found footage).

Film is the only modern art form that cannot do without the term avant-garde in order to distinguish itself from its other commercial and artistic manifestations. The almost synonymous use of the term experimental film is confusing . The experimental short film was seen as a preliminary stage to the feature film , especially in the 1950s . This is related to that in Germany (affecting Austria ) in intellectual discourse , the experiment was devalued - especially by Hans Magnus Enzensberger 1962 in his " paradoxes of avant-garde" - as in art in the period of reconstruction made tacks should be.

Many filmmakers were not afraid to see their films as experiments, but not all of them are based on their concept or their production. Therefore, avant-garde film can be understood as the broader term. Another ambiguity arises from the fact that directors of artistic films such as Sergei Michailowitsch Eisenstein , Alain Resnais , Jean-Luc Godard or David Lynch are often spoken of as avant-garde. Although they are influenced by the avant-garde and occupy a special position in the feature film, their overall image, measured against the avant-garde film, remains largely conventional.

Characteristic of artistic avant-garde

In the variety of artistic, literary and musical movements and styles, despite all the differences, some common tendencies can be identified that allow the concept of the artistic avant-garde to be differentiated from other epochs and styles. Avant-garde art often appears as deliberately provocative, emphatically innovative and strongly self-reflective art.


It is an essential drive in the avant-garde to look for the unfamiliar and the new. In particular, the end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, the aim was often more narrowly defined therein, the educated middle class to shock. Baudelaire's collection of poems, The Flowers of Evil, is one of the earliest evidence of this. What was innovative about these poems was that they even allowed ugly urban life as material for poetry. It reached a certain climax in Dadaism , which snubbed the audience with nonsense literature, and later in Viennese Actionism , which chooses “good taste” as the actual point of attack and provokes it with extreme performances .


The overarching structural problem of the avant-garde is hereby already marked. Avant-gardes develop their own dynamic type of outbidding: What was unusual yesterday is gradually establishing itself and is often assimilated in the mainstream and soon looks familiar. Such situations meet avant-garde approaches, so in and between the avant-gardes a pattern of development has emerged that understands more and more formal innovation as essential.


Another characteristic of many avant-gardes is their theoretical foundation, and often there is also an extra-aesthetic, theoretical commentary. Avant-garde art forms provoke a constant reflection about themselves, which often also raised questions about what, why, and for what reason can still be perceived as art and what art is.

Criticism of the avant-garde term

At the end of the 20th century , the term avant-garde and the ideas associated with it came under increasing criticism. The assumption that individuals or groups “move forward ” in the process of progress and that the rest, the “ mainstream ”, whose example is or must follow, has been increasingly questioned. The background to this development is, on the one hand, to be sought in the at least temporary drying up of the artistic avant-garde movements and in the failure of many political, revolutionary movements. On the other hand, the ideas of postmodernism are accompanied by a conscious departure from the concept of the avant-garde, which is criticized as authoritarian due to its claim to leadership . Instead, the pluralistic coexistence of developments and movements is rated higher.

The French writer and director Romain Gary († 1980) summarized his criticism in the bon mot "Avant-gardists are people who do not know exactly where they want to go, but are the first to get there".



  • When the surrealists were right. Texts and documents , ed. u. a. by Günter Metken, Stuttgart: Reclam, 1976
  • Manifestos and proclamations of the European avant-garde (1909–1938) , ed. by Wolfgang Asholt and Walter Fähnders, Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 1995
  • At the zero point: Positions of the Russian Avant-garde , ed. by Boris Groys and Aage Hansen-Löve, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​2005




  • Avantgarde critical studies , Amsterdam: Rodopi, since 1987

Historical magazines (selection)

  • The action (1911–1932)
  • Contimporanul (1922-1933)
  • international situation list. bulletin centrale, ed. by Guy Debord , 1958–1969, complete reprint: Paris: éditions champ libre, 1975, translation: Situationist International 1958–1969 , Hamburg: MaD Verlag 1976 (volume 1) and 1977 (volume 2)
  • Potlatch (1954-1957), ed. by Guy Debord, complete reprint: Paris: Gallimard (collection folio), 1996
  • La Révolution surréaliste , ed. by Pierre Naville and Benjamin Péret (1–3) and André Breton (4–12), 1924–1929, complete reprint: Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1980
  • SIC , 1916-1919, ed. by Pierre Albert-Birot , complete reprint: Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1993
  • The Storm (1910-1932)
  • Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution , (1930-1933), ed. by André Breton , complete reprint: Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1976, 2003

Web links

Wiktionary: Avantgarde  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. cf. the overview by Peter Simhandl: The theater of the avant-garde. In: ders .: Theater history in one volume. 3rd revised edition. Henschel, Berlin 2007, pp. 361-506.
  2. zitate.net