Avant-garde is a term about as clearly defined as a cloud in Manchester. If a violin boldly ventures into a realm where violins don’t usually belong, then it’s avant-garde; if the musicians look like secondary school art teachers, then it’s avant-garde. But what exactly is it meant to depict and where does it come from?
Well, as it happens there is actually a fascinating history behind the inception of the phrase that helps to define its present usage, and it has little to do with creativity and more to do with the art of war. You see, in a military sense, the Vanguard was the leading part of an advancing group of soldiers. However, you didn’t just send the bulk of your army blindly into the unknown, you would send out a few foolhardy scouts in the dead of night to seek out new territories and spy on enemy positions. These brave souls advancing in where nobody had gone before were known as the avant-garde.
This French term for a reconnaissance group who gambled into the as yet undetermined might fit the bill for defining the expression as it links to artists breaking the norms and pushing boundaries as a result, but in actual fact, the usage has an even more direct tie than that. Given the dangers of being a member of the avant-garde, only the soldiers most committed to social reform would volunteer, and often these fellows had a bold eccentric edge too.
Thus, it only became natural that the trailblazers of social change on the battlefield would soon become linked to art. Once more, this would also be in both a nebulous and direct sense. On the indirect front, the writer William S. Burroughs would elucidate the argument for social change away from the battlefield a few hundred years later, when he wrote: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.” Whereas the rather more exacting impact comes from evidence that often avant-garde soldiers would return to civility and set up clubs—these clubs had social change at their heart and the art and entertainment on display would follow suit.
As the phrase moved away from the art of war and more towards art itself, it was the idea of progressive, boundary-pushing, non-conformity that stood out. This is why bands like The Velvet Underground are truly befitting of the title. They veered well into the left of norm in terms of both progression and the sound they paired with it, and despite only a small cult of followers, soon the vanguard of music followed suit and the boundaries shifted once more as suddenly you could explicitly discuss sex and drugs in music and 17-minute songs became all the rage.
What’s more, given that avant-garde is a blanket term applied to all art, when it comes to music, it applies to works that seem to incorporate the wider spectrum like the old Dada shows of old when the term was embraced to describe all the various wild oddities on display. In short, this means that avant-garde music defies tradition in a progressive sense and draws the mainstream towards it. Thus, while it still might remain relatively undefined, the art teacher with the violin in a rock ‘n’ roll band should only really be described as avant-garde is they are almost goadingly modernist and progressive too.