The avant-garde is predominantly a modernist term for a movement in art, culture, and politics that cuts at the vanguard of ideas both in terms of their mode of expression and the social impact that they have for everyday living. As a term, it does however have roots in the Renaissance for signaling an advanced position in the arts, and further gains its political purchase in the time of the French Revolution where its kinship to Jacobin politics married it to the general suggestion of an assault on authority and institution. As commonly understood today, it indicates a movement that challenges and goes beyond existing frameworks for considering the relations between art, culture, and politics. As such, the avant-garde is heterogeneous because it unites groups from very different origins in opposition against the homogenous dominant position or status quo of the time. An avant-garde group was usually made up of just a few people, often those who had different backgrounds and skills, and who cohered only for the duration of the immediate novel event or project that brought them together in the first place. Such ephemeral consistencies usually derived from living in shared neighborhoods, working in the same institutional and artistic spaces, or in being introduced through bohemian social networks as friend or lover. The promiscuousness of such connections and the heterogeneity of background meant that the avant-garde often amounts to no more than a fragmented set of practices.
Geographically, its genealogy as a term and a practice comes from European social cultural movements, particularly in the context of England, France, Germany, and Italy, leading up to, around, and for the next 30 or so years after, the turn of the twentieth century. Synonymous with such avant-garde practices were distinct communities set in bohemian areas within the major urban centers of these countries. These were made up of people who knew of each other purely to be either with fellow avant-garde newcomers or united against the dominant competitors being challenged; as such the overall ethos was one of competition where vying for novelty and heresy was key. In moving against the custodians and bastions of tradition and social propriety, the avant-garde, although mainly thought of in artistic terms, was equally a pseudomilitaristic endeavor. The avant-garde is therefore very much ‘anarchistic’. Thought of as a war machine, the avant-garde is productive of the means rather than the end, at ease with war but decidedly queasy in victory, being an act devoid of any determination other than its artistic intent; in other words, existing only and incessantly as the vanguard. As such, the epochal days of the avant-garde often came in periods of economic indifference (either decadence or nihilism) where riskier positions of intellectual or artistic endeavor could be and were accommodated. As David Harvey has argued in geography, the avant-garde is perpetually undermined in its political aspirations for its failure to ground and enact its esthetic link between knowledge and action in historical terms.
If scaled up, first in terms of time such that an avant-garde group can be said to have gained a history and reputation, and second in terms of space through the range and coverage of its spatial impact, the avant-garde can be seen as part of more general modernist utopian schemas indicative of early twentieth century thinking. One can think here of the way in which Henri Lefebvre’s production of space gets clipped under such aphorisms – ‘‘we need machines for living in’’ – that peopled the expressions for new futures in the construction of places like the Bauhaus. Although this comparison goes against the characteristic of the avant-garde for countering dominant ideas of the time, being institutionalized as part of a dominant cultural elite, it does serve to show, as David Pinder carefully argues, that such modern utopias themselves contained complex counterdiscourses and are thus productive within themselves of further oppositional utopianisms. More generally, the avant-garde as a notion itself did gain the attention of, and was indeed articulated as such by, the intelligentsia becoming a key point of intellectual debate both in the informal scholarly institutions fueling coffee house conversations on places like the Left Bank in Paris, as well as in the more formally instituted school of thought like that of the Frankfurt School. Wherever it was articulated, its political seriousness was forefront, the latter institution mindful to distinguish its place and role in society as distinct from any notion of kitsch and mass culture objectification.
Now in the twenty first century, it is debatable whether or not there can be an avant-garde as such given that the notion is diminished in the wake of a plethora and pluralism of different avant-gardes, and given the globalization and speed of ideas which have diluted the fix of any development of thought and action, resulting in an overwhelming diversity of emerging social movements. Overall, human geography has looked at the geography and spatialities of the avant-garde movements in the last 150 years with perhaps the key avant-garde movement to gain the most attention by geographers being that of the Situationist International founded in 1957 which, under the ‘command’ of Guy Debord, argued for ‘the free construction of daily life’ through the investigation of more explicitly revolutionary critiques of everyday spaces and practices than the avant-garde movements that preceded it. It was disbanded in 1972, having achieved a total membership of no more than 70. Despite this, the ideas it propagated continue to live on and influence urban geographers’ thinking, with particular emphasis being placed on the argument it made for the necessary role of spatial transformation for the success of any social revolutionary change.
One can of course argue that there has been an avant-garde within academic geography itself, taking the work of Gunnar Olsson, a self appointed heretic, as the exemplary instance of a geographer who has positioned himself outside the standard practices of writing by, not least in his excellent book Abysmal, uniting personal and philosophical, artistic, and political modes of expression in examining experimentally the art of cartography across the genres of quantitative and qualitative registers. Taking the breath away of our discipline’s critics, much as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal entitled ‘Fountain’ did to the artistic community in 1917, is a classic avant-garde result – ‘Is Olsson’s work geography?’ Another indication of an avant-garde of sorts within geography itself comes in the artists in residence now peopling the contingent of geography staff in many a UK geography department. This at least raises the potential for avant-garde experimentation as the languages of laboratory and studio come into closer proximity co producing alternative conversations and points for debate, even if, having become almost commonplace, the presence of an artist in residence is in itself no longer avant-garde per se.