The avant-garde is frequently characterized by aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability. It pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm. The avant-garde is considered by some to be a hallmark of modernism, as distinct from postmodernism. Many artists have aligned themselves with the avant-garde movement, and still continue to do so, tracing their history from Dada through the Situationists and to postmodern artists such as the Language poets around 1981.
The avant-garde also promotes radical social reforms. It was this meaning that was evoked by the Saint Simonian Olinde Rodrigues in his essay "L'artiste, le savant et l'industriel" , which contains the first recorded use of "avant-garde" in its now customary sense. In the essay, Rodrigues calls on artists to "serve as [the people's] avant-garde", insisting that "the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and fastest way" to social, political and economic reform.
The term was originally used by the French military to refer to a small reconnoitre group that scouted ahead of the main force. It also became associated with left-wing French radicals in the nineteenth century who were agitating for political reform. At some point in the middle of that century the term was linked to art through the idea that art is an instrument for social change. Only toward the end of the nineteenth did l'art d'avant-garde begin to break away from its identification with left-wing social causes to become more aligned with cultural and artistic issues. This trend toward increased emphasis on aesthetic issues has continued to the present.
Avant-garde today generally refers to groups of intellectuals, writers, and artists, including architects, who voice ideas and experiment with artistic approaches that challenge current cultural values. Avant-garde ideas, especially if they embrace social issues, often are gradually assimilated by the societies they confront. The radicals of yesterday become mainstream, creating the environment for a new generation of radicals to emerge.