avant-garde

[ uh-vahnt-gahrd, uh-vant-, av-ahnt-, ah-vahnt-; French a-vahn-gard ]
/ əˌvɑntˈgɑrd, əˌvænt-, ˌæv ɑnt-, ˌɑ vɑnt-; French a vɑ̃ˈgard /

noun

the advance group in any field, especially in the visual, literary, or musical arts, whose works are characterized chiefly by unorthodox and experimental methods.

adjective

of or relating to the experimental treatment of artistic, musical, or literary material.
belonging to the avant-garde: an avant-garde composer.
unorthodox or daring; radical.

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Origin of avant-garde

1475–85; in sense “vanguard”; <French: literally, fore-guard. See vanguard

OTHER WORDS FROM avant-garde

a·vant-gard·ist, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

HOMEWORK HELP

What does avant-garde mean?

From the French, avant-garde describes experimental or innovative art or design, or the group of people who make them and push the envelope in their field. It can also more generally refer to anything considered “unorthodox” or “radical.”

Where does avant-garde come from?

In French, avant-garde literally means “advance guard.” The term (which also gave us vanguard) originally referred to the part of an army that marched in front.

The metaphorical avant-garde—those trailblazers, those pioneers, those innovators in art—is credited to French political theorist Henri de Saint-Simon in 1825 who talked about the power of artists to help transform society.

The term was borrowed into English by the early 1900s, right at the heyday of of Modernism, a movement in art and thought that gave us such avant-garde masterpieces as James Joyce’s stream of consciousness, Pablo Picasso’s cubism, Salvador Dali’s surrealism, Albert Schoenberg’s atonalism, and Bauhaus’s functionalism.

People didn’t know what to make of Picasso’s abstract paintings in the early 1900s. Many still don’t know, but we study them in school, collect them in museums, and accept them as art anyways. That’s because what is considered avant-garde changes with each time period, artists and thinkers keep pushing the boundaries of what counts as art, of what their art can do.

In 1952, composer John Cage wrote 4’33”, an avant-garde piece that was four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. What counts as a song? What counts as music? A decade later, Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans presented 32 ordinary cans of soup. What makes for the subject of a painting? Realistic depictions, abstract representations, just mundane items from everyday life? These are the questions that avant-garde artists make us ask.

In the late 20th century, avant-garde became especially common as a descriptor in haute couture, with fashion designers like Barbara Í Gongini pushing the envelope about how we think about clothing, makeup, and hair. Fair warning … it’s pretty strange.

How is avant-garde used in real life?

Avant-garde can be a noun (e.g., the jazz avant-garde) or a modifier (e.g., an avant-garde film). As a noun, the avant-garde can refer to boundary-pushing creators and influencers in general.

The term is used by artists, art historians, and art critics across disciplines, from architecture to dance. The term is also used in the mainstream to describe anything seen as unorthodox, radical, or groundbreaking (e.g., an avant-garde phone design), though it still largely connotes all things art.

In popular culture, people may encounter avant-garde as a genre label for films and music. Pitchfork Music has thrown an Avant-Garde festival, and film platform Fandor touts its avant-garde section.

Avant-garde, though, can suggest that something or someone is being challenging or esoteric just for the sake of being different or difficult. In this way, the term is sometimes used to mock things that defy our understanding or people who are making a show of being non-conformist, hipster-y, or just trying too hard.

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

Example sentences from the Web for avant-garde

British Dictionary definitions for avant-garde

avant-garde
/ (ˌævɒŋˈɡɑːd, French avɑ̃ɡard) /

noun

those artists, writers, musicians, etc, whose techniques and ideas are markedly experimental or in advance of those generally accepted

adjective

of such artists, etc, their ideas, or techniques
radical; daring

Derived forms of avant-garde

avant-gardism, nounavant-gardist, noun

Word Origin for avant-garde

from French: vanguard
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012