[uh-vahnt-gahrd] or [ah-vahnt-gahrd]

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."

Related words:

  • high-brow
  • hipster
  • Picasso
  • pomo
  • underground
  • Yoko Ono
Examples of avant-garde


Examples of avant-garde
Anybody upset that I’m quitting Grime for R&B and a touch of Avant-garde Death Metal, cheer up, at least I don’t play Fortnite.
@JmeBBK, June, 2018
you can say what you want about the last jedi, but there’s no denying how gratifying it was to see the evident inspiration rian johnson took from avant-garde media like spongebob squarepants
@realtraitorfinn, June, 2018
The festival is the largest undertaking by Adam’s production company, Eclectic Overdrive. Even though Miami Psych Fest might be more visible than his other endeavors, his commitment to the avant-garde and the distinctly strange is year-round.
Zach Schlein, Miami New Times, June, 2018

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. “Capital A” art stuff.


People didn’t know what quite 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 Can’s 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.


Who uses avant-garde?

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.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.