Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Avant garde

core definition

Avant garde is the advance force, originally a military term it has a cultural meaning referring to innovators in art and other cultural production, usually creating products that are on the edge of contemporary omprehension.

explanatory context

Avant garde is a term mainly used in the analysis of art movements and styles. Derived from the military sense of an advanced scouting party, avant garde came to refer to those artists who produced art that broke convention.


An avant garde painter was someone who developed new techniques, addressed conventional subject matter in a novel manner, or otherwise engaged the existing boundaries of what was accepted as art. However, increasingly over the last hundred years, to be an avant garde painter involves also being a member of the avant garde. In other words, the term avant garde became increasingly to refer to a group of artists who defined themselves (positively or negatively) as avant gardists, implying some kind of intellectual commitment. The avant garde has continually changed, and often a number of different avant garde groups have coexisted, with fashion declaring which was in the ascendancy at any given place and time.


It has been suggested that avant garde art was intrinsically linked to modernism and that it ‘died’ with the end of the modernist era. Postmodernism has devalued the striving for continual change, shock effect, abstraction, and exclusivity that characterised much avant-garde art, and which made it somewhat incomprehensible.


A slightly different view is that the avant garde ceased to be an ‘advance guard’ but had become the embodiment of art in the late modernist era. The avant garde has become traditional; and in a constant attempt to abstract to produce something new it finally self-destructed by practically and theoretically denying the possibility of artistic production.


Arguably, avant garde (since the impressionists) has been a specialist form of art only open and intellectually accessible to small groups of cogniscenti. Alternatively, avant garde can be seen as the spur to new ways of thinking as having some kind of revolutionary role.


Some avant garde art becomes part of th mainstream, such as abstract expressionism, while other examples fade away.

analytical review

Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) defines avant garde thus:

Avant garde: Refers to those individuals and groups that engage in experimental and unorthodox activities, interests, behaviors, and creations. They are usually seen as advanced (which is not necessarily true in "reality") as compared with others with similar area interests.


Tate Gallery (undated):

As applied to art, avant-garde means art that is innovatory, introducing or exploring new forms or subject matter.

Avant-garde is originally a French term, meaning in English vanguard or advance guard (the part of an army that goes forward ahead of the rest). It first appeared with reference to art in France in the first half of the nineteenth century, and is usually credited to the influential thinker Henri de Saint-Simon, one of the forerunners of socialism. He believed in the social power of the arts and saw artists, alongside scientists and industrialists, as the leaders of a new society. In 1825 he wrote:

We artists will serve you as an avant-garde, the power of the arts is most immediate: when we want to spread new ideas we inscribe them on marble or canvas. What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society, a true priestly function and of marching in the van [i.e. vanguard] of all the intellectual faculties!

associated issues


related areas

See also


art history


Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

Tate Gallery, nd, 'Avant-garde', available at, accessed 21 November 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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