Avant-garde movements

RELATED TERMS: Utopia and Utopian thinking; Critical Theory; Modernism and avant-garde art practice; Modernism; Research methodologies; Theoretical practice; Narrative environment design; Defamiliarisation, Ostranenie or making strange; Situationist International; Method and methodology; Feminist avant-garde art practice; Alienation effect - Verfremdungseffekt; Epic theatre - Brecht; Theatre of Cruelty; Modernity; Agonism and avant-gardism; Aleatory; Dissensus - Ranciere; Distribution of the sensible; Ontological metalepsis

Since narrative environments are concerned with the relationship(s) between narrative phenomena in various media and embodied, enacted phenomena in various material environments or -spheres, the work of the European avant-garde movements, with their concern for the relationships among art practices, aesthetic practices and political practices is of great interest and relevance, from technical, methodological and purposive perspectives. Avant-garde practices can be linked to the discussion of ontological metalepsis.

The figurative use of the word avant-garde to denote radically progressive leaders of both art and society can be traced to the French utopian socialist Henri de Saint-Simon, I760-I825, Donald Egbert (1967: 340) states.

Saint-Simon’s conception of artists’ dual role leads to a persistent dilemma for radically avant-garde artists. As members of an elite social avant-garde, they may be expected to make art that directly promotes radical social ideas, in accordance with the later doctrines of Saint-Simon, and still later those of Marxists and Marxist-Leninists. Such art, this doctrine maintains, should be socially realistic, so as to be more readily understood by the masses, and thus be socially useful for propaganda, as Lenin, Stalin, and their official successors in the Soviet Union maintained. However, as members of a purely artistic avant-garde elite, should they divorce themselves, as well as their art, entirely from all social interests, as the more extreme upholders of art for art’s sake have insisted? Alternatively, should they, like Oscar Wilde, be socially concerned in some way, but keep their art and their social ideas essentially separate? (Egbert, 1967: 346)

Ales Erjavec (2015) argues that part of twentieth-century art can be designated specifically as an ‘aesthetic’ avant-garde. The term ‘aesthetic’ itself is of very specific provenance. It derives from Friedrich Schiller’s use of the term. For Schiller, the aesthetic conjoins art, the individual and the community, bringing together the art of the beautiful and the art of living.

Schiller, Ales explains, taking a lead from Ranciere (2004), was the first thinker to connect explicitly the domains of aesthetics and politics, arguing that the problem of politics in practice cannot be approached other than through the problem of the aesthetic because “it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom”.

Ranciere (2004), discussing what he calls the ‘aesthetic regime of art.’, locates the seeds of modern aesthetic education in the writings of the German Romantic, Friedrich Schiller. Rancière considers that, by suspending the opposition between active understanding and passive sensibility, Schiller’s aesthetic state seeks to break down an idea of society based on the opposition between those who think and decide and those who are doomed to material tasks. This breakdown is achieved using an idea of art. Rancière thereby offers a historical and philosophical account of the link between modern aesthetics and a democratic principle. (Frimer, 2011)

Erjavec, thus, classifies twentieth-century avant-gardes in two ways. First, he divides them into generations: the early twentieth century from 1905-1930; the later neo-avant-gardes emerging in the USA and Europe in the wake of the Second World War; and the postsocialist avant-gardes of Eastern Europe and other post-Soviet-era former-communist countries . Second, he considers that within each generation there is a spectrum running from artistic avant-gardes at one end to aesthetic avant-garde’s at the other end. Artistic avant-gardes introduce into art new styles and techniques, such as those to be found in Cubism and Surrealism. Through such styles and techniques, new representations of the lived world emerge.

At the other end of the spectrum, aesthetic avant-gardes seek to reach beyond art into ‘life’, and aim to transform not just artistic styles and techniques but also the world. The artistic elements of such works are set within an experience-transforming orientation.

Aesthetic avant-gardes seek to affect our ways of experiencing and sensing the world, to change in significant ways the modalities in which we perceive and experience reality. In the words of Jacques Ranciere, they aim at a “redistribution of the sensible”, bringing attention to the ways in which systems of classification assign parts, supply meanings and define relationships among entities in the (common) world.

‘Postsocialist avant-garde’ is the name given by Erjavec to movements from present or former socialist countries whose art had features common to other avant-garde art of the twentieth century.

Erjavec looks forward to the possibility of a fourth generation ‘aesthetic’ avant-garde.


Egbert, D.D. (1967). The Idea of ‘Avant-garde’ in art and politics. American Historical Review, 73 (2), 339–366. Available from [Accessed 6 June 2016].

Erjavec, A. (2015). Introduction. In: Erjavec, A., ed. Aesthetic revolutions and twentieth-century avant-garde movements. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1–18.

Frimer, D. (2011). Pedagogical paradigms: Documenta’s reinvention. Art & Education. Available from [Accessed 16 December 2015].

Ranciere, J. (2004). The Politics of aesthetics: the distribution of the sensible. London, UK: Continuum.