Art and Culture: Critical Essays
by Clement Greenberg (1961, 1989)
Part 1: Culture in General, Section 1: Avant-Garde and Kitsch
Image: Pablo Picasso
Greenberg begins this section with his theory that the emergence of the avant-garde artist is attributable to the inevitable break up of accepted notions in society over time. He sees the gradual evolution of society into one of stagnation and decay – where controversy is avoided and the arts are limited to tradition so that the only advancements are in the form of “virtuosity in the small details of form.” Variation on the same established themes become the norm and nothing “new” is produced.
It is in reaction to this stagnant condition that Western bourgeois society produced avant-garde culture around the time of the Western scientific revolution. A criticism of society and history emerged – one that challenged the established norms and examined cause and effect. A new viewpoint arose, one that places our present society in a succession of social orders over time. This challenged the former notion (Alexandrianism) that recognized only one timeless form of society. It is no wonder that the arts would stagnate under such a philosophy!
So, the avant-garde had to emerge from a group that viewed society in a new way – one that allows for challenge (criticism) and change. This required courage. “Courage indeed was needed for this, because the avant-garde’s emigration from bourgeois society to bohemia meant also an emigration from the markets of capitalism, upon which artists and writers had been thrown by the falling away of aristocratic patronage.” Ah…. The emergence of the starving artist! But, there was a compromise. The avant-garde remained attached to bourgeois society because it needed its money.
Eventually, every revolution must resolve itself in a new stable form of society. “Hence it developed that the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to ‘experiment,’ but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence. Retiring from public altogether, the avant-garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point.”
It is in this way the “Art for art’s sake” emerged and remains with us today. This IS the credo of the avant-garde and the foundation for abstract non-objective art.
“Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cezanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in. The excitement of their art seems to lie most of all in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.”
We now have an art form that “moves.” It can change and evolve with society. In Greenberg’s opinion, this is what justifies the avant-garde’s methods and makes them necessary. However, a problem exists. The avant-garde can only exist through the patronage of the “rich” who support them. As that patronage shrinks, so do they. What does this mean for the future?
Next time, we’ll look at what Greenberg has to say about kitsch and its relationship to the avant-garde.
What are your thoughts?