The Laws of Nature

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The avant-garde

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?


Studio at the Farm said...

Hi Katharine. I haven't formally studied art or philosophy, but I do find your essays fascinating. Do you believe art helps model society/culture, or is it a reflection of the prevailing culture?

Kathy said...

Interesting question! There are some who hold to the opinion that revolutions in art often precede revolutions in science by at least a decade. For instance: the ellipses in Baroque architecture (aesthetics) followed by Kepler’s ellipses (science); Vermeer’s interest in depicting shafts of light shining through small slits in a room (aesthetics) followed by Newton’s work with prisms (science); and, Seurat’s experiments with pointillism (aesthetics) followed by Einstein’s theories about light quanta. On the other hand, we could argue that science influences art. Look at how artists utilize technological advancements in their artmaking. In the broader sense, it seems to me that the influences of art and society and so intertwined that’s it’s hard to separate the two. Art is the product of and reflection of our culture – and, it’s the artists who are often the visionaries that create a path for societies to follow. This seems to be a “chicken or the egg” question. But, that’s just my opinion. Thanks!

Dan Kent said...

Just to let you know I am here listening, interested, but have nothing to add. That's a first, right?

Kathy said...

Thanks, Dan! It's good to know that you're on-board. Maybe I can stir up a few others with my next post ;-)

hw (hallie) farber said...

I am listening--I need to find my thinking cap.

Robin said...

I am following too, I don't have the book and will hope I can comprehend it all, it takes me time to process. I think the avant-garde exists as long as the galleries exist, more so than the patrons. Is your art avant-garde?

Mark Sheeky said...

It's easy to see this avant-garde in historical terms but for me Greenberg is over complicating things. All art evolves from what has gone before and modern art evolved and exploded with such newness and difference because mass communication of ideas and images exploded too, it made the evolution that art always had move a lot faster. Picasso could have been born 100 years earlier and his art would have been in the tradition of his time, he would probably have been as radical, but not a cubist. It's the communication revolution and the exposure to ideas that makes contemporary art so eclectic.