Art and Culture: Critical Essays
By Clement Greenberg (1961, 1989)
Part 1: Culture in General, Section 1: Avant-Garde and Kitsch
Image: Kitsch Biennale, 2010 Palazzo Cini
According to Greenberg, kitsch arrived on the scene at the same time as avant-garde art: Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy. Before that time, the literate class was culturally separate and considered more “refined” than the “folk culture.” Once the country peasants moved into the cities and became literate, they had more leisure time, but didn’t share the tastes of the more elite class. Nor were they interested in folk art any longer, since it didn’t fit their new urban sensibilities. It was in this setting that “kitsch” was born.
What, exactly, is kitsch? Greenberg describes it this way:
Kitsch is the source of its profits.
Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas.
Kitsch is a vicarious experience and faked sensations.
Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same.
Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.
Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time.
The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system and discards the rest.
Since its inception, kitsch has become ubiquitous. It exists in nearly every culture all around the world and has displaced folk art to a large extent.
Greenberg asks us to consider why kitsch is virulent – nearly irresistible. And, why is it much more marketable to “fine art?” His explanation has to do with the viewer’s ability to reflect and digest art. That is, fine art requires the viewer to do some mental work and kitsch is predigested by the artist giving the viewer a shortcut to pleasure.
What are your thoughts?
Next time … the links between avant-garde and kitsch.