The Laws of Nature

Monday, August 15, 2011

Avante-garde, kitsch, and propaganda

Art and Culture: Critical Essays
By Clement Greenberg (1961, 1989)

Part 1: Culture in General, Section 1: Avant-Garde and Kitsch

While I know far less about the history of art and art theory than Clement Greenberg, I do know an elitist when I encounter one. After finishing the first section of Chapter 1 of this book, I’m fairly certain it’s written by en elitist who believes that the “lower classes” is limited in its ability to understand art and appreciates only kitsch while the "privileged elite class" support and protect the “fine art” produced by the avant-garde. Phooey! I’ve been in many poor and working class homes that hang prints of great works of art on their walls. True, they can’t afford the real thing, but they value it enough to stick it in a frame and hang it on their walls.

But, there are some interesting ideas in this book. Greenberg gives us insight into the control of World War II politics on art, especially Hitler’s rejection of fine art in favor of kitsch, and Stalin’s use of kitsch for propaganda. This led me to think about how I, as an artist, would react to absolute control over my work.

Would I continue to paint if forced to produce kitsch and/or propaganda? Although the urge to make art would be irrestistible to me, I wouldn't want to produce propaganda. At least, I’d like to think that I could be that pure of heart and deed.

What about you?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


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.

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?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Art and Culture

Art and Culture: Critical Essays
By Clement Greenberg (1961, 1989)

Part 1: Culture in General, Section 1: Avant-Guarde and Kitsch

Image: Clement Greenberg, 1909-1994

A book discussion on this blog is long overdue! So, let’s begin another. I’ve chosen Art and Culture: Critical Essays (1961, 1989) by Clement Greenberg, the distinguished American art critic.

In this book, the author addresses the following topics:
Culture in General
Art in Paris
(various individual artists)
Art in General (primitive through modernist art)
Art in the United States (various individual artists and movements)
and, Literature (I probably won’t review this section)

A review by the Washington Post appears on the back of this book: “This book should be read by anyone who is interested in modern painting and is willing to look at its spectrum through the vision of a tough-minded, rightfully opinionated critic.”

Another review appears by the New York Times: “Clement Greenberg is, internationally, the best-known American art critic popularly considered to be the man who put American vanguard painting and sculpture on the world map … Jackson Pollock’s triumphant international recognition is also a triumph of this critic’s courage, eloquence and creative sense of action .. . An important book for everyone interested in modern painting and sculpture.”

And, so we’ll begin with Part 1: Culture in General, Section 1: Avant-Guarde and Kitsch.

According to Greenberg, the avant-guarde and kitsch are both on the order of culture and products of society. But, are they related? And, from what perspective can we view culture to see that relationship? Perhaps, he postulates, the answer is found through the examination of the relationship between aesthetic experience of the individual and the social and historical contexts in which that experience takes place. And, that’s where the author leads us … in my next post.

Are you interested?