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?


Susan said...

Thanks for the great food for thought, Kathy. I suppose it all depends on your perspective. If I knew it was propaganda, I believe that I couldn't do it. My art has to have a sense of purpose and meaningfulness. However, if there was something I believed in very strongly, I would try to persuade others to come to my point of view, even through my art. I would hope that those who produced this kind of work believed it to their very core and didn't feel that they were going against their belief system. Interesting question. In some cases I suppose it might mean that your family would go without food; and, in that case, wouldn't we all do anything to provide for our family?

jimserrettstudio said...

Hi Kathy, Greenburg is a very interesting figure in art history.

And I think looking at the point of time of his writings is the key to reading any of his essays. Art and Culture was published in 1961, and his essay Avant-garde and kitsch was written in 1939 during post World War II concerns.

I think what Greenburg considered kitsch seventy years ago has change so much that they have changed places.

His kitsch is our avant-garde.

Casey Klahn said...

I think Jim means "pre-World War II."

I took my son to Captain America, which is a great display of propaganda -except I value and love the whole Allies versus the Nazis history. That needs no explanation other than my dad fought in WW2 and I saw where the Nazis burned a church full of townspeople when I went to Italy where Dad served.

Anyway, all that to say the end credits are a big screen rendering of major American war posters and it is a fantastic show of illustrative art.

A propagandist, to me, is like a pamphleteer. It is a reduced form of art, and fits its own day and not as well the future. I want my fine art to look over the horizon.

I agree that CG is becoming dated. He is an elitist - you nailed it, Kathy.

Meera Rao said...

I do hope when and if the time comes I will have the strength and gumption to stand by what I value. I hope I (and my wish for all artists) never have to choose between art that I believe in and feeding my family.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I hate to think that the World War II posters I love might be kitsch.

-Don said...

I picked up on Mr. Greenburg's elitism in one of your earlier posts on this book. Any time a poor person's choice of art is considered less than a rich person's choice I start smelling something a little off-putting.

I would have been proud to produce the work that James Montgomery Flagg created during WWI. I know he wasn't forced to create this propaganda art, but he obviously took pride in what he did. And, I'm sure it paid the bills. And, as cool as I think it is, it's probably considered kitsch. Oh well...


Mark Sheeky said...

All good art art is propaganda, even if only for the empire of the lone artist. Message is message.

Susan Roux said...

This is quite an interesting subject. The whole idea of kitsch is mind-boggling to me. I think as fine artists, we would have had no option but to follow our hearts. At least, I'd like to believe that...

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Joyfulartist said...

If it was a choice between making propaganda art, no art, or being put in a concentration camp or prison one can see what tough choices artists had in history. When the Church controlled what artists could paint, artists painted Biblical paintings. The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis has a wonderful collection of propaganda art and it is beautifully done. Aren't we all influenced by something?