The Laws of Nature

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.


hw (hallie) farber said...

So without fine art and fine art collectors, there would be no kitsch?

Dan Kent said...

I notice that in virtually every book discussion we have had on art, the author has found it important to consider kitsch. I find it ironic and a bit disturbing, and I don't really get it. Do we really need to carve out the kitsch to get to the art? In other words, playing on what Hallie has asked, "So without kitsch, there would be no fine art?" :)

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie and Dan - yes, I think that Greenberg's definition of "Kitsch" fully depends on fine art, since it's a spin-off (of sorts). Dan, it does seem that a lot of the art theory books that I've selected deal with kitsch, and the reason could be that these authors are trying to make the distinction between what is fine art and what isn't. I suspect that the ubiquitous presence of kitsch has led to confusion about the difference. That might lead us to question why the distinction matters. Personally, I think it does matter since I feel that authenticity is essential to my own work, and to the work of my students. But, that doesn't mean that I'm right. Thanks to both of you for entering into this discussion!

Mark Sheeky said...

Hi Kathy! Oh this is a tricky subject. Today's kitsch might be tomorrow's fine art, and vice versa. Perhaps an essence of snobbery is essential to weed out the difference.

Casey Klahn said...

I know that there is certainly plenty of kitsch available in the world. I am uncertain whether I agree with CG's opinion of where it comes from.

I did have an epiphany of sorts for myself when I was teaching my workshop (still high from that experience) when I was able to describe, in my own words, my definition of why sentimentality was bad for my art. I think that it is recruiting other people's feelings and regurgitating them for the audience's sake. The opposite is the hard work of representing things the artist wants to say.

Well, I used fewer words but the idea is there. Authenticity is the artist's mind, and sentiment/nostalgia are the public's opinions as perceived by the artist.


Stan Kurth said...

Art for art's sake, money for God's sake...

British Rock Group 10cc from the Album "How Dare You" Song title "Art for Art's Sake" 1975

This discussion made me think of it.