Clement Greenberg (1909-1995) ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ Clement Greenberg is an influential twentieth century art critic, best known for his promotion and defense of abstract expressionism. In “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) he somewhat paradoxically combined his socialist convictions with a defense of avant-garde, abstract, “non-objective” painting and poetry, even while admitting that this art appealed to a small and shrinking elite, members of the ruling class, on whose money the avant-garde depended for its survival. Avant-garde art, he argued, arose as part of a movement of cultural critique within the bourgeoisie, and is thus linked with revolution. But it moved away from critical content, and focused instead on itself, so that increasingly painting has come to be about painting, or about nothing at all, rather than depicting something else; and similar movements have occurred within the other arts. Thus the art which began as critical of culture is appreciated by only a few in society; and the new art of the masses, or “kitsch”, is fundamentally both conservative and uncultured. Kitsch is tied to mass production, and is not “genuine culture”. Greenberg explained its appeal by the ease with which it carries values extrinsic to art, as opposed to those of art for art’s sake. For example, a sweet little angel carries values of sympathy, romantic prettiness, and acomforting belief in the supernatural. Who would be so crude as to suggest that it is trite and boring as sculpture or painting? As avant-garde art has moved away from content, it has placed more emphasis on form.
A Comparison of Formal and Avant-Garde Artwork Modern art is a unique creation all it’s own, and since it’s beginnings there have been two very distinct groups present. They are the Formalists and the Avant-Garde. The Formalist group believes in the literal representation of the art work. They value the form used, whether it be how the colors are stressed or the techniques used, over the idea ...
It has become more “pure” or “non-objective”. In this respect it has become more like music. In Greenberg’s words: “Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself”. “Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cezanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium the work in”. The word “kitsch” is perhaps one of the oldest, crudest, and most unclear terms used to describe the popular art of modern societies, though it is also a term which is almost universally understood. First appearing in the writings of cultural and social critics of the late nineteenth century to describe the effects of early industrialism on the common culture of Western nations, the term has evolved and taken on a variety of sometimes quite contradictory meanings throughout the century or so of its use. The precise etymology of kitsch is uncertain: some attribute kitsch to the Russian “keetcheetsya,” meaning “to be haughty and puffed up,” though a more widely accepted view attributes its origins to the Munich art markets of the 1860s, where “kitsch” was used to describe inexpensive paintings or “sketches” (the English word mispronounced by Germans, or elided with the German verb verkitschen, to “make cheap”).
Kitsch artworks appealed to the naive tastes of the emerging, newly monied Munich bourgeoisie who, in typical nouveau riche fashion, desired objects they thought to be typical of “high taste,” without knowing exactly what high taste was. Like “pornography,” “art” or other slippery terms, kitsch is easier to demonstrate by example than it is to clarify by definition: kitsch tends to apply most easily to ornamental statuary, chachkas of different kinds, manufactured sentimental nicknacks, souvenirs, and decorative objects reflecting a childlike simplicity–things that are simply meant to make us feel good about ourselves and the world. What makes kitsch kitsch, however, is not simply the fact of its being decorative, but that kitsch artificially inflates the comfort of decoration into a uniquely fake aesthetic statement.
Among figures of religion, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammed, and Siddhartha Gautama are some of the prominent individuals who have shared before the world their religious experiences with respect to their own religion. Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism have all received a great amount of fundamental advancement from the ideas and actions of these important individuals. Not only did they help shape the very ...
Thus, there are two sides of kitsch which have to be explained: kitsch is a unique aesthetic style, but it is also the effect of specific social and historical changes. As an effect of historical changes, kitsch is caused by industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of a new middle class. As an aesthetic quality, kitsch combines an emulation of high art forms and styles with a dependence on comfort and very direct expressions of aesthetic pleasure. Kitsch also proved useful for advocates of avant-garde culture such as Clement Greenberg. Greenberg, bent on marking a distinction between the avant-garde and the popular culture of the masses, trashed kitsch for its parasitic quality, drawing its life-blood from the creative sweat of “real artists,” and keeping the masses in a state of cultural imbecility and confusion. For Greenberg, kitsch represented “the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.” The Partisan Review published Greenberg’s “Avant-garde and Kitsch” in 1939, and it was quickly adopted as a kind of manifesto for Abstract Expressionism.
In the essay, Greenberg unapologetically distinguishes between an elite ruling class that supports and appreciates the avant-garde, and the Philistine masses, an unfortunate majority that has always been “more or less indifferent to culture,” and has become conditioned to kitsch. The Abstract Expressionist work, with a content that cannot be extracted from its form, answers Greenberg’s call for an avant-garde “expression” in and of itself. The transcendentalist nature of an Abstract Expressionist painting, with neither object nor subject other than that implicit in its color and texture, reinforces Greenberg’s assertion that the avant-garde is and should be difficult. Its inaccessibility serves as a barrier between the masses who will dismiss the work, and the cultured elite who will embrace it. However valid or invalid Greenberg’s claims in “Avant-garde and Kitsch” may be inherent in the essay is a mechanism ensuring the allure of Abstract Expressionism. In the same way that the emperor’s fabled new clothes won the admiration of a kingdom afraid to not see them, Abstract Expressionism quickly found favor with critics, dealers, collectors, and other connoisseurs of cultural capital, who did not wish to exclude themselves from the kind of elite class that would appreciate such a difficult movement. Words Count: 966.
The avant-garde cinema defies custom of the Hollywood narrative. It is called “the art, experimental, independent film”. This avant-garde films challenge to the main current in commercial films. Especially, 1920’s movements of the avant-garde film emerged as a strong part of the art culture in Europe. For instance, the Dadaism and the abstract film seek extremely abstract and emotional images. ...
Clement Greenberg: the Collected Essays and Criticism, 4 vols. Edited by John O’ Brian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Greenberg, C. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, p. 6, in Greenberg, Art and Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.
Rubenfeld, F. Clement Greenberg. New York: Harper Collins, 1998..