Avant-Garde, Kitsch, and The End of Art

19 08 2011

I was having pizza with two friends who were discussing the song “Let ‘Em In.”  Not being familiar with the song by title or their description of the lyrics, I asked who it was by.  “Wings,” said one.  “So, typical McCartney drivel,” chimed in the other, and they both chuckled.  “Ah,” I thought, “music snobs.”

But this isn’t just an example of music-snobbery.  It’s more specifically pop music-snobbery, and even more so than that, Beatles- or John Lennon-snobbery.  These types of music fans (and there are many of them) place Lennon-scribed Beatles tunes or his solo work on a higher level than the works of his partner Paul McCartney, and have a particular disdain for Wings.  The reasoning?  Though it is often hard to get them to admit, it has to do with the perceived simplicity and popularity of the songs.  McCartney writes simple songs that are catchy and everybody likes and understands what they’re about.  Lennon writes deep, poetic masterworks that take time and education to truly appreciate.  McCartney writes “Back in the USSR,” while Lennon writes “I Am the Walrus.”

It’s an attitude that carries over into all areas of artistic evaluation:  that which is more difficult to understand or appreciate is of higher value than that which is easily grasped.  Clement Greenberg crystalized this attitude regarding visual art in 1939’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in which he described kitsch as low art, the ersatz culture of the newly literate, but uneducated masses. “Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is 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.”  Kitsch is mass-produced for easy consumption by people who like it because it seems like art, but is easy, convenient, and plentiful.

What is kitsch? This is kitsch.

The Avant-Garde, on the other hand, creates art that is forward-thinking, that is moving toward new ways of creating and thinking and is therefore inherently more difficult to understand.  Greenberg saw the Avant-Garde as a necessary product of a move away from what he called “Alexandrianism,” an attitude that looks to past masters and tradition for answers regarding questions of taste. Writing in the Twentieth Century, at the cusp of the pinnacle of High Modernism (indeed, Greenberg championed the King of High Modernist Art, Jackson Pollock), Greenberg’s emphasis on progress and originality is typical of the modern mindset.  Greenberg also saw the isolation of the Avant-Garde as necessary to move culture forward as a whole.  Modern art had to be separate from Kitsch, from the popular aesthetic of the masses, in order to bring about true originality and create a more pure form of art.  Ultimately, this led to abstraction and non-representation in works, divorcing them from even representing anything outside themselves. Greenberg’s “High Art” was art that was self-referential, art about art, art for art’s sake.

Jackson Pollock, One (Number 31), 1950

This detachment of art from the rest of the world is not something that was new with Greenberg, however.  It extends as far back as Arthur Schopenhauer, who expounded on the idea that aesthetics and utility are separated from one another, “we rarely see the useful united with the beautiful.”  For a work of music, philosophy, painting, or poetry to be a work of genius (and therefore high culture), it must be “nothing for use or profit.  To be useless and unprofitable is one of the characteristics of works of genius; it is their patent of nobility.”  For art to be genius, noble, or of high cultural standing, it must exist for no other reason than to be art.

While ideas about beauty changed in the time between Schopenhauer and Greenberg, and the notion of making beautiful work was all but rejected in the mid- to late-Twentieth Century, the idea of a work of art having no other purpose than to be art remained.  We see this in Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism, surely.  We also see it in the attitude of many regarding the legitimacy of Duchamp’s readymades—that a readymade changes an object into art by denying its function.  You can no longer use the urinal for its original purpose, so you are forced to contemplate it as a purely aesthetic object—as art.

Another area where we see this attitude is in what is rejected from or marginalized by institutions of legitimation such as art schools and university art departments, museums, art history texts, art magazines and galleries.  Despite the continual visual dialog contributed by contemporary ceramics, art metals, illustration and graphic design, these areas are typically defined as craft.  Their primary purpose is not simply to exist on their own, but potentially as vessel in the case of ceramics, as visual embellishment of a text-based source in illustration, as a vehicle for sale of a consumer good in graphic design, and as personal adornment in the case of art metals.  Rarely are these given much serious consideration in textbooks for Art History Survey courses, and while from time to time there are museum exhibitions focusing on them, they are often treated as curiosity or as a method to lure the masses to see the other, more serious works of painting or sculpture.

In art schools and universities, these subjects are taught alongside the more expected topics of painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture.  It is tempting to say that this is creating (or has helped create) a more egalitarian attitude regarding these forms rooted in craft.  But while every art department surely includes painting, not every art department includes Graphic Design.  Where I earned my Batchelor’s Degree, that program was housed in the same department as Engineering and shop classes.  Many small (and not-so-small) universities do not include Illustration or Art Metals at all.  Even in departments that do offer these subjects, there is an unspoken prejudice among the students at the very least.  Go into any department and ask a Fine Arts major what he or she thinks about the Graphic Design emphasis.  Ask the Graphic Design students where they think their area of study ranks within the department.

To complicate matters more, there is also art that owes its existence to the conceptual work of Duchamp but also reaches into the social realm.  The experientially-based work of Fluxus artists like the Happenings of Allan Kaprow and the written instructions of Yoko Ono are relatively safe as “art for art’s sake.”  While they are not objects or images to be venerated, they are experiences separated from the rest of everyday life to be experienced as art, not as, say, exercise.  Activist art, however, is an aesthetic product made specifically for the purpose of societal interaction.  How is one to evaluate the work of Reverend Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping as art?  Its purpose is not simply to be art, but to provoke change in American consumption habits.  Evaluating the work as “art,” as something with no other purpose but to be art, ignores, and thereby negates, its social purpose.  Once this work is legitimized by a museum, it loses its use-value as a societal agent and becomes simply, and solely, art.

Bill Talen, aka "Reverend Billy," simultaneously engages a willing audience and the greater public.

Art at the service of a socially oriented program can be benignly dismissed as illustration or graphic design or, in the case of Reverend Billy, “fringe street-theater.”  It can also be more ominously feared as propaganda.  Both Greenberg and fellow cultural critic Walter Benjamin expressed concerns about the tools and methods of high art being used to influence masses through mass-produced kitsch productions (especially film, in the case of Benjamin).  One can easily see aesthetics put to malevolent use in the time that both of them were writing with the Nazis, Joseph Goebbels, and especially (and infamously) the films of Leni Riefenstahl.  As a German Jew writing in 1936, Benjamin was justifiably pessimistic about politicization of art.  But he also saw the potential for mass-produced and therefore easily accessible art forms like photography and film to bring at least some of the experience of “true” culture to the viewer, to meet the common viewer “halfway.”

The notion that “true” culture or high art are somehow separate from the rest of society damages the potential art has to affect as many viewers (or readers, or listeners, or participants) as possible.  Work that is purposely obtuse and aloof leads to disinterest and even distaste from the general public.  Moreover, insisting that an object of true high art has no use value other than to be art marginalizes it and leads to societal and political dismissal.  When NEA budgets for visual art were slashed in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, there was little public outrage because art, with no use value, isn’t necessary to the everyday existence of taxpayers.  In our current economic climate, arts budgets are the first to be cut again.  Perhaps a public more invested in art—more connected to work because it means or does something in their everyday lives—would be less apt to accept the financial dismantling of government assistance for the work.  Art can and should engage the public.  Social projects like Judith Baca’s The Great Wall of Los Angeles are community-based artwork that is integral to a greater population, not just art existing to be art.  However, this crossover creates problems of classification, which I will address later.

Conservative politicians like Jesse Helms used outrage over the display of controversial images, partly funded by the NEA, to spearhead devastating cuts to the visual arts budget of the National Endowment for the Arts during the late 1980s

To dismiss kitsch, as Greenberg does, is alienating and unhelpful.  Works of kitsch can, at times, influence works of “greater” culture.  Many viewers come to an awareness (and subsequent appreciation) of art through kitsch-influenced works like the Pop Art of the 60s or even Jeff Koons.  Say what you will about Thomas Kinkade, but his method and level of production has similarities to that of Monet.  Paul McCartney wrote “Wonderful Christmastime,” but he also wrote “Helter Skelter.”  John Lennon wrote “Imagine,” but he also wrote “All You Need Is Love.” They didn’t get to “Strawberry Fields Forever” without first recording “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” What’s more, as much clout as we might give Lennon or The Beatles, they are still a Pop group—kitsch—when compared to the “true” high-art music:  Classical.

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. And yes, I am comparing Koons to Lennon. Get over it.

I argue that accessibility in art is necessary not only for its survival, but also for its advancement, and the advancement of culture as a whole.  In my post, “Art, Meaning, and Language:  Part 2,” I pointed out that art can be everything.  In comments to that post, other bloggers pointed out that if art is everything, it is also nothing.  The story goes that once Duchamp decided that everything could be art, he stopped producing any art whatsoever—because playing chess could be art, and he would rather have done that, so he did.  Since we currently view art as being something that exists only as art, to think that art is also everything negates its status, its special place as some sort of beacon of (or for) culture.  The term itself implies separation—isolation.

Arthur C. Danto makes the argument that we are currently in a period of historical time After the End of Art (which is the title of the book).  I don’t know if I’m in total agreement with him that we are experiencing that epoch in history at the moment, but I do argue for the viability of that change.  The “Era of Art” is the historical period where we as a culture have separated art from religious, merely decorative, or use-value and place it in its own sphere to be art alone. We are now entering (or have entered, or should enter) a period where cultural production does not have to be isolated or legitimated through academic institutions; where, say, a social experiment aired on YouTube can have more of a cultural impact than a painting.

Allan Kaprow writes of a project undertaken in the 1970s in which artist Raivo Puusemp became mayor of Rosendale Village, a small community in New York.  The Village had serious financial and infrastructural problems, and, in the end, Puusemp provided an atmosphere in which the citizens of the village themselves made the decision do dissolve and become part of the larger Rosendale Township.  Puusemp himself did not refer to the venture as an art work, nor did he see it as a purely political act.  It was what Kaprow would define as a meaning-making activity, somewhere between the two.  And that is where the power of the story is:  that it is in between.  By putting it into an art text book (or an art blog, perhaps) the story becomes art, the frame of “Art” descends upon it, and it becomes solely art, no longer viable as public action.  It is the label that isolates it, not the action.  Perhaps it is time to discard the term itself.  This is something after art.  It’s something other than art.  It is something more pervasive, more connected.  I don’t know what to call it.  Perhaps it is best to not call it anything at all.

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One response

31 08 2011
hotshot bald cop

Well put from an excellent blogger

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