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avant-garde and kitsch

Unfortunately for us, when Clement Greenberg says "avant-garde," he means "modernist."

painting by Georges BraqueSaturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell

One and the same civilization produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T. S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover. All four are on the order of culture, and ostensibly, parts of the same culture and products of the same society. Here, however, their connection seems to end.

Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," 1939.

At left: a painting by Georges Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.

[T]hat thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name of Kitsch: popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc., etc. [...] Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy.

Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," 1939.

Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same.

Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," 1939.

The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city's traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some form can provide.

Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," 1939.

Where today a political regime establishes an official cultural policy, it is for the sake of demagogy. If kitsch is the official tendency of culture in Germany, Italy and Russia, it is not because their respective governments are controlled by philistines, but because kitsch is the culture of the masses in these countries, as it is everywhere else. The encouragement of kitsch is merely another of the inexpensive ways in which totalitarian regimes seek to ingratiate themselves with their subjects. Since these regimes cannot raise the cultural level of the masses—even if they wanted to—by anything short of a surrender to international socialism, they will flatter the masses by bringing all culture down to their level. It is for this reason that the avant-garde is outlawed.

Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," 1939.

Kitsch is a good vehicle for propaganda because it confirms expectations. (Just to be clear: Rockwell was not a Nazi!)

As a matter of fact, the main trouble with avant-garde art and literature, from the point of view of fascists and Stalinists, is not that they are too critical, but that they are too 'innocent,' that it is too difficult to inject effective propaganda into them, that kitsch is more pliable to this end.

Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," 1939.

The increasing proletarianization of modern man [sic] and the increasing formation of masses are two sides of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly proletarianized masses while leaving intact the property relations which they strive to abolish. It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses—but on no account granting them rights. The masses have a right to changed property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression in keeping these relations unchanged. The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticization of political life.

Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility," 1936.

postmodernism: after the great divide

The boundaries between high art and mass culture have become increasingly blurred, and we should begin to see that process as one of opportunity rather than lamenting loss of quality and failure of nerve. There are many successful attempts by artists to incorporate mass cultural forms into their work, and certain segments of mass culture have increasingly adopted strategies from on high. If anything, that is the postmodern condition in literature and the arts. For quite some time, artists and writers have lived and worked after the Great Divide.

Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, 1986.

Elites today must recognize that they are very much like the Gilded Age elites of old. Paradoxically the very openness and capaciousness that they so warmly embrace — their omnivorousness — helps define them as culturally different from the rest. And they deploy that cultural difference to suggest that the inequality and immobility in our society is deserved rather than inherited.

Shamus Khan, "The New Elitists," 2012.

"ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some form can provide..."

"ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some form can provide..."

"ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some form can provide..."

Ernst Haeckel, aestheticized drawings of various sea shells from Kunstformen der Natur