Summary of Greenberg's "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"

In "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", Greenberg defends the view that there is such a thing as "high art" distinct from "low" or popular art. Furthermore, he makes his case based on certain social, historical, and political assumptions and empirical observations. He takes a formalist position, to be sure, but attempts to justify his position by appeal to a broader social context -- broader than just the artworld or the technical achievements of individual artists.

Greenberg argues that when cultural forms are challenged in a society, the standard artistic response is to rigidify (by means of "academicism") the fine points of style and form, theme and variation. There is, however, a more critical and progressive response to the crisis of tradition that one finds in the historicism that emerged in the late nineteenth century out of the work of Marx. Under the influence of historicism, artists defined themselves in opposition to the bourgeoisie by drawing on revolutionary political ideas. The nascent avant-garde broke free of society, eventually rejecting its political foundation in favor of a cultural goal -- to move art "forward" on its own terms as "art for art's sake". This involved a "search for absolutes" beyond content.

Thus, Greenberg's claim is that artistic practices in the modern world inevitably became reflexive -- focused on the medium itself. Cutoff from the social world, art was (and should be) justified in its own terms. In this way, art became the subject matter of art. Ironically, art for art's sake often led to a kind of academicism. But the difference between the avant-garde and the degenerate academic forms of art is that the avant-garde "moves" (makes progress) while the academic (or "Alexandrian") stands still. In this sense, avant-garde method is vindicated.

Also, paradoxically, the avant-garde "belongs" to the dominant culture or ruling class. Culture requires support and, thus, the avant-garde maintains its connection (its "umbilical cord of gold", to borrow a phrase from Marx) to the dominant culture. And since this "elite' audience is shrinking, the future of the avant-garde is in danger. This raises a question: Is this problem endemic to avant-garde practice, or are there other factors involved? The answer to this question requires an exploration of the emergence and persistence of "kitsch".

Kitsch arose together with the avant-garde as a product of the industrial revolution and an increase in literacy. As urbanization and literacy made authentic folk culture less relevant, popular culture took its place. Popular culture is characterized by insensitivity to "the values of genuine culture". It is a simulation -- mechanical, formulaic, and spurious, making few if any demands on its consumers. It is also parasitic on high culture, rehashing earlier forms and themes without contributing to their development. The influence of popular culture is also reinforced by market values due to its mechanicalness and reproducibility. Thus, it is enormously profitable. The danger is that popular culture is deceptive, often masquerading as "genuine" culture.

In contrast to the easy assimilation of the kitsch consumer, the higher level of appreciation of a "cultivated spectator" of a Picasso depends on a "second order' of reflection on form -- an aesthetic distance that permits viewer "projection" (or contribution) to the experience of viewing. In kitsch, nothing is left to the viewer -- everything is given and obvious., i.e. the work requires no distancing and presents no difficulties. In the end, the avant-garde work imitates the causes -- kitsch the effects -- of art.

Given the necessity of education and leisure necessary for appreciating "high art", and recognizing that only a privileged few have the means and the time, the disparity between avant-garde art and kitsch is clearly underwritten by class distinction and power. Kitsch is easily employed by the powerful for their own purposes. When this happens, it functions as a tool of fascism, conceding to the masses its form of entertainment while imbuing the entertainment with propaganda. This is not possible with avant-garde art due to its "difficulty" and critical nature. Thus, quality and social criticism are threats to totalitarianism as well as capitalism.

Avant-garde culture requires leisure, energy, and comfort. This is possible only under democratic socialism where quality, cooperation, freedom of thought and action, and social criticism can flourish.

T. R. Quigley, 1998