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  • Clement Greenberg- The Avant-Garde and Kitsch

    The Avant-Garde and Kitsch

    The essay of Greenberg's defends the view that there is such a thing as ‘high art’ from ‘low’ or ‘popular’ art. He takes a formalist approach in order to convince his audience but attempts to justify his reasoning’s to a broader context; broader than the art world. Greenberg was a supporter of abstract expressionism such as painters like Jackson Pollock. 

    Greenberg had serious concerns about the movement of the art world and where it was heading. He believed that art was dying and that in order for it to survive artists needed to create work, which would evoke questions that were really hard to answer and to discuss and debate these questions. The basis of questioning artwork based on opinion would help to keep art alive.

    Clement Greenberg felt it was important to distinguish the difference between “specific individual” aesthetic experiences, which includes harmonizing the formal elements, and “social and historical context” in which the experience takes place.

    The term Kitsch meant ‘the norm’. It referred to objects that appeared gaudy, lowbrow and childlike which had sentimental and emotional attachment that “people” had to everyday objects. The Avant-Garde was a term to describe a new approach to something. The Avant-Garde fought tradition by drawing opposition on revolutionary politically inspired ideas in favor of moving art forward for “art’s sake”. Creating artwork that would surpass content and meaning.

    The cultural goal of the art society was to focus on process and matter of materials.  Previously paint itself and its actions were secondary and depicting an actual object that was clearly understood was the primary focus.  As the Avant-Garde came into practice artists started to look into the properties of the paint and focused more on colour, form and texture. For example Cezanne (Ref; Image5) could be argued as one of the first artists who changed the impressionist movement. He started to paint paintings that weren’t about “fruit” but were about the materials used to paint the fruit and the qualities of his materials. 

    The Avant-Garde typically belongs to the dominant ruling class. Culture needs support, which meant it inevitably maintained its connection to the higher class as they had more influence and power over the ‘people’. However as the class system was shrinking the future of the Avant-Garde was in danger of its influences upon society. Kitsch arose simultaneously with the Avant-Garde movement and popular culture took place. Popular culture holds no demand of its consumer and is often deceptive as it masquerades itself as “genuine culture” despite being mechanicalness and it’s reproducibility. For example kitsch would be a mass produced ornament of a horse in an everyday middle/lower class home which was pleasing to look at and meant that the consumer didn’t have to think about its purpose. Everything about the object is given and obvious- it was just a horse. The Avant-Garde birthed the higher level of appreciation of a “cultivated spectator”. For example one viewing a Picasso (Ref; Image 2) depends upon a second order of reflection on the formal elements of the painting. An aesthetic distance aids the appreciation of a Picasso.

    Given the time and money necessary to appreciate “high art” the clear disparity between the Avant-Garde and kitsch is clearly defined through power and class distinction.



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    -Sophie Gowling-

    -Art&Design student in the North East of England-

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