by Gary Comenas
back to Autumn 1939: Avant Garde and Kitsch by Clement Greenberg is published.
From "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" by Clement Greenberg:
"One and the same civilization produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T.S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song... what perspective of culture is large enough to enable us to situate them in an enlightening relation to each other? Does the fact that a disparity such as this within the frame of a single cultural tradition, which is and has been taken for granted - does this fact indicate that the disparity is a part of the natural order of things? Or is it something entirely new, and particular to our age?
... the avant-garde poet or artist sought to main the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradiction would be either resolved or beside the point. 'Art for art's sake' and 'pure poetry' appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like a plague. It has been in search of the absolute that the avant-garde has arrived at 'abstract' or 'nonobjective' art - and poetry too...
Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rearguard. True enough - simultaneously with the entrance of the avant-garde, a second new cultural phenomenon appeared in the industrial West: that 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. 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...
In his last article on the Soviet cinema in the Partisan Review, Dwight Macdonald points out that kitsch has in the last ten years become the dominant culture in Soviet Russia. For this he blames the political regime - not only for the fact that kitsch is the official culture, but also that it is actually the dominant, most popular culture, and he quotes the following from Kurt London's The Seven Soviet Arts: '...the attitude of the masses both to the old and new art styles probably remains essentially dependent on the nature of the education afforded them by their respective states.' Macdonald goes on to say: 'Why after all should ignorant peasants prefer Repin (a leading exponent of Russian academic kitsch in painting) to Picasso, whose abstract technique is at least as relevant to their own primitive folk art as is the former's realistic style? No, if the masses crowd into the Tretyakov (Moscow's museum of contemporary Russian art: kitsch), it is largely because they have been conditioned to shun 'formalism' and to admire 'socialist realism.'"
... 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, the will flatter the masses by bring all culture down to their level. it is for this reason that the avant-garde is outlawed, and not so much because a superior culture is inherently a more critical culture.
... Capitalism in decline finds that whatever of quality it is still capable of producing becomes almost invariably a threat to its own existence. Advances in culture, no less than advances in science and industry, corrode the very society under whose aegis they are made possible. Here, as in every other question today, it becomes necessary to quote Marx word for word. Today, we no longer look toward socialism for a new culture - as inevitably as one will appear, once we do have socialism. Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now." (AT539-549)
back to Autumn 1939: Avant Garde and Kitsch by Clement Greenberg is published