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In Clement Greenberg’s discussion of avant-garde and kitsch, he explores two drastically different styles of art that demand very different things from viewers and also readers. Avant-garde is a type of art intended for members of the upper class (bourgeois) while kitsch is a style intended for lower working classes (the proletariat). The text states the following about Avant-garde: “In seeking to go beyond Alexandrianism, a part of Western bourgeois society has produced something unheard of heretofore:-avant- garde culture. A superior consciousness of history-more pre- cisely, the appearance of a new kind of criticism of society, an historical criticism-made this possible”. This style of art has a great deal of analysis attached to it.
One must try to assume the artists world view to uncover the true meaning of this unique painting. Avant-garde artists value originality and strive to create something separate from all other art forms; the artist is on a quest to be different. Greenberg states, “The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape – not its picture – is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals”. Furthermore, the bourgeois or upper class are the intended viewers of this art and the artist essentially vehemently tries to avoid being mediocre. Greenberg analyzes how the artist’s aim is to place such a large amount of meaning behind his or her work that it will never just be a surface painting. My use of the phrase surface painting refers to art that doesn’t require immense interpretation demanding a different type of effort from its viewers, if demanding any effort at all.
According to Greenberg, avant-garde generates meaning and emotional content by its unique nature or overall composition. The following is stated, “Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Mir6, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cezanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in. The excitement of their art seems to lie most of all in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors”.
As a reader we can draw the following conclusion: the great deal of thought effort and care the artist pours into his master piece is in fact a great source of the emotional content that revolves around this style. These emotions can also be relayed to viewers upon looking at these master pieces. In previous class lessons, we spoke about what a piece of art demands from viewers or about what certain pieces of literature demand. For example, the various pieces of literature we inspected in class early on during the semester proved that some writings were easier to digest while some took more focus; the same is true for art work. With this being said, because of the elevated nature of this style in which the artist has put a great deal of heart into, we as viewers have an experience rooted in excessive ponderance as we try to associate shapes and interesting angles with the artist’s feelings and overall intent of the work.
Kitsch is very different from avant-garde. As we have discussed in class, one should avoid looking at a painting with a “that’s all there is” mentality because there is always more. However, when viewing art in which the artist has utilized Kitsch, the perception is that one does not need to apply as much critical analysis. Greenberg states the following about Kitsch, “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 was a name coined by the Germans and helped form a “universal literacy” according to Greenberg.
I find it really interesting how Kitsch varies from avant-garde in the intended experience and the intended audience. Kitsch was intended for the proletariat (working class) and avant-garde was supposedly for the bourgeoise (elite ruling class). In my opinion, this is a slight insult to the working class making it seem as if they are inadequate and don’t desire to exercise their minds to the fullest. A person’s class distinction is not always an accurate representation of the knowledge that they possess. For example, take a family of 4 struggling to make ends meet. The mother and father both are college graduates, but unfortunately, they encountered some financial issues that suddenly resulted in them having to relocate to a one-bedroom apartment in a different location of town. In this example, this family (who may fall into the working class) would not find satisfaction in the hollow nature of kitsch art, but they are expected to. I find it stereotypical to assume that the proletariat is unable to or unwilling to dedicate the necessary time to analyze a work of art.
In terms of the emotional response that kitsch evokes, it is probably more of a universal feeling but still subjective. For example, take Andy Warhol’s 1967 piece depicting Marilyn Monroe. It may bring admiration out of some who loved Marilyn or maybe admiration for those who are true fans of Andy Warhol. However, whatever the response, Greenberg would believe that its seems to be more surface than one that needs an in-depth explanation. Greenberg states, “In the end the peasant will go back to kitsch when he feels like looking at pictures, for he can enjoy kitsch without effort.” Greenberg’s condescending tone in reference to kitsch in relation to the “peasant class” was most likely considered acceptable in that time period. Furthermore, when all classes of people look at paintings (like the painting of Marilyn), we see elements of pop culture, and entertainment and we as viewers either stop because we like what is depicted or who depicted it. Greenberg would stand by his claim that a piece like this is truly incapable of bringing up an in-depth discussion. His points present the claim that the overall experience of viewing kitsch does not require one to think hard or squint his/her eyes, but it still has the power to draw out an emotion of some sort while causing one to think about his or her opinion. Overall, the experiences, emotions, and intended viewers of avant-garde and kitsch are polar opposites of each other.
Andy Warhol was a man who truly created his own definition of what it meant to be a true artist. His use of pop and consumer cultures challenged all that Greenberg claimed. For example, the beliefs that superior art had to have a certain amount of depth to it, or that only fine art generated a substantial amount of thought were shown to be untrue with Andy Warhol’s master pieces. Warhol showed that all art is art! Similar to how we all have our own worldviews and opinions, it is unreasonable to label one artists portrayal as unworthy or inferior. Yes, we can categorize paintings/pictures by styles and techniques employed, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
More importantly, after reading Greenberg’s piece and dwelling more on Warhol’s frequent display of kitsch, I am realizing that it all depends on who is looking. Regardless of what type of painting it is, the viewer controls what type of experience they have. For example, when I look at Warhol’s straight forward but yet aesthetically pleasing arrangement of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, I think back to my childhood. Not only does a great deal of emotion surface within me, but I just might sit down and ponder all that Chicken Noodle Soup means to me. The simple everyday meal represents a piece of my childhood and also reminds me of my mother, a woman who is my world. Therefore, kitsch, a style labeled as one lacking substance, can foster a great deal of depth and power if the right eyes are looking at it.
Furthermore, Andy Warhol’s success shows that simple can also be fine. He became well known for taking every-day concepts (like canned soup) and transforming it into something that meant something to him. Even though we may not know exactly why he constructed many of the things he did due to his careless responses when during interviews, we know that he had a reason for doing all that he did. Even if it was just for the simple reason that he liked the taste of chicken noodle soup, that reasoning is enough.
Warhol also challenged Greenberg’s points on avant-garde and kitsch because he took high class individuals and presented them in direct ways. I think this is one of the biggest statements that Warhol made. Essentially, Greenberg restricted high class/important individuals to avant-garde and lower-class individuals to kitsch; this in a way created boundaries suggesting that art is exclusive. However, Warhol broke down these walls by integrating the upper class with a style that was meant for lower classes. He challenged Greenberg by showing that things are not black and white or always so definite.
Artistry is not confined to the labels that philosophers, other artists, or rulers place on them. Its ability to reach a wide variety of people and connect us in ways we never thought were possible is the true beauty of art, and this beauty can even be found in simplistic forms (like chicken noodle soup).
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