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The Kitsch of Avant Garde

"Kitsch" and "Avant Garde" have had widely expanded definitions in the growing years. The roots of such terms may have indeed started at opposite ends of a cultural or societal spectrum, but more and more in the 21st century, the two have intersected; the intersections at which such subcultures as Twee and Hipster spawned from. Such terms have indeed shaped both mainstream and counterculture in the 20th and 21st centuries, but no one has attempted to compose a thorough critique of such terms, since the 1939 essay "Avant Garde and Kitsch" by Clement Greenberg.

The piece argues that kitsch comes from a desire to appreciate culture by those who could not digest the more high fluent culture of the then aristocracy.  "To fill the demand of a 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 some sort of culture can provide." Greenberg is brutal to both avant garde and kitsch, claiming that avant garde has a preoccupation by the medium and action for which they are creating, and, also, in their elitism have greatly slimmed their audience, perhaps making the innovation and profoundness they pride themselves on, soon impossible to achieve. The latter half of the essay focuses on kitsch, which, in Greenberg's view, has a commercial value and universality that gives it a superficiality. Kitsch, also, takes away the value in the dichotomy of cultural tastes and differentiation. Greenberg deems kitsch overly manufactured and avant garde overly genuine, to the point where cutting-edge art focuses solely on purity. This makes Greenberg's argument not one of taste, so much as one of authenticity.

Greenberg's essay is, undeniably, outdated; however, from a historical standpoint, it still holds value. Kitsch and avant garde were fairly new terms in Greenberg's time. Their definitions have changed, but have their roots in what it is described in "Avant Garde and Kitsch". Perhaps the best parallel between  Greenberg's times and ours is found in Robert Atkins's Artspeak: "He [Greenberg] defined kitsch broadly to include jazz, advertising, Hollywood movies, and commercial illustration--all of which are generally regarded now as popular culture rather than kitsch. Although Greenberg's definition of kitsch is overly expansive, his analysis of how it operates remains apt. Today kitsch is most often used to denigrate objects considered to be in bad taste." Kitsch is either in bad taste because of its sentimentality or its grotesque appearance, on occasion because of its grotesque sentimentality. It should also be mentioned, however, that kitsch has lost the commercial value Greenberg describes.  It is just as likely to be handmade as mass produced.

Kitsch has been possessed by lower class patrons, though in more recent years, with the birth of white elephant gifts and camp, kitsch has been enjoyed by people of higher class by means of an ironic approach, to which the viewer pokes fun at both the creator and sincere enjoyer of such pieces. Is this ethical? Another manifestation of intellectual bullying or elitism? One might ask these questions with the given information. At this point in the history of kitsch, it is being (insincerely) enjoyed by the avant garde. It is true that this is indeed disrespectful to both buyers and artists of such work. It is at this point that the avant garde loses its sincerity and authenticity that Greenberg discusses. The avant garde, once refusing to either conform to the upper class, nor the more radical bohemians, in favor of something entirely new, now, as Greenberg perhaps predicted, has run out of their groundbreaking innovations and resorts to the satirical dissecting of art genuinely enjoyed by others. This is the era of hipsterism.

In recent years, however, avant garde has perhaps managed to redeem itself by turning to the overly-sentimental world of kitsch, once again through a tactic unsuspected--finding meaning in it. Cross stitch pillows and velvet Elvis paintings are put in a new light, if the viewer sees them as a labor of love. This is the age old adage: it is what you make of it. People are now able to enjoy both Marina Abramovic and Hello Kitty alike. We embark on a new era, one filled with fandoms and lolcats. This is the welcomed age of The Kitsch of Avant Garde.

Greenberg, Clement. "Avant Garde and Kitsch." Partisan Review. 1939.

Atkins, Robert. "Artspeak." Abbeville Press. 1990.


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