In his 1939 essay, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", art critic Clement Greenberg attempts to distance kitsch, or low-culture art objects and media, from true, pure art. He clearly outlines the criteria for a universal art that focuses solely on the medium used; specifically, he proposes that the artist abandon narrative and subject matter and devote full attention to the flatness of the canvas.

Greenberg describes kitsch as any form of media that can be easily digested by the beholder. This includes film, magazines, advertisements, television shows, paperback novels, and cloying, sentimental art. Kitsch emerged, he argues, with the influx of the peasants into urban centers. These peasants acquired a “universal literacy” out of necessity, but did not possess the leisure time to develop a taste for high culture. Instead, they turned to kitsch, which was readily available, easy to appreciate, and even easier to discard after its use.

Greenberg reviles kitsch for corrupting high art:

"The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends… It draws its lifeblood, sort to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience."

Here Greenberg explains the parasitic nature of kitsch. Without a high art, or an “accumulated experience,” he argues, kitsch cannot exist. This argument is somewhat tenuous. The examples of kitsch, such as Norman Rockwell paintings, that Greenberg provides could very well exist without some high cultural authority present to push it forward. Still, Greenberg says that kitsch is a failure of modern capitalist and Fascist governments, as they did not educate their citizens to appreciate true beauty. A Socialist, Greenberg believes the only way to correct this problem is to adopt a socialist government, where, he says, the peasant will have enough leisure time to become “conditioned” to appreciate superior culture.

Good art, and “superior culture” can be achieved when the artist devotes his or her attention purely to the medium used. Greenberg bases this argument on the practices of the Old Masters. Their patrons, always of the higher ruling classes, chose their subject matter, and so these artists only had to devote their attention to formal concerns, and medium. Greenberg extends this to his era by welcoming abstract expressionism as the new formal tradition—avant-garde in aesthetic, but fitting in with the same tradition as the Old Masters. In these works, subject matter is completely lost, and instead the sole focus is on the flatness of the canvas and the medium of the paint. Mark Rothko and the color-field painters would become among the favorites of Greenberg, as their works were large in scale, evoking a simple spirituality, and acknowledged the flatness and field-like space of the canvas. Of course, the work of Jackson Pollock is the perfect example of Greenberg's vision.

Greenberg’s argument, though it embraces the abstract expressionist avant-garde, is still a very traditional one. It positions art above the masses and perpetuates the idea of an authoritative voice on art.

Now, with the proliferation of postmodern thought and culture, where absolute concepts of beauty are nonexistent, the proposals of Greenberg's contemporaries, such as Walter Benjamin, (see: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction)who embraced the new low-culture media of his time, continue to hold ground, while Greenberg’s efforts to anoint a high art form have given way to an appreciation of mass media, with the rise of movements such as Pop art and graffiti art and a new middle-class medium, the digital. Indeed, Greenberg’s kitsch has become so entwined with high art that often the two are indistinguishable.

Sources:
Greenberg, Clement. “Avant Garde and Kitsch.” (1939) Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 1, John O’Brian, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
“Post-Painterly Abstraction.” Art and Culture Network. 1999-2003. 22 April 2003. Available at: http://www.artandculture.com/arts/movement?movementId=1012
Hebdige, Dick. “A Report on the Western Front.” In Frascina, Francis and Harris, Jonathan. Art in Modern Culture. London: Phaidon Books, 1992.

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