The Avant-Garde and Kitsch, 1939

by Clement Greenberg

What is life?  If one paraphrases the painter, Ad Reinhardt, “Life is everything that is not art or art is everything that is not life…” which means that much has been excluded from art…an exclusion, which would please the New York critic, Clement Greenberg.  In 1939, against the backdrop of European Fascism, the American art critic wrote The Avant-Garde and Kitsch. The prevailing and popular art style, American regionalism, was waning when Greenberg set out to make the distinction between a true genuine culture and popular art.  From the very beginning of the essay, Greenberg was very clear that he would deal with a question of “aesthetics,” or how art is defined, and that he would do so by examining the experiences of a “specific” individual and the “social and historical contexts in which that experience takes place.”

Greenberg was writing at a very unique time indeed.  It was rare for contemporary art to be under the kind of attacks that had been underway for years in Europe.  In the Soviet Union, the avant-garde was completely suppressed.  In German, avant-garde art was defined as “degenerate.”  The Avant-Garde and Kitsch was published in the new intellectual journal, Partisan Review, a good place for an up-and-coming literary critic to further his career. For years Greenberg, an English major in college, wrote mostly as a literary critic, and his first published article was on Berthold Brecht, a Berlin theater producer.  Brecht, a devoted Communist, thought of popular entertainment as a means to raise the consciousness of the audience.  Using the “estrangement” strategy, Brecht broke the “fourth wall” by addressing the audience directly from the stage and thus also breaking the illusion of “reality.”

As his interest in Brecht’s use of popular theater would suggest, Greenberg was not necessarily opposed to popular culture per se and it is important to understand the context in which this essay was developed.  The entire world was poised on the edge of another world war and was witnessing the horrifying spectacle of a fascist war machine rolling over Europe.  During this fascist period in Europe, “culture” had been appropriated by the totalitarian powers in the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy and turned into spectacle for the masses, resulting in mesmerizing entertainment and psychic manipulation.

The ability of Hitler and Mussolini to make war with little opposition from their own people who supported the aggression was the result of a years-long, carefully orchestrated campaign of propaganda.  Brecht understood all too well how “culture” both popular and unpopular could be mobilized to mesmerize the masses, which was exactly what happened in Germany. Any form of culture that could protest the philosophy of the Nazis had long since been shut down and dissident artists were brutally silenced.  German artists had fled to America or had retreated to an “inner exile” of non-confrontational art.  Indeed, Greenberg himself would later learn much about art from an émigré artist, Hans Hofmann.

Greenberg was repelled by the totalitarian seizure of “culture” in Europe. But the critic is an American living in New York.  If the examples of the demise of the avant-garde in Europe were extreme, the governmental use of American artists to its own end was also disturbing to an intellectual. Although many artists owned their careers to government patronage during the thirties, there was a cost to carrying on this kind of work.  The role of art under the New Deal was to communicate very specific messages to a public, which was largely illiterate about art and the artist’s freedom was often limited by the parameters of the project.  That said, in America, there was artistic freedom, and Greenberg equated the freedom to make art with the freedom to make avant-garde abstract art.  But there was also a small arena for avant-garde artists in America and the artists lacked the open playing field of art galleries that existed in France.

Writing at the end of the avant-garde in Europe, Greenberg explained the significance of the avant-garde tradition. He defined the avant-garde as a “superior consciousness” which coincided with the emergence of modern scientific thinking.  As a force for cultural critique, avant-garde art separated itself from the bourgeoisie.  This separation included the artists’ separation from subject matter and content and an adherence to art-for-art’s-sake. Greenberg made reference to the avant-garde artists,

“Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cézanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in,” and he adds, in a phrase which would be further developed in later essays, “…to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.”

But, as a Marxist, Greenberg saw problems within the avant-garde in that this “…culture contains within itself some of the very Alexandrianism it seeks to overcome.”  Greenberg feared for the avant-garde artist, for this artist was dependent upon capitalism and wealthy patrons.  The artist was necessarily attached to bourgeois wealth by what Greenberg called “an umbilical cord of gold.”  He pointed to the paradox of artistic freedom being dependent upon an elite clientele, which is shrinking rather than growing. Greenberg wrote,

“…the avant-garde itself, already sensing the danger, is becoming more and more timid every day that passes. Academicism and commercialism are appearing in the strangest places. This can mean only one thing: that the avant-garde is becoming unsure of the audience it depends on — the rich and the cultivated.”

Greenberg looked elsewhere and wrote that the avant-garde was threatened by the rear guard, which, to Greenberg, was the dreaded phenomenon—kitsch, which he defined as,

“…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…”

Later, Greenberg would disavow his definition of kitsch, and, indeed, his later discussion of kitsch indicates that he is less concerned about popular culture than with what would be better termed “academic art.”  It would be correct to assume that Greenberg despaired of a nation that thought it was receiving “art” every week with the Norman Rockwell cover of The Saturday Evening Post, but it is also important to recall that what was considered art in the 1930s was “academic.”

As the following quote from Greenberg would suggest, an example of “kitsch” would be Alexandre Cabanal’s Birth of Venus as opposed to avant-garde work of Édouard Manet’s Le Dejeunner sur l’herbe.  According to the critic,

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 borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its lifeblood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience.

In other words, kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. 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. And speaking of money, Greenberg noted that the avant-garde has not always “resisted” the “of temptation” to turn their art into kitsch.

Kitsch is popular or commercial form of high art, a product of the industrial revolution, manufactured for a middle class audience who had enough literacy to want “art” but not enough culture to understand the genuine article.  The urbanized proletariat was given an ersatz culture—fake art, kitsch, which used a debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture.  Kitsch operated, according to Greenberg, as vicarious experience, as faked sensations, taking advantage of a fully matured cultural tradition for its own ends.  Kitsch loots real art, borrows what it needs, converts inventions into formulas, waters down experiments and turns out familiar art-like images mechanically.

Often overlooked in the numerous analyses of this essay is Greenberg’s lengthy and perceptive discussion of the relationship between kitsch and the regimes in Germany, Italy and Russia.  These totalitarian regimes reject the avant-garde for two reasons.  First, the dictatorial government must get close to the people in order to rule them and no government wishing to disperse propaganda would use avant-garde art to do so.  The public simply would not understand the language. In point of fact, that is precisely what happened to the Soviet avant-garde which was deemed inarticulate. Second, Greenberg considered the avant-garde to be inherently critical and unsuited for governmental manipulation. “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,” he stated.

Greenberg was certainly prophetic in recognizing that kitsch would become an international language, taking over indigenous folk cultures; but he was wrong in assuming that avant-garde artists would succumb to actually making kitsch.  It is one of the ironies of art history that the kitsch-producing government commissions allowed financially marginal artists to become professional artists who would later become the center of the avant-garde. What Greenberg could not foresee was that, after World War II, a consumer society would be kicked into high gear, producing a generation of artists who grew up with kitsch or popular culture.

Greenberg may have repudiated his rather simplistic definition of “kitsch,” but his attitude that the public could not tell the difference between Tin Pan Alley and T. S. Eliot remained. Convinced of the serious mission that avant-garde art had to stand apart from society in order to critique it, the critic could not look upon Pop Art as “art.” This generation, called Pop artists (popular culture) used kitsch as raw material for their art and converted images from kitsch sources into artistic icons. Trapped by a self-imposed vocabulary of form and formalism, he simply did not have the concepts that would have allowed him to marvel—however cynically—at how kitsch became elevated to “high art.”  But Greenberg’s essay remains viable and perceptive in his analysis of the gulf between the elite and the general public.  The following words could have been written today:

Most often this resentment toward culture is to be found where the dissatisfaction with society is a reactionary dissatisfaction which expresses itself in revivalism and puritanism, and latest of all, in fascism. Here revolvers and torches begin to be mentioned in the same breath as culture. In the name of godliness or the blood’s health, in the name of simple ways and solid virtues, the statue-smashing commences.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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