Friday, February 12, 2010

Clement Greenberg's "Avant Garde and Kitsch"

In order to understand a lot of contemporary poetry's ideas about "avant-garde" and "kitsch" it is good to look at Clement Greenberg's classic essay "Avant Garde and Kitsch." A lot of these ideas seem to come from Greenberg.

In his essay, Greenberg divides art into avant-garde and kitsch. Avant garde is the "genuine" art of our age, art that moves our society forward. It manages to be genuine by eschewing such tasteless things as subject matter in favor of art that focuses on the very processes of art, the medium of art itself. That is to say poems about language etc. This is more geuine - in fact like "God"! - because it's more honest; it doesn't dabble in imitation. Unfortunately, as a result of this heroic act, avant-garde artists are marginalized in our modern world.

This modern world is more interested in kitsch, which is characterized by its inauthenticity. Kitsch is "vicarious experience and faked sensation" [Think: that goodreads review of The Hounds of No which called it "affected" etc]. It changes according to mere "style" not real, profound reasons [ie the "hipster" critique I've noted so frequently]. It is also "the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times." In other words, kitsch is not immortal, but too caught up in its time (again, like the hipster).

What makes kitsch especially problematic is that it is an "inhuman" parasite that "can take advantage" of a "matured cultural tradition" of modernism. It is a "virulence" with "irresistable attractiveness." [This is of course the root of the issue I like to talk about: the foreign/parasite is kitsch. And also, why translations become kitsch in so many people's eyes and problematic in many others - translation transvestisizes the original, as I noted in a post below.]

Why is this virus/parasite so attractive? Because "there is no disconnectivity between art and life". And also because it's "dramatic", offers a subject matter, imagery, "the miraculous."
It is not genuine in other words, because it does not restrict art to the medium, the process of art. By not restraining their image-production, kitsch works "spares" the audience from having to engage with too much "effort." Genuine art should make its viewers/readers work hard, earn their insights, and you need to have the proper education.

This spectacular art that blurs life/art with is fake imagery can of course be blamed on Romanticism: "Indeed the Romantics can be considered the original sinners whose guilt kitsch inherited. They showed kitsch how. What does Keats write about mainly, if not the effect of poetry upon himself?"

Those darn swooners, the Romantics, were too much about affect and not enough about arduous, well-educated, trained earning of insight.

And of course it ends with Greenberg stating that the easiness of kitsch makes it a tool for Fascism; avant garde art is of course too difficult for the use of Fascists; complexity becomes an ethical stance.

Commentary: In many ways Greenberg is describing High Modernism rather than the historical avant-garde - Dada and so on tended to be opposed to the very hierarchies of education and training that Greenberg's notion of avant garde depends on. For example, throw Pushkin overboard, burn down the museums etc. Further, as Andreas Huyssen points out in "After the Great Divide," a lot of avant-garde art was about engaging with mass culture.

The greatest irony is of course that the High Modernists were explicitly Fascist (Eliot, Pound etc). You can see this irony is for example Donald Revell's tortured argument in The Art of Attention, which blames Dada protesting for Nazism while absolving Pound as a wise sage for his attentive poetry in Pisan Cantos (he was in a cage!).

But for me the important thing to take away from this essay is the way much of american poetry discussion about community, avant-gardism etc seem to stem from Greenberg: the valorization of the community separate from the larger society, the inherent ethics of "complexity", the inherent immorality and "fakeness" of affect and spectacle.


Blogger Unknown said...

[Think: that goodreads review of The Hounds of No which called it "affected" etc]

—another example might be the Publishers Weekly review of "Bad Bad" by Chelsey Minnis—

—you can read it on "Bad Bad"'s amazon page—:

ponder its final summary sentence,

which concludes with probably the worst insult possible in contemporary poetry parlance—

4:03 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I've always thought of the "hipster" as part of a social-cultural avant garde, though. Perhaps they revel in kitsch, but their doing so with a little wink, a knowingness, is what makes it an avant garde impulse?

5:06 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

The weird thing though, wrt the hipster, is that one of the main criticisms levelled at such is the primacy of scene (ie community) rather than 'the music' or what have you (then there's the wonderful pun on scene/seen, wrt fashion etc). But on top of (or building on that) you have the valorisation of 'scene' (in-group community) and certain modes of music/art/clothes etc, over others.... i wonder if there is anything to do with authenticiy involved here.

I quote Warhol's "I like everything" too much to be hip, and if one wants to be, one can't like both free jazz and Lady Gaga apparently (or even LG and Black Metal).

I do very much like you're reappropriation and valorisation of the hipster though - there is vast political efficacy in such (ala Warhol, Psychic TV picking up dance music, the Fall/the Birthday Party mutating the pop song etc etc - weaponisation)

6:47 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, Ross, there's both a critique of and a valorization of community. And also the idea that the hipster type is connected to the time - rather than immortal or whatever.


8:13 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Yes, the temporal - I like that. I'm going to have to think about that.

The relation of with capital too.

I was watching some DVDs last night (saw Fucking Åmål - it's incredible!), and watched the Silent Hill movie, which got me thinking about that whole genre of vengeful, evil child film (moste recently manifest in the likes of Ring, Dark Water, Orphan etc) - perhaps there is some deep-seated cultural anxiety about youth culture, and intergenerational difference, and the possibility for changing reality (that's what the kids do - in Silent Hill in an especially literal way).

(on the note of Moodysson - are his other films as good? and I'd love to see more Swedish Cinema. I was going to get Let The Right One In, but it was out! any reccomendations?)

8:45 PM  
Blogger Brooklyn said...

I bought and read and chewed people's ears off about this particular essay earlier last year (I'd never read it, but found a collection of his in the Goodwill for two bucks)-- people seemed to have heard of it, but no one had much to say, and everyone's impression of Clement Greenberg seemed to have stemmed from one or two snide comments one of their professors might've mentioned in passing about him. So I'm glad you took the time to post about this very readable, insightful essay, and I hope it pushes more poets into finding it for themselves. :)

5:41 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

And Adorno pretty much fits, as well, into the Greenberg outline. The former is a much more important reference point for much of our post-avant, so worth mentioning him in this context! In UK, Adorno is even more important to the poets in Prynne orbit.

But on avant-garde "kitsch" as potentially transcending these High Art dynamics, I'm not so sure. There's a long tradition of it, and much of it is comfortably integrated into fine arts discourse, exhibited at the best museums, etc. Think of Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni. In fact, Johannes, Fontana famously declared (when Abstract Expressionism reigned, actually!), that the only ethical position worth having in face of the culture industry was the "irresponsibility of the toddler discovering the scintillating riches of a bazaar." You affirmed something almost identical recently at your blog.

Fontana's Spatialist sculptures from the 40s and Manzoni's Artist's Shit cans from the 60s sell for hundreds of thousands at kitschy Art auctions. And the Flarf or the new Abject poets appear to think they're doing something really new and naughty to disturb the Culture Industry.

Not really. Go to the Whitney or the MoMA and take a look. And while you're there, at either one, you might catch, on the right day, a Flarf/Conceptual poetry reading in the Dada wing.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, Adorno. But my point would be: It's actually Greenberg all over again.

About kitsch: I've tried to explain this, but I can't seem to do it. No doubt a failure on my part:

1. My primary interest in "kitsch" is not in some kind of stable notion of kitsch. It's a very nebulous term. But rather: an interest in the prohibitional rhetoric of contemporary American poetry. Why is it that so much is dismissed as kitsch (both by Silliman and Tony Hoagland) - either explicitly or implicitly. What is it that is it that these folks want to protect poetry from so obsessively? (In addition to it being a very effective coercive form of argument that actually avoids having to make points.)

2. I never said anything like that bazaar quote. Though I would like to know the context.

3. Visual arts is not the same as poetry. I think we need to be specific here. It seems a common trope of people commenting on this blog to say: the things you believe in are common in the visual arts (in fact I may have made those comments as well in a moment of weakness), but I'm talking about poetry. It's useful to compare; but the comparisons to visual arts usually become to so broad. Kitsch has been done before. What kitsch? I don't know what kitsch means.

4. I don't know who the "new abject" poets are or what their stance is. What have they said that is so "naughty"?

5. For that matter: Can you carry on a decent argument without having to use condescending rhetoric like "naughty." Make a point. I have a hard time respecting you if you can't carry on a conversation without such rhetoric.

6. Kent, a lot of your arguing is to point out that in very broad terms things have been done before. Big deal. In sufficiently big, ahistorical terms, everything's been done before. I am just not interested in that kind of attempt to discredit based on novelty. In fact that rhetoric is as old as modern art/literature.


8:04 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Johannes, I'll see if I can track down that comment I was referring to. It's definitely there. But it's just a distillation, really, of what you've been arguing in posts on the Gurlesque. Joyelle argues more or less the same, in the essays by her you've posted. When I say "Abject" poetry, by the way, I mean it as a broad term for Gurlesque and Flarf and some other things being done, like Jon Leon's energetically libidinal work, for example. Maybe there's a better term.

And replace "naughty" with "transgressive," I guess. I don't always choose my words as carefully as I might when I'm typing these comments, admittedly.

As for references to "what's come before," or however you put it at end of your reply, or there being no real relation between dynamics of the visual arts and poetry, well, your post is more or less premised on the analogy, as are a number of your posts--always thought-provoking to me, for sure, so please don't peg me as some kind of disrespectful person who can't carry on a conversation. That's a little unfair, don't you think?

There's nothing wrong with thinking of these issues in terms of the flow of cultural history, I hope we agree!



8:39 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

By the way, my demurrals on the "kitsch" aside, I'm in general agreement that Greenbergian formalism is a (in sense of *one*) heuristically useful reference point for theorizing Langpo/dominant-wing post-avant attitudes and their sociological implications (the last still playing out, albeit in advanced stages of denouement).

9:03 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You're right that there is cross-over between painting and poetry - And I certainly look at poetry that way. My comment was poorly worded. I'll try to think of a better way of putting what I mean.


10:27 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

With the child/bazaar - do you mean the Aase Berg essay where she talks about language as a parasite?


10:32 AM  
Blogger Archambeau said...

This is interesting:

"Why is this virus/parasite so attractive? Because "there is no disconnectivity between art and life". And also because it's "dramatic", offers a subject matter, imagery, "the miraculous."
It is not genuine in other words, because it does not restrict art to the medium, the process of art. By not restraining their image-production, kitsch works "spares" the audience from having to engage with too much "effort." Genuine art should make its viewers/readers work hard, earn their insights, and you need to have the proper education."

I mean, this is very much in line with much of what Bourdieu has to say in Distinction, although Bourdieu isn't advocating one side or another, just describing how high/pop culture function in France in the 70s.

When Bourdieu talks about "the popular aesthetic" (which is a way of looking at cultural objects, not a genre), he says what the general populace wants in art is emotional participation, connection to their particular experience, the collapse of critical distance, etc. In some small scale way, I suppose it's Dionysian, too -- a loss of the Apollonian critical distance, and either a loss of self in immediate participation (the page-turner novel into which the reader disappears), or a loss of the distinction between self and other in identifying with the world of the art work (I heard some 15 year old kid on the radio talking about why she loved some pop singer's work -- "those songs are my life!).

In contrast, there's the interest in Kantian stuff -- form, medium, "purposiveness without purpose" and all that -- this is the idea of avant-garde that Greenberg proposes. (I agree, it's not the Peter Burger idea of avant-garde as a critique of the institutions of art -- what Greenberg has in mind is abstract expressionism in painting, mostly). Anyway, these are the kinds of values Bourdieu sees as associated with a social elite. He calls it "the pure gaze," and this is a way of looking at things that doesn't let subject matter determine value (i.e. no "that's the best picture, because it is of a cat, and I like cats" or no "I'm American, so the most beautiful national anthem is "The Star-Spangled Banner"). The pure gaze is all about being above concern with personal connection, and about maintaining oneself as a conscious, discerning connoisseur -- all very Apollonian.

Unlike Greenberg, I don't see this as an either/or proposition, whether we're talking about ways of looking (as Bourdieu does) or kinds of objects (as Greenberg does) or about broader ways of being (as Nietzche, my source for the Apollo-Dionysus stuff, does). I mean, whether these things are good or bad is all contingent on circumstances, right?

So for me, it's not a matter of kicking Greenberg around, or of valorizing him (although he was always very supportive of the artists he admired, and did a lot for them, including one of my dad's painter friends).

I know a lot of people who take pleasure in using Greenberg as a punching bag, and a few old guys who still worship at his shrine. I think we have to see him in his times, as a part of a very broad movement of reaction against the popular culture industry (Kent's mention of Adorno makes a lot of sense in this context). I'm glad he was out there, trying to theorize a relationship to this new phenomenon that wasn't simple celebration. I also think it'd be sort of weird to take on his ideas now as if nothing had happened since he wrote.

Anyway -- thanks for bringing him up.



This spectacular art that blurs life/art with is fake imagery can of course be blamed on Romanticism: "Indeed the Romantics can be considered the original sinners whose guilt kitsch inherited. They showed kitsch how. What does Keats write about mainly, if not the effect of poetry upon himself?"

1:05 PM  
Blogger Archambeau said...

Oh! I meant to add a comment on this part too:

"This spectacular art that blurs life/art with is fake imagery can of course be blamed on Romanticism: "Indeed the Romantics can be considered the original sinners whose guilt kitsch inherited. They showed kitsch how. What does Keats write about mainly, if not the effect of poetry upon himself?"

I think Greenberg's got Romanticism wrong, really. I mean, a whole branch of Romantic thinking (especially Coleridge's idea of "Organic form") was pushing in the direction of Greenberg's formalism more than a century before he wrote. So I guess I agree with you, Johannes, on this. It's sort of distressing how many statements about aesthetics were, and still are made out of historical ignorance.



1:10 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

No, that's not what I was thinking of, Johannes. Maybe it was sometime late last year. Haven't had time to look for it yet, but not that big a deal, I guess.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


The thing I object to I guess is not art/poetry mixing - a lot of what I am interested in seems to have much more to do with visual art and film than poetry - but the generality of it.

Kitsch has been done before. Yes but "kitsch" is such a general term. And it has been done well and poorly and continue to be done well and poorly. I think for example Nathalie Djurberg and Kara Walker engage with a kind of kitsch in a way that is very different from say Hirst or whoever.

Laibach and NSK use fascist kitsch, which was used before (by the fascists!) - that doesn't mean it's not interesting!

I could say about your work, Kent, tons of people have written parodies. It's been done (in literature, art and elsewhere). Not much gained.

Again, I would really have to know the context of the bazaar quote. I might totally agree with it. But not in the way I read it.

Ultimately what I resist about this "it's been done before" rhetoric is that it's used by people who use tropes (like that one) that has been done before too. Somehow by claiming everything has been done before we can just go back to good old hierarchy-think.

(One of the few times I've actually seen you argue *for* something is when you wanted us all to agree that CD Wright was a *greater* poet than Lara Glenum for it seemed reasons of "majorness.")

But I appreciate the comments.


1:38 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Hi Johannes,

Fair enough, on the "different" modes and contexts being important! Could be I missed posts where you made these distinctions more carefully, in laying out your argument.

More recent examples of "abjection" from the visual arts would be Kiki Smith, Rona Pondick, or Robert Grober. Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois to some extent before them. But lots of others, too. Curious how you'd see the Gurlesque, for instance, vis a vis such art, already fairly well assimilated, canonized, and so on, as it is.

Good comments by Bob Archambeau. (Bob, I agree wtih what you say about contextualizing a critic like Greenberg, of course. I *do* think it's interesting to look at Langpo, for example, and much of what has followed, as sharing certain High Modernist Greenbergian attitudes and assumptions, albeit with all the necessary qualifications. In this I'm pretty much on the same wave with Johannes. I think!)

2:04 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, I like Bob's comments.

My problem I guess is with "assimilated" - this kind of thinking seems to depend on some heroic loner ideal of someone who is never appreciated. I love a lot of the artists you mention.


6:25 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

assimilation also implies the triumph of one party over the other, rather than a mutual bleeding - one is a~ed into the other, and loses it's identity as separate.....

This is where the grotesque hybrid, creolisation etc come into play.

3:33 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Sure, Johannes. "Assimilation happens," as they say. I've no quarrel, really, with such work, nor with those who would follow in its "spirit."

The question is this, and it seems an important one to me, insofar as we're talking here about the a-g, its meaning, its fate, and so on:

To what extent do gestures already institutionally legitimated bear truly oppositional or subversive cultural force? That's really the general issue I'm trying to pose here.

And I ask that realizing full well the matter of "instititutional legitimation" is a complex one!

7:01 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


These terms are still too vague for me.

Besides, as i said above, I don't believe in this loner/outsider who is "truly subversive." Which would mean what? That is overthrows the government?

Do you think because there was an MLA panel of your fake Japanese poet project, the book has lost its point, its value? Or do you think it can still do something worthwhile?


12:46 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

In fact, there have been by now *two* full MLA panels on Yasusada, six or seven individual MLA papers on it, and a feature article in PMLA. :~)

Yes, I think the "subversive" potential of Yasusada proper is exhausted.

But authorial experiment is the final frontier, and the space is pretty vast and unexplored.

It's always amazing to me how a-g poets take the coin of traditional authorship for granted. It's always like, "Here is my really provocative abjectionist painting, and I painted it." You know what I mean?

1:07 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Actually, since you raise the issue, thought I'd mention that Pleiades magazine just came out with (amazingly) a *35*-page essay on work I've had relation to. The first section is on Doubled Flowering. It's featured in their print issue, but they also put it up as a PDF on their website. The essay's by Michael Theune.

But they're going to change the text and have a new one up at the site tomorrow-- they put up a late draft of the piece, with editors' commentary in the text. So wait until tomorrow, if you take a look!

1:54 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, Pleiades is one of the best places for essays about contemporary poetry. I've been incredibly impressed by them many times. I'll try to check out your thing some time in the near future.

About your comment:
The idea that "authorial experimentation" is the only thing that matters is an idea I've read in academic writings and heard said at an academic conference. Kenny Goldsmith has ridden the found text idea (both the fake author and the found text ideas are of course positively ancient) into an institutionally very legit teaching gig and a writer position on the Harriet Blog, so it seems to me that these ideas have been legitimated (by someone no less than Marjorie Perloff). Even when you did the Japanese thing,it had been done; the fact that you received so much attention for it meant that the issue was already on the table, people knew how to talk about it, how to have opinions about it (some more or less intelligent than others).

Inshort: Good job, Kent, you've managed to utterly contradict yourself.

That is if you espouse some kind of absolute idea of the "subversive text." If you can figure out a more nuanced analysis of the way texts interact with institutions and society and other texts, I'm open to it. But the old only the lone (male) outsider can be truly heroically subversive is too reductive.

I went through a few years when I couldn't get my writing (very similar to what it is now) published in any journals, couldn't get a teaching job, could pay a bum to read mypoems, had to work some exhausting blue collar jobs. I was a real outsider. Very heroic. I hated it and you know how subversive I was? Zero percent. Aboslutely un-subversive in my silent isolation.

I have many more things to say but I will limit myself to one thread of thought: that abject painting may very well do interesting things with authorial experimentation - without having a fake painter or whatever. THe idea that it has to take that kind of meta experiment is thoroughly supported by academic studies.

Again: You're in the mess, Kent. No telephone booths available.

Further: The idea that the only way to problematize the author is by using found text or fake author (meta ways) is very reductive and it doesn't take into account all kinds of social dynamics that may go into a mere little "painting".

See my point?

Now I don't believe in this cliche idea of subversion and I actually think academics come up with some pretty neat ideas, so I'm not bothered by these contradictions.


3:51 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home