Sunday, January 17, 2010

Clement Greenberg and Kitsch

Clement Greenberg opposed art to kitsch, the mass-produced junk of popular culture. More than that, he proposed art as a means of salvation. Learn to love serious art and you will be redeemed. Your ordinary, unenlightened self will fall away and you will emerge as a superior person. No longer will you be seduced by the fads and fashions of the marketplace. The planned obsolescence of consumerism will be obsolete, at least in the vicinity of your hyper-refined sensibility. To get with the Greenbergian program, there was much to learn--lots of quasi-metaphysical jargon, a roster of artists to praise and another to revile, and a special brand of art-world snootiness. The more adept you became, the loftier your place in the hierarchy that put abstract painting at the pinnacle and consigned the movies, soap opera, late-model cars, and all the rest of pop culture to the nether depths. Needless to say, Pop Art was the lowest of the low, shameless kitsch parading as a serious aesthetic endeavor.
The pay-off for your devotion was a vision of History with a capital "H"--History as the art critic's equivalent of Scriptural revelation. Truth with a capital "T." And what was this Truth? That there is an essence of painting and it manifests itself in successive styles--Impressionism, Post-Impressionionism, all the way onward and upward to color-field painting, in which the true adept could see painting's essence in all its redemptive glory. So far, this is no more than bush-league Hegelianism. To understand Greenberg's importance, you have to see that he gave the succession of styles in art all the allure, the kitschy glamor, of new styles in automobiles, fashion, pop music, and so on. He encouraged art-lovers to respond to new art with all the giddy speed of fans falling for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1964. Not that the Beatles aren't great. But they're not great in the way that great art is great, and, these days, we tend not to make the distinction. Greenberg insisted on it, vigorously, and yet his lofty theories of aesthetic progress turned out to be compatible with the kitschy, consumerist idea that the new is inherently good, and--surprise, surprise--as that idea took hold in the art world the hottest art became kitschier and kitschier. Eventually, we arrived at the point of believing that Jeff Koons is great. Not just great for his moment but for all time, like Picasso or--why not?--Rembrandt.

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