Said to be one of the most important 20th century documents on culture, Clement Greenberg actually developed a distate for this essay. Especially with bizarre statements like, “only under socialism could the taste of the masses be raised,” one can see that there was an echo of 1930s Marxism foreshadowing his work. His learned examples juxtaposing kitsch with the avant-garde reveal an insight into how society is constantly in a state of flux.
Part I talks about disparity in how the truths invoked by religion, authority, tradition, and style are questioned in the relationship between aesthetic experienceand the social and historical contexts. Usually, artists an writers succumb into Alexandrianism (academicism which shies away from controversy) in response to this. Thus, Western bourgeois society, departing from Alexandrianism, produced avant-garde culture. Avant-garde culture, emphasizing “art for art’s sake,” “pure poetry,” and nonobjective or “abstract” art, aimed not just to “experiment” but also to keep culture moving despite ideological confusion and violence; movement, instead of stagnant Alexandrianism. Some examples are: Picasso and Mondrian. Later, the dependence of the avant-garde on the elite is acknowledged. Part II traces kitsch, a German term, to the industrial revolution and universal literacy.
This erased the distinction between and individual’s cultural inclination and created a mechanical, formulaic commodity for the urbanized masses. The avant-garde itself is subject to the temptation of profiting from kitsch. Part III traces the cultural dichotomy between the masses and the elite, the former, choosing kitsch despite conditioning, and becomes critical of culture when dissatisfied with the social order. Part IV explains how kitsch is used by fascists and Stalinists as propaganda to please the masses, while outlawing avant-garde art and literature. “Kitsch keeps a dictator in closer contact with the ‘soul’ of a people,” states Greenberg. Because of this, he ends with the statement that we look to socialism to preserve what living culture we have left.
Greenberg, C. (1939). Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Partisan Review.